Grand Theft Auto has become far more than a video game in the collective American consciousness. In just over a decade, the series has morphed from a modest success into a cultural and economic titan. By all objective metrics – from rave reviews to record breaking sales – the series, not to mention it’s latest entry, is a massive success. And yet, despite it’s undeniable popularity, Grand Theft Auto V finds Rockstar losing it’s touch.
Follow the career trajectory of any great rockstar and you’ll likely find the same cycle. The frontend of their life was wrought with peril and dysfunction of a varying degree, which only served to propel them to great heights, culminating in the release of their life’s work and worldwide success and renown. Some artists are even lucky enough to enjoy a period of sustained success but eventually, something befalls all of the greats, resulting in the loss of their creative influence. Sex and drugs are a rock n’ roll cliche, however, a far more subtle and detrimental affliction to creative output is the comfort of success.
There’s no mistaking that Grand Theft Auto V is competently made, graphically stunning, and thoroughly entertaining. Afterall, I’ve sunk an obscene amount of time into the travails of Michael, Trevor, and Franklin and completed the game to 100%. Grand Theft Auto V is by no means a bad game but it is a disappointing and uncreative one. It’s a glorified victory tour, a Cher Farewell Tour if you will, that offers the hits but takes little risk to break new ground.
The Story of Grand Theft Auto
Grand Theft Auto V’s story is an absolute tragedy. Not a tragedy in the traditional sense but a tragedy nonetheless because the masterful setup and amazing chemistry between the game’s three protagonists is wasted on a flaccid script. The game’s story despite it’s pretenses is a big “whatever”.
Rockstar Games is yet to top the story of Grand Theft Auto III, save perhaps Red Dead Redemption. GTA III’s story is successful because like say, a big heist, it is competently structured and executed. From the beautiful jazz piano opening to the great narration in the games opening and closing, Grand Theft Auto III is a traditional tale of heroism and revenge. It has a definite structure to it: Catalina screws you over, you take on a series of odd jobs to get revenge before meeting mafia Don Salvatore who does the same, before ultimately killing Salvatore and then Catalina and saving the damsel in distress. Except this time, in a clever take, the damsel in distress turns out to be an annoying chatterbox, so you ice her, and go on your way because fuck that. It’s a simple tale but it had a definite point to it and one that was made early.
Vice City welcomes us into the 1980s with another evocative theme and right away brings us into the world of Vice City, with all of it’s decadence and glamour into the coke-fuelled streets of Miami. The opening cutscene establishes everything that you need to know: Tommy Vercetti did a stint in prison for a fatcat asshole of a boss who thinks he can keep him under control, only his pride backfires, resulting in Tommy taking over Ricardo Diaz’s drug empire before doing the same to Sonny Forelli in Liberty. Another simple tale of revenge with an interesting cast of characters in an endlessly interesting setting. Sonny Forelli wasn’t about to let Tommy Vercetti take over a massive drug empire but even with the “true” ending of GTA V, many of the games’ antagonists seem happy to let these criminals go on their merry way. We saw in both Red Dead Redemption and Grand Theft Auto IV, that this was never going to happen. But here, mindlessly and stupidly, our characters are allowed to do so. As such, another failure of GTA V is that it fails to establish an interesting antagonist and create a sense of tension outside of the incoming gunfire.
San Andreas’ story starts with another great theme, a perfectly 90s G-Funk wail, that sets us up in the hood of San Andreas. While the story goes off the rails in a “here, take this hit of acid” type of way, after the game manages to orient itself, not only does it have a bizarre trip to tell about but it manages to wrap things up in a competent manor with the execution of Big Smoke and Officer Frank Tenpenny. “No matter what happens, you don’t fuck with the hood”.
Once again, there’s a common theme here in the recipe of great GTAs: (1) Have an evocative theme, (2) Start strong and finish strong, and (3) Offer something interesting along the way. I’d argue that Grand Theft Auto V fails to do all three, as the game has no discernible theme either narratively or musically. Oh No’s “Welcome To Los Santos” track much like the game itself, has some interesting moments but relies upon nostalgia and doesn’t really go anywhere. Coming off of Michael Hunter’s stunning theme to Grand Theft Auto IV, it looks downright amateurish.
