WARNING: Huge GTA 5 and Red Dead Redemption spoilers within. Stop reading now if you don't want the end of the game spoiled.
Since Rockstar revealed that GTA 5 would have three main characters, the question on many people's lips was simple: would any of them die? It's a curious position to put the developer in, as in many ways, you're damned if you do, and damned if you don't.
Killing a main character off is always a difficult thing to achieve in an open world game. In the past, it's been nigh-on impossible for GTA to take such steps as what happens once the narrative side of the story is over? A huge environment left to explore, but nobody to wander around in it. For many, that was one of the reasons Rockstar introduced the three-way mechanic. It opened up new roads for the studio to take and, potentially, get the series to ask questions of the player it had never been able to ask before.
As it turned out, GTA 5 did follow such a path with the slight twist that the game's end is controlled by one person: Franklin. Caught between the steely eyes of the FIB and certified asshole Devon Weston - who want Trevor and Michael dead respectively - it opens up a very interesting, and difficult choice. Can you really kill two people you've just spent 30 plus hours with, if not far more, and who, on some level, you've gotten to know? They may not be 'real', but in a similar fashion to games like The Last Of Us certain connections and emotions are built up. Even Trevor, one of the more insane creations to be hurled our way in recent years, has a softer side to him. It's not shown much, but the hints and depth are there, certainly enough that the thought of plunging a bullet into his brain is not as easy as maybe it would've been after seeing him smash Johnny Klebitz's skull in.
Ultimately, it's the execution of these scenes where the real power lies. Should you choose to end Michael's story, the genuine shock and hurt he obviously feels is enough to cause you to rethink your decision. It's how you're supposed to react too, hence why GTA 5 offers you the chance to redeem yourself as Mr De Santa dangles off the side of a water tower. To emphasise that you're locked in to your chosen path, though, Michael headbutts Franklin, forcing him to fall to his brutal demise. Aside from blocking Michael out of the game entirely - you can't select him if you want to jump back in post-credits - it also, somewhat surprisingly, reveals more about Trevor, of all people.
Realising the task at hand is not the easiest nut to crack, Franklin rings the so-called psycho for help. Seeing the betrayal as a parallel to what happened with him and his 'best friend' back in the day, Trevor outwardly refuses, labelling Franklin a turncoat and seeing the chain of events as his own history repeating itself. For all his profanity he does have a sense of loyalty, and the memories of ten years previous always weigh heavy on his shoulders.
It's this line of thinking that makes it tough to watch him die, should you decide Trevor writhing in pain is how you want your GTA 5 story arc to conclude. Under orders from the FIB, Michael - although showing signs of uncertainty - helps Franklin corner Trevor, going as far as to take matters into his own hands should you take your time over finishing the job. Just to put an emphatic end on proceedings, the way the hillbilly, or hipster, depending on your take, is put out to pasture is rather horrific. Burning to death after being doused in gasoline, there's certainly friction between the other leads as they debate what they've done, eventually drowned out by see-through justification.
Both endings are harrowing in many ways, and have a significant impact on what you can do next. If you decide on either, that character is essentially wiped out from your GTA 5 experience, including any unfinished side missions. That's quite the shift to go through considering it's an option that's never been apparent or capable in past Grand Theft Auto games. Reverting to saves aside, it's a huge decision to have to live with. You've altered your own version of San Andreas entirely.
There is, of course, the 'happy' ending, where Franklin, Trevor and Michael team up to do away with the controversial figures that have been the source of serious grief. In terms of gameplay structure it's certainly the most satisfying of the three, allowing you to commit crimes most foul on characters who have been set up as, and acted like, the enemy throughout - getting to drive into the countryside as Trevor with a man tied up in your boot is a nice, if disturbing nod, to the journey you've just been on. The closing shot of the three going their separate ways - after making a lot of money - is the only real way a scenario where they all survived could head.
Whether or not it's the best way a GTA game has ever concluded is up for debate (for me, it stands head and shoulders above the rest), and while it may not be as shocking or heart-wrenching as the simply fantastic Red Dead Redemption, it has serious weight to it. Not only does it get you to care about your actions, but you have to accept and deal with the consequences too.
It also seems indicative of how Rockstar expects the player to feel about its characters. If one genuinely didn't resonate with you, the flexibility is there to delete them from your digital existence. Why Franklin was given a free pass in this sense is anyone's guess, but saying he's the most well-grounded and 'everyman' of the trio wouldn't be taking it too far. There's every chance - especially as you start the game as him and see his path from green rookie to extremely well off pro - he's meant to be the more relatable of the three, and the only one who doesn't have a pre-existing relationship with the other two, much like the player. In many ways, it's a question of whose side of the argument you fall down on: Trevor's or Michael's.
Regardless of your choice, these genuine moments of intrigue and emotion allow GTA's ending to more than hold its own and be fascinating in its own right.