Grand Theft Auto 5 diary: Getting to know the three main characters

We're waiting for the release of Grand Theft Auto Online before doing a formal review of Rockstar's latest game. Until then, our Steve Watts will be offering insights into some memorable moments from the single player adventure.

In a world occupied by stereotypes and caricatures, the protagonists of Grand Theft Auto games have always stood out. I've rolled my eyes at the MAD Magazine-like parody elements, but the heroes have always had a little more depth, even to the point that Niko's tragic backstory seemed out-of-place. As a result, the announcement that Grand Theft Auto 5 would star not one but three main characters got me excited. It potentially meant much more of that depth, and some variety at that.

And while it's true that these characters are just as degenerate as any GTA hero--a commonality Rockstar's Dan Houser readily acknowledges--this trio is certainly more fleshed out than their secondary NPCs. Better yet, they're all so distinct that the drama works as an ensemble cast, rather than a single anti-hero's story.

Trevor made the most bombastic introduction, and his part in the tutorial opener both progressed the story in a meaningful way, and turned the image back on the player. He's an absolute psychopath, sure, but in terms of the game world so are we. Rockstar has finally created a character that could believably mow down civilians or beat a hooker to death without a second thought. Grand Theft Auto has always gotten flak for what it allows you to do, but Trevor is the first time it so directly criticizes the type of person who actually would.

At the same time, he has his own sense of justice--mainly revolving around sticking it to the prevailing power structure or those with skewed priorities. I rarely get a laugh out of GTA games, but I actually chuckled when a marijuana legalization advocate asked him to do something about the most pressing issue of our time. "Poverty?" he asked. No, not that. "The AIDS?"

It's no coincidence that Rockstar keeps Trevor out of service for the game's opening hours. When he does finally connect with the other two primary characters, they're genuinely scared of him. Kudos to Rockstar for the touch when Trevor walks in on one of Michael's family fights, and Michael subtly places himself between Trevor and his son. Brazen jerk though his son may be, Michael is protective.

Speaking of Michael, he feels very similar to past GTA protagonists. He's the old hand at the crime game, who wants to get out when he's pulled back in by one last score. But this time, it's not desire for money or a legacy he wants to leave. He's forced to get back into the racket because of a violent, impulsive mistake. This is a lighter touch of critique towards the series, but over and over we see characters stress that Michael is sort of pathetic. He has anger issues and a loveless family that all of his ill-gotten money can't fix. If you were ever wondering what fate might lie in store for characters like Claude or Tommy Vercetti after they reach kingpin status and retire in their gigantic houses, this is it.

Michael's loneliness and failure to connect with his family might inform why he takes Franklin under his wing. A gangbanger in the ilk of CJ Johnson, Franklin is the youngest and a bit more naive than the other two. He's more amoral than immoral, as he will occasionally be hesitant about a plan that seems unfair or wrong, but will go along with it anyway. This actually makes some sense, given that his background would naturally raise him to look out for his own interests first. Franklin and Michael's relationship is one of the best I've seen develop, as the two believably develop a mentor/protege status.

Franklin is also the newcomer, which means that he's the most easily accessible character from a storytelling perspective. Given that, and his nature as the closest thing GTA5 has to a moral center, I tend to favor Franklin whenever I'm just roaming the city. Helping bystanders as Michael or Trevor doesn't quite feel right--Michael is too lazy and Trevor is too selfish--but as Franklin it makes more sense to me.

One of the weaker relationships, though, is between Michael and Trevor. It's a shame that the opportunity is missed, because the idea has so much potential. The tense meeting between the two is a great start, but after that the two fall into old familiarity and pal around like buddies. Even if it's advantageous for Michael to have another experienced thief in his posse, I have a hard time believing he'd get that familial with Trevor so quickly. In the span of only a few story missions, Michael acts as if his thoughts have changed to: "oh that Trevor, he's such a card." No Michael, he's not a whimsical-fun kind of crazy. He's just crazy. Remember?

This diary is based on retail PS3 code provided by the publisher. Grand Theft Auto V is now available at retail for PS3 and Xbox 360. It's also available digitally on PlayStation Network for $59.99. The game is rated M.