In some sense, the Grand Theft Auto series has always been about exploring the American landscape. With its faux versions of New York, Miami, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Las Vegas, Rockstar has been able to take players on a road trip through some of the more significant urban environments of America, exploring what each regional culture and the classes, subclasses, and subcultures within those cities add to the mosaic of American life—poking fun all the while at the dog-eat-dog attitudes that two guys from London seem to see as pervasive in American class warfare and American social warfare.
Up until now, though, the player has always had to hitch a ride to Sam and Dan Houser’s America in the boosted car of a singular avatar, one man, a criminal, a car thief (and usually guilty also of much more), a hustler, and a gangster who will explore whichever of these psuedo-American landscapes that Rockstar wished to explore in any given game.
The result has always been a bit of a strange affair. Most GTA protagonists follow the arc of the traditional tale of the American gangster, a rags to riches story full of sex and violence, that punctuates a twisted celebration of American freedom and American individualism (all represented by criminality). GTA protagonists usually begin their virtual lives in the seamier part of a city or state and work their way up from the slums to the mansions and casinos that represent the Housers’ take on the “pursuit of (and eventual acquisition of) happiness.” While the mythology of the self made man pervades American crime classics like The Godfather and Scarface, though, the social mobility represented by, say, CJ Johnson’s ascent from street level gangster to criminal overlord in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is a somewhat strange and seemingly at times, perhaps, inauthentic representation of the actual possibilities of American social adaptation.
San Andreas, like previous GTA games, followed the pattern of moving on up from the slums to the high rises of an American landscape and maybe even more so highlighted that idea in a game in which CJ moves from city to city and those cities seem to serve as representations of his climb up the ladder of the American economic classes. Starting out in the ‘hood of Los Santos, a place where CJ seems very much at home, he soon finds himself in the upscale, Bohemian neighborhoods of San Fierro, hanging out with hippie conspiracy theorists and the like—no one that one might expect a lower income, young black man to find himself normally associating with on a regular basis. The Truth, while a bit rustic in his lifestyle (as he has built his life on cultivating an extremely significant crop of marijuana at the edges of San Fierro) is still a bit bourgeois, as a man less concerned with putting bread on the table than he is with chasing down his own paranoid fantasies of alien visitations and government cover ups. CJ continues his journey as a fish out of water to the casino town of Las Venturas, finding himself in one instance dressing up in a gimp suit to seduce a casino croupier. Moments like this in the late game remind one that CJ is a long way from tagging viaducts and bridges near his own territory of Grove Street.
But GTA has never been content to explore a singular part of American culture or a singular part of an American subculture (except maybe in its shorter iterations, like Lost and the Damned, which is pretty laser focused on biker gang culture, or The Ballad of Gay Tony, an ode of sorts to the American club scene) in their big games. They like to take on the poor, the working poor, the middle class, the well to do, and the ridiculously wealthy in their parodies of American lifestyles, as well as everything else in between, conservatism and liberalism, American religious and secular life, the strung out hippie and the strung out corporate fat cat. The limitation of telling the story of Rockstar’s America has always been having a singular set of eyes to view all of this through, eyes that often enough seem difficult to understand having the opportunity to glimpse such a myriad of experiences.
Of course, the American crime story has been revised in recent years, perhaps, most notably by HBO’s The Wire, a television series that prided itself on telling the story not of a single character (that might just give us a glimpse of the landscape of Baltimore), but instead on telling a story of the city itself, the whole city, as if it were a character. What The Wire did was throw out the notion that you can explore the criminal lifestyle, the politics, the educational system, the working conditions of a city by creating a central hero to walk the mean streets of that city. The Wire eschewed the kind of superficial tourism of so much character drama to go ahead and develop a series in which the city spoke through characters that authentically inhabited a plethora of socially and economically defined spaces. Doing so, allowed the city itself to become the main character with a disparate group of voices representing its various parts and making up a whole. Frankly, this isn’t the first time that such a narrative has been attempted. Short story collections like James Joyce’s Dubliners or Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio are similar efforts to make cities protagonists of sorts. In a way, Joyce’s Dublin or Anderson’s small Midwestern town of Winesburg come to life through characters of varying ages and varying social classes and varying experiences to tell the larger story of the life of a physical location and the kinds of living that takes place there.
