Grand Theft Auto V as grotesquerie
Enough has been written about Grand Theft Auto V in the week since its release that I’m hesitant to attempt any kind of incisive criticism; the best writers in gaming have been at work on that since long before I even got my hands on the game.
I have been trying to sort out for myself, as I’ve made my way through the first part of the game, why I am enjoying it so much. Why I have always enjoyed this series. Why I feel affection for its protagonists, even though they are unquestionably Bad People by any reasonable metric. Of course it’s possible to feel sympathy for the Devil, but I’m somehow uniquely susceptible to it in this medium in a way that I haven’t encountered in others. I don’t watch Breaking Bad. I’ve never really been a fan of Scarface. Niko Bellic, on the other hand, is a character for whom I have considerable love.
I have been trying to understand why I am willing to invest myself in characters like Michael and Franklin (not so much Trevor, yet, I’ve just gotten to him and thus far I don’t like him very much) when I am so resistant to do it in other media. I think I’ve finally boiled it down: GTAV is a grotesquerie, both in its world and in its characters.
The first thing that it is important to note is that the world of Grand Theft Auto is unambiguously horrible. It is horrible in some of the same ways that the real world is horrible, only more so. There has been a lot of talk amongst games writers about Rockstar’s “failed satire,” but I don’t even know if satire is really what they’re going for here. I think that the aesthetic of the Grand Theft Auto series has drifted completely away from satire, if it every truly fit the term. From where it stands now, I think that it would be more accurate to call GTA a grotesque.
Both the world and the characters of GTA are meant to elicit both disgust and pity in the player. The counterpoint of those two emotions is what makes a grotesquerie so compelling: the player (or reader, or viewer, or what have you) wants to continue the narrative because they want to see whether or not the characters come to a place that’s less disgusting, less pitiful.
In Liberty City or Los Santos (or the rest of San Andreas, or even in Vice City), the subtext of commercialism, materialism, and capitalism that runs beneath our everyday lives is made explicit. The radio spews vile filth almost unceasingly. The billboards are suggestive and woefully adolescent. The people you pass on the street are vapid and superfluous, by design as much as by the convenience of programming. If this were satire, there would be some narrative commentary, some pointed suggestion as to the meaning of such excesses, but in GTAV there is none. It is the worst of the world made uglier, turned up to eleven, and presented to the player with barely a raised eyebrow. Again: grotesque. This is America-as-gargoyle.
In the world of GTA, sexism is rampant and horrible because the whole world has been crafted from a male perspective. Whether this implies a narrow, insensitive worldview on the part of the developers (likely) or a conscious decision to recognize the omnipresence of the patriarchy and depict it as even more omnipresent (odds are slim), the effect is the same: the disenfranchised are now nonexistent. The complex and interesting women who populate real life and so often go unrecognized by those with privilege are here less than invisible: in Los Santos, they simply do not exist. All of those angry dudebros who lashed out when critics gave GTAV less than a 10? This is their perspective given form and verisimilitude. And, like everything else in the universe of GTA, it’s horrible. A grotesque. An exaggeration that turns what is wrong into what is unconscionable.
It might be possible to set a GTA in a world that was not horrible in these ways (it would, in all probability, be more interesting), but this hideous fun-house mirror of real life makes it considerably easier to empathize with our protagonists. Oftentimes, they’re the least horrible guys in the room. But these three miscreants are grotesques, too, in the traditional sense: they are characters who simultaneously evoke disgust and empathetic pity.
Franklin’s kind of sad. Michael is sad, like, profoundly sad. Trevor, well, Trevor’s a whole ‘nother animal. But he’s pretty pathetic himself. (And, hey, while we’re on it– Niko Bellic is pretty sad, too.)
These are the kinds of characters which I would probably have a hard time watching on television (or–and I shudder to think of it–on stage). I think that my disgust would probably overpower my pity pretty quickly. Something about the medium of games, though, makes me give these guys a second look (it might have to do with how much, on a mechanical level, I like Shooting Bad Guys and Driving Fast Cars).
But I think there’s more to it than just that. In a world which is orders of magnitude worse than our own, we’re allowed to partner up with them and try and guide them toward being better–helping them to have more control over their lives, helping to dig them out of the pits of misery in which they’re entrenched–even if the journey there is over the bodies of wave after wave of thugs.
As I play the game, I don’t murder civilians for no reason. I try not to get anybody killed if I can avoid it. When I’m playing as Michael, I have him call his wife after every mission, hoping against hope that now that he’s back in the game and feeling more of a purpose to his life, he might start to treat her a little more humanely, and a genuine relationship might emerge. (Pretty sure this one’s a futile hope on my part. Gonna keep trying.)
GTA is complicated. At the same time that it glorifies hideous violence and makes the player complicit in it, it asks them to pity its miserable characters and try and guide them toward a place where they’ll be happier. But those two dueling emotions–disgust and pity–are the basis of any classical grotesque, from Frankenstein’s monster to Caliban to Smeagol, and it’s why even those of us who cringe at the hideousness of Rockstar’s ugly universe can buy in.
Looking at the game as an example of the grotesque doesn’t make the problematic elements go away, but for me it’s been a lens through which to understand my engagement with it.