A Tale of Two Cities
Part of what made the world of Grand Theft Auto IV so interesting is that it was unlike anything in Grand Theft Auto III. The latter of which was an amalgam of New York, Chicago, and Seattle whereas the former was strictly a New York groove. If you want to be uncharitable, GTA V is essentially San Andreas HD, it may look good but it lacks that thing, that magic that made San Andreas such a bizarre and wonderful place to be. While the world is the largest in series history, it still feels empty, despite the obscene amount of activities to engage in. What Rockstar fails to realize is that bigger isn’t better. The family aspects of GTA V were phenomenal but the enormity of the world feels at odds with what GTA V tries to establish in it’s first act, but to be fair so did Liberty City in GTA IV.
GTA IV opens with Niko literally fresh off the boat, ready for revenge. He climbs into a car blasting the endlessly catchy Glukoza tune “Schweine” before landing in immigrant central at Hove Beach. In 10 minutes, you knew everything you needed to know about Liberty City, Niko’s quest, and Americana at large. I don’t think IV needed to take place anywhere besides Dukes, Broker, and Bohan but Rockstar wanted to hit all the landmarks so expanded to Manhattan and for some reason, New Jersey. GTA V also feels unnecessarily large but doesn’t feel anywhere as immersive or original. It seems the cities of Grand Theft Auto games are no longer semi-original distillations but outright re-creations.
While GTA IV remains one of the most frustrating gaming experiences in recent memory with clunky shooting mechanics, slippery driving controls, and an awful checkpoint system, the narrative core of Niko’s tale is the best in series history. GTA IV is in it’s essence, a rebuke to the series and it’s fans and on a larger scale all of those who would pursue revenge and a life of crime. In sombre reflection the game asks: “for what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”. The journey to that point wasn’t as satisfying as in prior entries, but the core of Niko Bellic’s journey was powerful. It stayed the player in his or her tracks and forced them to ask whether or not they should take a life. It was a huge leap forward for the franchise and gaming at large.
Playing GTA IV, I wanted to see what happened next. Niko Bellic was a war survivor who sought revenge against a murderous traitor. Despite his life of crime, he had enough self-awareness to stop and ask himself if what he is doing is right. He wound up in Liberty City at his cousin’s shitty apartment after being promised a mansion and ended with him mourning the loss of his beloved Kate (if you pick the proper ending to the game). GTA V on the other hand starts with Michael De Santa kicking back at his mansion mourning the loss of his youth and ending up an even more rich old fucker after ripping off a bank. Despite it’s charming exterior, don’t get it twisted, you’re playing as the 1-percent.
Speaking of money, the game both in it’s trailers and marketing portrays itself to be set in the economic downturn, only the denizens of Los Santos seem to go about their merry way as if money wasn’t a problem. The game never treats money like it should, rather from start to finish, money is a macguffin, instead of something of real value. While Rockstar is clearly influenced by films like Heat and A Simple Plan, the stakes are never as high, nor do your choices have any meaning, it’s simply a matter of “more, more, more”. While the game’s heists mark interesting improvements to the series formula, they never force you to make any tough decisions, as there is always enough money in your pocket. You’d be foolish not to select the best hackers, drivers, and shooters during the heists. It’s almost as if Rockstar saw the downfall of civilization and unknowing echoed the words of Marie Antoinette: “let them eat cake”.
GTA V could have been something special, a commentary of the flaws of capitalism, of greed, and of desire, or anything really but it ends up being uninteresting if not completely contrived. Take for example the conclusion of the game: if Trevor forgave Michael when he found out he was still alive, the revelation about Brad’s death (which both gamers and Trevor should have figured out way earlier) should have had little influence on him. Instead we get a forced and ham-fisted rivalry develop between the two and another bullshit “pick your own ending”. Note to Rockstar: competent crime dramas don’t end like Clue. Have some balls and cut this shit out, you’re supposed to be rockstars for fuck’s sake. Where’s the confidence? Where’s the swagger?
And speaking of Trevor, his murder of Johnny Klebitz is without a doubt, the most offensive thing Rockstar has ever done. It could be argued that Trevor murdering Johnny was a metaphor for Rockstar killing it’s drab, stoic protagonists or serves to show the player about Trevor’s short fuse. The former has a little validity to it but the latter is absurd given Trevor’s relatively even-keeled approach, well even-keeled as far as murderous psychopaths go. The only moment that he goes crazy is killing Floyd and his girlfriend and even that was not without provocation. It’s a shame considering Trevor is generally fantastic, but once again, whose greatness is squandered by detours with the FIB and IAA. Opportunity cost is a real bitch.
