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Sep 27 / Great Apes

What Grand Theft Auto V Has To Say

I read this piece by Tom Chick about “that mission” in Grand Theft Auto V (SPOILER ALERT INSIDE THESE PARENTHESES: the mission where you, as Trevor, torture a man to get information about an assassination target out of him END SPOILERS) and it perplexed me.  I think Chick is way over-reading the mission and is likely projecting his own views onto the game.  My own opinion on that scene is that it doesn’t have anything to say and that’s made pretty clear by two facts:

1. The mission is supposed to be fun.

2. Trevor’s dialogue at the end of the scene once the federal agent leaves basically renders the entire thing logically and morally nonsensical.

This leads into a broader issue for me, which is the constant talk about how Grand Theft Auto is “satire”, about how it “skewers” American culture.  I think in general people give the story and setting in GTA far too much respect.  To classify it as satire is to completely misunderstand what satire is.  Satire has a point to make; it’s about drawing attention to some particular aspect of a situation in a humorous way in order to demonstrate to the viewer/reader/player the wrongness of that situation.  The Daily Show is satire because it has something to say, like, for example, “Contemporary media does not treat serious news with the gravity that it deserves.”  Satire requires consistency; if you are against one thing then you are logically obligated to be in favour of another thing that is opposed to it.

But Grand Theft Auto V (like its predecessors) is not in favour of anything.  It can’t be satire because it never has a point to make beyond “Isn’t everything shit?”  Are you a man?  Men are stupid.  A woman?  Women are stupid.  Are you involved in politics?  Stop putting your faith in other people.  Do you stay out of politics?  Stop shirking your responsibility.  Are you married?  Stop letting other people drag you down.  Are you single?  Stop being so childish and insecure.  Do you like to use social media?  You’re a tool who’s manipulated by advertisers.  Do you stay off social media?  You’re an anti-social recluse.  And on and on.

What Grand Theft Auto V has to say is nothing.  It doesn’t have an opinion on anything beyond “Everyone is an idiot and everything they do is stupid.”  It’s not satire, it’s not social commentary, and it’s difficult to classify very much of it as humour.  Grand Theft Auto’s “message”, to the extent that one exists, is nihilism: the world is pointless, let’s fuck shit up.

I am reminded of Roger Ebert’s review of Team America.  While I haven’t seen the film I feel like his review describes the world of GTA almost perfectly if you just replace a few details.  The closing paragraph of his review seems to sum up GTA perfectly:

I wasn’t offended by the moviegame’s content so much as by its nihilism. At a time when the world is in crisis and the country faces an important election, the response of Parker, Stonethe Housers and company is to sneer at both sides — indeed, at anyone who takes the current world situation seriously. They may be right that some of us are puppets, but they’re wrong that all of us are fools, and dead wrong that it doesn’t matter.

As a game – on a mechanical and technical level – I think there’s a lot about the Grand Theft Auto games that’s very well done.  GTA V has some really strong mission design in places, especially the levels that involve switching back and forth between the three main characters.  And on a technical level a lot of what it accomplishes is extremely impressive.  It provides fun diversions in an impressively realised environment.  But let’s stop pretending that there’s anything deeper to it than that.

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