It's not a stretch to say that Rockstar makes some of the most lavish worlds in gaming. In Grand Theft Auto, if there's an email system for the player, that means that there's an internet. If a player can access their bank from that internet, then that means that there's probably a wider financial system, so the player should be able to invest in the stock market. And of course, if there's a stock market, then there should also a 'real' company behind every ticker symbol, complete with a fictional biography. The Grand Theft Auto series fills its world with rabbit holes of detail most teams wouldn't even dare to touch.
This detail brings GTA 5's extraordinary world to life, then, but it's the story that dictates the tone of each GTA. And this game has a wide tonal range. GTA 5 inconsistently swings from domestic drama, to slapstick comedy, to grim criticism of American foreign policy, within minutes. Everyone and everything is a target for ridicule—yet it neither shows the light hand to make the occasionally delicate subjects it tackles truly hit home, or the consistency to become an effective satire. Its protagonists, as a reflection of the game's fictional LA setting, put on a facade so they never have to discuss how they're really feeling, and Rockstar is reluctant to show you anything deeper than that as they interact.
To find what these characters truly believe about themselves and each other, you need to dig deeper. You need to get them drunk.
After making your way through enough of the game, you unlock the ability to 'hang out' with characters on your in-game phone's contact list (much like in GTA 4), including fellow playable characters. Calling these characters (usually people with a significant connection to the protagonists) allows you to take them across Los Santos, to the cinema, tennis court, golf course, dart club, or local strip club. En route, the characters present will chat briefly about life, themselves, and their problems with each other, on a superficial level that doesn't tell you much more than their behavior in the game's central plot. However, If you decide to go drinking together, these situations immediately get more interesting.
You stumble out of the bar like a limp marionette, the very picture of the cartoon drunk. A wavering funhouse filter is smeared across the screen. You can barely see the street, let alone drive, and your characters are slurring their words like they've just come through the wrong end of a 10-year bender. As these caricatures tumble across the sidewalk, cursing each other, Grand Theft Auto 5 finally grants its characters something the narrative typically doesn't allow them to experience: honesty.
The characters act like they've been injected with truth serum, revealing moments of true emotional honesty, wrapped in the trappings of a skit. One might suggest the matriarchal insecurities underlining his psyche. Another will refer to a long-dormant cocaine habit. A once-loving couple will, between drunken barbs, hash out the many issues now tearing their family apart. The couple reveal how they met each other, and how they've become worse people as a result, as you roll down the street in a groggy low-speed chase. Even Trevor, the resident psychopath among GTA 5's colorful cast of characters, turns his unpredictable hatred inward while under the influence. It's a brilliant and shocking sensation to see the cynical characters you've spent hours with come apart at the seams. This sensation is so jarring, in fact, that many players don't take the missions seriously.
Take a look at the Steam forums for Grand Theft Auto 5. Of the extremely rare topics on the subject, the focus is usually on whether it's possible to have sex with one of the character's wives if you hang out enough, or how soon you can get an achievement for having all three main characters hang out with each other at once while surviving a police chase. Despite what appear to be more sincere sides to GTA 5's ensemble, few take these confessionals beyond their face value, because the game doesn't either. You can drive from bar to bar exploring personal epiphanies, but at the end of the activity, the characters will always walk away, having learned nothing.
You complete daring heists, only to give the proceeds back. You drink yourself into oblivion with people you don't even like, to reveal sympathetic aspects of your character that will be forgotten by the next in-game morning. Whether you're playing as Michael the experienced criminal, Franklin the gangbanger, or Trevor the psychopath, the trio of playable characters in Grand Theft Auto 5 are meant to be accessible stereotypes. If they grow in a meaningful way, inside or out of prescribed cutscenes, their heightened cartoon world falls apart. It already buckles in these booze-soaked scenarios, so as an audience, we're inclined to treat these playable scenes as GTA 5's fallback when dramatic sequences don't hit the mark—as comedy.
In its successful pursuit of the never-ending playground, Grand Theft Auto 5 blunts the nuance it does contain. This seems like a missed opportunity, because these scenarios are a glimpse of the stories Grand Theft Auto could tell, in the format it tells them best—within player-controlled margins. Stories with narrative and emotional depth that go beyond a so-called satire of the American Dream. Stories about broken people who, if they reached out to others, even in the unhealthy ways available to them, could get better.
The truth of these hang out scenarios is that they reveal that Grand Theft Auto 5 is not a comedy, a drama, or a fantasy. They reveal that GTA 5 is a tragedy—and no one can tell.