Sleeping With The Fishes
In the end, Grand Theft Auto V is a fun-to-play nostalgia trip that fails to retain the charm of it’s predecessors or take the franchise into uncharted waters. It recreates Los Santos without any of it’s character, apes Tommy and Lance’s friendship gone sour but refuses to make anything definitive, and leaves one of it’s most promising characters woefully undeveloped. It pales in comparison to the films and games that it tries to emulate. The mechanics are much improved but the wanted system is completely overbearing and Rockstar fails to address problems like world traversal, weapon loadout, and questionable controls. The music soundtrack is disappointing outside a few select cuts and the talk-radio is forced. GTA V is a jack of all trades and master of none and like Bioshock Infinite, is more often than not, crushed under the weight of it’s own lofty ambition.
It’s your typical Sunday routine. You walk into church, say hi to people, exchange pleasantries, and then find your seat and wait for service to begin. It does. Except this time — you feel like everything is completely alien. The words and scriptures that had once given you so much hope seem empty and hollow. You go home and hope things will get better but even your prayer life seems disconnected and unfocused. You try to will yourself into it but it doesn’t work. You try and try to get reconnected and inspired in scripture but you start to notice disturbing things that you never had before. Nothing is working. The overwhelming sense of dread is creeping in. It’s even getting worse.
So your curiosity and desire for truth compels you to start reading books that you never would have before. What you found there inside those dusty pages was startling. The evidence for God is so paltry, damning even. A small voice in your head whispers, “There is no God”. You reject it, you tell it to go away, but you know deep down, the jig is up. The voice only gets louder from there. Finally, you breakdown and cry and admit it to yourself, “there is no God”.
What I’ve been describing is an obviously truncated account of a person’s path to unbelief. It’s at this point where a person feels an overwhelming sense of personal and social estrangement. In my experience, this period lasts for about three months to a six months and rises in intensity before slowly declining although this is certainly likely to vary from person-to-person.
This time-period is absolutely devastating to a religious person’s psyche. As sociologist Everett Hughes noted, when an individual holds within themselves a position that is so central to their identity that it overshadows all other statuses, it is known as their master status. For Christians, there is nothing more core to their self-perception than their identity in Christ. Their worldview, their master status, their social network, their family, and their role models all spring directly from this belief, so when the main cord is cut, what once hung from that wire naturally crashes to the floor below.
Unsurprisingly, this period of estrangement is not easy. When their doubt about the existence of God turns into certainty, that person can enter into a dissociative state where they exhibit dysfunctional behavior, low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, and other symptoms.
That person experiences these things because they are estranged from everything that they’ve come to know. They are estranged from the church that had provided them with so many friends, the book that had given them direction and meaning, the idea that God was there to comfort them, and from their own identity. And it is in this period of great tumult and vulnerability that the religious tell them that they’re in sin, they’ve made up their minds, or that they’re going to hell. One can quickly see how such ideas are offensive and why some people are so strident in their criticism of religion.
When one comes through the looking glass, there’s a temptation to think that if you disregard “God” that with it you have to deny all of the great emotions that you had. You can think that all of the time you spent with your friends, laughing, joking, and having deep conversations was time wasted. You can think that your time praying or studying scripture was all for naught. What is the source of such a confused idea? Why scripture, of course.
For a quick snapshot of life without “God” per the Bible, Psalms 14 offers this gem: “The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, their deeds are vile; there is no one who does good.” (Apparently, “God” forgot to take in account organizations like Doctors Without Borders or philanthropists like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet before he wrote this slanderous propaganda).
It should be needless to say but this popular sentiment is pernicious and evil. It sets up a false dichotomy of “everything or nothing”. Either you are the pinnacle of goodness with God or a foolish, corrupt evil-doer without him. You are my son or daughter and brother or sister if you follow me, otherwise you’re a putrid, filthy sinner. It’s the battered wife syndrome on a grand scale. “Everything is always my fault, never God’s, He is perfect”. As such when people come to doubt their faith, there’s a temptation to feel like life is devoid of any value or purpose whatsoever.
This only perpetuates the sense of isolation that doubters feel but the idea that you can be good without “God” or can’t have purpose unless it’s ascribed to you in a holy book is simply not true.
While there will be casualties in your battle for truth both in terms of relationships but also in once treasured notions and ideas, the time that you spent with people you love and admire was real. These are your memories. These are a part of you. Your identity may change over time but these are memories that will be with you for a lifetime. Former beliefs will fall naturally by the wayside but these memories should be cherished.
