Grand Theft Auto V / Rockstar Games

The Grand Dystopic Vision of the Open World Game

What do you call a world made entirely of satire? How about “dystopia”?

Most satire presupposes a reality that is, if not absurd to the core, at least unstable enough to turn satirical at any moment. The absurdity of a dystopia, on the other hand, arises not from instability, but rather from the rigorous and inescapable logic of an inhumane system. At the edges of those categorical differences, though, the genres sometimes overlap. The canonical example is Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. There, an errant fly causes a misprint in a police order, sending a milquetoast government employee spiraling toward terrorism and pastoral dreams of self-sufficiency. The tone is deeply satirical, but the basic conceit is that England is already a bureaucratic dystopia in the mold of Nineteen Eighty-four.

The face of absurdity, from Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.

Less common are hybrids that reverse that priority by starting with satire and building to full-blown dystopia. Yet it may be that they’re becoming more common. The reason is the growth of a genre of videogames that was hardly possible prior to the 21st century. They’re commonly called “open world” games, a name that takes on the ironic overtones of doublespeak when you start to probe its meaning.

Arguably no franchise has done more to develop and popularize open worlds than Grand Theft Auto. Initially a series of free-roaming arcade-style action games, the third in the series dramatically expanded the scope of the original by setting its crime-themed mayhem in a 3D city that players were free to explore with virtually no regard for the baked-in narrative. At the same time, its violent gameplay, lewd humor and adult motifs sparked controversies that resurface with each new installment in the series.

It was an editorial in response to the latest round of debate that got me thinking about dystopias and open worlds. Writing at Salon, Dennis Scimeca defended the humor in Grand Theft Auto V as a vast, exploratory satire of American culture. “The heart of the game,” he writes,

is in its billboards and television shows and web pages and movies and radio programs. The cultural commentary rolls out like a Bret Easton Ellis list of decadent consumer products.
Transposing a few letters to rebrand the FBI as a synonym for lying may make a dull point at best, but at least it’s a point.

He reels off a checklist of in-game businesses that send up the excesses and absurdities of American consumer culture, but a few that he neglects to mention are notably less pointed—BAWSAQ in the place of NASDAQ, for example.

In arguing that intelligent observers should view GTA as a satire, Scimeca is reprising a common theme. There are, generally speaking, two principle lines of defense when it comes to the franchise’s bawdier content. The simplest, every bit as unassailable as it is subjective, is the personal approach, amounting to, “It doesn’t bother me.” Poke and prod, if you’d like, at the sensibilities of anyone who takes that approach, but don’t expect to convince them that they ought to be bothered.

The more formal approach is the one Scimeca has taken. We might call it generic. It holds that most anything you might find offensive in the game is there because it belongs to a particular genre.

That’s the rhetorical gist when people ask, “Well,what did you expect?”—genre being, after all, a matter of expectation. GTA is a game about crime and criminals, some will argue; knowing that, it’s disingenuous to take issue with their bad behavior. To say that it’s also a satire (or, perhaps, a grotesquerie) is to insist that it turns offensive or immoral material to good effect by leveling it as a social critique.

Proponents of the generic line trot it out as though it simplified things, but it’s by no means as simple as the personal approach. In practice, an appeal to genre actually complicates the discussion, opening up a slew of questions about how offense and immorality function at the level of genre. Only after having sort out those preliminary questions can critics then return to the problem of how the individual work of satire figures into that broader context. The difficulties opened by narrative games are particularly complex since the assumptions that carry us in good stead in other mediums often turn treacherous when ported over to one premised on interaction. Satirical tools that have been honed to precision by novelists since Satyricon lend themselves to strange uses when unleashed in an open world.

Pyongyang, inside out

One way to gauge the categorical difference between satire and dystopia is to pay attention to how the characters respond when confronted with absurdity. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the culture of totalitarianism is so ingrained a part of daily life as to make absurdities like Hate Week and thoughtcrime seem practically mundane to the novel’s protagonist, Winston Smith. As a visitor to the dystopic state of Oceania, the reader is, perforce, more shocked than the natives. Events in a satire like Candide, by contrast, are perpetually taking its characters by surprise.

That capacity for surprise—even indignation—at the misadventures which afflict them serves to remind readers that, even in the world of satire, things are not supposed to shake out the way they do. We might go so far as to theorize that some measure of breathing room is an essential part of the architecture of traditional satire. The world must be, at least in principle, redeemable, and the characters’ awareness that it is, at present, far from redemption only serves to sharpen the comedy. It may even be that affairs are managed more reasonably just beyond the borders of the story, that the author has attracted our attention to these absurdities precisely because they are, or ought to be, exceptional.

What might we find were we allowed to wonder beyond the constraints of the narrative? That, in part, is the question that animates open world game design. Grand Theft Auto V orders play around the story of a former bank robber drawn out from witness protection by associates old and new, but the appeal of the series has long been the ability to wander off script. Rockstar, the studio that produces the games, goes to great expense to accommodate a broad variety of activities unrelated to the plot—in the latest installment, everything from smoking pot to groping strippers on the sly.

In the weeks leading up to the release of GTA 5, the above map was leaked and circulated by fans of the series.

