My Five Favorite Games in 2021

My tradition continues: below are my five favorite games that I played in 2021.

1. Red Dead Redemption 2

I only started playing RDR2 in the latter half of December. I’d heard great things for a long time. I expected to find it enjoyable, probably better than the first Redemption. I’ve in fact been absolutely blown away by this game. It’s an incredible balance of Western simulator and heartfelt narrative vehicle, and I can’t get over how well that balance is maintained. Rockstar games typically favor the simulation side, creating big open worlds with tons of activities and locales, densely packed with AI inhabitants, awaiting you to create your own stories through the dynamic interactions with that world as you sow chaos or simply walk through it. Those games are often paired with stories about Big Ideas and memorable (and occasionally even complex) characters, but the story and gameplay often undermine each other. I’ve written about this before. But RDR2‘s open world and story don’t feel in contrast; they feed off each other. Your choices matter. Small choices create ripple effects, in and out of missions. How you act in the larger world determines to some degree how Arthur acts in missions and how the story plays out.

A lot of this is the richer Honor system pulled in from RDR, but not everything is simply tied to morality mechanics. The constant presence of characters who matter to the narrative helps, as well. You spend a lot of time at camp, and there are rewards and incentives for doing so. You get to know the camp members, who are well-written and well-acted; all but one or two of the most despicable have redeemable characteristics, and there are characters I found easy to relate to and care for. There’s a real sense of community, and that helps guide my actions as protagonist Arthur Morgan. But there’s always enough nuance in Arthur’s demeanor to justify a more honorable or more dastardly version of the character, and all versions feel within a reasonable range for this character as he is depicted.

There are also optional systems that provide additional depth to the stoic and gruff (though far-from-silent) protagonist; for instance, Arthur updates a journal to sketch places he’s visited, animals he’s studied and hunted, and interesting personalities he’s encountered, while providing his perspective on events in the game and his own (partially player-guided) actions. That journal feature is omnipresent, and when there’s an update, a notice briefly appears, but one never need spend time in the journal. I love to view it whenever it’s updated, though, as it adds much greater richness to the game’s story, providing a window into the inner life of a protagonist who isn’t always particularly inclined to tell people how he’s really feeling. Arthur’s defined personality traits but broad range of reactions has allowed me to find my own version of the character, one who tends to help those in need, who looks after women and children, who can be a bit too trusting, but who is also quick with a gun, willing to rob and loot, willing to turn a profit especially if it helps his outlaw community, and not out for blood but never afraid to get into a fight or even to kill if it serves his goals. He’s an interesting gray character–genuinely interesting, and not just the erratic set of disjointed choices that might normally define a “chaotic neutral” type of character.

The simulation side has engaged me far more than RDR, GTA IV, or GTA V, as well. I enjoy fishing and hunting. I enjoy seeking out a great buck, slowly stalking it, attempting to cleanly and mercifully kill it, and then collecting its carcass for a ride back through mountains, valleys, forests, plains, and rivers to share it with the outlaw camp’s quartermaster/cook for the benefit of the community. I enjoy simply riding my horse down wide roads and up narrow, winding paths. God, do I love the horses. There’s a button prompt to comfort/praise/reassure your horse, and I abuse the hell out of it. We’re closely bonded. And you can praise (or scold) cats and dogs, so I of course praise them when I can. You can pat dogs, so I do that often too. I suppose you could shoot them, but why would you? There are plenty of rewards in being a good person and treating the world like a real place, and I imagine there are rewards for those who want to play a far more violently aggressive personality as well, though I seldom see them.

There are also systems to punish wildly out-of-character behavior. There are harsh penalties to crime sprees. It’s inevitable–simply following the game’s story will get you involved in at least some criminal behavior, and my Arthur isn’t a saint. But the Wanted system combined with the lingering Bounty system and resultant posses of bounty hunters and lawmen that will follow you in territories where you’ve wreaked havoc provide for additional experiences to test your skills but also remind you that you shouldn’t push things too far, that the game’s “society” has clear rules and will demand you adhere to them or face dire consequences, locked out of most of civilization and on the run.

