This article contains spoilers for the stories of Grand Theft Auto IV and V.
Between 2008's Grand Theft Auto IV and GTA V of five years later, developer Rockstar's style of satire did not really evolve. Popular cultural figures are exaggerated and parodied. Television and radio shows bypass undertone to explain to their audiences precisely the media agenda. Day-to-day life in Rockstar's America is violent, crude and centered entirely around the acquisition of money.
In GTA IV's New York-substituting Liberty City, Serbian immigrant protagonist Niko Bellic reads about the "Jingoism Act", and the latest episode of America's Next Top Hooker. In the following game's LA analogue of Los Santos, Michael de Santa checks his Lifeinvader page and buys stock on the BAWSAQ. For 20 years now, and despite the middle-ageing of its creators, GTA's anti-establishment politics have stayed largely the same.
And yet only in Grand Theft Auto IV does the series' satire feel truly prescient. By positioning that game's protagonist, and by extension its audience, as an interloper into the American world, Rockstar created parallels between its stark view of the US and the reality of the country itself, which still resonate today.
The difference between Niko Bellic and Michael de Santa, or GTA IV's lead and any of the other GTA anti-heroes, is his ability to directly and consciously identify the absurdity of the world around him. GTA protagonists are uniformly angry and violent—seemingly, they are frustrated by the contorted version of America in which they live, and yet it's only Bellic who is able to eloquently vocalize confusion and frustration at the status quo. His lack of a historical or financial stake in this part of the not-so-wild-actually West allows him to discern its faults.
Penned by writers of English and Australian backgrounds, and designed by a studio that began life in Scotland, GTA IV is an outsider's vision of the United States. Bellic, who arrives in America having until that point lived a life largely devoid of Western luxury, is an appropriate cipher. Perplexed, even outraged by the decadent culture around him, he matches our shock, our sense of imbibing something squalid when we experience GTA IV's foul-mouthed, uncompromising parody. And through him, even if we've spent time in the States ourselves, we feel as if we are seeing the country, albeit a slightly exaggerated version of it, for the first time.
Less than ten years since GTA IV was released, Bellic's febrile, dumbfounded impression of our world seems almost to have come to life. Though originally a parody of the 2001 Patriot Act, the Jingoism Act, which permits the US government to spy on individuals regardless of probable cause, in light of the 2013 PRISM scandal, nowadays seems even more relevant. At the time, in early 2008, GTA IV satirized a groundswell of anti-immigrant sentiment. Fear of foreigners may have been stoked back then by some politicians and some media, but the Senate was still willing to draft and discuss the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007, which would have provided legal status for 12 million undocumented immigrants living in the US.
This year, however, we witnessed the Trump administration enact its travel ban, which sanctioned the detainment and interrogation of American citizens with foreign heritage. The United States is seriously contemplating a continent-spanning wall along its southern border. It's as if the ludicrous presentiments of Bellic's America have come true.
When he arrives in the US, rather than escape something, Bellic finds himself embroiled in familiar moral turmoil.
The harsh lot of undocumented immigrants is something that GTA IV pointed to as a sign of American dysfunction and disappointment. With stories of wealth, women and status, Bellic's cousin Roman draws our player-controlled character to America. Imagining he too might change and prosper, Bellic, when he arrives in the US, discovers Roman is in fact living in a cramped studio apartment and drowning a debt. He has escaped one kind of poverty only to arrive at another.
For us—and I say "us" as a Brit, knowing how American politics and policy can impact the rest of the West—nearly a decade since the Obama Administration campaigned on change we could believe in, it feels as if politics are once again cycling back to how they were. The country's healthcare reforms are under scrutiny. The Immigration Modernization Act has not, and likely will not, come to fruition. The FBI's investigation into Donald Trump's connections to Russia suggests a type of political corruption unseen since the Watergate scandal.
When he arrives in the US, rather than escape something, Bellic finds himself embroiled in familiar moral turmoil. There are no new beginning to be had here, and that message is more resonant now in an era that feels ever more fettered to old politics and resentments.
GTA IV's ending, where either Niko's cousin or his true love are murdered and he is left disillusioned and alone, feels more faithful to the mood of our times than the raucous conclusion of GTA V.
GTA V, if one completes the game as seems to be intended, concludes with Michael, Trevor and Franklin defeating the corrupt billionaire, Devin Weston, and transitioning to better lives. In our own world, venality, solipsism, and wealth seem always to win. Niko's own unhappy ending, which sees him overwhelmed by the forces surrounding him, despite his best efforts to retain some integrity and authenticity, resonates more strongly now. Although we can see and hear what's really going on today, we feel powerless to prevent it.
In an image: Liberty City's uniformly obese police officers, who waddle down the pavement shouting "don't make me run!" at escaping criminals, illustrate what Niko perceives as a self-serving, hypocritical government—on one hand avowing the restoration of law and good sense, on the other inept at anything except feeding itself. Looking at America from the outside, Niko doesn't see cops. He sees almost literal "pigs" who have grown fat at the public trough. He sees, in a sense, profiteers.
When we consider America's current President, who promised to drain the swamp of political and financial collusion, but has in fact arrayed the wealthiest White House cabinet in history while seemingly using his office to leverage private business interests, it is hard not to to see, in these days, the America that so confounded Niko Bellic.
Bellic's position as an outsider is doubly effective for the audience. At GTA IV's outset, he communicates a stinging disappointment: He expected America to be better and vows to rebel against what is in actuality its base appeal. At the game's end, when he has robbed, kidnapped and killed his way into a fortune and in doing so lost family—literal and metaphorical pieces of himself—he impresses upon us that the country around him is sinister in multiple ways. Not just fraudulent, but intoxicating.
With Bellic, GTA IV's British and Australian writers have a physical representative for an uncompromised, arguably aloof perspective of America. That both the character and his makers are subsumed by a world they previously defied—Bellic by chasing success but finding only loneliness, his creators by reaching the pinnacle of the mainstream—is a concise, poetical illustration of something we all experience. Especially nowadays, when money and politics seem to get their way no matter what, disagreement, iconoclasm and efforts to stay on the outside are routinely subjugated by an irresistible system.
Such is the importance, in Grand Theft Auto and fiction generally, of the outsider. Having never been indoctrinated or otherwise mentally massaged by its politics, its culture, its system, Bellic's perspective of the United States is simultaneously subjective and authoritative. That he eventually falls victim to the a Western culture he finds repellent, and attempts to resist, elevates Grand Theft Auto IV's boyish humor to a prophetic, cautionary tale—the game implies that the power and allure of contemporary American society is so strong it will consume and destroy even the least willing individuals.