Meaninglesness and meaning in Grand Theft Auto IV, and (Failure of) Satire and Theme in the GTA Franchise

When GTA IV came out in 2008, I was in college. I was initially blown away by the huge surge forward in graphics, the densely packed traffic patterns, the highly detailed streets and buildings down to litter and graffiti. The character designs were on another level altogether, and the characters themselves felt different. More mature, I thought. This story was darker and edgier. It wanted to say something, about the failures of the American dream as viewed from an illegal immigrant trying to make something of himself in the land of opportunity.

Niko felt different for a GTA protagonist, as well. He was brooding and moody. He mourned his past; he was scarred by it. His course through the game was the result of his efforts to run from and violently confront that past. The opportunity to spare some enemies on some missions, and occasionally encountering them later to show the effects of that mercy, allowed for a more nuanced protagonist. He wasn’t just a mindless killer. He regrets killing, even as he accepts it as his necessary lot in life.

Then there was the ending. The player is allowed to read into the story a myriad range of motivations for Niko. The opportunity to spare or kill certain key figures led to different dialogue and different interactions, even if on a small scale, that could guide the player to see Niko’s path differently. The level of actual player agency and influence on the plot was minimal, of course, and Niko often fell into old habits as the story dictated, but these small touches gave weight to your final choice at the end. The one big choice: do you choose to seek revenge for a betrayal by an early associate, or do you put the past behind you and opt to work with the snake for one more deal? Revenge could send the man’s entire criminal organization after you. Working with him opened yourself to the potential for more betrayal. (Choosing to select neither option, of course, prevents the story from moving forward, but the game also encourages choice because there is the narrative threat that the failure to act at all could trigger events that would send all parties after you.) Regardless of your choice, one of Niko’s most loved friends would die.

That all sounds interesting on paper. But on my recent playthrough of GTA IV, I noted more than ever the dissonance between plot, ambient narrative, and the player’s playground space.

Yes, the plot tries to be edgy, dark, complicated, and morally gray. In some ways, it succeeds. And the incredible length of the game–it’s a little too long, a little too bloated, with a little too many predictable betrayals and failures–gives the player ample time to observe Niko, to grow familiar with the character in cutscenes and in moment-to-moment gameplay. Niko’s arc is a slow burn, and left to player choice in the end, but the amount of time spent chronicling his journeys makes that arc feel earned, regardless of how it all plays out.

Still, Niko is ultimately as much a blank slate as any other character. While the outings you can go on with his friends over the game provide times where he opens up about his past, he is typically rather tight-lipped about his history and present emotional state. He is stoic, and the player is invited to read into that stoicism whatever they want. Perhaps his protestations over killing are merely a social nicety, something he adopts because he recognizes the badness of his behavior but is unwilling to change. Perhaps he hurts deeply with every killing but feels trapped by his life choices, the debts and obligations he is bound by, such that he can only continue to do what he knows. But that’s all determined by what the player reads into the game. On some level, the ambiguity is a reflection of the game’s writing and the voice acting, but on another level, it’s merely a byproduct of embodying a character whose inner thoughts are concealed. We can similarly read a considerable amount into Link or Master Chief or Mario if we so wanted, attempting to read an inner life based on outer actions.

Furthermore, the brooding antihero was such a fixture of dramatic entertainment in the 2000s. Think shows like The Sopranos or Sons of Anarchy. The bad guy who does bad things, the sociopath who is moody in place of a personality, is a cliche now. It was already a comfortable and popular trope by the release of this game. And V suggests that this has become Rockstar’s new favorite character type.

When we look at the game world, though, we don’t see a dark, grim, gritty reflection of Niko’s own proposed journey. These games invite chaos. Walking down the street could lead to a brawl or a gunfight. No one’s going to spend more than 5 minutes attempting to obey the rules of the road when police in-game only care about striking pedestrians or cop cars. You get easy access to weaponry and a delightfully zany, “living” world to cause mayhem in. There’s a gratifying feedback loop to the chaos. Things happen at player direction–colorful explosions and vivid animated acts of violence. Killing the right targets can reward you with money and extra ammunition. Police chases are a delight, with higher levels of police interest broadening the area of red-and-blue-flashing minimap you have to escape from. It’s an interesting series of player-directed challenges, and the open-world nature makes it all a bit more unpredictable.

