We, The Terrified, Average Souls of Los Santos
Grand Theft Auto 5 makes one of the most surprising self-commentaries I’ve encountered in a long time: the average person likes the violence in Grand Theft Auto because they’re average.
For a long time, we – the ones who toil away spewing our best attempts at piercing commentary about interactive media on (relatively) narrowly read corners of the internet – have said, dismissively, that, “average people like the violence in the GTA series,” but I don’t think anyone has made the connection that the masses are drawn to GTA specifically because they feel faceless as part of the masses.
Yet that’s exactly what the game itself postulates. Early on in the game, Grand Theft Auto 5 gives players an opportunity to visit a therapist as Michael, one of the protagonists in the game. The visit serves as a stage set up so Rockstar can give their best case for why they do what they do, or at least so they can take their best guess at why people seem to like it so much.
As Michael starts to go into why his life is going so bad, and some of the recent troubles he’s had, his therapist rightly observes that Michael feels the need to explain his actions instead of taking responsibility. He asserts that Michael naturally seeks out chaos. Michael retorts that he isn’t exactly enjoying almost being killed, but doing what he has to, however difficult or messy, to avoid getting killed.
The therapist presses him: “And what about the people you kill?”
Michael defends himself again. He reasons that is doesn’t enjoy killing anyone, and then he makes the defense that is clearly Rockstar’s defense and/or explanation of why people play their games. Curiously, it’s kicked off with Michael posing a question.
“Am I a sociopath who enjoys suffering, or am I a psychopath who doesn’t feel a thing?”
The implication is that since Michael can’t be both, the doctor’s assertions contradict. Michael is claiming that he’s neither, and then goes on to offer his own (Rockstar’s) explanation.
Michael says that he’s a washed up old jock who can’t accept that his high school football career didn’t pan out the way he hoped. It sounds silly, but it meshes with everything else he’s been bitching about with his therapist. Michael, despite having put away enough money during his prior life of crime to live comfortably, complains constantly about his cheating wife, his free loading son, and his vapid daughter. He complains about his lack of direction, but doesn’t do much about it.
Michael confesses the only time he feels in control is with a gun in his hand. Earlier when he was escaping a harrowing, and destructive, sequence with Franklin, another of GTA 5’s protagonists, Michael admits he hasn’t felt so invigorated in years. Michael’s been retired from a life of crime for years, and it seems the atrophy has not worn well on him psychologically. It sounds like he needs an outlet.
Finally, the therapist asks Michael if he feels like a failure. Michael balks at the question. He’s made a good living for himself. It wasn’t pretty, but he did what he had to do, and you sense the feeling he’s proud of that. He’s miserable, but he did make it. Michael reasons that’s pretty average for this town.
Michael feels he’s had a breakthrough. He starts rambling for a second, and the therapist checks his watch. Michaels seems to have figured out that he is drawn to chaos and why. He says he’s like everyone else in Los Santos and that he’s terrified of–
But the therapist cuts him off. The time is up, and they’ll meet again next week.
I enjoy that Rockstar cuts off the commentary just short of leaving it in people’s laps. Granted, they almost blatantly spelled it out, but in such a revelling moment of self-awareness, I imagine the writers of this scene went out of their way to make sure the average player could grasp the theme along with those of us who squeeze thematic relevance out of puzzle games.
While I’m not normally a fan of such direct commentary in a story, this commentary is commenting on how the game it’s in tends to draw the average, perhaps less discerning, person, who likely doesn’t come to a game of Grand Theft Auto with an eye or ear for social commentary. The average player has to grasp this scene for what it is, otherwise it becomes a weird elitist jab at the average player.
Michael, like all the average saps in Los Santos, is terrified of being average. It seems Rockstar is saying that all the average players of the Grand Theft Auto series, who don’t see the excessive violence of the game as anything more than the control that a gun in-hand affords them, are also compelled by a fear of the mundane.
Michael is bored and dissatisfied, and he’s afraid that, without an outlet, trend will continue. Although it would have to mean simultaneously defending and insulting the largest portion of their player base, it seems Rockstar is saying the average GTA player is about as hapless and in need of chaos to scathe off boredom as Michael is.
It isn’t a justification as much as an observation. The reason why I think it’s a good one is because it doesn’t account for everyone. Average is not the same as everyone. Not everyone who plays GTA 5 will not come to it bored and looking to alleviate the monotony with some fake, over-the-top video game violence. Many people – I’d venture to say almost everyone who reads a blog like mine – don’t come to GTA 5 with that kind of mindset. Many people approach a game like GTA 5 expecting satire, and with a mind to analyze and understand that satire as a way of better understanding the culture the satire is based on.
Lots of people aren’t average. It’s part of the reason why I like the commentary so much. It’s an almost impossible task to try and figure out why everyone plays GTA; those reasons would be extremely varied and many.
But to dangle a reason explaining the appeal to the broad audience that comes in droves, and to dismiss the two most cited reasons of critics – that people don’t care about violence, or that they relish it – demonstrates a deftness that only Rockstar has shown among modern gaming storytellers in the last 15 years.
It doesn’t justify anything, or try to. It isn’t heavy handed. Through Michael, Rockstar voices the exasperated defense of someone who’s throwing up their arms, admitting their fears, and copping to the fact that chaos is something they’re drawn to because of their own shortcomings. They’re just not ready to apologize for it yet.
It’s probably not a satisfying explanation for those that have been consistently critical of Rockstar. I imagine it wasn’t meant for them anyway. I hope it was intended to help the average player reflect, like Michael did, on their own boredom and reasons for coming to something like GTA 5.
Similarly, as a writer, I haven’t done much in the way of exploring the overall scheme of violence from GTA in our culture and industry. I wasn’t trying to.
The boldest proclamation I’m ready to throw out is that there is no all encompassing theory for why the violence in GTA is the way it is, and why it sells so well.
GTA 5 is a sprawling, robust mess of game that encompasses so many tropes, cliches, pop culture, satire, and slick aesthetics that trying to come up with a overall take on any element of it seems preposterous. I like this scene because it seems there’s a lot to boil down in a short sequence.
What occurred to me after writing the first draft of this piece is that while the commentary in the first therapist scene with Michael is good all on its own, as I’ve described it here, another level of analysis could exist that is likely more of a subtextual flourish than Rockstar would have bothered with.
It’s essentially that Michael is kind of a loser. He’s externally successful, but his family is dysfunctional, he’s psychologically damaged, and he’s got no skills to speak of outside of those necessary for violent crimes. What we’re watching him do – no, what we’re doing through him – is get into trouble and then make lame excuses for why he has no choice, or why this is the only way to help himself. Ultimately, his life will breed more chaos (or the rest of GTA 5 will end up vastly more subdued than I anticipate) and his excuses will be shown to be just that.
Maybe Rockstar aren’t explaining themselves. Perhaps they’re turning the mirror on the average player, but without judging them, showing them how thin the excuses are of those who don’t contemplate the violence, real or digital, around them. And if we’re running through Los Santos like mostly everyone else, without pausing to wonder why we’re drawn to the chaos, maybe Rockstar are reminding us we’re a little more average than we’d like to admit.