There was a time when Grand Theft Auto was cool. It was 1997. Back then, GTA was still being made in the tiny studios of DMA Design, and was overseen by the Houser brothers, whose mum had been in Get Carter and whose dad part-owned Ronnie Scott's.
The first GTA felt dangerous. I still have the poster for it up on my wall. Beneath the title, it says: "Distributed by The Hand of Satan/Take 2 Interactive." A juvenile sentiment, deliberately baiting of hysterical parents, but rock and roll nevertheless. And honest. Grand Theft Auto was childish, but back then, DMA – latterly Rockstar – was run by a bunch of kids. What they were doing came from the heart.
Not like now. In the almost 20 years since it first swaggered in, shouting "alright fucksticks!" like Nathan Barley, Grand Theft Auto still hasn't grown up. Grand Theft Auto V, now wowing PC gamers all over again (its Metascore is an astonishing 98), is just as brazen, cynical and empty as the first GTA, except now it's designed and written by a 40-year-old multi-millionaire. Attitudinal, self-unaware iconoclasm – the "Hand of Satan" mentality that predominated the first GTA – doesn't ring true any more, since Grand Theft Auto and its originators have profited heartily from the very systems they purport to buck.
In one mission in GTA V, you're tasked with assassinating a character who is basically Mark Zuckerberg, thus destabilising his social networking site "Life Invader." But then you remember that the original trailer for Grand Theft Auto V, and the game's other, myriad marketing materials, were all disseminated via the internet and shared, feverishly, through sites like Facebook and Twitter. Similarly, one of the game's central antagonists, Devin Weston, is an investor and a billionaire. "I'm rich enough to do whatever the fuck I like," he says, "and you're poor enough to not ask me any goddamn stupid questions." Weston's villainy and behaviour seem like an indictment of the rich, a punch up at wealth and power. But then Take-Two, Rockstar's parent company, will proudly announce that Grand Theft Auto V has earned $1 billion in its first three days of being on sale.
It's hard to detect any political or personal truth in Grand Theft Auto V. It doesn't trade in political epiphanies, or urgent opinions – it simply trades. GTA's scriptwriters are aware, via cultural osmosis, that people don't trust the internet and that – in the wake of the 2009 market crash – they don't care much for rich people, either. And that's the only reason those things are discussed in the game, not necessarily because they're what the writers believe or are concerned about, but because they pander to cultural zeitgeist – they're simplistic rhetoric. When I play Grand Theft Auto V, I don't feel like I'm learning anything, or that I'm privy to any kind of insight. What I see are the opinions of everyone else, an amorphous kind of mood board of internet op-eds of the past two years, rearranged into a screenplay.
The original Grand Theft Auto was hardly the first violent, or even flagrantly violent video game, but everything around it, from its homemade soundtrack to its grubby marketing, made it seem subversive. Grand Theft Auto V is emblematic of ageing game developers attempting, feebly, to remain "down with the kids" and in the process looking like nothing, except liars. The nihilistic, bring-it-all-down sensibility of that game is just a rehash. Since it comes from people who have benefited, resoundingly, from upholding and working with The System, the satire resonates as affected and untrustworthy. Grand Theft Auto V is nihilistic, and an indictment of big business, but only insofar as the company that made it was also able to sell it, en masse. Without crediting their audience with any insight or intelligence, the makers of GTA V earned millions of dollars. I'd say that's a terrifying example of good business, and a delicious hypocrisy – "good business" is precisely what GTA V claims to stand against.
I see this everywhere. Watch Dogs warns against conformism and mass technological connectivity – it's a story of hackers, breaking the system down from within. But to earn certain rewards in the game, you're encouraged to sign up for developer Ubisoft's "Uplay" system, a social network that connects players to players and offers bonuses based on the completion of certain in-game actions. In a game about corporations tying people together and monitoring them through technology, here you have a corporation, tying people together and monitoring them through technology.
Similarly, Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare casts entrepreneur Jonathan Irons, and his private military company, Atlas, as the antagonists. It's a game where big business, and its selfish interests, are the bad guys. It's also a game released through Activision Blizzard, which reported net revenues totalling $4.41 billion for 2014.
To be clear, any contradiction that might exist in mainstream gaming's politics is not related to money, per se. It's not that these companies – Rockstar, Activision, Ubisoft – should be ostracised for being profitable. It's simply retrograde that as games become bigger and bigger business, and openly boast about becoming bigger and bigger business, their narratives and political sensibilities are still demonising big business.
In the 1980s and 90s, when games were crappy and underground, and struggling to gain recognition from the mainstream either financially or artistically, attacking the system was apt and urgent – video games had a legitimate, heartfelt air of protestation. But now they are the mainstream. They are the system. That they continue to disparage government and big business, while at the same time expecting audiences to grant those views any credibility, is absurd.
Mainstream video game narratives are almost uniformly anti-system. Red Dead Redemption rebuffs the foundation of the American Federal government. BioShock Infinite caricatures capitalism. Half-Life 2 climaxes with a revolution. But video games are now part of the system – they are themselves a business. The key to urgent art, apparently, is to stay hungry. Games, over the past ten years, have been extremely well fed. And the punkish, anti-state narratives that exist today are not heartfelt, or in any sense "live from the scene". They're merely emblematic of a culture, and a family of creatives that refuse to mature.
All screens taken from the PC version of GTA V, via Rockstar