‘Grand Theft Auto V’ Giving up on the Dream of American Upward Mobility?

The character arc of every protagonist within the Grand Theft Auto series has always been an upward one. Now, that in itself is not a huge surprise, as video games as a medium tend to prefer giving players the opportunity to enact a fantasy of growing power, growing skill, growing wealth. But it has always been the context of Rockstar’s power fantasies, stories of criminals not subject to rule or law making their way upwards through hard (though always dirty and violent) work and a dogged determination from their lowly beginnings as petty thugs to their final ends finally as criminal overlords, that has always driven its theme: an interest in both valorizing and skewering the idealism of American society.

The notion that every boy (or every thug in this case) can make good, especially given the freedom and opportunity to do so, has led to a darkly comic and always satirical series of games about freedom loving thugs who will eventually capitalize on their twisted version of the American Dream. As I myself have written before, nowhere is this clearer than in Grand Theft Auto IV, which features an Eastern European immigrant and his struggles to make it in Liberty City using only his wits and an awful lot of firepower (Grand Theft Auto IV: The Pursuit of Happiness”, PopMatters, 30 May 2008).

Grand Theft Auto games have always been about the pursuit of happiness, and in their conclusions one always finds that economic dream (at least) fulfilled.

While the Grand Theft Auto series has interested itself in exploring American capitalism and consumerism in several decades (the 1980s, the 1990s, and the 2000s), it, of course, emerged at the tail end of American economies of just the latter two decades, the late 90s and early 2000s, times that were generally perceived by Americans as being pretty good years. Fiscal cliffs and general recessions were nowhere on anyone’s radar and so the satire of Grand Theft Auto of a society full of excess just waiting to be ripped off by yet another free thinking capitalist shark, like Tommy Vercetti or CJ Johnson, seemed good humored enough.

A number of folks have noted, though, that the newest iteration of Rockstar’s fictional stand in for California, the great state of San Andreas, seems to be one in which more current imagery of an economy on the downturn seems present. Trailers for the game have featured images of homelessness juxtaposed alongside images of the well fed and grossly overpaid.

While Rockstar has always created cities that represent both the dizzying heights occupied by the rich and educated as well as the more humble neighborhoods of the lower classes and underprivileged, for the games’ protagonists coming to occupy these spaces has always been a representation of their own social and economic ascent. Tommy, CJ, and Niko all begin their lives of crime in the “bad part of town,” but by their stories close, they have moved on up to the parts of the city most conducive to their new found economic success.

Rockstar’s decision, then, to tell the stories of three protagonists that players can switch between on the fly is interesting. As a recent preview of Grand Theft Auto V suggests, these three individuals will not all be experiencing the city of Los Santos in the same way at the start. As Matt Bertz describes in that preview, the introduction of the game’s first protagonist should be within an environment that is a bit more unusual than not for the series. Michael, a retired bank robber, lives in a neighborhood of “manicured lawns, sprinkler systems, rolling hills, and […] high-end luxury cars,” a far cry, it would seem from the projects and ghettos making up CJ Johnson’s Grove Street home (“Grand Theft Auto V: Go Big or Go Home”, Game Informer, December 2012, p. 58). On the other hand, junkie and career criminal, Trevor is introduced to the player at his “ramshackle trailer in a desert region of the map” (p. 58).

Apparently inspired by Grand Theft Auto IV‘s efforts to take a look at Liberty City through some alternate viewpoints through the game’s DLC, The Lost and the Damned and The Ballad of Gay Tony, stories which allowed the player to see the city through the eyes of a member of a motorcycle gang and a club kid respectively, Rockstar wanted to offer a more multifaceted view of life on the streets in Los Santos. As Rockstar’s vice president of creative Dan Houser described to Bertz, “The contrast between three different experiences, geographies, and vibes to everything should be really strong, and I think it’s something that gives the game a unique feeling where you’re visiting these people’s lives and seeing what they do” (p. 58).

While Michael, Trevor, and a third character, a repo man named Franklin, will apparently be working together to pull bank jobs and the like (the other reason for representing three views in one game, as their stories can and will intersect over the course of the game’s main missions), the idea that each comes from very different places captures a more contemporary American zeitgeist, our current and more acute awareness of social stratification.

Michael’s world and Trevor’s world sound as if they are literally miles apart but so too is America’s sense of itself as we discuss 1% of these people and 47% of those people. The idealistic notion of the inevitability of economic ascension within a democratic and capitalistic culture is one that may be dying a painful and disquieting death for two generations concerned that they won’t be improving economically as their parents and grandparents before them did – and as they formerly expected to. As a singular hard working protagonist gives way to the three disparate identities of men of varied social classes, Rockstar may be giving up on its insistence on interrogating the mythology of the American Dream and the series may be giving way to an examination of a growing fear of a more strictly rigid social stratification among the American classes. Perhaps, upward mobility is no longer the given that it once was and perhaps Grand Theft Auto‘s themes need to adapt to better examine that possibility.

Now, of course, we will have to wait and see where this iteration of Grand Theft Auto ultimately goes to know for sure. And indeed, it may be that Michael’s story, for instance, as a man who has made himself comfortable in a way quite similar to the antiheroes of Grand Theft Auto‘s past will be one of a downward slide, rather than the upward climb we have seen of those same characters from previous installments. In any case, I still have a sneaking suspicion that since Rockstar is so often attuned to the particulars of American culture at any given time that this Grand Theft Auto may not be one where economic happiness is an inevitable outcome.