Caution: Minor spoilers ahead.
Winks in the Mirror:
In the classical sense, satire is a “poem in which prevalent follies or vices are assailed with ridicule or with serious denunciation.” In the postmodern sense, satire is opening the door of a car you like with the driver still inside, hitting him or her in the face, and driving away with a sense of satisfaction. That core promise is in all of Rockstar’s Grand Theft Autos. The fulfillment of this desire, the want to subvert society’s legal constructs, and the opportunity to engage in a sublimation simulation has always been the heart and horrific beauty of the GTA series. Along with this promise has come the turn to satire as an effective rhetorical device that plays well with the limitations of video games and the wants of gamers, which manifest as “let me hijack a plane, get an engine shot out, and then parachute to safety near the Salton Sea”. The “serious” critical response (not to be confused with the mainstream fanatical lauding which garnered the game a 97 on Metacritic) has treated the game with about as much respect as Rockstar gives to every occupation, ideology, and identity GTA V bothers to depict. Cameron Kunzelman at This Cage is Worms rather brilliantly assassinates the game’s predilection for separating itself from ideology:
The very attempt to speak from the position of the God’s eye view, somewhere away from ideology, is a guarantee that you are enmired in it. The game is so deep in casual and explicit sexism and racism that it can’t see it, let alone be critical or above it; oppressive politics is the air that Grand Theft Auto V breathes.
While Kunzelman’s damning robs the game of any transgressive or progressive expression, I can’t help but resist such a wholehearted dismissal of the game. Critics have seemingly failed to ask the question of why? Why oppressive politics power GTA V? It may be more culturally and socially responsible to completely charge the game with hegemony, but Rockstar’s self-awareness suggest that GTA V stands above and below its targets of satire, winking as it throws back at us a twisted and true reflection of our postmodern dystopia.
Michael, Franklin, and Trevor
The first character we’re introduced to in the game proper is Michael De Santa. The Heat inspired, white collar, ex-gangster who must, of course, come back for one more job—or six. The inspiration from Heat isn’t the blatant Hollywood pastiche rip-off of the standard-definition GTAs, but only a starting point that’s worked into a more fully realized depiction of the head of the modern American family. The player, then, partakes in a family drama atypical to the pulp action hero, with missions involving father-son bonding and protecting daddy’s little girl. These missions are surprisingly enjoyable for being the usual foray of assassinations and vehicle chases. Making gameplay out of the nuclear family is a testament to the expositional power of Dan Houser and Rupert Humphries and Rockstar’s thoughtful design. We’re properly introduced to Michael at the beach front house of a therapist with the ego of Dr. Drew and who might be a descendent of Bob Ross. This psychoanalytic frame is one of the many nods that Rockstar gives to the player, offering us a character that is well aware of his depravity, yet reluctant to give up its degeneracy *cough—Rockstar—cough*. Michael is the Freudian super-ego of GTA V, continually criticizing the game’s id, Trevor, attempting to adhere to the societal rules while fighting off his primal temptations. Michael is representative of who the player feels they are, an action hero, ostensibly justified in their wrongdoing, but to the observer is clearly a sociopath. These therapy sessions and Michael’s character arc are Rockstar’s admission of guilt that GTA functions as an escapist simulation for the sublimated aggression and narcissism of its players. Michael is the false consciousness of the video game player, the straight adolescent male, who justifies his virtual wrongdoings as heroics. If Trevor is who the player actually is in the virtual world, Michael is who the player perceives he is in the game.
