Wrapping up these GTA posts

This GTA post is to say that I’m done with the GTA posts. If you were avoiding the site because you’re just annoyed by this game series (or even justifiably upset with or disturbed by it), then it should be fine to return to it after today.

I’ll still be playing San Andreas for a while. Maybe after this, I’ll get back into some of the newer games I’ve been playing or wanting to play. We’ll see. It’s also possible down the line that I might have another post or two related to San Andreas. In writing these posts, I’ve thought a little more about how GTA games–especially in Vice City and San Andreas–provide the player with the opportunity to engage in an amoral tourist trip through the life of a career criminal engaged in organized crime, but while that’s already quite artificial in concept on its own, the artificiality is further inflated both by the intense parodic nature of the games and their starting point as stories based on pop culture representations of criminals and organized crime. In other words, the portrayals of the Mafia or street gangs are about as authentic as Olive Garden. I’m not sure that there’s a full post there, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about. And I might just want to recap my experiences with San Andreas whenever I finish this playthrough. I’d be particularly interested in writing about Carl’s goofy personality or the heavy use of foreshadowing employed to communicate the true natures of Big Smoke and Ryder and to set up certain plot beats. But any such post, if it ever happens at all, is a long ways away.

For now, I’ll settle back into something more like weekly posting. And I’ll write about other things. I got whatever this past week’s set of posts represented out of my system.

Now, if you like San Andreas or have actually been reading my posts with some level of interest, I’d like to close out today’s post with a series of screenshots I’ve taken from my time in HUD-free play. Enjoy–or don’t! And stay safe out there, everyone.

Relearning San Andreas

On my most recent return to the world of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, I’ve played around with the options quite a bit. It’s been sort of vital–I’ve been playing on PC, and with a 360 controller, requiring frequent tweaks of the game’s controls. I also encountered a baffling glitch of the game colors, requiring some forum trolling and game resolution tinkering before that was solved. In playing with the options so much, I also played around with options related to display and sound. One of the best decisions to come of that has been the removal of the minimap, radar blips, and HUD.

Removal of the HUD and other extraneous UI features immediately focuses me on the game world. It’s certainly an aged game, but that game world is still often quite beautiful, bizarre, and fascinating. Plus, I haven’t lost much in the removal of those UI features. Mission-critical information is still displayed as needed; for instance, if a mission is timed, a countdown timer still appears. And I can still quickly switch on the HUD through a quick dive into the options menu if I want to. And there have been a couple occasions when I have wanted to, to check the time or my health bar, but I’ve become less reliant on seeing those hard metrics. I’ve become better able to interpret day and night cycles, I’ve better learned how to navigate the city, I’ve gotten in the groove of taking C.J. for regular meals, and I’ve learned to adjust to working with less information that causes me to focus on what’s actually happening in the game instead of monitoring feedback about it.

It’s lovely to remove the distractions from the minimap. I have to actually learn how to navigate. I actually pay more attention to directions and place names supplied in dialogue. I’ll go into the pause menu to consult the map, but now I’m driving through the city relying on in-game signage, a sense of direction, and a consideration of how the city is actually laid out. What’s so special to me about that experience is that I’m rediscovering a city I used to know so well from hours and hours spent playing in it years and years ago. It’s nostalgic, yet it also makes me very alert about landmarks and streets that feel vaguely familiar. And it puts me more in the shoes of C.J., who is also relearning his city after being away for five years at the start of the story.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle with the absence of the UI overlay is that I am unable to see my health. This was easy enough to adjust to in theory, but in practice it means that I can never be sure if the next gunshot might kill me. This has been an interesting challenge, and I’ve not yet felt cheated by any combat. It just heightens my sense of risk in combat, making every gun battle and car chase more visceral. I have to take more of an effort to avoid damage, as I’m always facing the possibility of death. I can’t play around with the same level of risk once my reliance on an ever-present metagame representation of exactly how many more hits C.J. can take is removed.

