‘Grand Theft Auto’: The Game with Plenty to Say

I was pretty excited recently that Slate‘s Culture Gabfest would be talking about Grand Theft Auto V (“The Culture Gabfest ‘Live From Brooklyn’ Edition”, 25 September 2013). I’m a regular listener to the podcast, a podcast that covers both “high” and “low” cultural events (from an opening at the Met to Miley Cyrus’s turn on the VMAs) on a regular basis. While Stephen Metcalf, Dana Stevens, and Julia Turner regularly talk about film, televsion, books, and music, they rarely touch on the medium that I most involve myself in, the video game. None of them are gamers, after all, so fair enough.

That being said, the release of a Grand Theft Auto game is a pretty significant media and cultural event, so it was good to hear that they were acknowledging one of the most controversial and popular game series by being willing to see what the game was all about. Sensibly (it would seem) they decided to grab Chris Sullentrop of the New York Times, who writes about games, to participate in their discussion.

All of this seemed to be the good to me, that is, until the discussion turned to questions about games as art, what Grand Theft Auto might mean, or what the game had to say. Sullentrop was quick to point out that perhaps some indie games, like Gone Home, might be capable of speaking some truth to its audinence, might have some sort of aesthetically pleasing design, but he then dismissed Grand Thest Auto as ,“of course”, being a game “that has nothing to say”.

Kudos to Dana Stevens for immediately jumping in and asking about satire and the television and radio commercials that help to flesh out the world of Grand Theft Auto and suggesting that, perhaps, there is some political or social commentary residing in their grotesque exaggerations of American culture. However, Sullentrop remained wed to the notion of Grand Theft Auto being a game that has “nothing to say”, which features mere “farce, not satire”.

My only question to Sullentrop about his experience of Grand Theft Auto has to be: “Are you not listening?”

To dismiss Grand Theft Auto as merely farce is to dismiss a series that has embraced and often turned on its head one of the most common thematic interests in American crime fiction. Grand Theft Auto III, Vice City, San Andreas, and Grand theft Auto IV, all take on very similar themes as The Godfather II and Scarface do. Like those films, Grand Theft Auto offers a critique of the American Dream and the manner in which American ideals and striving for success within a culture that values freedom, individualism, and sticktuitiveness might result in a very twisted nightmare.

All four games feature story arcs (again, very familiar to viewers of classic mob movies) about outsiders, foreigners, or prodigal sons that turn up in an American city with next to nothing, get involved in crime at a low level, before eventually building criminal empires based on the most grotesque visions of personal freedom, a Puritan-like work ethic, and a commitment to “making good” despite their circumstances. If a critique of the series’s messages might be made, it might be that the message that it has so constantly spoken of, through its storylines and mechanics, keeps getting recycled, but hardly that it has had nothing to say about American sensibilities about economics and success or about how it is that Americans “pursue happiness.”

As a matter of fact, Grand Theft Auto V by including three protagonists for the first time seems to have actually evolved its formula and wants to explore more than it has in the past. While the character Franklin resembles Grand Theft Auto protagonists like Tommy Vercetti, CJ Johnson, and Niko Bellic, as a young man climbing his own criminal ladder of success, Grand Theft Auto V‘s Michael, a wealthy, “retired” bank robber speaks to some new economic themes that speak to the recent pulling back of the curtain of the American economy.

When Michael pulls down the hillside home of a bigwig in the Mexican Mafia, he finds himself in need of $2.5 million to pay for repairs and make reparations to the man he has offended. Despite all of the wealth that Michael has on display, all of the proof that he has indeed “made it” in America, he admits that his wealth doesn’t really amount to much in an economy that is less based on actual material prosperity and is more based on a culture of usury and an inflated sense of the value of property acquired in a culture so accustomed to “earning” more and more by taking out loan after loan after loan.

One would think that Michael could liquidate some assets to pay off the injured gangster. After all, Michael has a tennis court and pool in the backyard of a house in the most exclusive neighborhood in Los Santos. But he, like seemingly everyone else in the States, admits that he is in reality “mortgaged up to my eyeballs”. His prosperity is based on IOUs, not ownership.

His “return to work” is inspired by an inability to pay his bills, bills that have gone way past paying for the survival of his family, but for luxuries that he can’t really afford.

