By Mike O’Brien
There may be no specimen in the history of art as culturally misunderstood as Grand Theft Auto. I’ve heard cries of contempt from concerned mothers to seminar dilettantes about its allegedly corrosive impact on the behaviour of children. On the face of it, who can blame them? If Mario is the games industry’s Disney, Grand Theft Auto is the games industry’s Tarantino. It’s certainly not the most violent game around – the jaw-ripping candour of the Doom franchise earns that accolade – but the sheer accuracy of its urban environments makes Grand Theft Auto’s violence the most visceral and irreverent.
Superficially, Grand Theft Auto is a murder simulator. But this understanding is painfully surface level; there’s a reason why the series is not only commercially but critically successful, and that’s because each game is a masterful time capsule of its setting. Think of the films The Breakfast Club or Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. They’re cherished because they afford a valuable reconstruction of bygone eras, ones we experience vicariously through John Bender’s bombastic spirit or Cliff Booth’s aimless cruising. Where Grand Theft Auto supersedes them is the dimension of interactivity.
See, where a film is a linear composition of frames, Grand Theft Auto is a dynamic and interactive space that responds to you. It is quite literally a living world, and as these worlds grow more sophisticated, Grand Theft Auto grows more valuable as a preservative glimpse of our society. Hundreds of years from now, someone could pick up a controller and navigate Grand Theft Auto V’s recreation of Los Angeles and virtually experience life in our era. These games have earned their legacy not just because of their satisfying gameplay, but because they are painstakingly detailed spaces which express their time. Simply by walking, you will hear our turns of phrase, the sound of a petroleum engine roaring in the distance. Police officers even behave differently depending on your character’s ethnicity. Grand Theft Auto immortalises these elements in its space. Its gameplay serves the dual function of not only guilty violent fun, but as a vehicle to make statements about the world we live in.
It’s hard to argue that any franchise has matured with the magnitude that Grand Theft Auto has. Its original 2D offerings, Grand Theft Auto (1997) and Grand Theft Auto II (1999), were not exactly the profound social commentary mentioned above. Rather, they ticked a handful of the boxes, like nailing the feedback from going 90mph on the sidewalk and obliterating someone’s nan. Grand Theft Auto III (2001), whilst revolutionising the standards of 3D open-world gameplay, remained similarly mum insofar as grander commentary was concerned. It wasn’t until 2002’s Grand Theft Auto: Vice City and 2004’s Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas that the series would create distinctly memorable recreations of our time. Vice City was a neon-soaked, coke-fuelled venture into the criminal underworld of 80s Miami, whilst San Andreas explored the turbulence of gang violence in Los Angeles, with one mission even taking place during the infamous LA Riots of 1992. Anecdotally speaking, it’s a testament to these worlds that Vice City and San Andreas brewed an odd sense of nostalgia for time periods I never experienced.
The apex of Grand Theft Auto’s artistic achievement is undoubtably Grand Theft Auto IV, a game whose commentary is so sophisticated and organic that it convinced me video games were art. Grand Theft Auto IV sees Niko Bellic, a Serbian illegal immigrant and Bosnian War veteran, flee to America to pursue a new life with his parasitic cousin, Roman. Niko’s cynicism perfectly complements Liberty City, a place whose monochromatic bleakness and hostile citizens are a fatalistic but compelling interpretation of New York. Niko is the first Grand Theft Auto protagonist with a sense of self-awareness. He is a man who has surrendered himself to his trauma, a man who accepts his immorality, a murderer who believes he is doomed by past demons he can’t help but pursue. Even the player’s chaotic actions in the open world are aptly contextualised, as the emergent violence inherent in Grand Theft Auto’s gameplay loop of wanton massacres can be feasibly framed as a violent episode of Niko’s post-traumatic stress disorder. Niko ascends the social ranks of America in tandem with his moral descent, serving as a vehicle to scrutinise the American dream and the myth of meritocracy. Everything from the invective you receive from passers-by to the advertisements on in-game radio stations is dripping with acerbic flair, confronting the American way of life with bare fangs.
By the time Grand Theft Auto V launched, it was peerless. The franchise had survived the climate of crime caper copycats following Grand Theft Auto III’s landmark success, laying undisputed claim over the genre. But it grew lazy resting on its laurels. Grand Theft Auto V’s present-day take on Los Angeles feels like a tiresome and superficial commentary compared to the highs of its predecessors. Its three main characters, Franklin, Michael, and Trevor are ultimately nothing beyond their amusing banter and clumsily structured drama. They are devoid of needs and desires except money and the thrill of committing crime. The antagonists are forgettably one-dimensional caricatures of disaster capitalists and power-hungry FBI bureaucrats, and the overarching story is a series of contrived conflicts and meandering sub-plots with no satisfying build-up or payoff. Grand Theft Auto V is clearly trying to make an ironic statement about the state of Hollywood storytelling, but writing a poor story is not clever satire in and of itself. Narratively, Grand Theft Auto V is a juvenile effort that is much too proud of itself, an empty-spirited masturbatory orgasm that can barely gasp ‘capitalism is bad!’.
Worse yet, Grand Theft Auto V is unwittingly a parody of itself. For all its in-game radio advertisements mocking the predatory monetization practices of its contemporaries in the games industry, Grand Theft Auto V’s multiplayer portion, Grand Theft Auto Online, is brimming with it. Not only does Grand Theft Auto Online allow players to purchase in-game dollars with real funds, it also features a literal casino that enables full-on gambling inside. Ironically, it may be the most criminal example of in-game monetisation that I’ve ever seen. It even mocks shooter games like Call of Duty and Battlefield for fetishizing virtual violence, an act of which Grand Theft Auto is the patron saint. Holistically, Grand Theft Auto V feels like a hypocritical satire without the cunning or the self-awareness to justify its commentary. There is nothing better to liken this to than recent seasons of The Simpsons, a show critically celebrated for its irreverent critique on pop culture, only to eventually freefall into the pit of shamelessly blatant celebrity endorsement (Lisa Goes Gaga, anyone?).
My tone is harsh, but it comes from a place of love. Grand Theft Auto is something great, including Grand Theft Auto V. It’s a franchise of clever games with soul, a series of museums dedicated just as much to preserving our culture as it is to tearing it asunder. If you have the time, I strongly encourage you to pick up any Grand Theft Auto title available to you. Yes, the devil on your shoulder will implore you to go on a bloodthirsty police chase, but whilst you should eventually get around to that, I recommend going for a stroll. Take it all in. It’s a sensory experience. What do you see? What do you hear? What comprises the world around you? The attention to detail is astonishing, and when your grandchildren ask, ‘what was life like when you were growing up?’, the magic of these games enables them to amble in your past.