But even if you were to adhere to all the rules of civil society in the open world, the game’s story has plenty of violence and anarchy on its own. To get through that story, Niko must kill a lot of people. Many might deserve it, including treacherous and psychopathic gangsters. Many others don’t. (Although the depths of depravity the player must participate in to complete the story are easily topped in GTA V with its infamous torture sequence.) The nature of the base gameplay and the story missions undermines whatever Rockstar might be trying to say about its protagonist or about the immigrant experience.

Rockstar can’t seem to separate its gleeful in-your-face impulses from its attempt to cultivate “deeper” themes. One hyper-focused example: Niko can date a variety of women in the game, including one lawyer who has a history of obsessing over her criminal defense clients (she has a propensity for dating them, a serious ethical violation of course played for laughs). She believes that the police in the city are barbarous and corrupt, inclined to unfairly target immigrants. Niko uses this to his advantage, as he can call in her help to lower his wanted level if she likes him enough. Her political beliefs are a joke–yes, the police target Niko the immigrant because he is in fact a very dangerous criminal! Whatever could have been said about the authentic immigrant experience is lost in conflating immigrants with crime and failing to offer any alternative narrative.

Furthermore, despite the attention to detail in architecture, city design, and a sense of lived-in grime, the game is still populated by the over-the-top personalities and products familiar to any player of the earlier titles. The ads are blown-up parodies of real-life commercials. The game’s producers seem to sneer at the hypocrisy of a prudish American culture in which sex nonetheless sells. Billboards for Pisswasser beer (an obvious knock on domestics like Budweiser) lean hard into sexual imagery, with sleazy models in exaggerated sexual positions, pantomiming sex acts with bottles of the beer in question. Radio segments laugh at American obsession with convenience and selfish decadence, parodying online delivery services with products like Babies Overnight (itself an in-joke exaggeration of the Pets Overnight product/service in earlier games). There is a parody of conservative talk radio, hosted by a jingoistic idiot who believes in violating the liberties of others to preserve “freedom,” who speaks of sexual purity while suggesting a closeted homosexual life. For that matter, a major political figure who ties into the game’s main story is a gay-bashing conservative who has a secret homosexual lover (a friend of Niko’s, in fact). And on the other end, the public radio option has snobbish liberals interviewing vapid celebrities alongside preening politicians, the programs descending into virtually unintelligible chaos. In between the political extremes, Lazlow is, as always, Lazlow.

GTA IV pretends to be a serious story, but most of your time in game is defined by the basest sort of satire. And I think that the Grand Theft Auto games fail as satire largely because they never really have anything interesting to say. They create straw men, fill them up with the wildest speculation and cruelest stereotypes, and guide them through a series of orchestrated hijinks. Left, right, and center are all foolish, they say. Corporate America is the enemy, but so too is any activist effort. Everything is bad, and trying to fix the bad things is worse–it’s hypocrisy. The only right answer is to adopt a nihilist perspective; enjoy the chaos, because you can’t ever hope for anything better, and if you do hope for something better, you’re an ineffectual clown.

GTA IV, like the other Grand Theft Auto games, is undeniably satire. It certainly mocks human folly. But its effort to shock and subvert everything ultimately feels inauthentic. It suggests that its creators have no real beliefs. Efforts to burn everyone, to shock the audience, mean that no institution or value is left standing. The worldview of the games is one in which everything is bad, corrupted. Its criticism is often shallow; it’s fine tossing out the worst homophobic, transphobic, racist, and misogynist vitriol so long as it’s put in the mouth of a character who is implicitly “wrong” for saying it. In standing for nothing and mocking everything, it feels a bit try-hard in its irreverence. Keeping in mind that it’s a massively successful video game in a very popular franchise made by a large game production empire, it’s as if Steve Buscemi’s “How do you do, fellow kids?” had become a real-world corporate ethos.