There are a lot of fascinating random events and strangers to run into. One time, I saw a fight to the death between territorial bucks. I’ve helped escaped prisoners and women captured by marauders. I’ve been ambushed by rival gangs. I’ve gotten swept up pursuing an impressive pronghorn buck or elk, or a legendary beast whose territory I innocently wandered into, ignoring for a while whatever my immediate goal had been. I’ve been invited to search for dinosaur fossils (an awesome acknowledgment of the rapid expansion of paleontological fieldwork and the wild characters involved from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries). I’ve collected some treasure for a quest and stopped by a nearby abandoned cabin late at night, only to find skeletal remains everywhere and a message from a cult, with a sudden green glow and eerie thrumming to throw me off even further, my brain sounding alarm signals of fear before I realize I’m being buzzed by a UFO overhead just as it takes off. It’s a wild game.

There’s so much to do, and so many of the situations in the main narrative and the random encounters can be shaped by your personal input. While this could easily reward replay of the story, the game is just so damn big, the choices so many and varied, that I imagine I’ll see the completion of the game as the completion of the story for My Arthur; no replay would be needed. (Plus, if I still want more when I’m done, there’s Red Dead Online.) I’ve played for just over thirty hours and appear to be just under a third of the way through the story, so there’s more than enough game in the single-player mode alone.

There is so much to RDR2, but the nature of the game, its story about a struggling community and the efforts to find safety and purpose on a fading frontier, allow for such a wide-open story. Unlike the first game, I don’t get a feeling of bloat (which is really crazy when I complained about completing RDR in 46.5 hours, compared to my 31.4 hours for less than a third of the story in the sequel). There are certainly excessive systems, but the game wants you to live in it, and the story is about living in this community. There is no burning rush for revenge, as in the original. Instead, it feels like a story in which you’re simply trying to hold out as long as you can with the ones you love and the ones who rely on you, even as the noose slowly tightens around you and your found family. (Oh, also unlike the first game, RDR2 has so far provided a quite diverse cast of characters, from some of the central figures to the many background parts, and they’re provided much greater nuance and, at least for the main characters, individuality and complexity than in any other Rockstar game. I’m really impressed by this development.)

Finally, the customization options for accessibility and UI appearance are quite welcome. I like keeping a minimalist overlay presentation, inviting greater immersion into the game. The one feature I often keep up is some version of a navigation system in the lower left corner of the screen. If I’m moving through familiar territory or not particularly concerned about direction, I turn it off. If I’m heading toward a goal, I keep a simple compass on so I know that I’m at least not riding south when I need to be going west. If I’m in a territory where I’m wanted, or if I’m on a mission, I tend to turn on the normal or expanded versions of the minimap with its associated markers and route guides. All of this can be done without even pausing the game, pressing a couple of button prompts the same as you would to rotate between your weapon options. It’s impressive.

Then again, this whole game is impressive.

2. Jurassic World Evolution 2

This shouldn’t be a surprise. I loved what Jurassic World Evolution evolved into with its DLC. I was eagerly awaiting the sequel. It has not disappointed. I’m sure I’ll be returning to challenges and sandbox modes for quite a while yet. And I’m hoping for some further story developments post-Dominion!

3. Book of Travels

Another title that shouldn’t be a surprise on this list. This is a game that focuses on the things I like most about roleplaying. I haven’t given it the attention it deserves, but the time I’ve spent in it has been delightful.

4. Halo: The Master Chief Collection

I got into the co-op with a friend toward the end of this year. I also started playing solo playlists of missions. Maybe I’ll get into the multiplayer? Then again, I imagine most people have moved over to Halo Infinite. Either way, it’s been a fun and nostalgic time.

5. Star Wars: Squadrons

This was a go-to toward the start of the year, but my friends and I slowly burned out of this. We’ve idly talked about getting back into it. It really brought the sense of cinematic Star Wars space battles to life and personally invested you in it as a starfighter pilot caught up in the middle of it all. Multiplayer matches were chaotic and intense. We had one really strong player (not me–I was maybe the worst), but matchmaking unfortunately veered toward unbalanced rounds against incredibly skilled players or players who clearly didn’t know what they were doing at all, so we oscillated between fantastic victories and crushing defeats. I never got very far into the story, and the limited multiplayer maps could feel repetitive. But all that said, it was a way to socialize with friends during some of the worst of the pandemic while experiencing authentic Star Wars.

