In video games, size matters. As a creative medium driven by tech industry futurism, where ‘innovation’ means incremental alterations of the same, known franchises, a ‘good’ game is a bigger and better version of a previous game. In the marketing-fuelled anticipation leading up to the release of developer/publisher Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto V, the focus was primarily centred on how big Los Santos and San Andreas – Rockstar’s virtual pastiche of Los Angeles and southern California – would be. How many square kilometres would the player have to explore? Would it be twice as big as the world of Grand Theft Auto IV? Three times as big? How big would it be compared to Sydney?
Such speculation, as widespread as it might be amongst the more enthusiast video game players and press, belies what Rockstar’s studios actual accomplishes with their virtual world building, both in the Grand Theft Auto series, now sixteen years old, and their other recent games such as Red Dead Redemption (2010) and LA Noire (2011). The worlds of these games aren’t incredible because of their sheer size but because of their minute detail. Being able to drive in a single direction for half an hour is not a particularly special achievement: what’s special is the sense of a living, breathing city rushing past your window. The wooden palettes stacked in an alley beside a store. The bicycle lane curving alongside the gutter of the highway. The small souvenir store on the beachfront opposite the man renting out bicycles from beneath his umbrella. The puddles in the tyre tracks by the side of the country road where too many cars have u-turned. The hikers atop the mountain taking selfies on their smartphones against the golden sunset. Crucially, the way you can never put your finger on exactly where the city petered into suburbia into farmland as you race down the freeway, or precisely where the commercial district turned into the ghetto. Most studios creates spaces. Rockstar creates places.
It’s the kind of world that makes you want to do nothing, which is perhaps the highest praise that can be directed at a video game’s level designers. While most video game spaces push us through them, wanting us to keep moving (‘Video game spaces are designed like shopping malls,’ architect and writer Claire Hosking accurately noted at a Worldbuilding workshop during the recent Freeplay Games Festival in Melbourne), Rockstar wants you to stand still. They want you to walk your character slowly down the footpath like some kind of virtual (and psychotic) Michel de Certeau: practising the everyday city below the threshold of visibility – less interested in how big it looks than how alive it feels. This is less Call of Duty: Modern Warfare (2007) and more The Sims (2000). To play Grand Theft Auto V is to experience the everyday life of its three protagonists within San Andreas. Everything feels in media res. Get in a car and the song on the radio is already halfway through. Change at will to one of the other characters and the camera flies up into the air, pans across half the state, and down into your new body, situating it in its space. The new character is not standing idly where you last left them five hours ago, they have moved on with their life – just another person in the city.
Yet standing on a street corner is exactly where the game starts to break down. Perhaps there is a billboard for a perfume with the slogan SMELL LIKE A BITCH. Maybe an armoured van for the company Gruppe Sechs drives past. A passer-by complains down her phone that her daddy won’t give her any more drug money. Somewhere nearby there is, inevitably, a joke about the number ’69’. Grand Theft Auto V’s San Andreas is the digital worldbuilding equivalent of the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling – if, as a finishing touch, Michelangelo climbed his scaffolding and drew a giant dick’n’balls in bright yellow paint across the middle.
It’s a tension at the core of the Grand Theft Auto series – and, really, at the core of game culture’s tumultuous search for an identity – that has continued for decades now. By the late 90s, pushed to the margins of cultural legitimacy for so long, games embraced an outsider, irreverent point-of-view on the world, mocking everyone and everything – including themselves. As the media insisted video games were an evil influence, games responded with the likes of Grand Theft Auto (1997), Carmageddon (1997), and Postal (1997), all embracing over-the-top violence and a juvenile, masculinist sense of humour. You think video games are a negative influence? We’ll show you a negative influence!
But games can be serious now. The New Yorker posts essays on them. MoMA has started curating a games collection. Games are art, no less so than cinema or literature. As a generation of gamers grew up over the past decade, games entered the mainstream. Games still want to be edgy but they also want to be accepted.
Indeed, when Grand Theft Auto IV was released in 2008, it cut back on the series’ flamboyance. The jetpacks, tanks and flamethrowers were all removed; the absurdity was stripped back to a bare minimum to tell a dark, tragic, everyday story about immigrant Niko Bellic in Liberty City. The juvenile humour was still there but more restrained than ever before. It was a trend continued by Red Dead Redemption, telling an equally tragic story of John Marston in a Wild West setting. Again, the focus on place and everyday-ness was paramount, more important than giving the player an open toy box.
That’s a road down which Grand Theft Auto V has no interest in continuing. Instead, it has down a U-turn, returning to the game’s earlier days. The beautiful world afforded by current technology is still there but it is once more a sandbox of minigames and distractions. The story is again an absurd and juvenile action flick of deranged psychopaths and power-hungry criminals. It’s the same outsider irreverence that the series helped ferment in the late 90s. The biggest problem Grand Theft Auto V faces, then, is that we’re no longer in the late 90s, and games are no longer outsiders.