In practical terms, that means building the setting to be as gratuitous as possible. Each GTA is set in a fictionalized version of an iconic American city and its surrounding environs—the latest in a faux L.A. called Los Santos. With each iteration the goal has been to trump previous installments for sheer scope and detail. The consistent result has been a virtual play space remarkable for its vividness and variety. Nevertheless, there are limits to the openness of game worlds. To provide a geographic justification for boundaries that would otherwise strike most players as artificial, Los Santos, like all the locales of the core series, is situated on an island. More and more with each new game, the Grand Theft Auto franchise is remaking the U.S. as an archipelago.

Even more than geography, though, what ultimately constrains the open world is the fact of its underlying architecture. No matter how full a studio crams their game with verisimilitude, it is, after all, the projection a coded system. When one of the design goals of the game is to portray a fully realized city, the society it represents will necessarily function as a kind of virtual machine. A tendency toward rigorous order is thus the predisposition of an open world, and steering it away from either utopia or dystopia requires deliberate effort on the part of the game’s designers.

For starters, they can obscure the order inherent in the machine by garlanding it with the sort of quirks we find in daily life. The success of the GTA games is due in no small part to Rockstar’s knack for filling every available space with the idiosyncracies that characterize real cities. That’s the first function of the “billboards and television shows and web pages and movies and radio programs” mentioned by Scimeca: to give Los Santos character, the kind of cultural arrhythmia that distinguishes a living pulse from the ticking of a clock.

Since Thomas Moore’s Utopia, we’ve made a habit of isolating perfectly ordered societies on islands.

Yet, because they are inscribed on the system, rather than introduced as disruptions into that system, their ultimate effect is to rationalize its inhumanity. Life in Los Santos is so well ordered that it might have passed for utopia. Only the media that permeates the game reminds us that the city’s culture is thoroughly bankrupt, its achievements hollow and unsatisfying, its citizens cynical and tasteless.

The apparatus of GTA’s dystopia is a kind of inverted propaganda machine, relentlessly broadcasting assurances that no matter how good life may seem, things here are really quite awful. That’s reinforced by the open world conceit, which lets you freely investigate for yourself, but only within the confines of a society that is totally isolated from the outside world. It is, in effect, Pyongyang turned inside out.

The brutal system of the world

Earlier I noted that the generic argument forces us back on the question of how offense and immorality function on the level of genre. Scimeca gets his toes wet by comparing GTA 5 to Breaking Bad and The Sopranos, faulting the television dramas for inflicting violence on characters for whom the audience has learned to care. That ought to have given critics pause, he suggests, adding that:

The violence in a “Grand Theft Auto” game, on the other hand, is committed against the equivalent of paper dolls, nothing more than artificial intelligence routines controlling empty avatars like marionettes.

It may be true that very few of the figures populating the game really function as characters, but I wonder how often players think of them as truly empty. These, after all, are the people who frequent Los Santos’ strip clubs and movie theaters, who buy the products advertised on its billboards, who watch racist children’s shows and listen to obnoxious talk radio. If we’re inclined to see the game as an aesthetic whole, then another function of the in-game media is to externalize the character of the otherwise silent citizenry. If we’re attentive, won’t we come to see those paper dolls as the embodiments of a crass, gratuitous culture? Might we even hold them in contempt?

Okay, Rockstar, I’ll give you this one. Pretty clever.

Whatever texture and beauty GTA might muster, what ultimately ties its world together is the ironic distance that stands between its inhabitants and us. That, in turn, may make it easier to commit enormities against them. In theory, at least, we’d expect to feel some misgivings about robbing, abusing, molesting and murdering them. After all, they do look passably human, and we tend to form overzealous emotional bonds with things that remind us of ourselves. Were the game to tell us that the car we’ve just stolen belongs to a man whose financial struggles have given him an ulcer, and who deeply regrets having snapped as his wife just before his commute, we might tilt dangerously toward sympathy. Presumably few of us would have the stomach for a game that encouraged us to victimize sympathetic characters, which might explain why GTA has gone to such lengths to make its world so unsympathetic.

While Grand Theft Auto makes for a striking example, what we’re really talking about are the hazards of open world game design in general. What gives GTA its specific character is its vast accumulation of satire, but had it not been a satirical dystopia, chances are it would have been a dystopia of some other sort. That’s because the genre is uniquely prone to drift in the direction of one extreme or another.

Building the approximation of a truly open world on the constraints and procedures of machine logic results not in a sandbox for uninhibited play, but rather in a microcosm cut to the pattern of what psychologist Robert Jay Lifton called “totalism.” Whether intentionally or otherwise, the underlying code that orders the environment will lend the weight of that world toward one conceit or another, while the premise that players are free to stray off script and play however they like obscures the actual constraints.

That’s all fine and well—utopias and dystopias make for engaging videogame settings, as the BioShock games have proven—but it helps to recognize them for what they are. Open worlds are tricky precisely because they shrink reality down to the measure of the game’s most ubiquitous parts. If we don’t make a special effort to understand how they differ from the incomplete worlds we craft in other media, the system can twist a well-honed tool like satire.