Maybe it’s an unfair standard to hold any satire to, but if it’s going to be successful satire, it should endeavor to say something! Grand Theft Auto‘s anti-corporate nihilism reads as increasingly cynical and yet naive, especially given that Rockstar is a tremendously successful company that produces a product very much so in the vein of the unnecessary luxury goods that the GTA games love to lampoon. Its angry fuck-you to the world feels increasingly feigned, especially from the point of GTA IV and onward, once the franchise had become a juggernaut and produced increasingly polished gameplay, elaborate plots, more developed characters, and detailed and expansive worlds. GTA IV refuses to have a true philosophy. It hates the left and the right, the politically detached, the politically ambitious, the philanthropists and the selfish, the rich and the poor. It hates cops and criminals, and it hates those of us just trying to get by within the system too.

But it doesn’t have all that much to say about that system, or about the cops and criminals it concerns itself with. It jokes about police brutality, but it doesn’t critically examine the issue. Police are presented as brutish and corrupt in the game, which only gives greater justification to fleeing from and shooting them. Even if you wanted to be law-abiding, every game in the series eventually turns to missions that involve shooting legions of police officers. (Perhaps its biggest fantasy is that you could kill even a single cop without becoming public enemy number one, your days numbered as you merely tried to stay one step ahead of the law.)

It doesn’t have much to say about what makes people criminals, either. All the games in the series I’ve played–IIIVice CitySan AndreasIV and its two expansions, and V–feature protagonists who are already hardened criminals. Some of them are trying to get out of “the life,” like C.J. in San Andreas, Niko in IV, and Michael in V. Some of them are career criminals who have no doubt about their chosen lifestyle, like Tommy in Vice City, Johnny and Luis in The Lost and Damned and The Ballad of Gay Tony, or Franklin in V. Trevor, the third protagonist in V, is just a hedonistic, ruthless, unhinged psychopath, while Claude in III is a voiceless enigma. While some of these characters’ backstories are developed over the game in dialogue, we only get a vague portrait of their lives before the games, and there is the disconnect between the character we know and play as versus the character they once were or view themselves as. Frequently in GTA games, characters express remorse or sympathy, but the hectic and violent lives they lead in missions and while the player simply explores the cityscapes are often at odd with these expressed attitudes. One thing though: these games want us to know that criminals are always criminals. You don’t tend to run into innocent people. If anything, the games message that even seemingly good people are fundamentally bad, twisted, depraved.

And another thing: cops are treated as somewhat universally cruel. Bad people become cops in GTA games. They abuse their authority. That abuse of authority is broadly applied in all contexts. There isn’t really any place for acknowledging actual systems of oppression, abuse, and imbalance, such as systemic racism, within the game systems or plots of GTA games. While the games have introduced more diversity in their protagonists over time (though still always male, cisgendered, and heterosexual), the presence of black and brown leads hasn’t seriously brought the unique challenges to those communities to the forefront of the games. It could be done–consider what the team behind Mafia 3 designed. But the closest we get are the corrupt cops harassing gang members in San Andreas, culminating in the game’s own version of the 1992 LA riots. Even then, the cops are simply corrupt, abusing their authority for profit, while the black protagonist and his black and brown allies are admittedly thugs, murderers and drug pushers, and the pressure from the cops often seems appropriate.

A pet theory of mine is that the GTA games are thematically concerned with natural law as a guiding concept beneath the veneer of nihilism. It’s really outside the scope of this essay, but I do find that if the games say anything, they say that a man of principles is honest with himself and those around him. He does not suppress elements of his personality, no matter how awful they are. He should expect loyalty from others for exhibiting his authentic, toxic self, and he should be loyal to others in turn. A betrayal of loyalty is the biggest sin. For instance, in GTA IV, much of the conflict in the games is guided by a protagonist loyal to a friend, or a friend’s lack of loyalty to the protagonist. Many of the twists and turns in the games are marked by betrayal. Its triad of stories as shown through the perspectives of Niko, Johnny, and Luis could be described as tales of loyalty in the face of addiction. But those often feel less like deliberate themes and more the necessities of attempting to create some sort of virtue within fundamentally unlikable, bad people.

Satire largely fails in these games because they do not attempt to project any deeper narrative or thematic concern. They attack and trivialize everything they touch, and in so doing, they suggest that everything is valueless.

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