GTA V on GTA

One of the fun things about the original 3D series of Grand Theft Auto games was how they slowly built out a world of interconnected characters, places, and events. Lazlow was a constant radio presence, with a wild up-and-down career journey over IIIVice City, and San Andreas. Characters we became familiar with in III, like silent protagonist Claude, eventual antagonist Catalina, or mob wife Maria, appear in San Andreas in roles that both act in service to a distant prologue to III and clearly indicate that everyone is the hero of their own story (after all, many would be quite familiar with the player avatar for the earlier game, yet they found him in San Andreas in a peripheral and relatively unimportant role, reframing him from conquering warrior to easily dominated sidekick at the side of Catalina). Other characters slip in and out of the games, creating the impression that they have lives of their own–characters like Kent Paul, Phil Cassidy, and Donald Love.

The HD continuity offered a hard reboot with Grand Theft Auto IV. The interconnected story lines and character arcs were brushed away. The game still felt distinctively set in a Grand Theft Auto universe, with its trio of major cities referenced (Liberty City, Vice City, and Los Santos). And of course, the wide variety of companies and products created to fill out earlier games were often reintroduced into the new game universe–especially the cars. GTA IV added so much, and reimagined Liberty City so completely, that it made sense to do away with some of the specifics, outside of the occasional Easter egg reference and the ever-present Lazlow.

With Grand Theft Auto V, Rockstar could start folding in the new continuity established in IV throughout the new game. Most interestingly, in a trend started with the two story expansions to IV, the resolution to dangling tertiary antagonists was left for this title. For instance, annoying Mafia toady Rocco was spared at the end of The Ballad of Gay Tony because he was a “made man” whose death would only further complicate the efforts of Tony and Luis to end the cycle of debt and revenge that was trapping them, but in V, he’s fairly quickly dispatched after a couple run-ins with Michael toward the middle of the game. Similarly, Karen, the true identity of Niko’s double-crossing girlfriend, reappears in along with her unnamed handler as agents of the IAA; while she lives to fight another day, her handler is shot and killed in a massive firefight late in the game. (Or is he? Apparently he returns alive in GTA Online content set after the events of the game–though that whole timeline seems a bit of a mess at this point.)

Other GTA characters at least get referenced. Lester refers to an Eastern European guy who was making moves in Liberty City before going quiet, an obvious reference to Niko (and while it could mean he’s dead, I choose to read it as meaning that Niko finally got the quiet life out of crime that he could barely hope for). Packie, a close former associate of Niko’s, can be recruited to be a quite successful heist crew member. Brucie, friend to Niko, shows up in media marketing Bull Shark Testosterone, playing up a recurrent joke from the predecessor title.

There are even nods to 3D characters. The El Burro Heights district in Los Santos alludes to the character El Burro from GTA III. Other characters apparently have stars on the Vinewood Walk of Fame or other small call-outs (continuing similar small references from IV). Radio DJ Fernando Martinez joins Lazlow as a personality holdover from the previous era. A favorite small reference of mine is the mission achievement entitled “Better than CJ” in the mission “Derailed,” which you complete by landing Trevor’s dirt bike on the train he’s pursuing on the first attempt, and which is specifically referring to the “Wrong Side of the Tracks” mission in San Andreas in which C.J. chases a train on a dirt bike outside of Los Santos.

There are exactly two appearances I don’t like in the game: Johnny and Ashley. Johnny Klebitz was the Vice President of the Alderney chapter of The Lost outlaw biker gang in The Lost and Damned. Ashley is his ex-girlfriend, hopelessly addicted to meth. The game is set in motion by the release of the gang’s president, Billy, from a rehab program. Billy’s mania and drug use derail the progress Johnny has made in making the gang stable and profitable. Billy launches the gang into a couple of all-out gang wars before he is arrested by police again. Billy blames Johnny (ironically, it turns out, as The Ballad of Gay Tony makes clear that Billy had actually set Johnny up for a fall just before he’s taken out of the picture). Billy’s loyal and stupid sidekick leads a civil war, and while Johnny takes on the mantle of president and ultimately wins the infighting, most of the gang is killed. By the end of the game, Johnny is somewhat despondent, having seen most of his brothers killed, including his best friend, but he’s cleared the board of those after him, he’s established firm leadership with his surviving crew, he’s taken down the treacherous Billy in a daring prison raid, and he’s cut Ashley out of his life, apparently for good.

