One of the most thrilling aspects of the GTA games is the sense of freedom. I remember playing the very first GTA with my friend on his PC. We didn't even play a single mission our entire time. Once the game starts up you can basically do anything. You can steal a car, kill random people, take your cars off jumps, ram into oncoming traffic, really anything that seems possible in the game you can do. There is a bit of a guilty pleasure aspect to playing like this but it just shows one of the layers that GTA has. If you want GTA to be a shallow game, it is one. You are not forced to do anything you don't want to do, and if you feel like following your characters story it is there for you, if not you can ignore it.
Of course the game designers gave this freedom at a cost, your actions result in reactions from the game. If you want to run around shooting people, the police will start to pursue you. If you continue your relentless violence the police get more and more forceful to the point where it is near impossible to escape them. There are ways around this, changing the plates and color of your car and hiding in your house for a while, but overall the game does a good job at giving you freedom but with a consquence. The freedom of a GTA game is easily its biggest draw to the public and sadly its the one the media latches on to when trying to slander the game, but there is so much more artisitic merit to the game.
Does life imitate art, or does art imitate life? I would argue that the makers of GTA think that art imitates life, and it is very clear in making GTA a satire on our real world. As I said before, freedom is the big draw of the game and with that freedom usually comes a great deal of violence. The violence, both caused by you and brought against you, is so over the top it starts to become funny and satirical. If the violence in the game was more realistic (watching people cry, having children in the game, using sexaul abuse all of which the game does not use) it would become distrubing and any right minded individual couldn't play it nor would enjoy it. But the image of a man walking down the street with a bazooka blowing up hot dog stands, goes from violent and scarey and becomes silly.
While the hyper violence in GTA is satire it is a fairly low form of satire. Anyone could pull this off. But again the game is as shallow as you want it to be, if you enjoy that kind of humour then it is there for you, if you want more, GTA has that too. The storylines in GTA games are usually full of colourful characters that are extreme representations of real personalities. When the game shows a politician, he will most likely be the sleeziest politician you have ever seen. When the game has a police figure, chances are that cop is crooked and drunk on his own power. GTA is not afraid to poke fun at authority and show us how our society has some dark features even where we think it is safe. Again, they exaggerate these characters to make them more humorous then serious. This way of showing well know figures takes its cue from Monty Python, wich regularly showed people with ridiculous and exagerated personalities. The makers of the GTA series are from the UK so british humor should influence them.
Usually the lead character in the game is the only intelligent figure, even though he is also a criminal. The hero may be a criminal but for the most part he is sympathetic. The fact that a criminal is the hero among many other characters in the game speaks volumes on how strange the world of GTA is.Finally on a deeper level the Satire encompasses even the smaller aspects of the game. If you watch TV in GTAIV there are plenty of shows that spoof our own TV programs, and are loaded with social commentary. The radio in all the games pokes fun at the various music genres with the DJ being an exaggerated colour commentator. The talk radio stations are full of left winged and right winged bias (depending on what channel or show you are listening to) to show that no one or now political view is safe and they all have flaws.
A surprise success since the previous 2 GTA games had only limited appeal. Set in the early 2000s (when the game was published), it was the first GTA to go 3D, as well as add more layers of depth to the freedom and realism in the game. This game added the many fully tuned radio stations with licensed music. While it seems rather trivial to add radio to the game it made the game seem more real, since the radio was so fully realized that it was basically like having an actual radio in your car. Also bringing the game into 3D made it easier for the player to fully immmerse him/herself in the game. GTA III brought in a few other small touches to give the player even more freedom, they could drive a taxi around the city and pick up fares, drive an ambulance and save lives, and use police cars to stop criminals. All these extra touches made the world more well rounded and real. The game was set in Liberty City and the whole city is basically a satire on New York City. It had some similiar features to the real world New York but looked different enough to hold its own identity.
The lead character was a Silent Protagonist that was never even given a name (they mention his name in a later game but you go through all of GTA III not knowing it). I have already mentioned how a silent protagonist is effective in an earlier blog. The designers must have used a silent protagonist in this game to yet again give the player more insight into the game. The lead character was rather plain looking and it is not hard to project yourself on to him, and use your internal dialogue as his voice in the game.
GTA Vice City
Tommy Vercetti, the lead character, was a lot less likable then any other lead in a GTA game before or since. Its clear that he is a criminal and even though he is still the most intellegent person in the game, he is still a large part of the overall satire. However, having this truely evil lead character is needed to capture the feel of Scarface, which itself starred a horrific character.
GTA San Andreas
Finally GTA IV returned to a contemporary setting (2008) and Liberty city. GTA IV took a lot of risks and reigned in much more than GTA:SA did. the plot is much more focused and is not as humorous. The story revolves around an Eastern European immigrant finding out that the american dream is not all its cracked up to be, and finds his brother already involved in the wrong crowd. Niko, your character, is also a war vet who is damaged from what he experienced. The freedom is still there but once you enter the main storyline the game really hits you much harder. In some cases you have to make tough choices on who you trust and are given an option to kill one person or another. Whoever you decide to kill is gone from the game and their absence has an impact throughout. Your freedom has more consquences this time not only on a threat level, police chasing you, but also on an emotional level. The comedic-satire still exisits when you listen to the radio, or watch TV. GTA IV has a wide variety of radio and TV to watch and listen to and they often contain a lot of political commentary, or snide remarks about our culture.
The one new feature GTA IV added was relationships. You could gain friends and girlfriends. Just like in real relationships you have to keep up with them (by calling them and going out on a regular basis) in order to get closer. Your dates would even complain if you wore the same clothes more than once. One the flip side if you bothered someone too much, they would start refusing to see you since you are being too clingy. The people around you are almost as well rounded as the lead character. This makes the world seem more real and gives the player more reason to care about those around him/her.
GTA is an artistic series, it just is a form of art we do not always recognize. GTA can be a game that is a simple violent kill spree, or it can be a heavy story driven game with a deeper meaning. Just like the freedom the player has in the game, we have a freedom to interpret GTA more than any other game. Since the game has this layer of depth it shows how creative the designers of the game are. It takes a lot of skill to make a game so well rounded that it fits with many players tastes. On the narrative side of the game the designers chose to play with cliches and satire in order to maintain a higher form of commentary throughout. They chose to make their game not only fun but also say something about the society we live in. GTA is an exageratted world but when you take it down a few notches you can see that it is very close to what we see around us. Yet again this adds another layer of depth this time in the stoytelling aspect. Some people may see the game as "kill this. go there. kill this." Others can see it as a story about all the things wrong in the world. The GTA series is a sandbox game that has many possibilities both in gameplay and story and it is up to the player whether they see it as art or not. It shouldn't be a surprise how I see the game. What do you think?