Several hours into Grand Theft Auto V, Michael, one of the three protagonists, is asked to infiltrate the offices of ‘LifeInvader’– a parody of a Californian tech start-up, combining Facebook’s commodification of personal information with Apple’s techno-fetishistic upgrade culture. Michael is there because he owes a friend a favour. The friend hates everything LifeInvader stands for, especially its monopolising closed-system software, and wants Michael to sabotage the company by planting a bomb to blow the head off a fictional Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg hybrid.
The player sneaks Michael into the building by slinging a backpack over a single shoulder and dressing him in cargo pants and a hoodie. As you walk him through the brightly-painted corridors, a receptionist asks a visitor to ‘take a beanbag’ while they wait for an appointment. Through the glass wall of an office at the end of an open-air workspace, three young men start playing air guitars together in the middle of a meeting. The mocking of Californian tech start-up culture is almost funny – one of the few moments that the game’s heavy-handed satire actually works.
I wanted to grab a screenshot of the air guitarists. I pulled out Michael’s in-game smartphone, which also functions as a screenshot tool. I took the photo, but I couldn’t save it. My covert spy stood there between the desks for five minutes, waiting for his virtual phone to connect to Rockstar’s actual, closed-system social network: Rockstar Social Club. Rather than saving screenshots to your own hard drive, Rockstar insists that players must connect to their service in order to save images. But, buckling under release-day traffic, the servers were down. Without that connection, there was no way to save my screenshot. I deleted the image and continued on the mission.
This is the Janus head that is Grand Theft Auto V’s satire, the desire to be both juvenile outsider and serious social commentary. During a mission trying to parody tech start-ups and the methods they use to control our lives, I am unable to save an image to a piece of hardware with a 500gb hard drive because a server on the other side of the world is down.
Grand Theft Auto V is everything it wants to mock. An attempt to critique an actual, contemporary social issue becomes a hypocritical joke for the joke’s sake.
Other missions make fun of capitalist culture, women, neoliberalism, transgender people, celebrities, government agencies, conspiracy theorists, drug legalisation, and, of course, video game players. Anything and everything is fair game. It’s a brand of conservative humour that, as game critic Cameron Kunzelman notes, ‘is designed to be above all politics, the kind of “we make fun of everyone” that gives even the most virulent racist or sexist a way of escaping criticism.’ Feminist movements are an equally worthy target of mockery as a paranoid government that illegally tortures its own citizens. Grand Theft Auto V isn’t interested in saying anything: it just wants to speak.
A generation of video game players have now, perhaps ironically, grown up hearing the phrase that ‘games are growing up’. Sales figures are held up as proof of the medium’s cultural clout. One day, we will be crafting stories with as much emotional weight as our Hollywood counterparts. How could we not? Look at all that money!
Grand Theft Auto V, with its dick jokes, innuendo, and rampant sexism, made $1 billion in three days. It is the highest grossing entertainment product in history—as was the last big video game that came out, as will be the next. With Grand Theft Auto V, a generation of players who have grown up waiting for games to grow up are starting to realise that ‘mainstream acceptance’ never meant we would get more mature, critical video games – it means we would start using terms like ‘entertainment product’. This maturing audience and the burgeoning critical sphere around video games is becoming conscious that waiting for video games to grow up culturally is, in its own way, to fall down the same progressivist hole as that core audience chasing the ‘bigger’ world like a carrot on a stick.
Grown up, meaningful, critical games already exist, as critic Leigh Alexander rightly notes; they just aren’t coming from the mainstream, consumer-driven industry. Mainstream, big budget games have no plans to grow up. Why would they? Like the Wiggles performing the same songs to an endless rotation of toddlers, game franchises like Grand Theft Auto will always have an audience of seventeen-year-old boys desiring the same juvenile jokes. Early in Grand Theft Auto V, Michael turns to fellow protagonist Franklin and says, ‘I was just lost in an 80s movie fantasy.’ He could be speaking for an entire medium.
This has left an ageing population of video game players feeling quite perplexed. The ‘tragedy’ of Grand Theft Auto V felt by critics and pinpointed by Alexander in another essay is the realisation that this medium we were certain would grow up is really no longer our medium at all. Tom Bissell perhaps says it best when he notes that playing Grand Theft Auto feels like smoking behind the back of the school – the smokes still tastes good but they don’t feel quite so exciting or edgy when you’re pushing thirty.
We still run through the streets of Los Santos, watching the virtual sun beat off the asphalt and refract over the downtown skyscrapers. We still trace the dirt paths through the miles of farmland sculpted so perfectly as to look completely organic. We still fly a helicoper over the cusp of a mountain and lose our breath as we find ourselves hovering over the VINEWOOD sign and looking down on a sprawling cityscape grey that’s grey not because our machines are failing to render the world ahead of us but because it is covered in a finely-drawn smog. We still wander through this phenomenal accomplishment of virtual worldbuilding – and, in many ways, it is exactly what we were always promised video games could be. But in other ways, it is starting to feel like that awkward high school reunion or the realisation you don’t know what music is cool anymore. Video games aren’t growing up, but their players are – and growing up feels an awful lot like being pushed aside.