A French writer goes deep into the imagined reality of the latest installment of Grand Theft Auto, and finds a full-throttle, 360-degree takedown of American society.
PARIS — What may be the world’s most popular cultural product is a video game called Grand Theft Auto V. It broke gaming industry records in September by grossing $1 billion in the first three days after its release.
Since then, it has remained a top seller and has registered a recent increase in sales for the Christmas shopping season. Moreover, the previous episodes in the series (Vice City, San Andreas, GTA IV) have also reappeared on the bestseller lists, boosted by the success of the latest opus.
This fifth episode refines and multiplies the formula that gave the series its non-stop glory ever since it began, in 1997. Once again, the player follows the rise of lowly criminals to the heights of delinquency. As the name indicates, you start by stealing cars, and end up pulling the robbery of the century, worth several million dollars.
The originality of the game comes from the heroic dimension given to the criminals, although it's a play on the typical convention of gangster movies from the likes of Brian De Palma, Martin Scorsese and others, from which GTA is clearly inspired.
With its increasingly Hollywood-like approach, the series itself became a fundamental source of inspiration for the whole industry, and other developers adopted many of the innovations imagined by GTA’s creators. As a matter of fact, the game itself has started a genre of its own and any game, even remotely, similar to it is described as “GTA-like.”
The GTA V release will probably be seen one day as a crucial symbolic step in the long journey towards the acknowledgement of video gaming as a media and a subculture despite deep apprehensions by so-called proper society.
Ignore at your peril
After overtaking the music industry at the turn of the millennium, the gaming industry has since also largely supplanted Hollywood in terms of revenue. No longer can anybody ignore it and GTA will, without a doubt, count as one of the main agents in the history of this legitimization.
“People who play video games are the same as those who would listen to rock music 30 years ago,” Rockstar co-founder Dan Houser told Le Nouvel Observateur upon the release of GTA IV in 2008. “Video games have kept part of this underground and slightly reprehensible vibe. What worries me is that one day it might all become acceptable and bland, like all the rest.”
Houser, who founded the company with his brother Sam, said movies and music have become dull. “American television is in a golden age, but apart from that, only video games show such creativity. As long as there’s a chance to express ourselves, if we need to remain in an underground setting and if people identify us as evil, so be it.”
Because they develop both the design and the scripts of the series in fierce independence from the American editor, Take Two, the Houser brothers were able to remain 100% loyal to their fans while at the same time managing to reach an ever wider public.
Originally from Scotland, the 40-something brothers grew up with The Clash and Maggie Thatcher, which means they are the archetype of modern British soft power, able to play the game of capitalism in a way that shamelessly mixes liberal traditions and political satire with story-telling virtuosity, technological prowess and diabolical marketing.
But is there actual meaning in “the greatest video game ever?” What accounts for the extraordinary success of Grand Theft Auto V is its magnitude, its depth, its substance and the accuracy with which it strikes. It is an immersion without a safety net in what is called an open world — a huge space where you can act freely — centered on a virtual Los Angeles, named Los Santos. One might wonder why they bothered renaming it at all given the close resemblance to the City of Angels, but that’s the very principle of the GTA series, the intentions of which are hidden under such an obvious fake nose that nobody can miss it.
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Yes, GTA is a vast, titanic satirical commentary on the modern world in general, and more particularly on the contemporary United States. It’s the distorted part of our world, the other side of our lying looking glass, the dishevelled, cynical, trivial face of our society.
Nothing escapes this implacable slapping machine. The three characters around which the story of this fifth episode is built are themselves huge blocks of ambiguity, victims and at the same time accomplices of a system they abuse and yet are utterly fascinated by. Trevor the lunatic hobo, Franklin the ambitious kid from the ghetto and Michael the depressive Mafioso all kill, terrorize and betray, yet they suffer and pursue also some strange sort of ideal.
They maintain a first-degree relationship with market capitalism: I want therefore I take. Amid the countless subplots, the constant swarm of dialogues caught on the fly in the streets of Los Santos, the little subtleties of the game’s artificial intelligence and the quality of the smallest contextual scenes, GTA V never stops intertwining realism and irony, credible elements and mockery, reality and its antidote.
Racists and traitors
In the dens that the materialistic gangsters acquire as the game unfolds, players can watch television programs that are carefully and methodologically created to destroy with an axe the standards of American television such as The Voice, American Idol or even Fox News. Cartoons also make for some killingly funny, and sometimes shameless, parodies.
The same happens on the 17 radio stations available from the innumerable cars the game encourages you to steal. Meanwhile, behind this fake company that encourages you to “stalk” brands, the obvious target is Facebook, though it’s not the only one: Twitter also has its fake version in the game, Bleeter, that boasts of “demolishing 100,000 years of complex linguistic development 140 characters at a time.”
Hollywood also gets raked over the coals with several parodies. There’s this fake disaster film in which aliens are invited to have sex with humans, or a bad thriller that takes on Wall Street capitalism. European auteur cinema also gets mocked with a pastiche inspired by Buñuel, Godard and others. All over the city, the players can see billboards and posters that advertize the latest gadgets from iFruit, Ego Chaser cereal bars or that sing the praises of a real estate development program in the middle of the desert.
The game is also organized according to a complex sociological topography, where the gentrified hipster neighborhoods gain on poorer areas, each class with its own specific types of cars, shops and populations. The political faceoff between the Tea Party and liberal-Democrat fringes is largely illustrated (for example, with fundamentalist high-school students fighting against gay marriage and others campaigning for the legalization of marijuana).
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The tragedy of undocumented immigrants is the subject of a cynical transposition: The players will first cling to a white militia that hunts down “wetbacks” (a slur against illegal Mexican workers) like rabbits. But later in the game, they will have the chance to eliminate the group. Even the issue of Guantanamo is addressed: The players are ordered to test the notion of “limited torture” defended by the American government.
Immorality, addiction, humor
For a long time, GTA was the target of violent critics. Now, however, it’s beginning to be accepted in the media landscape and even to be studied at university. In his book GTA IV: The Other Side Of The American Dream, Olivier Mauco analyzed the previous episode of the series after the social, political, semiological sciences had too long ignored this monument of digital pop culture that will shape the 21st century.
Of course, some of GTA’s enemies are still standing. But their criticisms are the same as those of the people who love the game so much: It’s violent, riotous, immoral and terribly addictive. Let’s add that it’s also very funny, as the particular nature of the extravagant, excessive and outrageous British humor is evident throughout. But you'd miss the whole point if you didn't scratch under this surface.
GTA is a crush of virtual technique and political discourse that has no equal. It expresses more truth and more reality about the world we live in than any other cultural product. It comes right on time, illustrating the world’s most urgent nightmares and strikes down what’s eating away at us, impeccably synchronized with our deepest exasperations.
“Video games are the first stage in a plan for machines to help the human race, the only plan that offers a future for intelligence,” director Chris Marker once predicted. By helping video games become more mature, GTA V brings real substance to this glorious prophecy.