Grand Theft Auto V is rated M, which means it’s intended for players over the age of 17. That’s too bad—you pretty much need to be in middle school to dig this game’s story or sense of humor. It’d be perfect for the sixth graders who doodle naked ladies onto their desks.
As a game and a pastime and a thing people can do Grand Theft Auto V is amazing in a few crucial ways. It’s the latest and the hottest and the biggest, if size and youth are your thing, and when you’re merely existing in its world it’s hard to dislike.
Rockstar’s even come close to fixing the camera, the controls and the checkpoint system, long the greatest technical catastrophes of these games. Basic actions like walking and shooting are no longer blood feuds between you and the controller, and when you’re terrible at a mission you’ll only have to be terrible at certain parts of it again and again instead of the whole damn thing. Past GTAs have broken down into frustrating tedium when you actually have to play through a mission, but now you’re able to enjoy the absurd chaos and violence of the game’s major set-pieces without feeling straightjacketed by technical issues. These are fine choices and earnest attempts to curry our favor and trust.
This version of Los Santos is an open world city with life and character, a sprawling, unplanned weed of a town where the borders between neighborhoods and classes sneak up suddenly but with loud fanfare. Just by recreating the layout and architecture of Los Angeles GTA V does more to make us think about socioeconomic disparity than almost any other videogame. Between the barred windows and cramped quarters of Franklin’s neighborhood and Michael’s faceless, tasteless mansion in the hills, it’s impossible to travel through this game without dwelling upon some of America’s hardest truths.
GTA is known for its music as much as its mayhem, and V might have the best soundtrack yet. Once again its music stations combine iconic hits with deep cuts and cult classics across the spectrum of musical genres. This must be the only videogame with a Hasil Adkins song in it, and surely the only work in any medium that features Adkins alongside Aphex Twin, Gregory Isaacs and Eddie Murphy’s “Party All the Time”. When you’re cruising through Los Santos, blasting one of those expertly programmed radio stations and observing its carefully constructed imitation of life, you’re as close to the real world as blockbuster games get. Ain’t that America, something to see?
And then, as often happens with games, goodwill withers when characters open their mouths. GTA V purports to be satire, but its unrelenting cynicism, negativity and contempt are exhausting. The attempts to shock, the derisive social commentary and the would-be satire are all hackneyed and obvious. Its observations never dig deeper than the surface and, most importantly, the game is rarely clever or funny. It’s got the shit-eating smirk and smug satisfaction of South Park without that show’s occasional bite. And it’s absolutely smothering, laying the Vice schtick on thick during almost every cut-scene, on every website and television station, and on all radio commercials or news reports. If a non-lead character is talking it’s probably supposed to be funny, but it almost never is. It’s an internet comment section turned into a game.
Satire needs to have a target. Grand Theft Auto V is just aimless contempt. It’s too unfocused, too generous in its hostility to ever attempt any coherent statement. It never challenges its audience, intent to reinforce reductive stereotypes and viewpoints commonly held by its juvenile male target demo. Compare this to The Daily Show and its evisceration of the news industry or The Colbert Report’s send-up of arrogant, undisciplined pundits. The only point GTA V makes is that everything sucks. It’s not satire—it’s a tantrum, a crueler, cruder Mad Magazine marketing adolescent rage to politically agnostic adults. That makes it a regression from Grand Theft Auto IV, which at least tried to infuse its hero with some semblance of humanity, and a steep devolution from the genuine thoughtfulness of Red Dead Redemption. GTA V spreads its contempt across a wide swath of society, but at heart it’s most contemptuous of its audience. To share in or enjoy its witless humor and pervasive nihilism is to celebrate a game that mocks you.
GTA V’s only message is that nothing is worth taking seriously, except crime fiction clichés and rap videos. It’s a message that speaks most dearly to that sixth grader scratching cartoon centerfolds into the inside of his notebook. Every character is a paper-thin stereotype and an object of ridicule except for the three leads, because the only honorable men (only men can be honorable) are smart and capable criminals. Trevor, the most amoral, might be the perfect GTA protagonist—he realizes the only recourse in a world as shameless and debauched as the game’s is to drop any pretense of humanity. He’s an unapologetic monster, and that’s why he’s the only one of these three characters that’s remotely interesting.
But San Andreas is big, bigger than these men and their stories, and you find solace where you can. There’s peace in flying a plane, a small moment of serenity in a game that has many if you know where to look. When you’re soaring above San Andreas you forget about the world below, the stresses and pressures of a life of crime, the pain of a loveless family, the rage of dealing with authorities and thugs and a complicated past. You forget about the failed satire, the lazy stereotypes, the rampant sexism and all-encompassing hostility. You’re soaring above everything that makes Grand Theft Auto V so tiresome, so pedestrian, so predictable. Everything that makes Grand Theft Auto V so thoroughly beneath us.
Garrett Martin could listen to Rebel Radio all day long. He edits Paste’s games section and reviews games for the Boston Herald.