Enter Grand Theft Auto V, a game that as a slavering Rockstar fanboy that I’ve been looking forward to all year, but that I haven’t paid a great deal of attention to its previews and teasers (I never really like to spoil my direct experience too much with a game, especially one that I know I want to get my hands on on day one). Yeah, I was aware that the game was—for the first time—going to feature multiple protagonists that you could swap between to some degree on the fly, but I hadn’t given that too much thought beyond the notion that you were going to be running some bank heists in the game and that being able to swap between various members of your crew might be tactically very useful on a microcosmic level. I realized that it would probably have storytelling implications (as Rockstar has never been a company that short shrifts character development and character arcs), but, I don’t know, it seemed more gimmicky than anything else. Every new iteration of the open world genre seems like it needs to tout some innovative new feature that will set it apart from the ever growing pack of such games.
Now, I’m only a few hours into the game, but I couldn’t get the idea of telling a story in a manner similar to The Wire out of my head for much of the time thatI have invested in it. In large part, I think that this is because of a moment early on in which I followed one of the game’s “protagonists,” retired bank robber Michael De Santa, out of his shrink’s swanky uptown Los Santos office down to the equally upscale beach houses in the Southern part of the city. Michael sits on a bench near the sand as two much younger black men pass by, who then ask directions to the home of one of the occupants of those beach houses. Michael is initially dismissive of the two, but then rather gleefully gives up the location of whatever upwardly mobile individual lives at the address they are looking for.
I knew the part of the city that Michael and the two young men were in. It bears a striking resemblance to an upscale area from the older iteration of San Andreas, and given Michael’s apparent wealth (given his ability to afford a pretentious and clearly well off therapist), the character and the space that he occupied seemed to match up rather well. I didn’t expect the game to shift away from Michael yet, but suddenly I was occupying the shoes of Franklin, one of the black men that had asked Michael directions and suddenly I was on a mission to boost a couple of cars from a guy who could afford a beach house. Then soon enough I was visiting Simeon, a crooked Armenian car dealer, who would be taking the cars off of Franklin’s hands. Then I was exploring a far less upscale part of Los Santos as I returned Franklin home to the run down house that he shares with his Auntie. And it felt right. No more tourism. I was swapping in and out of the shoes of the inhabitants of various spaces of Los Santos and seeing those spaces through the eyes of people that knew and that lived in those spaces. I was no longer a visitor or a fish out of water. Really, I wasn’t just seeing Michael’s world or Franklin’s world, I was seeing the city itself, the way it operates internally and how people live in it and relate to their part of it.
Again, I’ve barely scratched the surface of the game, and thus, I may be drawing conclusions about the connections between the storytelling methodology of David Simon and this game prematurely, but I do have to say that this doesn’t feel like a mere gimmick. The implications of how character swapping as a mechanic may alter the nature of the exploration of city (physically, socially, economically) in a game like this seems promising, seems fascinating, and seems it might lead to some potential for some social critique that we haven’t seen before in a GTA game. Rather than regurgitate the same old idealized story of the young go-getter criminal that makes good, we might see some of the real limitations that class and social and economic stagnation have created for individuals occupying a 21st century America.
In any case, at least for the moment I no longer feel like a tourist (Tommy Vercetti) or an immigrant (Niko Bellic) in Rockstar’s America. I feel like I might actually be living there.
Suddenly those comic-book-like frames that always make up the box art of a GTA game make so much more sense. It is the smaller more, focused glimpses of the lives of the people inhabiting a Vice City or a San Andreas that make up the whole picture.