Grand Theft Auto, Retroactive Satire and Games Within Games

The city select screen from Grand Theft Auto

Saying that the Grand Theft Auto series is satire is about as innocuous as saying they’re games where cars are stolen. It’s taken for granted that this is the case, although myself and others question the impulse to label it as such. What I’m not going to do in this piece is make any counter-argument against the veracity of contemporary GTA’s satirical nature, nor retread the semantic difference between the oft-conflated satire, parody, spoof and homage. Grand Theft Auto is a satire because Rockstar says it is. What interests me more is how the evolution of the games’ press coverage has led people to believe GTA has always been satire. It isn’t unique in this regard: Fallout, Just Cause and to a lesser extent Far Cry have walked similar paths, with the upcoming Watch Dogs: Legion appearing to follow suit completing its transition from dour cyberpunk morality play about hackers fighting human traffickers to some sort of pigheaded Banksy simulator (though that didn’t stop Ubisoft from misappropriating a poem about the Holocaust to promote it). The beauty of Grand Theft Auto’s satire is that because its target is so broad it can always be seen as punching up, even whilst literally striking down innocent bystanders. However this is a relatively new phenomenon — mostly isolated to the last tentpole entry Grand Theft Auto V.

Mere months before Jack Thompson filed the first suit in his personal crusade against violent videogames that eventually earned the series its “murder simulator” moniker, The Grand Theft Auto was an arcade-y top-down run-and-gun game by DMA Design whose ill repute paled in comparison to Carmageddon from a few months before its initial EU release. It would take five years and the leap to full polygonal 3D for the word satire to even be uttered by journalists alongside the GTA brand, with Mark Wyatt of the UK’s Official PlayStation Magazine stating that “GTA III was an ambitious living, breathing satire of a modern city”. This quote is emblematic for two reasons — firstly in how it emphasizes the source of satire as the game’s environment and not its narrative or gameplay, and secondly that it actually came from the beginning of a review of its sequel Grand Theft Auto: Vice City.

While the recurring GTA locations of Liberty City, San Andreas and Vice City are clear parallels to New York, Los Angeles and Miami, it often goes unmentioned that Grand Theft Auto 2 takes place in a generic Anywhere City, USA while the expansion pack for the original is set in London, England (ironically the most satirical of the 90’s entries and doubly ironically made in Canada). The simple swapping of placenames does a lot of legwork for the series’ satire, as did the mediation of diegetic elements like radio talk shows and later on television shows. While both these concepts were present in GTA III’s Liberty City, it was Vice City that would mark the first time it became widely accepted that satire could be an appeal of M-rated videogames, with Oliver Irish for The Guardian remarking that he “can’t imagine any other video game being called satirical”, which is blatant Conker’s Bad Fur Day erasure but makes my case. The reason behind this tonal shift is quite apparent, as Vice City is not only a parody of a place but a time, being set way back in the 1980’s when that was still a novelty. Yet Vice City, its predecessor and its successor were all riffs on established cinematic tropes, so besides the throwback aspect one has to figure there’s another reason why a game about Italian-American mobsters wasn’t seen as parodical as those about South Floridian drug dealers or West Coast gang members.

A sign that reads “No Hidden Content this way” in GTA IV

Jumping ahead to 2008, during an NPR call-in segment games critic Adam Sessler claimed that Grand Theft Auto IV was “more Brechtian” in its satire and served as “a commentary on the American dream”, which is about a good a reason as any that G4 and X-Play should not be revived. Not only is he talking down to the caller with his German playwright reference but he also doesn’t seem to understand what it means to be Brechtian, as Jason Farman argues that Grand Theft Auto: San Andreasprovides a framework […] essential to Brecht’s theory” vis a vis the player’s ability to alter its seriousness through the customization of the protagonist’s appearance. Sure there are some Easter eggs in GTA IV which could be considered Brechtian in how they lampshade the game’s artifice, however many of these require prior game knowledge to work as such, and besides Easter eggs are by their nature hidden extras that don’t directly provoke the audience.

Perhaps Sessler meant that the game’s satire was anti-capitalist with his Bertolt Brecht comparison, to which I reply to the tune of 25 million copies sold: fat chance. Brecht hated Wall street so much he wrote a poem entitled The Late Lamented Fame of the Giant City of New York following the stock market crash of 1929 (which funnily enough also name-drops Miami) despite the fact he had never been. Though Rockstar’s publishing headquarters is located in New York, the development-side of Rockstar North is based in Scotland. And so both Brecht and company co-founder come series writer Dan Houser are outsiders peering in on America, weaving worlds from its cultural fabric. Dissimilarly GTA IV’s development team conducted extensive field research to bring about the metropolitan boroughs of Liberty City, where the comparable Exchange district has little to no bearing on the plot and the most biting satire is the “Statue of Happiness” that borrows Hillary Clinton’s visage and holds a disposable coffee cup, a visual gag that wouldn’t make it past the Colbert Report writers room.

