The Grand Theft Auto (GTA) series holds a nearly infamous status in the world of video games. It’s an open-world game usually featuring main characters with criminal backgrounds and gameplay that allows players to roam “relatively” freely around the game world and commit various crimes, acts of vehicular mayhem, and occasional debauchery.
Naturally, every time a new GTA game gets released, the moral watchdogs of society cry bloody murder.
To be sure, most of the complaints regarding video games seem to stem from older generations that didn’t grow up playing them. Yet, we now have several generations of people (those who grew up in the 1980s and onward) who have vast amounts of experience in playing console and PC games. Being a millennial and having grown up in the late-80s and early-90s, my exposure to video games was almost constant and dates from at least the original Nintendo Entertainment System. Thus, it’s safe to say that video games constitute a substantial portion of my experience with entertainment (for better or worse), and I’m not easily shocked by the content in them.
My Experience with the GTA Series
My first experience with the series was with GTA III and GTA Vice City on the original Xbox back in 2003 (I never played GTA: San Andreas, even though it also came out on that console). Leaving console gaming behind after 2005, I never played any of the subsequent games in the series on another console. Despite GTA IV being released on the PC, the buggy and unstable nature of the port deterred me from buying it. In 2013, GTA V was released on the consoles to critical acclaim and became one of the highest-selling games in history. It was re-released on the PC, Xbox One, and PS4 in 2015, featuring better textures and other gameplay improvements. I purchased it in 2016 through Steam. Thus, by the time I finally got around to playing it, all of the secrets of the game had already been revealed, and the novelty and hubbub of the game had worn off somewhat. Still, I decided to go into it largely blind to the main story. In the end, I did a 100% completion playthrough with the help of a guide and finished the game in 2018. That is, I accomplished all of the main story missions and “most” of the side missions and other activities in the game. I certainly didn’t find every single hidden easter egg or secret in the game, nor did I explore every inch of the map, but I got around to experiencing a good amount of the game.
Grand Theft Auto V
Coming back to playing Grand Theft Auto after a 13-year hiatus has been a somewhat interesting experience and an exercise in contradictions. On one hand, it’s very evident that the satire and social commentary prevalent in the series are alive and well, and that the game certainly has not ceased to adhere to its core gameplay elements. On the other hand, I do feel that my age (being in my mid-30s at the time of writing) and time away from this series has diminished the depth of the game and ultimately left me with the opinion that this is merely a fairly simple open-world action video game and there’s no real point in getting worked up over it. So as I review this game, I want to discuss some of my thoughts on the plot, characters, setting, music, and finally the satirical and controversial nature of the series, as a whole.
Oddly enough, I feel that the plot of GTA V is one of its weaker points. Perhaps it’s because I’m used to playing games with grand storylines and noble heroes trying to avert civilization-ending disasters. It’s not that the story itself is bad, but I feel that the main story in GTA V doesn’t really seem to amount to much in the end. Basically, we’re introduced to our three main characters (Michael, Trevor, and Franklin), all with criminal backgrounds, who get drawn deeper and deeper into the criminal underworld of the fictional state of San Andreas while pulling off robberies and dealing with corrupt government agents. The plot meanders from mission to mission and mostly involves variations of stealing things, destroying things, and killing people. Along the way, you meet a lot of weird people. There’s not a ton of depth to it. If we take ending C as the canonical ending, then the characters simply part ways after dealing with the antagonists and go back to doing their own thing. While the friendship between Michael, Trevor, and Franklin seems to have grown to an extent, it still seems to lack any real sense of connection. In short, the story seems rather cyclical in nature. It’s almost as if we’re right back where we started. Our protagonists started out as criminals, underwent some character development together, pulled off some heists, dealt with the bad guys, and ended the game, ultimately, still as criminals. The storyline is more or less a few months in the life of 3 criminals. It leaves me wondering, will Michael truly stay retired and happily married this time? Will Franklin be able to maintain his new lifestyle and leave his gang life behind? Will Trevor ever quit being a psychopath? Who knows. They could easily fall back into the same routine next week.
Regarding the characters, one issue is that the game doesn’t make clear which character is meant to be the main protagonist. While the mechanic of seeing the game from the perspective of three different characters is interesting, it ultimately muddies the waters because you’re not sure who you should be connecting with. There’s no character that represents the everyman, although Franklin may be the closest, followed by Michael. None of them have particularly well-rounded social skills or lives. Trevor is a psychopath, Michael is a pompous hypocrite, and Franklin is just shy of being a thug. Furthermore, you’re also introduced to the antagonists only by mid-game and even at that, they never seem to represent a major threat to you, and you end up doing their dirty work anyway. One antagonist, Stretch, only appears in 2 missions. When I first played through the story and it came time to kill him at the end, I had literally forgotten who he was and that he played a role in Franklin’s story since he disappeared for 3/4ths of the game. That being said, I do feel that the voice acting in the game is excellent and the overall characterization is generally very good. However, this brings us to the point of how easily you can sympathize with the main characters. As previously mentioned, Franklin might be the only character that truly represents the average person since his story is more of a traditional rags-to-riches narrative. However, all the characters have some unappealing or unsympathetic qualities to them given their individual stories.
