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How the Original ‘Grand Theft Auto’ Got Violence and Characters Right

Rockstar's GTA series has become bigger over time, but its "good criminals" are a far cry from the original's straight-faced violence.

by Ed Smith
12 January 2016, 2:14am

Broad statements about video games needing "better writing" or "stronger characters", statements like the ones I've made in the past, are perhaps unclear. That kind of blanket criticism reads more like lazy frustration than close analysis – it's time to clarify at least one example of good video game writing, or "good design" if you prefer heartless industry jargon.

The original Grand Theft Auto, above most contemporary games and certainly, for me, above its franchise follow-ups, is a masterstroke of subjective vision and fallible narration. It seems absurd to describe a game where you can run over a parade of Hare Krishnas, to the celebratory pop-up of "GOURANGA!", in those terms, doubly so when you're aware it's raising a deliberate finger to chin-stroking critics. But GTA, through virtue of launching on the PlayStation in 1997, back when a fully functioning 3D city was impossible to render, puts you squarely in the mind of your protagonist, and for once, his mind is not your mind.

'Grand Theft Auto' as it appeared to players of 1997

So many video game characters are broad or nothing-y, or written so inoffensively that it's easy to empathise with them – most abysmally of all, some don't even have a voice, allowing you to project directly into them. And when I think of great writing, it's writing that challenges and confronts. It presents characters who have opinions, lives and frames of mind that are not your own and invites you to sympathise with and understand them. That's where games fall down: they aspire to be commercial, apolitical and non-divisive. Consistently, they've failed to represent peoples outside of the Western, white, male middle-class, but that itself is a perverse and paradoxical way of keeping games as accessible as possible. It's a self-eating snake, whereby the people most associated with buying video games never have their world view challenged and so keep buying, and keep being affirmed, and keep buying, and keep being affirmed.

This isn't to say Grand Theft Auto is a game that celebrates human diversity, or illustrates any kind of confrontational political ideology – starting in '97, and continuing until the present day, the Houser brothers have successfully repackaged domestic stereotypes and adolescent nihilism into what game critics, clearly in need of some better literature, call "satire". It peacocks and it masturbates, but in regards to social and political conversations in the West, Grand Theft Auto has contributed nothing. What it has done, though, is communicate a specific kind of character. The first game does it most gracefully of all.

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Its top-down view places you at a literal distance from the violence and crime that you commit. From such a height, and considering GTA's already pixelated visual style, it's hard to worry about what you're doing. Bullets fly, cars explode, pedestrians squelch under the wheels of your truck, but it's so far away and filtered that it feels inconsequential – you're playing a morally loose career criminal, and the physical distance from the carnage you're causing reflects his own mental distancing. The forensic details, the blood, guts and consequences of your actions – none of these things reach you in Grand Theft Auto. Perhaps without realising, as you play, you're ingratiated to the mindset of your character.

Again, it's not necessarily a hard set mental state to communicate – to GTA's assumed audience of teenage boys and bored young men, smashing up cars and shooting people with guns are easy experiences to sell. But I admire the completeness, and consistency, of Grand Theft Auto. Far Cry 2 isn't a difficult story, either, but it's at least honest: in the video game genre called "shooter", what character could you reasonably play other than a mercenary who trades violence for cash? Grand Theft Auto sells to you a vicious protagonist and an unreliable narrator, and you buy him. In the world of video games, where moral ambiguity is poison, I'm impressed with how deftly GTA gains my complicity.

It's definitely a compromised vision – where Far Cry 2 depicts nakedly your character's immorality, Grand Theft Auto, quite literally, pulls back. But it's distinguished from the later GTA games, and even subsequent sandbox games, in one very important way. From Grand Theft Auto 2 onwards, rather than manipulate and seduce the player into the protagonist's state of mind, Rockstar started to justify their leading men and make them more objectively palatable. No longer were we being ingratiated towards a subjective, troubling vision. We were given characters and a world that already suited our self-image. We were, like in so many video games, gifted the role of hero.

You play the modern Grand Theft Auto games and it isn't the protagonist who is wrong, it's the world around him. Through supporting characters, radio commercials, pedestrian dialogue and myriad other background objects, you're informed that in your world venality, stupidity and hypocrisy reign. From government representatives through entrepreneurs; businesspeople and celebrities; the white collar and the blue collar; criminals and lawmakers: when it comes to stealing and killing, everyone in the world of Grand Theft Auto is fair game. You may play a criminal, but you play a "good criminal", somebody on the outside of this awful world, looking in. You're a righteous avenger, Travis Bickle in a cape and mask – when you kill in Grand Theft Auto 2, III, or basically any of the games after 1999, you kill people who one way or another deserve it. It's the opposite of moral ambiguity, or any kind of caustic writing – no matter how wrong it may seem, everything you do in the subsequent Grand Theft Auto games is ret-conned to feel right.

Related, on Motherboard: Watch the Undersea Wildlife Documentary Made in 'Grand Theft Auto V'

The original provides no such reassurance. You're at a physical distance, but the world itself is played incredibly straight. Cops chatter over the radio in plausible, business-like code. Rather than grotesque caricatures, pedestrians are mute passers-by, going about their daily lives. The radio counts down the Top 40. You can occupy temporarily this character's mind, and understand his behaviour, but there's no vindication – unlike so many other games, including recent entries in the GTA franchise, Grand Theft Auto isn't consistently patting the player on the back, telling them to keep going. Insofar as it eases players into an alternative frame of mind, efficiently and through embracing its technical limits, it's a better standard of writing than I'd normally expect. Inasmuch as the character is still morally ambiguous and very difficult to truly root for, he's more interesting than a lot of his contemporaries.

@mostsincerelyed

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