Over the course of this series, we’ve talked about games that portray war, violence, American culture, and consumerism. In this last piece, we’ll discuss a franchise that comments on all of these subjects and more — a franchise that is one of the most popular in the medium. Grand Theft Auto began in 1997 with a top-down car driving game and gradually morphed into the violent video game of the 21st century.
The series has grown a lot since its early days, and its most recent installment (at the time of writing) was a blockbuster hit that not only sold well, but also introduced a spectacular commentary on all things America into the video game industry. Analyzing each game in the franchise would be its own series, and even discussing just Grand Theft Auto V could probably be a thesis paper unto itself, so while we will do our best to go over the major points.
Some context: Grand Theft Auto V takes place in the city of Los Santos, a characterization of L.A. with a dash of San Francisco sprinkled in for good measure. Many famous L.A. neighborhoods, landmarks, and companies are featured within the game and provide a fantastic stage for the characters to inhabit. The game follows Michael De Santa, Franklin Clinston, and Trevor Philips, switching perspectives throughout the game for various missions. Michael is a former bank robber put into the witness protection program and living a comfortable upper-class existence in a rich neighborhood of Los Santos.
Trevor is Michael’s old bank-robbing partner, and agent of chaos who resides in a trailer park on the outskirts of the city. Franklin is a young Black man living in a low income, primarily Black neighborhood, Los Santos. Each character in the game is used to criticize a different part of the American experience, so, in order to keep things organized, we’ll dive into each character individually to investigate what the developer of Rockstar Games has to say about each character’s existence.
Michael is a man with money: he lives in a nice house with a pool and a tennis court, drives expensive cars and owns several flat-screen TV’s, and generally doesn’t have any concerns financially. That being said, he’s also a man going through a midlife crisis: his wife, Amanda, constantly cheats on him with her yoga and tennis instructors, his son, Jimmy, is a lazy stoner who plays violent video games all day, and his daughter, Tracey, strives to be a celebrity and parties constantly with actors from the porn industry. He watches TV most of the day, doesn’t have any friends, and sees a therapist who’s both inept and only in it for other people’s money. It’s a sad existence, one that causes Michael to constantly fight with everyone in his family. Michael’s life is shallow and empty despite all of his money; his family is dysfunctional, and he’s generally not a happy person. But that’s the point: money doesn’t fix anything, and the stereotypical life of the average Los Angelino (nice cars, fitness instructors, expensive therapists, etc.) doesn’t necessarily lead to self-fulfillment. In fact, it’s often a major reason that people who have money tend to be hollow on the inside.
This isn’t helped by Michael’s aforementioned tendency to watch TV. In general, Michael’s family absorbs the most media out of any characters in the game — Jimmy with his games, Michael with TV, and Tracey with social media. All of that media that they consume is shown to be shallow as well: the violent video games that Jimmy plays just have him shooting ‘pigs’ (another word for police officers, hint hint) and getting more points as he does so with no discernable goal. The TV that Michael uses features pointless news shows that parody Fox News and old black-and-white movies that seem almost as superficial as the news he watches.
No matter how much either of the De Santos men consume of their media of choice, their lives are made worse by it, even though they choose to consume that media in the first place. Jimmy isn’t going anywhere because it’s easier to smoke marijuana and play video games. Michael seeks entertainment from shallow media and gets nothing despite his efforts. Tracey’s obsession with social media and becoming a celebrity are played for laughs throughout the game, but, interestingly, her desire to get on the game’s American Idol-analogue called ‘Fame or Shame’ is actualized when Michael pulls a few strings to get her onto the show, suggesting, perhaps, that her goal, despite being centered around a surface-level piece of entertainment, is still valid and worthwhile of pursuing because it’s what will make her happy. Michael and Jimmy aren’t actualized by the media they consume because they have no end goal by consuming it. Tracey does, and that’s why she is (at least, on some level) successful in getting what she wants.
While Michael’s story deals with the shallowness of the idealized American lifestyle and the media that surrounds it, Trevor’s acts as a discussion about the nature of sex, drugs, and violence in the media that Michael’s family consumes. As previously stated, Trevor is an agent of chaos in the world of GTA. He’s constantly shooting and maiming his enemies, having sex with anyone who’s interested in him, and smoking all sorts of substances throughout the game’s story. He destroys a biker gang to sell drugs on their turf, has an affair with someone’s wife that he kidnaps, and is shown to do methamphetamine at least somewhat regularly. He’s definitely the most violent and sexual character in the game, but he’s also one of the player characters, and what’s important about that is that he acts as a sort of commentary on the nature of violent, sex and drug-obssessed media.
