I’d Like To Talk About: Grand Theft Auto V

I have a terrible habit.

Not the coke, or the sex addiction, or the increasingly compulsive FIFA point microtransactions… I’ve got them under control, okay? *twitches*

No. I’m talking about one of my gamer habits. You see… I am a frivolous gamer *audience revolts*. Every Christmas it has become a ritual for me to receive at least one game that I will inevitably pick up once and then disregard indefinitely. I must have hundreds of hours on DICE’s Battelfield 3 and about hundreds of seconds on its sequel…that I purchased Premium content for when it was on sale…

There aren’t a lot of games in my collection that are destined to this fate, it’s usually just the standard military shooters I get given or that I buy out of a flimsy curiosity stemming from the title’s popularity. I got Payday 2 when it was on sale and I don’t even think I installed it. It’s like: hey, people like this. If I buy it I would probably play it at some unspecified point in the future? Right?

GTA V: Remastered For The Xbox One 14 Months After Worldwide Release Edition narrowly avoided becoming one of these dormant discs on my shelf, it was given to me roughly a year after I had already completed the game in its entirety on my ps3, and after you’ve burned out on GTA V completely I’m honestly not sure a year is enough time to prepare to fully re-immerse yourself inside of Los Santos. That’s mostly because its trademark vastness- the instantly recognisable excess of environment and activity- takes an effort to participate in of which exceeds mere gratification.

Rockstar ensure that being a part of Los Santos entails equally as much effort on the player’s part as it does entertainment, but not exactly in a punishing sense. This is why fast travelling is made to seem nonviable as a frequent use of transportation, the developers are keen to have you constantly traverse its lovingly rendered vistas for what is arguably most of your time playing Grand Theft Auto, they are keen for you to observe its conspicuously toiled-over craftsmanship and listen to its radio stations specifically curated to pander to any fan of any genre, they are keen for you to experience its more niche sporting activities and its own self-referenced TV shows in between all of the flashy spectacle of heist missions.

The world and systems of Los Santos are so nuanced and are with such a level of fidelity that you can, for instance, even play the stock market on a whim after an equally whimsical stroll down to the golf course for a round of wii-sports level interactive challenge. GTA is the opposite of the casual escapism you’d expect from modern AAA titles. You are nothing short of inundated with activity, opportunity and system. The experience of Grand Theft Auto V is just as much a commitment to its own brand of realism as it is an entertaining pastime.

That’s why I was somewhat reluctant to once again stand up to the mammoth task of GTA V. About a month ago, though, I got curious to see where the updates had taken the game and also how the first-person mode handled on the system. I found that, ultimately, the game is so much more interesting than I originally gave it credit for. Not even just as a videogame but as a tacitly understood criterion for the open world genre, a cultural icon. I’ve written about GTA V before but I was 15 and I sounded insanely asinine. Here’s to second tries!

The first thing to mention is that the game is incredibly beautiful, incredible in the literal sense. It is almost unbelievable to see the comparisons of the game’s own iterations of Californian monuments against the real things.

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There is a fantastic sense of passionate toil even just looking at these comparisons. And with that there must be an appreciation on the part of the developer for the Californian iconography exhibited. The environment of Los Santos is an astounding testament to the quality of modern day environmental rendering, a visual statement that attempting environmental realism is no longer a futile or contrarian effort.

The game loves Hollywood, it loves the environments and the monuments so much so that it will spend years- and then one more year rendering them again for the modern console generation- rendering the realism of its environment in an attempt to brave a kind of environmental uncanny valley. It loves the cinematic ethos of Hollywood too, it plays around with cinematic cutscenes that employ the use of some familiar cinematography, it has a romance with cinematic soundtracks and cinematic colour-saturated golden-hour LA sunsets. One of the controller’s face buttons is even reserved for a cinematic camera angle when driving- oh and I forgot that the game has its own cinemas with entire viewable short films. Everything about the environmental design screams for a love of California and what it is that Hollywood represents. It wants the player to vicariously appreciate the things that the developers appreciate.

Everything on the other end, though, seems to be an abrasive attack on the Californian side of modern Americana. We are quick to label GTA as a satire but… I… just can’t call it a satire. I just can’t.

At its best it is a parody of modern Americana but even then to call it a parody would really translate into ‘it contorts and dilutes several different aspects of Americana into their most well-trodden stereotypes and adds dick jokes to them’. That’s another thing that really irks me about GTA V is the sordid nature of its comedy… Los Santos is saturated with dick jokes, enema jokes, ballsack jokes, jokes about ‘stunt tits’. The garish, sophomoric tastelessness of the humour severely undermines the moments where the game displays some real satirical humour. These moments, few and far between, are lost in a sea of references to fellatio and silicone breasts that grow exhausting with every iteration.