Franklin Clinton is the archetypal young black male attempting to escape the chains of the ghetto, meaning #getmoney anyway possible. His need to apprentice under white upper middle class and middle age man, Michael, is at first problematic, but this narrative construction is subverted and questioned by the characters themselves. Franklin’s initial need to impress Michael reflects the dominant conception of Michael’s status markers being synonymous with success. Who else is he supposed to look up to as role model? Lamar? The absence of a successful black male (or woman) is problematic. Then again, the successful men of this world are lying, corrupt, opportunists and murderers who lack any motivation other than selfish gain and who only seem successful at creating homicidal conflict. The archetypal nature of Franklin may seem stereotypical for some, but his inclusion is an important one for representing this real facet of LA. His early missions mostly take on the usual grand theft auto type kidnapping and gang-banging. These missions are done with a welcomed sense of humor, however tactless, and serve as a “started from the bottom” criminal entrepreneur framework. Those who only saw racism in GTA V must have missed the commentary on the appropriation of culture and the fetishism of the black male through the white characters who thirstily assimilate to their disturbed preconception of “cool” black culture, using “fosheezy” and the like in their own language. Furthermore, Franklin presents the player with the way in which the deficiencies and innate materialism of our economic system produce the more deplorable elements of not only west coast gangster culture, e.g. bangin and slangin, but also the popular ethos that further perpetuate the worst capitalist ideologies. After Franklin receives his first major return on investment, we find him at a strip club. As he watches the tanned ass and fake tits gyrate in front of him, he makes a phone call and proceeds to try and solve an interpersonal problem with capital. Of course, he fails at buying a solution for his relationship woes. He puts away his phone, and Fergie’s “Glamorous,” which had been playing for the strippers to dance to, raises in volume, blaring the following line: “If you ain’t got no money, take yo broke ass home.” This is just one of the many brilliant uses of diegetic music, which reinforce the narrative and thematic concerns. This moment highlights the depth to which this culture of money permeates through the skin into the muscles of this materialist modernity. Franklin doesn’t realize the hypocrisy of his attempt at making amends in a strip club, showcasing the systemic nature of our “money is the solution to our problems” ideology that we see across our music, movies, games, and politics. Money and the drug-addict-like desire for it is in full effect in this game and with Franklin we’re always kept wanting more because his cut of the take is usually smaller than the two other characters. It’s disappointing that the needs of the plot and game design force Franklin to betray his character, his strong headed nature and reluctance to participate in some “gangster bullshit,” but then being so easily pulled anywhere the bloody tide of the criminal underworld decides. Still, Franklin becomes the most likeable, the Freudian ego of the game, always playing the middle man between our id, Trevor, and our super-ego, Michael. He’s the most “real” of the characters, and is in line with what the player’s logical voice would say to some of the nonsense of the other characters.
Then there’s Trevor Phillips. Ah, Trevor. What hasn’t been said about Trevor that’s already been said about Walter White, Jeffrey Dahmer, and Daenerys Targaryen? Trevor is our Canadian psychopath, entrepreneur, immigrant sympathizer, cannibal, and hopeless romantic. Many have made the comment that Trevor represents the GTA player in his full sociopathic and rampaging glory. His missions reinforce this notion, going beyond just how people play the game (you know, running down pedestrians and provoking military intervention) and designing scenarios that fulfill our psychotic fantasies, like infiltrating an air force base and making off with $2 million helicopter as PMCs fire automatic weapons at you. Through Trevor, Rockstar embraces how GTA is inclined to be played, and provides us with a character that embodies the state of the medium’s psychology: Power thirsty, anti-social, narcissistic, and searching for self-validation. Trevor’s greatest character strength is honest psychoticism in a world full of delusional sociopaths. It’s no accident, then, that the character that most closely epitomizes the GTA player and series is brutally unapologetic about who he is.
Characters engage in their criminal exchanges with the professionalism and finance terminology ranging from investors searching for returns and bankers pinching a deal. The game’s scenarios are drenched with the language of business. This creates an obvious blurring of the lines between business and crime, highlighting the ideological intersection of the capitalist practice and criminal offenses Venn diagram, a thematic trope that has been employed since the early days of film noir. If one were to locate a primary didacticism or message in the game, it would be found somewhere in its criticism of finance. The effective translation of the stock market, for example, into gameplay illustrates how our economic system is in many ways nothing more than an elaborate and risky game.
Some reviewers claimed that the narrative design of The Wire was an obvious influence on the game’s plot. Sure, if The Wire was messier than the blood stains that regularly coat Trevor. Lead writer Dan Houser himself said that he has avoided pretty much all contemporary crime dramas, The Wire and Breaking Bad included, making the comparison lose any real credibility. The plot has less of a sense of direction than GTA IV, with the primary desire being obtaining more money, and in the case of Michael, getting more money so that he can leave the game. To complicate this, trying not to get killed by whatever faction Michael or Trevor have pissed off that day is thrown in. Because their primary desire is “get rich or die trying” you can never care for these characters. That doesn’t mean you can’t “like” them, which really means enjoy them for their entertainment value. Is that the point? Yes, I think so. The desire has to be monetary, as it’s in accordance with the thematic discussion of Los Santos. The lack of sympathy and the full dive into satire gives one the feeling that this narrative doesn’t have the heart that Niko’s story did. However dissonant and contradictory was the immigrant Niko’s character and gameplay mix, GTA IV at least taught us something about compassion and understanding. Maybe the oppression that Kunzleman speaks of is the air GTA V’s characters breath: Michael and Franklin, the made-in-America males, and the Canadian Trevor, whose psychology revels in some of the worst manifestations of U.S. principles.
The plots concludes, for my particular playthrough, how it needs to, but the conflicts are contrived in order to serve the gameplay, forcing characters to continually make incredibly stupid decisions. The missions on the whole are as I’m sure you heard the “best” Rockstar have ever designed, and by “best” people mean batshit, action blockbuster crazy. The conclusion, then, comes as underwhelming considering the events that came before, leaving us with the closing punch of Lester (the game’s chubby, crippled, and snarky brains) in comparison. I did appreciate the way in which the director places us at the coast, the sunset coloring the ocean shades of blood, a fitting final backdrop for this finance noir.