Trevor’s extremeness makes him a controversial character, but also a popular one. Even if he does things that the other characters don’t, his missions are pretty much the same: killing waves of enemies, blowing stuff up, driving fast cars, and so forth. His actions may be abhorrent, but it’s what the player bought the game for, and that’s important to note. Trevor is a representation of the stereotypical GTA player who runs over pedestrians for fun and hires prostitutes because it’s exciting.
People buy games like Grand Theft Auto, watch action movies, and read horror novels for the same violence and vulgarness that all media portrays. It’s not only the creator’s fault that American media is so obsessed with those subjects, it’s also the consumer’s fault for paying money to see it. If violence, sex, and drugs are ‘what make GTA, GTA,’ and people buy it to see those subjects, then why is it just Rockstar’s fault that they put those things in the game when they’re encouraged to do so by an id-obsessed audience? That’s the question that exists at the heart of Trevor’s journey.
Franklin is a bit more complicated to discuss because, unlike Michael and Trevor, his story is, at its heart, about the realities of being Black in America, and that’s an experience that is, obviously, exclusive to Black people. I am white, so while I can observe the commentary as I see it, there’s likely a level to it that I might not understand because I haven’t experienced some of the issues that might exist in Franklin’s story. That being said, I’ll discuss what I can see based on my perspective.
So, Franklin’s story is about the appropriation of Black culture and the realities of being Black in the USA. The game covers a lot of ground with that starting point, but a lot of its commentary is about the institutional prejudice that many Black Americans experience in their everyday lives. An example in gameplay is how the LSPD (the game’s analog for the LAPD) react to crimes differently depending on the neighborhood that they’re enacted in. If the player starts committing crimes in a higher income neighborhood, the police are more lenient, and it takes longer for them to bring in more cops as the player’s crimes increase in severity.
However, if the player commits a crime in a lower-income neighborhood (notably locations with several Black and Latinx citizens) then the police are much more aggressive and come full-force to stop the player’s crimes (complete with NOOSE troops, the game’s version of SWAT). The obvious narrative reason for this is the noted racism that exists throughout the real-life LAPD, whose history is fraught with extreme racism and prejudice. It’s not just organizations that show this racism, though; it’s also the characters that interact with Franklin.
Several characters change the way that they talk when speaking with Franklin to reflect a more ‘Black’ vernacular. Jimmy uses phrases that are stereotypically attributed to Black people whenever he’s around Franklin, and changes his inflection and his accent to reflect the way that he thinks Black people talk. Trevor also changes his vocabulary and phrasing when around Franklin (though he doesn’t do the accent change). These characters are trying to ‘act Black’ because they think it’s cool on some level, or because they think that it’ll help them seem relatable to Franklin. For one, it’s offensive to assume that he wouldn’t be able to talk to them if they were just themselves just because he’s Black. Also, they’re essentially donning a part of Black culture for a limited time without having to experience the real racism that Black people have to experience on a daily basis.
There’s a lot more to say about Grand Theft Auto V’s commentary on the U.S., but to get into anything more would take up too much space on an article that is already a good 1,800 words long. The series has received flack from all sides of every discussion over the years, but GTA V seems like a response to that — a statement that says ‘if your argument is true, then you’re just as at fault as we are.’ It’s a powerful message to instill in such a major game, but that’s what makes it such a fascinating and unique piece of entertainment.
Few blockbusters in any medium are willing to say the things that Grand Theft Auto is willing to, and, in that way, it acts as a sort of reflection of not only the U.S. as a country, but also on the nature of entertainment itself. What allows GTA to make that statement is the fact that it’s a game. It has the space, the choice, and the expansiveness that only a game can allow. Games are uniquely suited to offer certain discussions, and Grand Theft Auto is proof of that idea.
Games allow their audience to inhabit worlds, themes, and narratives, and interact with all elements of the fiction that they’re playing, which often leads to the messages of a particular piece of art being instilled more strongly in the audience that is experiencing it. Call of Duty, Spec Ops, Dead Rising, and Grand Theft Auto all have things to say — some good and some bad. Their themes and narratives prove that, even if games as a medium are still young, they’re just as able to tell the same important stories that film, television, and novels have been telling for decades.
Featured Photo: Courtesy of Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images