Sep 17, 2011
Luridly splashed across the headlines of 14 years, Grand Theft Auto has evolved from the exploits of a literally faceless psychopath engaged in a ‘race n chase’ for a crime lord to the ambitious tale of a Serbian emigre in New York-alike Liberty City. Mouthy, assured and occasionally inspired, the scripts of the main storylines would brighten the corners of all but the gutsiest of B-movies. But here, in this most influential of videogames, they’re a sideshow. The true Rockstars of Grand Theft Auto are neither the celestially-named producers nor the sidewalking, starry-eyed avatars. They’re the players.
‘Transmedia’ is an embryonic and much wrestled-over term, but most definitions agree it refers in some form to an overarching narrative distributed across multiple delivery channels. The thing is, even the best of these narratives – such as 42’s Why So Serious, Xenophile’s ReGenesis and Hi-ReS’s The Lost Experience – are more often as not as single-sourced and authorial as any last century broadcast media, despite their 21st century wrappers of social media, ARG and the like. Grand Theft Auto’s most interesting content exists outside this boundary. The breadth of ways in which the player can interact with the game world means they can tell their own stories.
That’s not to say Rockstar aren’t solid transmedia practitioners themselves. The games’ radio stations are notable for their story-enriching and overlapping qualities but of equal interest was the way they approached GTA 2′s backstory. The setup – underover cop sent to investigate a mysterious drug company in a curious, Children of Men-like infertile world-gone-to-hell – was interesting because it wasn’t delivered in game but in a simple, white on black journal that sill resides in a backwater of the dev’s website.
The developers’ online focus has been on play rather than storytelling, as demonstrated by Rockstar’s communitized website and provision of social play sessions. But these have also provided part of a framework of support for user generated content. The most recent iterations of the franchise – San Andreas and IV – are as much sets of templates as much as videogames. They’re collections of stencils designed to be passed around, scribbled in and played with.
Fig 1. Stenciled graffiti found on Berlin Wall, 2005
And GTA San Andreas is the series’ Banksy. Set in perpetually low-sunned 90’s west coast of LA, Vegas and Arizona callbacks, lead character CJ is young, black, just out of jail and dirt poor – a setup that immediately puts some sociological distance between Rockstar and its space marine-heavy contemporaries. But it’s only when you opt out of this storyline that you discover the richness of the storyworld. GTA is as different from the likes of Gears of War as A Separation is from Transformers 3.
My tale was a simple one. I didn’t find San Andreas the most welcoming of locales and after repeatedly failing an early mission to escape a rival gang’s clutches via BMX I decided I wanted to go in another direction. And the game welcomed me in with open arms – happily accommodating the character I’d sketched of a non-violent surfer dude with a passion for astronomy and a weakness for stealing cars. Here’s a video of his moonlit joyride on a sit-down lawnmower, which I shot using a self-inflicted ‘nightmare mode’ modifier of simultaneously filming with one hand while controlling my character with the other.
GTA differentiates itself from its contemporaries not so much through the richness of its storyworld as through the sophistication and scale of player interaction with this environment. People can and do attempt roleplaying with other videogame titles, but GTA is better than contemporaries like Gears of War because it’s a spectacular gaming system. My roleplaying was pretty rudimentary but it still delivered a neat narrative punchline. CJ’s pacifist code fell apart when an attempt to stop a factory going up in flames led to him accidentally reversing over a pedestrian with a fire engine. Other players have gone much further, bolting on additional systems, models and stories for everything from Crips vs Bloods gang wars to zombie outbreaks, as everyone from paramedics and boxers to cops and attorneys. Will players be able to discover whether secretive, semi-mythical cult Epsilon really holds the key to a previously unnoticed code to make sense of Rockstar’s sprawling San Andreas? It doesn’t matter. Players will create the answers even if the gamemakers don’t.
Rockstar’s games are beautiful but deadly constructions perpetually teetering between the clockwork sophistication of their traffic/ weather/ economy algorthythms and the hairtrigger agency of the player. The result is a play experience that resembles an end of days Jenga and there are thousands of videos documenting the slapstick horror and gallows humour of this artfully designed but uttely lethal set of systems. Rockstar producer Dan Houser says “The main skill is not in writing fun one-liners – although hopefully one can do that or not – it’s in having good structural craft…” And increasingly, dev houses like Rockstar are not game creators. They’re stage hands for player stories. Like a version of Die Hard with a Vengeance where cars behave like skittles (by machinima auteur TheNinjaCowboy).
The Ninja Cowboy’s film recalls this illustration from Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, after John Tanniel, used to show the effect of various levels of gravity.
Fig 2. The influence of gravity on matter and light.
Both Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Grand Theft Auto are beautifully hackable systems then. And Lewis Carroll’s story is a great example of transmedia. It’s not just a book – it also contains songs and poems as well as John Tenniel’s bewitching illustrations; it was expanded and revised based on crowdsourced feedback, and its sequel can be enriched through consideration as a game of chess.
Like GTA’s user generated content, Carroll’s story is less important than the pursuit of ideas and shenanigans, although there have been attempts to use GTA to tell more plot driven stories and movies provide a key influencer for the magpie-like creators. Witness this litigious Ukrainian mashup…
Fig 3. Grand Theft Auto San Andreas : Die Hard 4.0
This focus on adolescent slapstick/horrific gags and stunts has a reflection in the kind of work Buster Keaton was shooting during cinema’s difficult teens and twenties. Both were products of a youthful artform and both GTA and Keaton’s early films are fine examples of recording one’s showing off. As Grant Tavinor describes it in his essay ‘Videogames as Mass Art’, “…the game exists as a set of possibilities awaiting the input of the player…” and Keaton’s gleeful toysetting in The General, which ends with a jawdropping piece of real life apocalptica (from 7.45 in the video below), reveals the filmmaker as ancestor and brother to the likes of GTA’s Niko Bellic. It’s the shock of the old.