If you haven’t already heard, GTA V hates women. One of the most prevalent criticisms of the game is its blatant sexism. Most of these charges of misogyny come in the form of Rockstar’s relegation of women to the sidelines. Understandably, women want a chance to start in this bloodsport. In seriousness, I’m certainly of the mind that how women, races, etc. are represented is something that should be considered by all artists and it continues to be a specially difficult task for an industry dominated by man logic. But, of course, social progression is silly, which is scoffed at by the especially mature and cultured gaming community, groups of unbiased, young, white, and privileged males that happen to be well versed in gender theory. However, what critics keep forgetting and so must be repeated is that the reality Rockstar represents is ultimately a funhouse mirror reflection of our own world. We need to stop staring solely at that reflected image and turn back to the source.
One critic whined about the strip club mini game:
Before you ask (or before you head to the comment section to try and defend this bullshit) there is no critical eye here – there is no satire. You go to the club. You grope the woman. You have sex. And it is cool. There’s no humour, no irony. It is just that straightforward. You grope the woman. And you get away with it.
Apparently, Mr. Smith is completely unfamiliar with the nature of strip clubs. Yes, there are really places where men pay women to grind on them and let them stare at their naked breasts. And sometimes those women go home with men they meet because they’re, like, consenting adults. Shocking, I know. The humor comes in the defamiliarization and satire of this situation. The game gives the player the ability to flirt by pressing a button that prompts dialogue along the lines of “Please, just don’t tell me your life story” and “You got it all: Beach body oil, fake guns, hair extensions. Shit, I love it.” That’s what a satirical game portrays as flirting. Their responses are a joke because they are so ridiculous and full of unrecognized (by the characters) misogyny. The game in this moment is making fun of the men that enjoy the services provided by such establishments. The over the top caveman moans that accompany Michael’s sexual conquest and bellowing, “I still got it” are very serious and so “cool” that it made me want to be just like him when I grow up. How dare Rockstar teach us that this behavior is okay and justifiable. I’ve also decided it’s okay and justifiable to murder, steal, and commit acts of terror after playing the game. Take a moment and observe the scenario Rockstar has constructed. If one steps back, the strip club ritual is presented as a completely ridiculous practice. Just because it isn’t explicitly funny doesn’t mean it isn’t satire. Despite Smith’s reading, the game never really portrays this as cool. It’s a stupid and silly distraction and one that sifts out the weirdness fused to this exchange of money, voyeurism, and sex. Again, these problems of representation are more a product of the satirizing of the modern world, and reflecting back the bullshit than promoting social oppression.
Those invested in PC identity politics don’t want to hear that some of these “stereotypes” exist. Does this mean we should reinforce them? No. It also doesn’t mean we should kidnap those stereotypes and hide them in the desert. Satire is about exposing self-deception, so to that extent placing those stereotypes front and center can accomplish two things. For stereotypes with some truth to them, aka privileged white unemployed gamer stoner and young male, shows the cultural lows of our society.
The few stereotypes that don’t exist in the game’s mind, aka the supposed illegal immigrants that ride around in an old Cadillac dressed as Mariachis, blasting Los Tigres Del Notre as they make their escape from border patrol, show the idiotic depths of our cultural prejudices.
GTA V’s greatest accomplishment may be that way the game diminishes the tension that troubled the general tenor of GTA IV: The dissonance of walking the line between satire and serious drama. GTA V might be the best attempt at reducing ludonarrative dissonance, the contradiction between the gameplay actions and narrative inclinations, in all of AAA gaming. There’s a refreshing honesty linking how the characters are drawn and the type of felonies and crimes against humanity the player has them commit. The result is morally deprived, and in the case of Franklin and Michael sometimes self-questioning, characters. Rockstar’s reconciliation highlights the twisted nature of what the at large gaming community wants: Murder, theft, and all the legal transgressions, but with some semblance of rationalization and justification. To their credit, Rockstar undermines this notion by, although I’m sure it’s whoosh over the heads of many of its fans, consistently undercutting these characters’ behaviors.
The game unabashedly recognizes many of the medium’s limitations and highlights its strengths. Tutorials still take the form of text filled boxes because really, for a game with more systems than NASA, written language is still the most effective way to communicate to the player. When possible, Rockstar uses NPCs and diegetic queues, like a speedboat shooting by a tunnel exit, to suggest which direction the player should go. GTA V is about action, as in movement, what bodies can do, and besides murder and theft, the range of activities shows how games can turn anything into gameplay and through it send a message. The one moment in particular that gets this across, regardless of one’s sentiments, is the torture scene (which I will dedicate a whole post to later), turning real world horrors into the darkest comedy of interactivity.