Police presence also presents in a very different way. Before, you could always see a clear indication of how much attention the cops had on you. Especially after replaying the HD games, and getting used to the constant feedback of flashing search areas and cones of view on the minimaps, the complete removal of any indicator of police presence or attention is unnerving. Now, it’s only clear that I’m wanted when I’m being chased by the cops. Escape from an immediate chase doesn’t guarantee that the next police encounter won’t renew pursuit. I find that I don’t want to escalate engagements with cops because of the heat that could be brought down on my head. As a result, my fear of cops in the game is increased–I’m never sure when I see a cop walking on a beat if he might choose to try to take me down. This in turn deepens a sense of verisimilitude. This is supposed to be a game about black gang life in the nineties, but of course, it’s a game led by a team of white Brits writing from the perspective of outsiders who are deep fans of hood films and gangster rap, and it’s in a franchise marked by excessive violence, wild parody, and a mocking disregard for taking any subject too seriously. But when you don’t know if you’re wanted, and you can’t always connect why a cop might pursue you with an immediately previous action, the game mechanics almost accidentally create a system in which cops are always a feared enemy out to get you, even if you haven’t done anything. You can’t trust them, and if you fight back, you’re just asking for a world of trouble.

I’ll close with an anecdote. I guided C.J. to a local fast food joint, and while walking back toward his home, he was approached by members of a rival gang. They quickly took to shooting at him, and he fired back in self-defense, taking them out. The gunfire attracted the interest of some nearby cops, and C.J. fled. I remember thinking I’d escaped them all, only to find another beat cop, nightstick at the ready, coming up behind me down an alley. The imagery of running from this cop, hopping fences and hoping to outpace him, stuck with me. It wasn’t the usual bloody and excessive action of the typical GTA experience. And it wasn’t an “authentic” experience. It’s certainly not reflective of anyone’s actual lived experience. But it stuck with me. And it made me feel that I had very briefly slipped into the game’s alternative world. I can’t fully deconstruct what the experience meant to me, but it fascinated me, and if nothing else, it encouraged me to continue the UI-free experiment.

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.

A GTA Series of Posts to Come

All the recent hours in Grand Theft Auto games has the series, particularly its themes and characters and locales, taking up a lot of mental real estate for me. As such, there are a series of topics that I want to explore. For now, that includes:

  1. Why I believe the games fail as satire;
  2. How Grand Theft Auto V let down its female characters;
  3. The ways in which Grand Theft Auto V references, celebrates, and mocks its predecessors; and
  4. How removing the HUD and radar radically improved my San Andreas experience.

I’ve already posted a relatively long essay that could be boiled down to why I prefer San Andreas over the other games. It probably also functions as an introduction to this series of essays and why I feel motivated to write them. I hope to continue to post them over the next week. Why the planned increase in posting frequency? For one thing, the topics are fresh in my mind, and I’d like to get them down on paper (or in a digital file, more likely) as soon as possible. For another thing, I’m most definitely not going to make this blog primarily about Grand Theft Auto. Many people love the series. Many others hate it. I happen to be among the former, but there is a lot that I dislike about each game I’ve played in the franchise. They’re deliberately distasteful, and their edginess often comes from punching down and reliance on broad stereotype. I don’t want to be in a GTA head space forever. And for those who can’t stand the games, I’ll hopefully truncate the time in which you might see me posting excessively about them. Then again, we’ll see how I do with time and motivation over this week.

If you have to tune me out for a while, I’ll understand. But I hope you’ll give one or two of these posts a try, even if you can’t stand the games. Thanks, everyone, for reading!

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.

GTA: A Mirrored View

I’ve been watching several nineties crime dramas on Netflix and Amazon Prime recently, movies like CasinoGoodfellasHeat, and Boyz n the Hood, viewing some for the first time.

It’s interesting to realize how much these films have shaped the Grand Theft Auto games–and, sadly, how much those games have borrowed heavily for style and visuals but often dumped theme and intent in the process.