In GTA V, we run back into Johnny and Ashley as soon as the player regains control of Trevor for the first time since the prologue mission. In fact, the perspective switches back to Trevor in the middle of fucking a strung-out Ashley over his trailer’s kitchen counter. His hedonistic moment is interrupted when a news report on the TV in the background reveals to him that his old buddy Michael must still be alive after all. Trevor is immediately enraged and sets into motion an insane plan to quickly wipe out all competing gangs in his area so he can turn his attention to tracking down Michael.

On his way to do the deeds, Trevor is confronted by a heartbroken Johnny, who pleads with him to stop his affair with Ashley. Whereas Johnny was a hardened, confident man, a leader who rejected the influence of drugs in his life, and never a pushover, Johnny is now portrayed as weak and craven, quickly talked down by the domineering, alpha presence of Trevor. Johnny also appears to have given into a meth habit in taking back up with Ashley. We don’t ever get any explanation as to how he could have descended so quickly in the span of five years, how he gave up on his principles and ended up with Ashley yet again, living a wretched half-life fueled by Trevor’s drugs–let alone how he ended up in San Andreas all the way across the country at all, with a rebuilt chapter of The Lost MC following him. There’s no time to explain. Trevor launches a surprise assault and bashes Johnny’s brain into the pavement. Then he goes on a rampage against the remaining bikers, killing off Johnny’s two remaining close biker friends from TLAD, and mocking them, as well as their leader and his death, in the process. Ashley can be killed in the aftermath of Johnny’s death, or left grieving. Either way, a news report can later be heard documenting her death.

I recognized Johnny in my first playthrough of GTA V, but while his death seemed cruel and unnecessary, it didn’t strike a chord with me. Now that I’ve played V after completing TLAD‘s story, however, the death isn’t just cruel but incredibly arbitrary for a former protagonist, and Johnny’s depiction seems incredibly out of character. It’s hard to understand what Rockstar was doing here. Sure, it made Trevor seem like an unpredictable agent of chaos, able to practically interfere with the fourth wall. Even someone who you’d think would have protagonist armor is given a swift death (a bit peculiar, when you think of how you can endlessly have him killed and wake up in a hospital when playing TLAD, just like any other GTA protagonist). And it is certainly shocking for anyone who recognizes Johnny. But it seems so very senseless. (And underneath the scandalizing senseless killing in GTA’s open world and media image, the stories are typically big dramatic affairs that follow tenets of traditional storytelling.)

I guess the lesson I can take from this moment is that Rockstar is quite happy to mock and disparage anyone and everyone–even the fans of its games.

The Character Assassination of Molly Schultz

Grand Theft Auto has always been framed from a leering male perspective. There are the indulgences in violence and sex, of course. Women mostly appear as idiotic bystanders or vulnerable sex workers. Protagonists (outside of the custom player character in GTA Online) are all men.

Even named female characters who appear in the games in supporting roles are typically treated poorly. There aren’t a lot of named female characters in these games to begin with, so I could probably go through them all. Not sure that would be valuable, though. In general, I think you could break them all into roughly three character types: sex objects (Mercedes and Candy Suxxx in Vice City, virtually every girlfriend from San Andreas forward), victims of violence (Ilyena in IV, Patricia in V), or deranged personalities who end up dead or imprisoned (Asuka and Catalina in III, Elizabeta in IV). Some happen to take on characteristics across types (Maria in III is both a sex object and a victim of violence, and Catalina remains the deranged personality in San Andreas but also takes on elements of the sex object type).