There are very few moderate characters in the game. Most of the protagonists, antagonists, and supporting characters are on the extreme ends of whatever social, economic, or political spectrum they represent. All of the protagonists are criminals of some sort. All of the antagonists are also unsympathetic, rich, powerful, corrupt, and carry a sack full of douchebags. The only moderate, average, everyday Joes you meet in the game world are occasionally NPCs you meet in random events or on the street, but even those are a rarity.
In GTA V the setting of San Andreas itself is hardly Anytown, America. You’re bombarded by silly amounts of advertising showcasing every oddity, radio talk shows prattling on with ludicrous commentary, and every stereotype of West Coast American culture. Yet, the detail and amount of world-building that goes into any GTA game is a testament to the work of the developers who manage to make the setting of Los Santos and San Andreas feel like a living and breathing exaggeration of Los Angeles and the surrounding areas of California. It’s definitely one of the highlights of the game.
The soundtracks of each GTA game are an eclectic mix of popular music from every genre that perfectly encapsulate the times and settings in which each game takes place. Suffice it to say that the music of GTA V clearly stands as an exhibit of early 2010s radio. Then of course there’s the always hilarious GTA radio talk shows that feature a seemingly endless array of hypocritical and self-absorbed dialogue from fictional radio hosts and callers.
The GTA Series as a whole
One of the best things about the GTA series is the way it pokes fun at American culture. Everything in the games from their settings, their over-the-top characters, their objectification of people, and their excessive violence is intentional and meant to be filtered through the lens of satire. In doing so, the games are meant to create a sort of caricature of the most shallow and superficial aspects of American culture.
An Immersive & Open-World of Satire
Every GTA game is unique in that it represents a certain era. Technologically, of course, the games themselves are defined by the computer hardware of the times which dictates the kinds of mechanics and graphics they can feasibly implement. Yet, each game specifically satirizes a historical time period and setting. The main urban areas that the series takes place in are Liberty City (representing New York), Vice City (representing Miami), and the state of San Andreas (representing California & Nevada). As the series moved into an era of 3D gameplay, GTA III jabbed at New York in 2001, Vice City satirized Miami in the 1980s. GTA: San Andreas poked fun at early-1990s California and Nevada. GTA IV took players back to New York and took a shot at the American Dream in the late-2000s. GTA V ridicules the post-recession world of 2013 Los Angeles. No aspect of American society is spared from the game’s sharp wit.
One of the reasons the satire works so well in the series is that the settings are highly detailed. The developer, Rockstar, clearly puts a great deal of time into getting the world to look realistic. Although the cities in the game are fictional, they are obviously based off of real-world locations in the U.S. but amped up to the point of parody. Posters, billboards, radio advertisements, and product names are all puns or jokes on common items. For example, “Sprunk” and “eCola” are clearly the game’s version of the real-world “Sprite” and “Coca-Cola” soft drinks. In GTA V, a billboard advertising a perfume reads, “Le Chien: Smell like a Bitch.” (Chien being the French word for dog, and bitch referring to a female dog). The list is nearly endless.
Additionally, while pedestrian and vehicle traffic is procedurally generated, the random occurrences, realistic (relatively speaking) A.I. behavior, and humorous chatter heard on the street all make the cities feel like they’re actually living and breathing. The player often stumbles upon random police chases or people getting mugged. Pedestrians and drivers react to gunfire, explosions, and accidents. Meanwhile, angry drivers lean on their horns when you block traffic. People blabber endlessly about vacant topics or pull out their phones to take pictures of cool cars. Gunfights and chases can get exhilarating, and it all adds up to create a very immersive experience for the player.
Silly Characters, Crazy Dialogue, and Loose Women
As previously mentioned, there are very few moderate characters in these games. Many of the characters and NPCs lie on extremes of the political and social spectrum. The main characters are all criminals. The government agents are brutal and corrupt. The inhabitants of rural areas are white trash rednecks and white supremacists. The urbanites are superficial and consumerist. Women are objectified and depicted as vain, shallow, and promiscuous. The list goes on. All of this is reinforced by the wacky dialogue from the characters and NPCs. Hardly a line is spoken that isn’t filled with sarcastic comments on virtually every topic under the sun.
Blood, Guns, and Traffic Collisions
It should be obvious to anyone who’s heard of the series, that the GTA games contain a lot of violence. By the end of the game, players will have mowed down dozens, if not hundreds, of people with automatic weapons and explosives, and caused untold numbers of traffic accidents. This doesn’t even mention all of the other laws that are broken throughout the game’s various story missions and side missions. Yet, one thing to note is the lack of children in the game and the lack of schools (save for the fictional University of San Andreas). All of the pedestrians in the game are adults. This is likely for the simple reason that allowing the player to wantonly gun down children or commit a school shooting would be very distasteful in a video game. In short, the world of GTA is an unpleasant place and likely more violent than an active war zone.
