Grand Theft Auto May Be Satirical, But Does It Understand Satire?
My Complicated Relationship with GTA.
If there’s one thing that differs and divides me from many other gamers out there, it is the Grand Theft Auto Series. I hate it. Ever since it entered my awareness as a young High School kid, I struggled to understand the appeal of the series. While my buddies would be killing police and stealing trucks in the streets of Miami, having the time of their lives, I’d be sitting next to them on the couch, stuffing my face with potato chips, bored out of my mind.
This isn’t to say the Grand Theft Auto games are bad games, obviously they’re not. To have the kind of commercial appeal and critical acclaim that those games have, the creators have to be doing something right. And they are. I’m not debating the graphics or the sandbox gameplay. Those things are objectively good decisions from a gaming perspective.
However, being the story fanatic that I am, it is the narrative style of these games that I take issue with.
For years I simply just bitched about how I thought GTA was a shit series, without ever considering why I felt this way. Thinking about it now, and really unpacking my feelings regarding the games, I have come to a conclusion as to why I’m not a fan.
Grand Theft Auto is not just pointlessly violent. It doesn’t intentionally glorify hedonism and crime. In fact, I believe it has been the attempt of the creators to do the very opposite. If we consider the GTA series through the lens of social satire, it becomes clear to me what they are trying to do.
For the uninitiated, satire is a literary convention “in which vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings are held up to ridicule, ideally with the intent of shaming individuals, corporations, government or society itself, into improvement.” ("Satire," 2016)
Satire favours the use of sarcasm and irony as well as a healthy serving of parody and exaggeration among other rhetorical devices.
Upon giving thought to the GTA games, I can see that Rockstar Games were clearly trying to create a kind of social commentary through parodying the insanity of an MTV culture obsessed with violence, sex and cold hard cash.
The tragedy of Grand Theft Auto is Rockstar Games’ mistaken presumption that satire works in games the same way that it works in other forms of storytelling.
There are two crucial elements of traditional satire that are unfortunately negated in the act of presenting the commentary as a video game.
Issue One: The Moral At The End Of The Story?
The first, issue with satirical video games is summed up nicely in this IGN article on the same topic:
“GTA V’s gameplay lacks both an ironic punch and didactic end. As often as the game seems to make judgments about a player’s operating in a morally bankrupt world, the gameplay only reinforces the virtues of morally bankrupt activity. We steal cars and shoot people because that’s what people in San Andreas do.
If the game were satire, there would be some type of mechanical, formal acknowledgment that the roles the player performs are repugnant and awful, but there’s no mechanical comeuppance for the sins of the player. In San Andreas, the player with the fewest ethical hang-ups rises to the top because they are best suited for the world Rockstar created, not because there’s an ultimate lesson to be learned here.” (Djchan08, 2013)
Without a comeuppance, without a “moral of the story”, GTA becomes simply a game that (while albeit accidentally) glorifies bad behavior. It doesn’t hold a candle to other satirical works of the same hedonistic genre like, for example – the cautionary tale of The Great Gatsby or perhaps a more modern day example like Fight Club.
I do want to place a disclaimer here and say: I don’t necessarily see an issue with games that simply glorify violence or bad behavior. It can be argued that many horror games do just that, and horror is generally my favorite genre of every kind of storytelling.
However, GTA is tonally inappropriate for that kind of game. GTA has inarguably a humorous tone to it, which comes naturally with an attempt to parody the plastic MTV culture, but lacking the rhetoric devices required for satire, it simply makes violence and bad behavior a kind of silly fun, almost childish, it tonally trivializes the hedonism unlike games that simply glorify it.
Issue Two: Audience Participation and Game Immersion.
The second and more important issue I believe can be found in audience participation of the story.
As I previously pointed out, satire’s intent is to ridicule aspects of society in the hopes that it will prompt society to change from their follies. Important to this intention is the observation of ridicule by the audience. In short, audience members need to see their actions displayed in an over the top, sarcastic and ironic way so they can laugh at it and then be prompted into realizing that is a mirror to their own actions. If society can laugh at its own shortcomings, then society can realize those shortcomings for the idiocy they are, and change.
The problem with the GTA attempt at satire is that the audience is no longer an audience. The audience have become the actors themselves, or rather, the players. They have been immersed into the role.
Immersion is generally something that games aspire to create. There’s generally nothing better than a game that can grab you by the balls and drag you kicking and screaming into their world, to the point in which their world feels real enough that you lose yourself in it.
However, satire is naturally a Meta craft of writing. Satire HAS to be self-aware, it HAS to hold the audience at arm’s length, otherwise the audience may forget that the characters are parodies of themselves, without distance, the audience could even… sympathize with the characters and not see the inherent irony in such characters and such characters’ actions.
And this issue is one at the heart of not only GTA, but many other games that attempt satire. The very act of allowing the player to personify a satirical character very easily can create a vacuum, in which the ridicule element is sucked away into the depths of space, and players are left with a game in which they enjoy random acts of violence and they enjoy stealing cars. Sure, there’s humor, and players can still get that and enjoy the jokes, but the more overarching, thematic humor of social commentary becomes easily lost in the process.
At The End Of The Day, The GTA Games Are Not Bad Games.
They have an obvious appeal in their game-play, their humor, plot and graphics. However, my distaste for them comes from their hit and miss attempt at creating interactive satire.
I do think satire can be done in gaming, but as with many story-telling techniques that are used in gaming, satire needs to be reinterpreted and adapted to work with the medium it is being used to write for.
What exactly needs to change, I’m not sure – perhaps it will be a topic for another article, but to conclude this piece, I want to simply reiterate what satire is and why it works. Satire as an ingenious form of storytelling that can hold up a mirror to the worst aspects of society, and when we see ourselves reflected in that mirror, it simultaneously brings enjoyment through comedy and conviction for us to change. It is the spoonful of sugar that can help some pretty bitter and disgusting medicine trickle down our throats so that we can be healed.
Djchan08. (2013, September 30). Video games and the struggle with satire. Retrieved from http://www.ign.com/blogs/djchan08/2013/09/30/video-games-and-the-struggle-with-satire
Satire. (2016). In Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved August 20, 2016, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Satire