Oftentimes, story-significant girlfriends seem close to breaking the mold, although their relationships with the protagonists typically boil down to sex rather than a personality match or a deep bonding. In addition to girlfriends who simply fit other character types than the sex object (Patricia and Catalina, for instance), there are others whose lives are guided by plot. Niko’s two major girlfriends, “Michelle” and Kate, are not exactly presented as sex objects, though he pursues both of them (potentially with success with “Michelle,” but held at bay by Kate). “Michelle” is actually an undercover agent, and while she escapes from any repercussions from her actions, she does appear to have fallen for Niko and is hurt by having to burn him. Meanwhile, Kate serves as a somewhat obnoxious conscience for Niko, and one of the two game endings results in her death. Johnny’s girlfriend Ashley still manages to pull him along by his fondness for her, even as she abuses drugs and sleeps around with other men. In GTA V, Franklin is frequently sexually propositioned by one drug-addicted female friend, while he is dealing poorly with a breakup from another (who, like Kate, intrudes as an external conscience late in the game, although she has no other story appearances and no other role in the plot). Meanwhile, Michael struggles to maintain a relationship with his wife (a sex object he’s now physically and emotionally distanced from, who now has frequent affairs with other men) and attempts to prevent his daughter from becoming a sex object (though he fails).

There are at least a couple exceptions that I can think of. Let’s consider, briefly, Maude and Kendl.

In V, the bounty hunter Maude gives a few jobs to Trevor. Maude and Trevor have a friendly relationship, and Trevor treats her with relative respect. She gives him good information for his targets. She is not presented as a sex object. She is never at risk of violence. She does not come across as particularly depraved, and she doesn’t end up dead or in prison. In fact, at the end of her run of missions, she retires. But she is largely defined by being repulsive and sardonic. She has a dark, dry humor. She seems to lack any empathy. She is depicted as grotesquely corpulent and plainly ugly. At least one character mocks her smell. And she doesn’t have a very big role in the story.

Most significantly, there’s Kendl in San Andreas. She’s a sex object type, definitely, always depicted in scantily clad attire and at first defined by her relationship to a member of a rival gang. But she and Sweet hold about equal sway over their brother. Carl isn’t really the brains of his story, he’s the muscle. Sweet motivates him to work for the gang, to stay loyal to his hood, and to pursue the criminal life. Kendl encourages the development of legitimate businesses and nonviolent resolutions. Kendl is a big reason why Carl ends up in a much better place by the end of the game. But while she’s given a primary role in the plot and is given a more nuanced personality than one might initially expect, she is nonetheless a more elaborate take on the sex object character (though obviously not a sex object for C.J.).

There are some other, small exceptions. But even when women don’t fit one of those types exactly, they fall into other tropes, like Luis’s codependent mother in TBOGT. It’s true that many male characters also fall into particular types in these games. But there are so few women, and so many men. I was briefly impressed, for instance, when I could take along two female crew members for a heist in V, but then realized that it was in a mission with three other male heist crew members, plus the three male protagonists, and I’d selected all the female characters available. (Neither of those female characters appears to fall into one of the common types, but they have very little personality anyway.)

There also doesn’t appear to be any real effort on the part of Rockstar’s creative team to change any of this. The use of tired tropes and misogynist stereotypes in GTA games is hardly an original observation. The ability to hire prostitutes, then kill them and retrieve your money, has been a controversial element since at least III (though in Rockstar’s defense, nothing in the game explicitly encourages you to do this, and it’s certainly not a behavior I take part in when I’m playing–at least not since I was like 12). That long thread of misogyny has only been reinforced in V. And it’s highlighted by one of the major female characters in the story: Molly Schultz, lawyer, corporate vice president, and girl Friday to billionaire Devin Weston.

Molly is presented as ice-cold, analytical, and loyal. She is emotionally reserved and reveals little of herself. She dresses smartly and professionally (though in true GTA style, her pantsuit business wear nonetheless reveals cleavage and clings tightly to her buttocks). She is quite comfortable assigning less-than-legal and dangerous tasks to unpredictable criminals. She has a confident, take-charge attitude. She is a contrast to Devin, who attempts to cultivate an enlightened, progressive, friendly air despite being a high-strung psychopath.