What journalists’ observations on GTA IV evoke more than a 101-level knowledge of theatre was a move away from the arch criminality of the past and towards an intellectual high ground. The game had a weighty story about the pathos of the working class immigrant experience which was not only likened to Hollywood movies but was allegedly indicative that videogames would overthrow them as a medium — utterly ludicrous even now in our pandemical society. Rockstar’s commitment to immersion through grounded “realism” was so pointed that they used the spectre of terrorism in lieu of invisible walls to gate progression and had the protagonist’s annoying cousin constantly calling him to go bowling or get drunk like tending to a Slavic Tamagotchi. Grand Theft Auto’s own co-creator Dave Jones had already said that he found San Andreas too bleak, so one can only imagine what he thought of the series straying further from its “tongue-in-cheek” and “cartoony” origins.

If my ultimate aim was to disprove that GTA is satire, then the fact that the Saints Row series exists as a parody of it would bolster that argument, right? Yet I actually think the relationship between the two is highly symbiotic. The first Saints Row was more of a clone than anything, it just happened to ramp up the inherent silliness a la Vice City where past games like True Crime or Narc did the opposite and stuck to the arresting side of the war on drugs. Saints Row 2 is where the series found its voice in high contrast to the tragic circumstance of Nico Bellic in GTA IV, and the next entry Saints Row: The Third gave us The Penetrator, a giant purple dildo melee weapon. With GTA V trading the downtrodden Liberty City-ers for vapid Andreasians, Saints Row IV practically had no choice but to heighten itself again by becoming a de facto superhero game whose plot revolves around aliens and virtual reality.

Arcade cabinets in Grand Theft Auto

Despite being the second highest selling game ever, my awareness of GTA V is pretty slim beyond the basic who/where/when. So instead of boring/spoiling myself by reading over the plot synopsis, I think the logical extension of analyzing how it approaches being a satirical videogame is looking at how the series as a whole satirizes videogames. The first entry to really delve into this territory was Vice City with its non-enterable brick-and-mortar store Rockster Games, a concept which is more nostalgic for me than the 80’s stuff. In fact the majority of Rockstar’s videogame parodies have remained in the realm of the Golden age of the arcade, starting with “Pogo the Monkey” after Donkey Kong and “Degenatron” after Robotron: 2084, which are mentioned and/or seen as non-playable cabinets. This iconography speaks to a broader cultural infatuation with that historical period as seen recently in Netflix’s High Score docu-series.

San Andreas would be the first game to feature actual arcade mini-games which were mostly based on spaceship shoot-em-ups but also a platformer that appears to be a reference to Gee Bee (though others say Bomb Jack) with the cutesy aesthetics of Rainbow Islands. It also uses procedurally generated levels, making it an unlikely forerunner to Adam Saltsman’s Gravity Hook and Canabalt, but probably the best description I could muster would be Lunar Lander meets Doodle Jump.

Arcade games took a backseat in Grand Theft Auto IV, which is part and parcel with its more serious tone, only having a single colour-matching puzzle game called “QUB3D” that plays like Tetris (or more precisely Dr. Mario and Puyo Puyo) with a 3D vector graphics style similar to Tempest. “QUB3D” also appeared in GTA V but was conspicuously unplayable until the triumphant return of arcades as full-fledged locations in GTA Online last year. I don’t have the space to cover all of these games but the important thing to note is none of the sources being referenced encroach on the time frame of Grand Theft Auto itself with the exception of “Street Crimes: Gang Wars Edition”, a self-parody of the original 1997 entry that’s actually more of a Qix-like territory control game.

For the most part the HD era has focused more squarely on console gaming. GTA IV introduced a logo for the EXsorbeo 720, an obvious Xbox 360 parody with some added PlayStation elements when it was expanded upon in GTA V. This wasn’t the first faux console in the series as San Andreas had the CJD 500 — a sort of 90’s Amiga/Sega hybrid machine — but what the EXsorbeo 720 marked was the first time GTA dared to make satire out of modern gaming trends with a library of titles like “Assassins Revenge”, “Biocurse”, “Fog of War 2” and “Hollow Soul”. By far the most prominent however is “Righteous Slaughter 7” by the fictional company Misfire Games.