Social Criticism of the GTA games
The GTA games have never shied away from brutal violence, foul language, drugs, sex, or controversial material. It seems that every time a new GTA game is released, the “moral goodness of society association of goody-two-shoes neighbors” scream bloody murder about how these games are destroying everything that is wonderful and wholesome. Common criticisms of the games are the way they objectify women, stereotype other social groups, and depict excessive amounts of violence. While the criticisms of the game’s stereotypical portrayal of people and violence are understandable, the arguments don’t seem to take into account the fact that these games are meant to be satirical. The parody in the games is far too prevalent to be unintentional. Essentially, the games are meant to objectify people and be violent. The settings, characters, and storylines are infused with parody to highlight the superficiality of the very things they amplify. They’re not meant to be taken seriously. But some people just don’t seem to get the idea of satire.
The Escapism & Shallowness of the GTA Series
At the end of the day though, I do feel that there’s a certain shallowness to these games. They’re not simulators and they present a sandbox world where the player can do as they please. The controls and combat are fairly easy to master and the various storylines aren’t particularly deep. Whereas the settings contain a great level of detail and the characters are comical, I feel that a lot of the game’s references and commentary will simply go over the head of the average player who simply wants to blow things up. I briefly pondered whether or not any serious academic study had been conducted on the GTA games, and while I did find some articles while searching academic databases, I was ultimately struck with the notion that asking anyone to take these games seriously is like asking a professional art critic to judge the Sunday comic strips based on their adherence to the themes and techniques embodied in Renaissance art. So essentially, why bother? Sure we could read deeply into the plot, characters, and settings of the GTA games and how they’re some kind of social commentary on the collapsing American social order, but ultimately, I kept asking myself if that was the developer’s original intention, and does it really matter in the end?
We’ve come to a time where an entire generation (and then some) has grown up playing video games and the average well-rounded 30 to 40-year-old adult probably realizes that video games are mere entertainment and make-believe. Grand Theft Auto is effectively a fantasy where you can live out your dreams of carnage, mayhem, and chaos without incurring severe real-life ramifications. Go on a rampage and slaughter hundreds of bystanders, get into gunfights with cops, manipulate the stock market, rob stores, or make traffic in these cities even worse than it already is. The GTA games encourage you to live out your anti-authoritarian daydreams. Indeed, not only the storyline, but the game mechanics themselves encourage this style of play. Seriously, try to play a few hours of this game without killing anybody, committing any crimes, or breaking any traffic laws. You will quickly find that the game becomes a very boring experience with very little to do. (I once tried driving around the city, obeying the speed limit, and stopping at every red light and stop sign…it got old very fast.) Basically, the whole point of these games is to be violent, sexist, crude, and silly. You’d certainly rather a teenager break the fictional laws of a fictional video game world than go out and break the law in real life.
As I mentioned, my GTA experience began with GTA III on the Xbox in my late teens, and now that I’m in my 30s, I feel that these games are certainly aimed at those of a more immature persuasion. Sure, I really enjoy their satire, but a lot of that falls by the wayside if all you want to do is simply kill NPCs and cause chaos. I imagine there are people out there who buy these games and never care about the main storylines because they just use the games as an excuse to fantasize about what they’d love to do to the man that keeps them down. So, despite their commentary, characterization, level of detail, and immersive world-building, I do find the GTA games to have quite a shallow nature to them. They’re inherently juvenile in their presentation and they’re meant to appeal to teens.
One thing I haven’t mentioned is the multiplayer component (GTA Online) of GTA V. Honestly, I only went as far as creating an avatar and then never touched it again. Why? Well, this game is notorious for having one of the most toxic and immature online player communities on the face of the Earth. The aforementioned anti-authoritarian stance and the comical setting certainly don’t encourage the game’s audience (i.e. teenagers) to behave more responsibly in the game’s simulated metropolis. So why should the online player-base be inclined to be civil towards each other, either?
Do I think the GTA franchise is some of the best video games ever made? Are they worthy of all the perfect review scores and praise that are heaped on them? Well, that depends on what your cup of silicon chips is. Ultimately, I find all of the Grand Theft Auto games to be very similar to each other. They’re satirical and exaggerated worlds of make-believe where you are free to do as you please, live out your fantasies, cause traffic accidents, and create mayhem, all while listening to the hypocritical characters make fun of American culture. In spite of the continuous and inevitable ravings of the politically correct morality police arising every time a new GTA game is released, I find that Grand Theft Auto both satirizes, and at the same time, represents the idea of video games and pop culture as nothing but an inconsequential romp around a big, silly, world of fiction. Do I think these games are the scourge of society? No. Do I think these games are perfect? No. Do I think these games are entertaining, ridiculous, and a fun distraction? Yes. It’s crazy to think that this game is nearly 10 years old at the time of writing. Still, time marches on and there will be new consoles, new PC hardware, and new GTA games in the future for people to rant and rave about. In the end, it’s all just escapism in the form of a video game. Don’t take it too seriously.