Molly is an impressive career woman and could have been an impressive crime boss or secondary antagonist. However, after setting her into motion, the game quickly works to undermine her. Protagonist Franklin accuses her of being in love with Devin and says that it will never work out, because of course the loyal female character must be in it for the love of a man. Then, late in the game, Molly helps Devin in his plans to shut down a movie to collect an insurance payout and gain leverage to purchase a controlling interest in the movie studio so that they can tear it down for new development. Protagonist Michael arrives to aid the producer, and Molly leaves to deliver the film to an offshore site for storage. Devin calls Michael, warning him that Molly’s “highly strung,” suggesting that she will become unhinged if pursued. That’s exactly what happens. She gets spooked, and when the police arrive to escort her to her private jet safely, she panics, driving erratically and resulting in the destruction of several police cars. In the end, she abandons her vehicle and is pursued by Michael. She flees into the path of a jet turbine and is sucked in, ground to bloody pulp in an instant. All to escape Michael with a film reel–and not only did Michael never intend to kill or seriously harm her, but it turns out that there were digital copies, such that the fate of the film reel didn’t matter at all. It is somewhat incomprehensible to me why Rockstar developed a capable female character and then drove her into the ground. It is almost as if the all-male Rockstar writers could not comprehend a woman retaining her cool under pressure, as though they really believe that most if not all women long for love over all else and will become hysterical if threatened. The plot development was shockingly retrogressive and disgusting.

Even when served up the archetype of a capable woman on a silver platter, Rockstar can’t help but tearing that woman to shreds–literally, in some cases.

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.

A couple trips around San Andreas

I’ve been playing a lot of Grand Theft Auto lately. It’s been something of an obsession, playing these games again. I played GTA IV and went through the ending in which Roman, instead of Kate, dies. This was a first for me, and so I started playing The Lost and Damned to continue exploring old content that I hadn’t given a chance before. I finished that story, so I played The Ballad of Gay Tony, which I’d never touched at all before.

On finishing that, I took a short break from the series before launching into GTA V. I did some things differently and encountered some new content I’d missed before (it’s a very big game), but I certainly didn’t touch everything, and there are still some heist options I’ve never selected. Still, I finished the story. I chose Option C again, working to save all the protagonists and taking out all their enemies, because it’s the only option that feels right to me, after hours playing as all three of the protagonists, and leaving the choice to Franklin, who reads as primarily a loyal follower throughout much of the game and who had just overcome a selfish urge to abandon his old friend in an earlier mission. It doesn’t make a lot of sense for him to betray a friend after that, especially a mentor. And everyone getting something close to a happy ending feels right.

I took another very brief break before returning to the land of San Andreas in the game with the same name, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. It’s been quite a while since I’ve interacted with this game, and it holds a special place in my heart. It was certainly my favorite of the original 3D era, and even now in the HD era, it’s probably still my favorite title in the whole franchise (with the caveat that I haven’t played any of the 2D games, any of the side Stories titles, or Grand Theft Auto Online, which has certainly become its own thing instead of a multiplayer component to V).

There are many reasons that I’ve always favored San Andreas. For one thing, it’s an incredibly expansive game. There are three major cities and quite a lot of countryside in the game. There’s a whole system within the game of slowly conquering territory in Los Santos to expand the Grove Street Families. It was the first game to allow the protagonist to swim, but it added and refined a variety of other features, like flying planes and riding dirt bikes and parachuting and using jet packs. It also gave the player a lot of choice in what to do, with a range of activities scattered about. And while the entire series’ signature is providing a massive, open world to wreak havoc in, San Andreas leaned heavily into roleplaying territory. You could customize your appearance and work to improve stats. There was even a hunger/energy system that required you to eat to stay alive and healthy but that could also result in your protagonist getting fat if you didn’t stay active enough.

Furthermore, I think the game benefited from being focused on a hyper-specific setting, like Vice City. Whereas all GTA games are dark satires with absurdist elements that often disrupt any emotional depth to the stories, Vice City and San Andreas at least feel like they represent something more than violence and anarchy. Vice City is very much so a parody of Miami in the eighties, and the focus on developing the aesthetic and sense of time/place gives the game what feels like a bit more substance. It helps, too, that Vice City leans hard into particular pop culture elements instead of the usual hodgepodge of crime narratives, benefiting from stories and themes drawn from products like Scarface and Miami Vice. Similarly, San Andreas attempts to emulate Los Angeles in the nineties, and it too draws from specific works, notably hood films like Boyz n the Hood and Menace II Society for its first act.