A billboard for Righteous Slaughter 7 in GTA V

It’s more than a little hypocritical for Rockstar to be parodying the sequelization of military shooters like Call of Duty and its ilk given that GTA V is also the seventh in its mainline series, in addition to its potential for proxy mass murders. Perhaps then the righteousness is where GTA differs in its antihero trappings, and in fact when it comes to criticizing the valour of American militarism the series has been shockingly consistent. The armed forces have always been depicted as a hostile entity that shoots first and asks questions later (even if the ability to spawn a tank via cheat codes does glorify their hardware) and eventually they become active antagonists in several GTA Online missions. This satire is most prominent in “Republican Space Rangers”, a cartoon sci-fi parody with allusions to Halo that started in GTA IV, though in truth the whole enterprise is really a Trojan Horse for a bunch of racist, homophobic, transphobic, ableist and misogynist jokes and caricatures.

What strikes me peculiar about “Righteous Slaughter 7” is the length GTA V goes to establish a game which isn’t even playable. I’m empathetic to the reasons why this is; it would be a drain on the resources of the already overworked Rockstar employees and would undercut any anti-war message the same way the anti-torture message was negated by having the player perform torture. But in my opinion the crowning achievement that puts into perspective how much Grand Theft Auto’s satire is a weak non-stance comes from the description of a multiplayer map in GTA Online. Quote:

This impeccably crystallizes everything about Rockstar’s heavy-handedness; making the subtext so painfully obvious that they don’t even feel the need to put it in context. “War is bad. Fossil fuels are bad. Now go have fun!” It’s social commentary sure, but that’s all it is — a comment — about as radical as a YouTube reply on a local news story. Satire is supposed to be more than cynicism or criticism, its purpose is to prompt change, or aspire to something greater, or at least afford more of an effort than the bare minimum shaming of the foreign policy of an administration no longer in power a decade after the fact! The grandeur of Grand Theft Auto in its HD incarnations is so caught up in being a facsimile of the contemporary that it never concerns itself with envisioning a possible future; the sun may rise and set but ultimately it’s always killing season in San Andreas, regardless of the weather.

In a 2018 interview with GQ Houser said that it would be “hard to satirise” the “intense liberal progression and intense conservatism [that] are both very militant, and very angry” adding that the world is now “beyond satire”. If it wasn’t apparent already, this plants Rockstar’s brand of satire firmly in the Trey Parker and Matt Stone school of take-no-prisoners bothsidesism that in this day and age is less like centrism or anti-polarization and more like complacency as America hurtles further into reactionary politics, dragging any semblance of resistance along with it. In 2013 Rockstar played the part of Schrödinger’s douchebag, but in 2020 they’re more like Schröndinger’s cat — nobody knows how the Grand Theft Auto series will logically progress both as satire and as a serialized game series now that GTA Online exists.

Houser left Rockstar earlier this year, probably for the best, however I have little confidence that anyone who fills his shoes will be able to adequately tackle a multi-dimensional issue such as the expansion of drone warfare and state surveillance under Bush and Obama that’s reached a fever pitch under Trump. It isn’t only external factors however — what I feel Rockstar is most afraid to satirize its own success. How could the inevitable GTA VI be another treatise on consumerism gone awry when GTA V is so ubiquitous that its long tail has spanned an entire console generation and is now a launch title seven years in the making? If Grand Theft Auto holds up a mirror to a depraved America, then it would appear that America is also holding a mirror and reflecting that energy back onto Rockstar; like the logo of Misfire Games the gun of satire gets bent towards its own holder. Given the current shitshow of school re-openings and the end of the presidential term where reality became an Onion article, wouldn’t it be much more cathartic to be playing Bully 2?

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FURTHER READING

The real world is now more ridiculous than GTA 6 could ever hope to satirize by Wes Fenlon (2020)

Satire, Freedom, Irony & Us: Replaying Grand Theft Auto V by Max Gorynski (2019)

Grand Theft Auto V: The Satire Defense by Shamus Young (2018)

GRAND THEFT AUTO MAY BE SATIRICAL, BUT DOES IT UNDERSTAND SATIRE? by Nick Jones (2017)

“an immature and outrageous satire”: on Grand Theft Auto 5, Satire, and Irony by Cameron Kunzelman (2013)

Nuances of Satire: Falling into GTA V’s Biopolitical Trap by Gaines Hubbell (2013)

David is a writer from Southern Ontario, Canada