If we want to talk about real satire then Spec Ops: The Line would be an apt comparison. This is a game that harnesses some real trenchancy in its satire. It makes a clear statement about the harmful effects of military games adding to the already existing problem of short-sighted American jingoism. It is political through its subtext and offers some real and original social commentary.

Official Playstation Magazine’s Joel Gregory states that “the scathing social commentary is, of course, present and correct”. I fail to see the social commentary barring perhaps one or two instances. GTA V is not political. The only time we see a real satirical punch up at an aspect of Americana is the sequence in the LifeInvader tower. It makes a statement about how aestheticism takes precedence over technical competence in the modern day tech era. It’s funny, and it’s political and it doesn’t use a dick joke to garner laughs. This is the only truly satirical moment of the game that shows the writers’ stance on the issue.

The heavy-handed torture scene has Kojima-esque intentions of exposing the brutality of the American military under the faux guise of anti-terrorism by way of exhibiting brutal acts of torture for vague information about a criminal whose supposed crimes are equally as dubious. But then the game trivialises the issue’s, and the games message’s importance by literally explaining that torture is “useless as a means of getting information” through an instance of borderline metafictional dialogue. It then undermines any pretence of gravitas by turning the torture victim into a cheap gag. The game has no trust in its own subtext or its own possibility of being political. This is much of the problem with GTA V… anything that has any possibility of gravitas needs to be diluted with comedy.

Besides these moments, the game has so many contradictions in its parody that it seems to be lampooning anything it can possibly think of. It is the Chloe Price of video games, screaming ‘f*ck you!’ at everyone and everything in sight. It lampoons feminism, traditional masculinity, liberalism, republicans and NRA supporters, country life, city life… what is it telling me? On top of the kitsch entertainment of Americana GTA V makes so many easy punches down at feminists who already have an extremely hard time being heard in this medium that I can’t help but think that even beyond the weak comedy is some actual maliciousness. Some people say that by GTA V’s frequent lampoon of reality TV and the modern celebrity the game is lampooning the anti-intellectual climate of Americana… but that would be incredibly rich from a game as intellectually frail and borderline kitsch GTA V.

You could also argue that by displaying anti feminist sentiment the game is in itself lampooning the antifeminists, but when what you’re parodying become indiscernible from the parody itself, there is always a tacit agreement between the developer and the audience that there is an obvious stance taken, and I really cannot be sure of that with GTA V when there is an entire mini game where you can grope topless strippers in order to get them to have sex with you. At a glance you think that this is so obviously beneath acceptable that it must be deliberately ironic, but then you think that someone had to render all of these topless strippers in HD quality… every last polygon… and that’s an awful lot of effort for an ironic in-joke. How can I take the lampooning of a sex-obsessed Hollywood seriously when you are actually showing me softcore pornography?

All these critical readings about GTA V that talk about our three protagonists as Freud’s id, ego, and super ego, all these readings about Franklin being an extended metaphor about cultural appropriation… I just think that’s giving these writers waaay too much credit. Franklin is not so obvious a black stereotype for the game to posit some serious discussion about cultural appropriation but not realistic enough a character to make it seem like three white British lead writers from a British company of Rockstar North, two of whom were Oxbridge graduates, weren’t getting a weird joy out of getting to write the N word lots and lots and lots of times. The game has nothing to say about race or racial prejudice. San Andreas centred around a gang of African American characters but it was co-written by DJ Pooh, and I just feel like this time around they could have done with someone who was a bit more in touch like they had before.

In all these instances I could give Rockstar North the benefit of the doubt were they to actually follow through with their vision of real intelligence, but their narrative simply isn’t clever enough. Michael is, to put it frankly, a poundland Tony Soprano, Franklin is an African American gangster who is handled just about as well as you’d expect an African American gangster written by three white British men to be handled, and Trevor is the comic relief character whose comedy manifests itself in brief spurts of hilarious psychopathy but falls flat on a bed of dick and jizz jokes. Even Jeremy Jahns concedes that these characters “don’t matter as much as you want them to”.

What is irrevocably a spectacle so pristine you’d think it would shatter at a touch is also a narrative that reeks of unhelpful sophomoric immaturity. I could forgive it everything were it not halfway through the door already. Most AAA games have no mind to be anything but pure hypermasculine escapism and that is entirely forgivable. But there is evidence you cannot ignore that would indicate that GTA V wants to be more than its competitors, to distance itself, that it wants to be narratively and subtextually robust. It has one or two brief flashes of satirical brilliance but is then mired by the confusing, overwhelming and insulting flow of cheap parody. It has the affectation of satire and a flimsy but visible intention to provoke discussion, and it ends up a place where meaningful discussion comes to die.

This essay was inspired by Chris Franklin’s video.

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