In addition to all the above, I just really like C.J., the game’s protagonist, and the cast of acquaintances he makes. C.J. is defined by loyalty to his family and friends. He’s a little goofy, has a bad sense of humor, and doesn’t always make smart decisions or think things through. But he is quick to trust those he likes, and his trust is usually rewarded (with two very big exceptions). C.J. wants to better himself, and a lot of the story is about him finding ways to grow beyond the impoverished urban life he came from (it’s a GTA story, so those ways largely involve crime and corruption). And this is the only GTA title I’m aware of to build toward a single, cohesive happy ending. In comparison:

  • In III, silent protagonist Claude is motivated by revenge against a former lover. He makes few friends and seems to have no close relationships. Most of the people around him end up dead–often at Claude’s hand. He betrays and is betrayed repeatedly. And even his triumph at the end feels hollow. The whole game delights in nihilism and dark satire, and that’s reflected in the story. Its misanthropic themes play out to the very end, when it is suggested that he kills a romantic interest he rescues, merely because she annoys him. He is a pure sociopath and develops no true connections with others.
  • In Vice City, Tommy Vercetti is considerably more charming than Claude, but he’s still a thug and a sociopath. He rises to great heights, carving out his own empire in the titular city, but he makes few true friends and mostly succeeds by killing off the competition. In fact, the game culminates in his betrayal by his partner, Lance, who worked in collaboration with his old mob boss. Sure, Tommy ends the game with a small circle of “friends,” most notably the drug-addicted, weaselly mob attorney he connects with at the start of the game, but it’s still a tale that traces its roots to the tragic arc of Scarface, trading out a final death for material triumph.
  • In GTA IV, Niko is repeatedly betrayed throughout. He has at least two friends left at the end of the game–Little Jacob and Brucie. But the game’s endings result in the death of either his cousin, who is also his best friend, or his girlfriend, who is implied to be the love of his life. And Niko never really makes it to the top, no matter how much money he makes. At best, he can scorch enough earth around him to hopefully reach a point where no one is sending hitmen after him anymore. But it is clear that he will remain haunted by his past.
  • In TLAD, Johnny has taken down most of his biker gang. He has only a few close associates left. He’s cut his codependent, drug-addicted girlfriend out of his life. He’s killed some friends and lost some others. And he doesn’t have much going for him. The whole story feels bleak, a narrative of a fall rather than a rise. And given that Johnny and his remaining friends are all killed off by Trevor Phillips early in GTA V, it turns out that there’s no happy ending after the credits after all.
  • In TBOGT, Luis and Tony end up basically where they started. They have the nightclubs and they have each other. But they haven’t really gained anything from their experience.
  • In GTA V, the ending depends on player choice. But only Option C seems like a really happy ending, since a protagonist ends up dead at the hands of Franklin in the other options. I’ll concede that Option C is a happy ending, but it feels more like tying up loose ends in response to plot twists guided by a series of structured heists, the repercussions of Michael’s past actions, and Trevor’s chaotic and unpredictable interventions. Michael and Trevor might be on relatively friendly terms, but there’s still a lot of unresolved hostility between them. And Franklin keeps his mentors and his close friend Lamar, but he still lives alone in a big house. Given that he complains that Michael’s life alone in a big house when his family temporarily leaves him is depressing, it stands to reason that Franklin might be wealthy but still feels as empty as he did at the start of the game.

In contrast, C.J. ends his journey considerably wealthier and surrounded by friends and family. He has found not just material success but happiness. While he had to deal with the consequences of some very close betrayals, his loyalty is largely rewarded, and he ends his adventure having broadened his family to include many new and interesting friends.

That all said, every GTA game is a satire. Every game wants to be loud, shocking, and crass. In attempting to push the limits, the games often veer into shock-value territory populated by shows like South Park or Family Guy. There are way too many “jokes” that are racist, sexist, homophobic, or transphobic. Even in a game modeled after hood films and following a black protagonist, there is no serious effort to deal with systemic or everyday racism, and to the extent that racist systems are acknowledged, they have no real impact on game systems and often are handled via offhanded comments. (In other words, it’s very clear that these games have been creatively shaped by white, cisgendered, heterosexual, middle-class male Gen-Xers.) Every game tells a larger-than-life story full of violence, depravity, and mayhem. Even the most mentally balanced of protagonists can be led through wanton destruction between missions under player control, and every game has big set-piece missions involving the killing of dozens of cops and gangsters. These are not games set in a morally just universe, and they are not games about good and true heroes. But San Andreas came closest to telling a story about a hero trying to do the right thing for people he cared about–and actually succeeding.