Maybe, Sullentrop, can be forgiven, though, because many players of the Grand Theft Auto series often don’t reach the games’ stories’ endings. Maybe he doesn’t know that the “score” in the upper right hand corner that lists how much money the protagonist has often seems hard to maintain in the early part of the game as you scratch up a little dough from running the initial missions that define the progression of the plot. However, by the end of any Grand Theft Auto game (if you have committed to the game’s full arc), that that scoring system is meaningless.

Typically, a Grand Theft Auto protagonist has millions of dollars by the end of a game, so much money that there is nothing at all in the game to spend it on and a horrific realization sets in that at this point that the only reason you acquire at this point is for the sake of acquiring. Grand Theft Auto‘s version of the American Dream reveals that it goes far beyond making life comfortable for you and yours, that acquisition and the work it requires is a drug once you have wed yourself to living merely to “pursue happiness”.

But honestly, this simply isn’t the only message that Grand Theft Auto contains. Its messages are wide reaching, offensive, and, yes, satirical, all too often at the expense of American “values” and assumptions. The radio commericials and programs in the games have often been one of the chief vehicles of satire. They also often contain exactly what other critics have charged Grand Theft Auto with being, misogynistic, homophobic, anti-religious, and generally offensive statements. Of course, pointing out that sequences in Grand Theft Auto are misogynistic or homophobic is kind of like pointing out that South Park is a little vulgar. No shit, Sherlock.

Trevor from Grand Theft Auto V (Rockstar, 2013)

To not recognize that commercials, like the one for De Koch Diamonds in San Andreas, aren’t satirical in nature is to admit to being tone deaf. In one commercial, for example, a situation is reenacted as a woman stumbles into her man dallying with her sister in a hot tub. A smooth baritone voice suggests a solution to resolving this embarrassing and potentially relationship destroying scenario: “Chill that bitch out with ice.” After being offered De Koch jewelry, the woman, instead of killing her boyfriend asks if, perhaps, he would like a blowjob.

That the commercial is poking fun at an entire industry predicated on the notion that love and forgiveness can be purchased with sparkly baubles is funny and disturbing in turns. Watch any typical real-life jewelry commercial with De Koch in mind and you’ll be disturbed at how romanticized, idealized, and then somehow made real the notion of trading bling for affection has become in the American psyche as some kind of normative understanding of heterosexual relationships. Women, Zales or its real life counterparts suggest, are dazzled and distracted by baubles, and their commercials represent how men need to negotiate for their love and forgiveness through such dazzlingly stupefying distractions.

Frankly, if anything obstructs “hearing” Grand Theft Auto‘s messages it is that they are so loud and so regular that it’s sometimes hard to pick them out of all of the media noise in the games. Frankly, this noise has grown exponentially as the series has evolved. Initially, it was largely those radio commercials and the faux talk show programs that most often critiqued American “traditions.” Now Grand Theft Auto allows you to smoke pot while watching television, surf the internet at an internet cafe or on your cell phone, or even connect to virtual social networks like Life Invader, all of which represents the constant media barrage of 21st century American culture and a barrage of constant satire, critique, and other messaging.

In fact, maybe that’s the point and much of what Grand Theft Auto has to say. We have become so accustomed to the wall of media noise that defines our existence and identity that we can no longer hear or actually recognize the absurdity that is being sold to us day in and day out. Hell, the messages and the satire isn’t even consistent, but consistency is probably not the hallmark of American culture.

Two guys from England and their game development company have spent a decade taking aim at American culture and not being really all that discriminating in who they hit or who they offend, which is maybe why Grand Theft Auto seems so superficially offensive and merely farcical. Like the fish who has little to say about water because he takes its existence so much for granted that he doesn’t even notice it anymore, the American critic sees as farce some ideas that really aren’t as absurdly drawn as he might suspect, maybe because they are just so much noise that he has been drowning in on a regular basis.

Grand Theft Auto has something to say. It’s usually loud. It’s usually not civil about its presentation. Maybe the message is lost in the din. And while I hate to simply take on the pose of Marshall McLuhan as a media critic, nevertheless, I can’t help wondering if indeed in the games the din is in fact the clearest message, the clearest warning, of all.