Editor's note: This is a very interesting (and humorous) analysis of the Grand Theft Auto series. It dives into the "games as art" debate (don't groan yet — Richard does a good job with it) as well as GTA4 protagonist Niko Bellic's psyche. Why is mowing down pedestrians with a sedan fun? Read on to find out. -Shoe
It's no secret that the Grand Theft Auto series has spawned countless psychotic serial killers and several rather unpleasant rapists ever since Grand Theft Auto 3 hit the PlayStation 2. This is backed up by dozens of studies done by guys in lab coats who couldn't get laid even if their disco sticks ejaculated fine wine and water from the fountain of youth. That means these studies are made of science, and science is never, ever wrong!
Still, for all the Ed Geins and Charlie Mansons that the Grand Theft Auto series has vomited onto society, I can't help but feel that throughout the hundreds of hours I have used these games to train myself to fire real weapons and steal real police cars and watch real TV, I have perhaps also engaged in something meaningful.
Grand Theft Auto never made me cry. It never made me look deep within myself and question the nature of my actions. It never passed judgment on me for choosing to spend my leisure time running over pedestrians and exploding the hell out of anything that moves. It has only ever been there for my amusement. GTA provides the tools, and I create the fun.
While some people argue that the GTA series is a deplorable sign of the steady decline of society itself into that rock-laden pitch-black sea of swirling, howling chaos that will be the end of humanity as we know it, others reply with, "Hey, it's only a game!"
This, more often than not, bleeds a bit into the "games are art" debate. I've seen an article or two about how the "It's only a game!" argument actually hurts the credibility of the medium having artistic merits. And to say that games are art then to claim that you shouldn't worry about their devastating societal effects because they're merely pieces of entertainment is hypocritical. To that, I say, "Nuh-uh!"
You can follow a number of extrapolations here. For example, just because some games aren't art doesn't mean that no games can be art. Movies and books do a fine job of being at times mindless entertainment, at other times engaging analysis of the inner workings of the human psyche, and at no times do movies threaten to destroy everything humanity has worked so hard to build.
A game that lets you blow stuff up without furrowing its brow and trying to look serious has no place alongside the Mona Lisa. What is the Mona Lisa, though? A pretty picture of an ugly woman, rife with technical brilliance from a skilled artist. Last I checked, nobody seems to know exactly who she is or what she represents. The Mona Lisa is one of the most famous pieces of art in the world, and it is apparently nothing more than a presentation of crazy skill within Leonardo da Vinci's medium of choice.
So what is gaming's Mona Lisa? Super Mario Bros. Ha! Bet you didn't see that coming.
No, Grand Theft Auto is not just a technical masterpiece, because, quite frankly, before Grand Theft Auto 4, most of it was janky and half-broken. What makes this series a work of art is simply this: The game reinforces the world, and the world reinforces the game. It's a game that knows it's a game, and it revels in this. Rather than smashing through the fourth wall, however, it does something far more intelligent. It uses its status as a video game to raise the player's suspension of disbelief to the appropriate level, then constructs entire cities that attempt to be as believable as possible.
Rockstar knows that building a city and making it feel real is the easy part. The hard part is inhabiting it with living, breathing people. As realistic as those pedestrians may look and act, they won't always respond like we would to things happening in the real world. Running over someone and then fleeing the scene in real life will obviously lead to a police investigation and most likely end with your arrest, trial, and jail time. Rockstar can't hope to even begin to replicate this, and doing so would probably end up being a lot less fun in the long run, so they hand-wave the whole thing away by making every single character in the GTA universe the embodiment of pure id.
Everyone says and does whatever they feel like saying and doing in order to get what they want at the moment — damn the consequences. Radio and TV personalities are unwaveringly honest. A child actor loudly proclaims that he has started taking drugs and learned to be a loud-mouthed jackass from his co-stars, and the interviewer happily applauds him for it because this is normal everyday life. This interview won't lead to any consequences, because to punish these people wouldn't yield any immediate benefits to anyone. The rampant speak-before-you-think freedom on the radio cements the idea that this is a world of little consequence, and there is absolutely no reason for you not to do whatever makes you happy right now.
This exploration of the id mixed with the overt and biting satire of our own world is why I would squarely place the GTA series in the middle of the Great Art Spectrum that I think might only exist in my deluded, festering brain meat. It's also why Grand Theft Auto 4 is so unloved, relatively speaking.
Grand Theft Auto 4's Niko Bellic is the first time the protagonist has been anything more than a caricature, and to many it clashed strongly with the very ideals of a GTA game. While I can't deny that it's a little silly to lament a past filled with war-time atrocities only to jack a sports car and go screaming into a crowd of innocent bystanders, I think it's within this strange bipolar clusterfuck of characterization butting heads with gameplay where I found so much enthralling mind candy to chew on. To look at Niko as a human in our world is to see a psychopath who says one thing and does another. Unless you're one of these people, it's incredibly difficult to identify with Niko in this way.
To look at Niko as the product of the GTA universe, however, is to possibly understand the weight he must deal with. Niko Bellic isn't a human with a conscience that nags him as he wreaks havoc. He, like everyone else in the GTA universe, was born with only the base instinctual desire to find happiness as quickly as possible at the cost of everything else. Like everyone else, he is secretly miserable, and his life is empty.
Unlike everyone else, though, he's slowly waking up to this fact. He's growing a conscience. Perhaps the first real conscience ever grown in this universe. He doesn't know how to react. He knows he must change his ways and slowly work his way to a better life, but old habits die hard. The allure of a quick fix is still ingrained in him, so for all the bitching and moaning he does about regret and revenge, he is a prisoner to his baser instincts in a world all-too-happy to reinforce his old lifestyle. It's in this way that I was able to identify with Niko, because I am all-too-familiar with the fear and difficulty that comes with change, even for the better.
Basically what I'm saying is that it's really hard to stop killing hookers once you've gotten started, and GTA was just the gateway drug.