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Will the remastered Grand Theft Autos’ American satire hold up?

·6 min read

In 2013, then-poet, now Booker prize finalist Patricia Lockwood tweeted at the Paris Review: “So is Paris any good or not” The tweet, which went viral, was funny on a number of levels, but particularly its suggestion that anyone might venture to assess the qualities of an entire city. The magazine responded in a blogpost titled The Paris Review reviews Paris (the verdict? “It’s pretty good!”), but the absurdity of the premise was acknowledged in the brisk, tongue-in-cheek appraisal. To review a shimmering city, across all its multitudinous material and social vectors – its traffic systems and sewerage networks, its job prospects and police attitudes, its air pollution and book clubs, its art galleries and vermin infestations – is obviously preposterous.

Still, this has never stopped critics from attempting to review the Grand Theft Auto video games holistically, despite the fact each one contains similar multitudes to the American metropolises from which they borrow their settings. These are simplified and flattened recreations of human cities, of course, but each is sufficiently complex to invite a range of critical lenses. Take your pick: architectural or topographical? Sociological or literary? Cinematic or satirical? Do you evaluate the handling of the cars, or the music played by the game’s various radio stations? The quality of the light in a digital sunrise, or the strength of the jokes in Ricky Gervais’ virtual stand-up sets? Each approach presents a different vista, a new text, an alternate proposition. The idea of a full and rounded appraisal of games these enormous and multifaceted is not only laughable, but frankly exhausting.

Now, with the announcement of so-called remasters of the three formative 3D games in the series – 2001’s Grand Theft Auto III, 2002’s Vice City and 2004’s San Andreas, set respectively in modified versions of New York, Miami and Los Angeles – another dimension has been added to the would-be critic’s already impossible mission: how to consider each game’s much-vaunted satire from a contemporary perspective. Reappraising vintage creative works according to present-day values is a voguish enterprise, but this is a legitimate question for a suite of games well-known for their vigorous send-ups of American society, soon to be resuscitated into a landscape still cratered and smouldering from the Trump presidency’s cultural barrage.

This appears to have been view from within the game’s Scotland-based development studio, too. Speaking to GQ in 2018, Dan Houser, co-founder of Rockstar Games, claimed that the world is currently too absurd to accommodate a new Grand Theft Auto. Houser, who left his position as vice president of creative at the company last year, has a point. Whether or not America is entirely “beyond satire”, as he puts it, when a vegan conspiracist wearing stars-and-stripes facepaint and a horned hat storms the Capitol building in Washington at the encouragement of an incumbent president, the nation is probably beyond parody. The cartoonish villainy of the political right (“death to the poor!”) and the turbo-puritanism of the political left (“death to the unsure!”) – both bloated caricatures built from kernels of truth – leave little room for room for GTA’s stock exaggerations. How then might these older games fare in an atmosphere that is both more attuned to micro-discriminations, and, seemingly, less able to tolerate benefit-of-the-doubt nuance when it comes to creative enterprise?

In fact, satire was only a minor feature of the trio of GTAs from the early 2000s. At that time, its makers were primarily concerned with closing the cultural gap between film and games. True Hollywood players were used to voice and elevate these crudely rendered characters: Goodfellas’ Ray Liotta, Miami Vice’s Philip Michael Thomas, Apocalypse Now’s Dennis Hopper, and Tarantino’s Samuel L Jackson (the chance to revisit these wonderful performances in the remasters is welcome). The early games’ stories mostly presented different but similar takes on the American dream, taking place where inequality and desperation meet aspiration and criminal opportunity. Here the ambient satirical backdrop – the punned shop names, the Saul Goodman-esque billboards, the hyperactive in-game radio ads, mostly aimed at the vacuity and cruelty of late-stage capitalism in America – provided little more than a supporting context for the foreground story.

The games’ targets – big pharma, the woo-drunk wellness industry, police brutality, even the cruelty of battery meat-farming (“The chicken is a bird with a tiny brain, so we assume he doesn’t feel any pain …”) – remain legitimate, while its primary satirical mode, best described as “pisstake”, has a long and distinguished history. But, even aside from the thoughtless sexism that runs through the scripts, it’s tough to argue that the higher-minded jokes feel anything more than dated and basic.

“I was on the streets in the gangs shooting people and running drugs,” one soldier in the US army tells your character in 2004’s San Andreas. “Now I am making something of myself; I kill people and run drugs for the CIA.” A radio advertisement for Ammu-Nation, an in-game chain of gun shops, warns that “it takes the police an average of 35 minutes to respond to 911 call … In that time a burglar could have his way with your wife, smoke a cigarette, flip her over and go in for seconds … don’t let the worst happen to you … protect yourself the patriotic way.” Pairing causal misogyny with fear and patriotism to sell guns to homeowners probably does still happen in some parts of America but, as is often the case with GTA’s satire, with its indiscriminate punch-throwing, the more subtle point about toxic marketing in the consumer arms industry is overwhelmed by the flippant joke about sexual assault.

In 2008’s GTA IV, set in a pastiche of New York City, the torch held by the Statue of Liberty – symbolically guiding refugees to the country to their new life – has been swapped for a Starbucks-style coffee cup. The visual gag implies that America’s noble offer of freedom to all comers has been exchanged for the offer of consumerism. It’s a valid point, crassly made – which is a fair assessment of the series’ approach to satire. This is mainly a world of British schoolboy puns – the “Wank Hoff” hotel; the luxury car dealerships, “Wang Cars”. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of masturbatory wordplay, as Shakespeare taught us, but it helps if it’s all building toward a meaningful, well, climax.

Can a video game series that has made billions of dollars present a meaningful critique of American capitalism? It’s interesting to watch it try. To avoid becoming futile doomsaying, satire must accommodate the possibility of change. The cautionary tale should inspire transformation, if not in the protagonist then at least in the audience. By the end of GTA’s stories, however, even if the characters have learned something, the player is invited to continue their criminal exploits in perpetuity.

Still, these games are now of a sufficient vintage to be of historic interest as early examples of a mainstream video game creator making a political point in a best-selling series. And the points about the limits and falsities of the American dream show that the disaffections and inhumane impulses so heightened across social media today long predated the rise of Steve Bannon and his ghoulish entourage.

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