[9 October 2013]
PopMatters Multimedia Editor
Hire a hooker. Have sex with her in your car. When you’re done, beat her to death and get your money back. Thus begins 150,000 terrified discussions of the Grand Theft Auto series (Lord knows, I’ve begun a few discussions of the games myself in this way, and I’m not even opposed to the “morally corrupt” systems of GTA).
I just have to say, though, that I have played every game in the series (yes, even the first two) and some of them more than once. They say that this kind of malovolent behavior is what the series encourages, and true enough, the series certainly presents an open world that allows for a wide range of possibilities and the freedom to do just about anything you want, even really terrible things. That being said, this isn’t an activity that I regularly participate in when playing the game, and frankly, I don’t really know any GTA players that regularly do.
I’m sure there are boatloads of YouTube videos showing off any number of GTA experiments in human suffering. Those that play the game are certainly aware of the seemingly boundless possibilities that GTA offers in sociopathic performance, but that really isn’t what the game is about, nor is it really how one spends time playing the game.
It almost feels that the crime fiction of GTA has produced a fiction of its own in the larger media. There is some kind of fictional player who spends hours at a time murdering hookers, running over grandmas, and kicking puppies (actually there has never been a dog in a GTA until the most recent iteration). This figure is legendary but is part of a media developed narrative of GTA‘s influence on the youth of America and its assault on basic morality and maybe just good taste. I’ve heard this story before, though. When I first heard it, it was called Seduction of the Innocent and concerned spurious claims about both superheroes and the effects of their antics on the children of the 1940s and 1950s. It also featured a fictional audience of juvenile delinquents and other youthful malcontents twisted and brainwashed by the material that they have consumed.
(If all 25 minutes of the video above is a bit much to take at once, just skip to around 5:56 in the video to get the gist of the horrors of comic books when unleashed on a few unsuspecting children).
The most offputting thing about this line of critique of GTA is that it seems most often to be made by people who have never played the games, have no idea that they often contain familiar stories that they probably have watched (say, DiPalma’s Scarface) or even admire (say, Coppola’s The Godfather) and that in the main that these elements that are often highlighted are not exactly the norm of the game, nor do they at all speak to the tone, context, or satirical nature of the series.
On the other hand, there are those in the media who have played the game. Video game journalists and critics have their own criticisms of the series and its presentations of violence, but I more often hear a related concern that speaks more clearly to the actual experience of GTA, the nature of the violence in the game and its relationship to ludonarrative dissonance. Much was made of the inconsistency between Niko Bellic, the protagonist of Grand Theft Auto IV, and his behavior in the cutscenes of the game (in which he is portrayed as a man that is not unfamiliar with violence, but not a complete sociopath) and what a player can do with Niko because of the game’s systems (which do allow him to behave like a complete sociopath) and what he often does on missions (which is frequently to commit mass murder, seemingly without remorse).
I will grant that this critique is not unwarranted. What one is charged to enact in missions and in play is not always tonally consistent with a character that is also understood by the player as someone maybe a bit different during the game’s more cinematic moments. That being said, I still hear the same suggestion in some of these discussions of a player who exists out there that somehow is spending most of their time playing GTA in a manner totally inconsistent with Rockstar’s narrativized version of Niko. Some players are witnessing these cutscenes and then going totally psycho in the open world of Liberty City. Again, such experiments seem possible to me but also feel fictional on some level. Anyone who commits to playing GTA IV for the long haul seems to me unlikely to reinforce this ludonarrative dissonance on any kind of regular basis. Again, murder and mayhem with utterly no context is really not the focus of the game. The game does have a focus, which is to tell a crime story and to establish sequences in which you enact criminal activities (which in turn become the encounters that drive the whole narrative forward). Gamers understand objectives and most often are interested in accomplishing them. This is, after all, what makes a game, a game and not mere play, goals and an object to the game.
The purely sociopathic GTA player just seems like another character in a narrative designed to critique the game’s shortcomings as a game, more a straw man than any real player that I know (or am).
All of which is why the emergence of Trevor, one of the three playable protagonists of GTA V is so interesting. The fictional player in the media, the dissonance created between play style and narrative in GTA, has been “resolved” by Rockstar themselves. They have finally created a character who, if played outside of the context of missions like a completely ruthless, sadistic motherfucker, will absolutely remain consistent with the character presented in the game’s cutscenes. The fictional sociopathic player of GTA now has an avatar to house him. Trevor is everything your Congressman and troubled mother interviewed on Larry King has warned you about. The media fiction is alive in this corner of GTA V‘s world. And Rockstar knows it. It as if after a decade or so of criticism, these guys finally said, “Fine, we’ll give them the character, the player, the nightmare that they’ve asked for.”
The introduction of Trevor in the game (and spoilers follow – you have been warned) seems to speak directly to the eradication of any kind of sentimental ideas surrounding previous GTA protagonists. When we first see Trevor, he is having sex with Ashley, the girlfriend of the protagonist of Grand Theft Auto IV: The Lost and the Damned, a biker named Johnny Klebitz. Now, like any GTA protagonist, Johnny is no angel, but he was a man with loyalties to his motorcycle club and the only GTA protagonist that really has any kind of serious romantic relationship with a woman in any of the games. Johnny seems to actually love and be concerned for Ashley’s well being in The Lost and the Damned. It’s the closest thing to a “saving the princess” story that GTA has ever told, as Johnny does save Ashley, and she heads for rehab at the close of the game – about as fairytale an ending as you are likely to get in this kind of series.
Thus, Ashley fucking Trevor for the sake of scoring some crystal meth violates much of any moral accomplishment that the player may have felt upon playing Lost and the Damned. When Johnny soon arrives to confront Trevor about this indiscretion, we learn that Johnny himself is now hooked on meth and has been putting up to some degree with Trevor sleeping with his girl because he is strung out now too and needs the dope. Again, any high-minded sense that we might have had about this GTA protagonist, any sense of decency in what was otherwise a bit of a sociopath when we played as him, dissolves with this revelation. He has lost his own battle to the very thing that he was trying to protect “his princess” from. That Trevor then dismisses Johnny’s tantrum and that Johnny apologizes like the groveling junkie he now is makes this even worse, even more tragically pathetic, and far from romanticized.
Of course, the conclusion of this episode in some way speaks the most to Rockstar’s decision to no longer tolerate ludonarrative dissonance in a GTA protagonist. After Johnny’s sickening apology and Trevor’s threats to sodomize Johnny, Trevor kills Johnny anyway. The dissonance of play and story dies with Johnny. And the player who is aware of GTA‘s tendency to create romanticized, semi-heroic criminals has been violated himself. “Your character,” a character that you have occupied and accomplished some good with, is violated, humiliated, and left in the desert to rot alongside both any kind of idealism and dissonance that GTA had established in its characters in the past.
The real-life fiction of what GTA is all about eradicates the actual fiction of games past. I guess that whoever it is that my Congressman and that mom on Larry King warned me about is now somewhere rubbing his hands together and twirling his moustache. The fictional player has been granted a life that seems just despicable enough to suit him.