The film allusions are often rather obvious. The Mafiosos in III and IV take obvious inspiration from the faded, past-their-prime, and sometimes desperate characters in Goodfellas or The Sopranos (perhaps most noticeable, besides in-universe promotions for a “Badfellas” movie, is the echoing of the toxic relationship between Tony and Livia Soprano in III‘s Toni Cipriani and his mother). Vice City is far from subtle in its heavy homages to the visuals, characters, themes, and sets of Scarface and Miami Vice. And all the games are heavy with nods and winks to films both in and out of the crime genre.

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A copy of Tony Montana’s mansion appears in Vice City.

In this line, Boyz n the Hood is often cited as an inspiration for San Andreas, while Heat is credited with influencing the heists in IV and V. I had just accepted this as common knowledge, but I was shocked to see just how much these games had pulled from the two films, at a level that is probably at least equal to the debt owed to Scarface.

I was actually left disappointed with San Andreas with my newfound hindsight. Characters and scenarios are borrowed from Boyz n the Hood, in addition to the general setting of an LA-look-alike in the city of Los Santos. But Boyz n the Hood is rich in thoughtful sociopolitical messaging, in avoiding simple dichotomies and obvious solutions. And rather than a presentation of thrilling casual violence, the gunplay in the movie is often brief and brutal, with horrible repercussions. There is in fact very little actual violence presented, though there is the steady percussion of gunshots and helicopters in flight and emergency sirens in the background. Boyz n the Hood refused to glamorize or villainize. It portrayed a toxic environment, poisoned by a racist and indifferent nation, killing its young people in a cycle of events that feels almost outside of the ability of any young person to resist and that preys on impulses of passion and loyalty that I think we all can understand; we as viewers can only hope that Tre Styles will take the lessons to heart learned from his father Furious to avoid the cycle of vendetta-fueled violence. (I don’t know where else to say this, but it was weird to me how much the third acts of A Bronx Tale and Boyz n the Hood are paralleled.)

In contrast, San Andreas largely glorifies gang life. The gang life leads protagonist CJ to wealth, opportunity, and a restoration of his surviving family. Yes, the gang life also sees family and friends killed, but most of the core cast of allies survive to see the end. In fact, the primary villains are those who betray their gang members, in addition to the corrupt cops those traitors work with/for. The enemy is obvious and external, not a creeping existential threat empowered by often-abstract institutionalized racism. One of CJ’s major dramatic hurdles is recognizing that in his efforts to go “legit,” building a sprawling and sometimes-legal business empire, he has abandoned his hood by failing to keep in the gang fight.

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Gangsters with hip-hop style in a low-rider carrying out a hit on foot after a drive-by. This could describe a good portion of San Andreas as well.

I’d like to think that I’m not being naive. In a game where the main verbs are “shoot” and “drive,” I understand that having a concrete antagonist that can be defeated is necessary. It’s power fantasy, lightly toying with myths of impoverished urban life on the streets. It’s about machismo, the same (toxic-) masculine values that fuel a more-than-small portion of the crime genre as a whole. And I also recognize that San Andreas draws on a plethora of crime films and “hood genre” films. I can only comment on those films that I have seen, and I recognize that something might be lost in translation; I might be reading references to Boyz n the Hood where the reference was unintentional or in fact drawn from another film in the genre.

Still, it’s disappointing to find San Andreas borrow so much from a rich and thoughtful story and then distill its visuals into a string of shoot-’em-up scenarios. Furthermore, IV and Red Dead Redemption showed that Rockstar could do more than simply ape classic action dramas; the studio could tell stories about the moral emptiness and ultimate personal loss that accompanies a life of crime, and about the sorts of forces that can lead a person to believe that that life of crime is the only option. Stories about personal choice and accountability, honor and loyalty, the desolation of debt, the cyclical nature of violence, and the overreaching authority of a callous and corrupt government filled these games.

Then for V, we see a simple reversal back to “whee, crime is fun” power fantasy. This is fitting, especially given how deeply indebted the game is to Heat.

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This GTA V mission plays out almost exactly like the first heist in Heat–though the guys in Heat get away clean, while this mission leads into a sprawling shoot-out.