The one tension that Rockstar can’t reconcile is that between the scripted story driven missions and player freedom. GTA is best known for its supposed player freedom, a freedom that must be compromised in order to insure that the player’s ego stroking remains uninterrupted. The game continually tells you exactly what to do and then when it gives you options, you’re at a loss because you’ve been trained to be spoon fed. It’s disappointing that a game that has the balls to turn the mundane into fun, e.g. mopping as a janitor or towing cars, can’t take the risk of making its players think. The options for heists are binary and the flexibility in switching characters doesn’t fully realize the emergent gameplay possibilities that such a mechanic seems predisposed to produce. At one point the game suggest that Michael up his flying skill while failing to recognize and giving me the option to use Franklin whose flight skill I had already maxed out. But this trade-off, seems to work in their favor. Unlike Tom Bissell’s friends, those of mine who’ve played the game, consider this the best GTA since [insert nostalgic series entry you barely remember], showing how players are willing to compromise freedom for spectacle.
Sexism, racism, immorality, and oppressive politics. This was the mainstream journalism community’s curious critical response to GTA V. Not many could criticize the game’s mechanics or technical achievements, but almost all the reviewers flocked to issues of representation. What’s left to criticize when the overall design is as impeccable as the technology allows? All room for improvement seems to exist in the high order components of the game. The cultural standard for Rockstar and GTA is unusually high, so high that it made me wonder why. The answer is probably because GTA has become the flagship series of the medium, transcending the marginalization that video games receive as a whole. Fortunately, even the mainstream community is expecting more (and not without a sense of entitlement) from the creators of the biggest entertainment franchise in the world. Many expected some marvelous transgression, myself included, from GTA V like the days of firing silver tongued bullets at Jack Thompson. But really Tom Bissell puts it best:
“GTA is basically the most elaborate asshole simulation system ever devised, a game based on hurting people and doing whatever you like.”
What I came to realize after completing the game was that Grand Theft Auto has always been more about sublimation than transgression, a way to redirect and channel our unacceptable impulses and desires into a form that is more socially acceptable. GTA is the commercially prescribed medication for a society that is unknowingly repressed, confused, and misdirected.
With Rockstar’s inordinate financial success comes a great irony. GTA V’s billion dollar return in three days, making it the fastest grossing piece of entertainment of all time (until the next COD that is), raises the following question: How can a product so enamored with criticizing advertising and materialism do so when its success is in fact the partial result of advertising and materialism itself. The game ends with an explicit and ironic reprimand of the greatest of capitalist evils: “Outsourcing.” The characters make this joke to a sort of figurehead of finance and do so with a big pinch of subtextual sarcasm. The game reportedly cost $270 million to publish and develop. I imagine at least $120 million of that was spent on marketing the game. The review copy of this game was accompanied by the usual AAA game marketing swag: A key chain, stickers, a t-shirt, etc. The game’s conclusion, then, struck a bit poignant when I flipped over a packaged key chain to see this:
Hypocrisy. That’s all one sees in this moment, even more so than all the financial investment and success. GTA V seems guilty of its own criticism. As a business, Rockstar is one of its characters: Amoral, driven to achieve success at whatever costs, producing ambivalence from his audience. Kunzleman’s hammers down the final nail of his argument with this reprimand:
The Grand Theft Auto series has always been about selling our own shitty culture back to us and then explaining that we’re transgressive because we buy it.
How do you respond to that? Kunzleman’s insight sounds like fact. Again, has it been about transgression or a technologically elaborate form of asshole sublimation? There’s another great irony in GTA V, one that arises from its genre of satire. The irony of satire is that it usually approves of and implements the same weapons used by the subject of its criticism. The charge of hypocrisy against Rockstar commits the fallacy of ad hominem tu quoque, or the “you too” argument. Just because Rockstar may have acted against its own argument doesn’t logically disprove their argument in the first place. Yes, it may make them hypocrites, but hypocrites that make a valid point nonetheless. Rockstar’s intentional and unintentional contribution derives from so effectively and hyperbolically bringing to life the world around us in all of its shitty glory—while letting you steal cars. What would contemporary society’s Metacritic score be? For all its deconstruction and depravity, GTA V provides a basis for affinity among us all, by showing us that we hate what we see in the mirror.
Editor’s Note: Rockstar Games provided the copy of Grand Theft Auto V that informed the preceding criticism.
I studied literary criticism and play a lot games, which is kind of like eating meat and being a vegan nutritionist. I've now made the great mistake of trying to join the two here at DW. I suppose I stand somewhere between a little too "intellectual" for mainstream game sites and too dumb for the game criticism grad students. Games: the only thing I ever win at.
P.S. I'm not a journalist.