The period of estrangement is the most difficult part of the journey from religion to reason but thankfully, there are plenty of resources out there to help you through this tough time. There are communities like Recovering From Religion for support, forums like TTA to ask the tough questions in a consequence-free environment, and safe havens like The Clergy Project for those in the ministry. There are even nice redheads that are willing to lend an ear and a shoulder.
Note: This post was edited on 01/31 to clean mistakes and clarify points and again on 02/02 to correct auto-correct typos.
You can follow Alex on Twitter for more thoughts related to religion and the de-conversion process.
In my previous post, I briefly explained the way that religious belief manifests and supports itself. In that post I mentioned all of the things that directly pertain to a belief in God and in passing, how emotion plays a role in sustaining the belief. This was a bit of a soft sell. While the basis for any belief should have it’s roots deeply entrenched in evidence and in reason, oftentimes the thing, perhaps the only thing that prevents someone from giving up their belief in God is emotion.
Let’s back up for a moment. There are few things that I enjoy more than seeing movies. The anticipation of seeing a new film gets me excited and often results in a visible change of mood. If the movie was good, I can’t help but think about it, tweet about it, blog about it, what have you. When I leave the theatre, I feel inspired. I feel like I want to create art of my own. I feel closer to people more than ever before. You could almost call it a religious experience.
And yet despite how strongly I feel about them, it is obvious to me that movies are nothing more than works of fiction. There is no divine inspiration behind the masterful works of Star Wars or Lord of the Rings. George Lucas and Peter Jackson may be genius filmmakers but prophets they are not. These are works of men.
The same goes for religious texts from all of the world’s religions. These are known works of men, fictional accounts that don’t conform to our understanding of physical reality, and yet on some level they are very real to us. Why? On a simplistic level, because they move us in some way. We find an author’s perspective to be insightful or informative, we agree with their philosophy or their politics, or are interested in the questions that they raise.
Perhaps more importantly, they capture our imagination. They make us wish that the idealized world that is presented to us was our own. They make us wish we could be as cool and witty and charming as Han Solo. They make us wish that falling in love was just that easy. But despite these wishes, there are very real and dangerous consequences of confusing our fantasy with our reality.
These stories are patently false and yet even works of fiction can manage to teach us a deeper truth. If you are devoutly religious, it’s safe to assume that you are uncomfortable with seeing your holy book as a work of fiction. However, please consider what it is like to read a parable. The story itself may not be true yet it teaches some sort of moral lesson. It wants to make you aware of something that you weren’t thinking about before, it wants to raise your consciousness.
Another reason why these experiences feel real to us is even though we are observing, we are experiencing emotion. A church, like a movie theatre, is a place that allows us to experience this emotion in a safe environment. In essence, it allows us to observe humanity.
We still jump out of our seat at scary movies. We still cry at the latest romance between star-crossed lovers. We react when someone in a heated frenzy, runs into a tree and bonks their head. These movies simulate the human experience. Whether the events in these films themselves are real or otherwise, they still cause us to feel something real, they still manage to illicit a strong emotional response. In that sense, these simulated events are ‘real’ to us because our brains tangibly exist and with that, our memories and emotions (and the underlying physiological processes that cause them).
In the cases of both religion and movies, these are the stories that we tell ourselves – the stories that touch us in some way, the stories that challenge or inspire, the stories that make us feel closer to one another. But at the end of the day, these are just stories, no matter how beautiful and inspiring.
It is tremendously difficult to accept that harsh reality, after all, we all have so much invested in them. And how couldn’t we, we’re not just passively observing but actively engaged and participating. We invest our time and money but also our memories and our emotions. We have invested so much of ourselves. And that’s why the unsatisfying answer to the ‘God question’ is so hard for us to take.
If someone doesn’t like our favorite movie, we get marginally upset because they are in essence, denying a part of us. As a result, we get sad or discouraged, perhaps only temporarily. In the case of movies, we are able to say “live and let live” and move on. But for our religious experiences, there is only one right answer, our truth can not be denied because to deny that would be to deny “us” completely. Or so we think but more on that later.
I won’t lie to you, dear reader, these struggles are not painless and they are not easy. The cost is, undoubtedly, tremendously high. But as a wise man once said, “Better by far to embrace the hard truth than a reassuring fable. If we crave some cosmic purpose… then let us find ourselves a worthy goal”.
You can follow Alex on Twitter for more thoughts related to religion and the de-conversion process.