Heat lives and dies on its heists. As for theme…it does not offer simple morals. We are all trapped in cycles we can’t escape, at a personal and institutional level (yes, Rockstar certainly continues to acknowledge that theme in Michael and Trevor’s story). There may be a message about time, or how you spend your life, or attachment, or even family, but it’s difficult to make the argument convincingly, and it largely feels nihilist.

For a film that spends so much time attempting to establish its characters (the entire movie is nearly three hours long!), I had difficulty caring about any of them. The criminals were bad guys–professionals, yes, but willing to drop anything if needed and willing to kill anyone who got in their way. One of them is even worse, a sexually violent killer and a hot-head who the rest of the team attempts to eliminate for being too reckless and violent. And Pacino’s cop character carries the baggage of the obsessed-cop trope, with serial failed marriages and an explosive temper (boy, Pacino over-acted in this one).  Besides De Niro’s crew leader and Pacino’s detective, most of the characters are simply defined, and characters of color especially fall into racist (or racist-adjacent) tropes. But I get that this is a movie that is fondly remembered for the intensely choreographed heists and anxiety-inducing, creeping dread of the cat-and-mouse game between cops and robbers. And I sure as hell enjoyed those elements.

GTA V similarly spent a lot of time attempting to set up its characters, who mostly rested on tropes or were lifted largely from Heat. Michael De Santa looks and acts rather like Neil McCauley (De Niro’s character), serving as a leader of the heist. Fry chef Breedan and young, reckless Chris are combined into Franklin (and Breedan’s quick and ignoble death driving the getaway car echoes the opening bank escape scene in the game). And the sociopathic serial killer Waingro’s appearance and voice and mannerisms and temper, and his willingness to go on killing sprees seemingly for fun, are all channeled into Trevor. There’s even a parallel disabled informant/hacker character who helps line up scores for the crews. One could even say that Chris’s marital problems are lifted onto De Santa’s character to give him added purpose.

The biggest influence of Heat seems to be in the heists used in Grand Theft AutoIV had Heat‘s crazy bank escape, gunmen attempting to flee from law enforcement on foot through the streets, firing assault rifles with big duffel bags of cash slung over their shoulders (“Three Leaf Clover“). But V went further with the replications of heists, placing the opening truck heist into the middle-game (“Blitz Play“), including a marginally similar climactic bank heist (“The Big Score,” though this probably draws more from movies like Die Hard with a Vengeance), and antagonizing the protagonist crew with almost-as-bad government agents much like in the film (this understates the point a little bit–government actors are always worse than the individual criminal in the Grand Theft Auto universe).

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Start of a bank heist in Grand Theft Auto IV.

It’s fascinating to me that after all this time, and all the effort to tell original stories, Rockstar still seems to be regurgitating the plots and visuals of classic films, spliced with its irreverent but increasingly predictable and shallow sardonic humor. Its most effective trick–in both IV and V–has been giving the player enough agency to make one major decision at the end. Will the player attempt to break the cycle repeated through the game, or be consumed by it? And does the player’s choice truly matter when larger forces are at play? Oddly, these third-act choices, which often feel rather railroaded after largely linear stories, are maybe the franchise’s most innovative contributions to the crime drama genre.


 

The GTA fan Wikia helpfully lays out many of the film allusions and influences in the games. By this list, prominent crime films that I would still need to see to more fully contextualize the games include:

  • Menace II SocietyColorsNew Jack CityEasy RiderTo Live and Die In L.A., and Training Day (for San Andreas); and
  • Carlito’s Way (for Vice City).

Maybe when/if I see these other films, I’ll revisit the subject. The above discussion is not an exhaustive list of film references (or even crime genre film references), and there are movies–like, for instance, much of Tarantino’s early oeuvre–that are of course referenced at least in small ways, which I have seen and which I did not discuss above.

But are there any movies that you can think of that seem like obvious influences on the Grand Theft Auto games? Or perhaps other books or games? (For instance, I can’t help but draw some connections to Mario Puzo’s books, especially Fools Die). Feel free to let me know in the comments!