Oct 18, 2014

Where Can Rockstar Go After GTA V? Reconstruction



Here's something astonishing: Grand Theft Auto V has sold more than 34 million copies. That amounts to something like $2 billion in revenue. (For a point of contrast, that's a third again as much as The Avengers took in.) Late as usual, I played through it a couple weeks ago.

Was it any good? My standard these days for a good game is one that holds my attention enough that I can finish the damn thing, so I basically agree with Carolyn Petit that it was "politically muddled and profoundly misogynistic" but still quite good overall. The world-building in particular was spectacularly deep, and the set-piece heist missions featured splendid design.

My main problem with the title, aside from the sexism problems that Petit outlined, is the yawning abyss between the series' continuing underdog pose, and the reality of it as a cultural and economic colossus. The first major games in the series, GTA and GTA II, had minor sales and mixed reviews. GTA III, which established the current formula, was a surprise smash hit, so its aesthetic of riotous, gleeful violence and savage mockery of popular American culture felt fairly earned, so to speak. Like a punk band doing a show in some grungy warehouse, the message fit the venue.

But nowadays the punk band is playing to packed stadium crowds paying 150 bucks a ticket, and they're still singing the same songs about how everything in mainstream culture is all fucked up. "Dude," people vaguely think, "you are mainstream culture," and they sort of acknowledge that a little by poking fun at their own audience, but not in a full or forthright way.

As Tom Bissell wrote:
Once upon a time, playing a GTA game was like sitting next to your offensive Republican uncle at Christmas dinner. He was definitely a dick but also smart and interesting, and his heart was fundamentally in the right place. These days Uncle GTA is a billionaire with an unchanged shtick, and he seems a hell of a lot more mean-spirited than before.
Contrast GTA V to Red Dead Redemption, by my lights Rockstar's best work. This is basically a paint-by-numbers western set in 1911, but a straightforward story without the loopy antics of GTA V. Though it had plenty of shooting and murder, it was also subtle, deep, and incredibly beautiful. And while not quite such a stupendous success as most of the GTA series, it still did very well by any other standard, selling something like 13 million copies.

There will be a GTA VI, without question. But probably not for several years. In the meantime, this gap between the actually existing cultural and economic power of video games in general and Rockstar in particular, and the continuing stereotype that games are for gormless shut-in nerds (not helped by recent events) suggests that a genuine effort to make a culturally and artistically serious game wouldn't go amiss.

Here's my proposal: I'd like to see a GTA-style open world game set in Reconstruction. You'd play a slave who escapes alone towards the end of the Civil War. He joins up with the Union Army, fights in a couple battles, finds his family, and then works to secure black rights in the South against ex-Confederate terrorism.

There are a few reasons to select this period. First, it's high historical drama with real villains and heroes. A man fighting to rescue his family from slavery and secure their liberty is a classic story, and it would be a great connective thread to motivate the plot. (Imagine a mission like this one [spoilers], but defending your house from Red Shirts.) That trajectory would also make a nice twist on GTA's typical upward mobility fixation.

Second, if you made it right, it would be doing valuable cultural work. Popular American consciousness has a totally garbled version of Reconstruction largely based on racist Confederate apologia. Most people have a vague notion (if they have anything) that Reconstruction was characterized by corruption, unfair punishment of the South by carpetbaggers and scalawags, and that it collapsed of its own accord. This is total horseshit. Reconstruction was an attempt to build a true democracy in the South. It succeeded for a time, but was violently overthrown by white supremacist terrorists who probably killed more Americans than Osama bin Laden. (Aided and abetted, one should note, by racism and apathy in the North.)

Thus, if Rockstar wanted to fairly reckon with its vast cultural and economic power to critique American culture in a serious and useful way, and make a hell of a great game in the process, Reconstruction would be an excellent setting.

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