Joris Dormans (2006)
GTA has been a hype, and I only reluctantly picked it up as any self-styled and self-respecting game scholar should at least know what the fuss was all about. But I was quickly won over when a friend of mine showed me a little of the game, a brief trip that included a visit to the "Ammu-Nation" outlet to gear up. The satirical name of the store got my attention and it surprised me that in all the articles and reviews I read of GTA this satirical dimension of the game did not really come forward.
GTA III has been called many things, but probably Gonzalo Frasca's typification of a Crime Sim best describes the feel of the game: after all, you play a small time crook that steals, kills and betrays his way up the criminal career ladder. You drive around the streets of Liberty City in stolen cars and commit violent crimes or deal with the all manner of shifty characters. Vice City and San Andreas expand on this theme but place you in different settings. These settings are important, as they are modelled on real North-American cities: New York and Miami in the first two games, and the last game includes a mock Los Angeles, San Francisco and Las Vegas. The difference between these games come down largely to the scope of the action. In Liberty City you are a lone (unnamed) shark that just murders his way up and ultimately seeking revenge after his betrayal by his girlfriend. In Vice City you ascend the criminal hierarchy faster and get to own various enterprises throughout the city. The objective is to build your own crime emporium. With San Andreas the play area is expanded to no less than three cities and a sizeable rural area. Your character starts out as a humble member of a local gang, makes his way up by taking out rival gangs in the hoods, through owning various businesses and ends up stealing secret military hardware. The game builds up to its final crescendo far more slowly and arguably somewhat more 'realistically'.
As I stated above one of the things that immediately struck me when playing GTA is its satirical nature. Every character in these games (especially in GTA III and Vice City) is a stereotype. Unfortunately this makes the game on a superficial level downright racist and sexist, even though one can argue that at another level it is reflecting in racism and sexism. Most scenes seem to be taken from television crime shows or film. This is most notable in Vice City refers a lot to the Miami Vice series and the film Scarface. The radio you listen to when driving around contributes strongly to this satirical atmosphere with brilliantly and hilariously mock stations and commercials. Combined with the fake billboards that are scattered through the towns and game features such as expanding waistlines from eating to much junkfood in San Andreas it should become clear that apart from a violent driving game GTA is also an intelligent and humorous commentary on some aspects of modern urban life (such as excessive branding). The basis of this commentary is based mostly on what Umberto Eco (in On Literature) calls 'intertextual irony'. A rhetoric form that uses double coding that at the same time mocks and reflects on what it refers to. For example, a radio jingles that sound exactly how radio jingles should, but informing us that you are listening to a classic rock station that brings you "the music you were bored of twenty years ago" or a generic pop station that advertises that it is "making sound every radio station in every city exactly the same". This form of intertextual irony is a applauded and highly respected in all cultural 'texts' and often attributed to the biggest names in the literary canon, and it is promising to see a game that makes such good use of it.
However, I am somewhat ambivalent as which of the three games is in this respect the best. Certainly San Andreas has the biggest production value, but the game also aims for a more realistic and serious feel than the other two (and of course the fellow who designed the PC controls should be fired). In Vice City the intertextual references are the most obvious but at the same time these are not as reflective as they are in the other two games. Perhaps the I like GTA III best because this game is the most 'sketchy'. Produced for a considerable lower cost than the later instalments, its satirical content is more concentrated and more playfully applied. (This is important because this shows craftsmanship of the gamedevelopers.) Especially the opportunities of free play the game offers, with its unmotivated hidden packages, stunt bonuses, challenges, and rampages make it an uncut diamond and a key work in the cultural development of games.
I also wrote an article on the GTA series called "The World is Yours: Intertextual Irony and Second Level Reading Strategies in Grand Theft Auto". It is published on games-research.com.