After seventeen thousand years or so, Grand Theft Auto V for the PC is finally on the horizon. With it, there is bound to be another wave of people that vehemently disagree with Rockstar’s approach. I recently met one of these people, but by “met” I of course mean “found through Google”, and had an interesting discussion. To far oversimplify this strangers’ words, they basically argued that The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim is a fantastic piece of art whereas Grand Theft Auto V is not, because GTAV supposedly does not amount to much more than a murder simulator. As you have probably assumed by the fact that you are currently reading this sentence, I very strongly disagree with that viewpoint. I would instead argue that, not only is Grand Theft Auto V a work of art, it is a masterpiece which currently stands as one of the most effective and well produced critiques of American black underclass society and culture, particularly because of Rockstar’s effective use of hyperbolic characters. Through these well designed characters, Rockstar Games is able to subtly expose the thought processes through which underclass neighborhoods become perpetual ethnic ghettos.
Of course, this opinion isn’t terribly unique. Metacritic gives Grand Theft Auto V “universal acclaim” and the 8.1 user score certainly solidifies GTAV as something beloved. However, I’d like to approach the game from a slightly different angle than usual and talk about the artistic credentials of Grand Theft Auto V. This article is written with a presupposition that games can be and are art. Though the coding and visual art are wonderful and deserving of their own articles, I would like to focus on the artistic integrity of Grand Theft Auto V’s narrative and characterization. Without further word vomit, I’ll get right into it.
Part of Grand Theft Auto’s charm is its ability to produce memorable and meaningful characters. These characters converge throughout the campaign to generate a world which is not only rich and worthwhile, but is also a complex and layered retelling of the real-world American experience. A character that doesn’t ever seem to get the credit that they deserve in this respect is Lamar Davis. People seem to like Lamar Davis, but many like him simply because he’s funny and ignorant and those people will probably not pay much attention to Lamar beyond that. However, Lamar is actually a very intricate character and is representative of Grand Theft Auto V’s hyperbolic awareness of America’s current state. Lamar Davis does not represent a single person. Though we have all probably met people who act as impulsively as Lamar does, it does not seem that Lamar is intended to be an avatar of that person. Instead, I would argue that Lamar, especially in conjunction with characters like the meth-addicted Tonya, is an avatar for America’s black underclass in major cities, albeit an immensely hyperbolic version of it.
Let’s look at the facts: Lamar is a man who is stuck in the past. Never was Lamar given an opportunity to improve himself or to even learn the true definition of “Improving Himself”. The only thing Lamar Davis seems to understand is that money is analogous to power. To some degree, he’s not wrong. That idea, that money is power, is an idea which sticks into his head because it is beaten into him over and over. If Lamar is unable to get his hands on a few hundred dollars by the end of any given month, he will not eat. Compounding this is the fact that Lamar only really understands crime. No one, except for his fellow black man and gang member Franklin, ever takes the time out of their day to care about Lamar or show him a better way. Those who do, such as his former employers Devin Weston and Simeon Yetarian, all see Lamar as a pawn which can be used effectively or disposed of depending on the current state of affairs. During Lamar’s youth, this was not a problem. Lamar knew that, through tough times, he could lean on Franklin. However, when Franklin got hauled off to prison in 2008, Lamar’s true vulnerabilities began to show. The path which used to work for him collapses, and his ignorance has alienated him from anyone who cares enough to fix that. Thus, Lamar finds himself in a cyclical problem: He commits crimes because he needs money to continue living, and his life is reduced to a constant scramble for money, which he thinks he can only obtain through crime. Lamar, in that way, becomes a victim of the system which forcibly perpetuates his ignorance and disallows him to seek profit through other ventures. He simply never has the time, education, or energy to devote to learning how to move forward. Lamar’s life of crime isn’t as willful as it appears.
No scene in Grand Theft Auto V shows this side of Lamar better than the mission “Lamar Down”. It is at this point where Lamar reveals with some clarity that his tough-guy persona is a reaction to a difficult life. After Franklin gives Lamar a pittance, Lamar makes some important statements. The first is:
When Franklin responds by saying that he has saved Lamar’s life both recently and often, Lamar’s true face shows:
It’s at this point that it becomes clear that the mission Lamar Down is not supposed to be a tribute to how far Franklin has come from street crime. Instead, the mission is intended to reveal the background of the life that Franklin and Lamar came from. The pressures of Los Santos push hard on Chamberlain Hills. An ethnic ghetto like Chamberlain Hills constitutes a system wherein Franklin and Lamar needed to lean on each other in order to make it through the day. That system, though it may have brought Lamar and Franklin closer in their youth, generates tensions which will keep Chamberlain Hills isolated. Notice how Lamar is not angry at the system. As far as Lamar is concerned, “It’s hard out here in the set.” He doesn’t question that life needs to be hard, or why it is hard. The system has left him far too ignorant to ask those questions; he’s busy clutching at peoples wallets so that he can eat at the end of the day. Instead, the system is postured in a way where Lamar ultimately becomes upset with Franklin rather than the system. With Franklin moving on to larger, more sophisticated crime, Lamar is left utterly alone, and that seems to make him afraid. He clutches at what remains of his relationship with his only true friend. The only thing that ever brings Franklin back into Lamar’s life, and gives Lamar a real chance at getting through his hardest times, is when Lamar does something that is immensely stupid. If Lamar was to stop getting himself into near-death situations, he would lose his only friend. As such, Lamar is forced to act stupidly and gets angry at Franklin’s attempts to move away from street crime. The system, in that way, works. Chamberlain Hills will perpetuate its status as a crime-ridden ethnic ghetto because there is no opportunity to build itself up or move forward. Attempting to leave the ghetto amounts to a personal betrayal.
The aforementioned Tonya has a very similar experience with Franklin, but her irrelevance to the larger story makes her impact slightly less pronounced. Though many people who play Grand Theft Auto V will be inclined to agree with Franklin when he speaks about wanting to aim for larger rewards and more sophisticated living, Tonya does not feel the same way. Much like Lamar, Tonya feels that Franklin’s attempts to escape from the ghetto is, rather than an attempt to improve his life, a means of proving that he is “better” than the people who he grew up with. By attempting to break free from the destitute Chamberlain Hills, Franklin removes himself from the pool of “people who can be leaned on in times of need.” That idea scares the people of Chamberlain Hills and makes them angry. It seems that they would rather all crash and burn in poverty together than to allow one of their own to escape from their predicament. Every time someone clever, like Franklin, manages to escape from the ghetto, the ghetto is rendered worse-off because it has one less clever person stuck in it. Losing those people is not a small issue. Many of those suck in Chamberlain Hills depend on people like Franklin to survive.
The backlash that Franklin receives for attempting to leave the ghetto also has a very real effect on him. When completing Dom Beasley’s Strangers and Freaks missions, Franklin thinks aloud to himself: “I need to learn how to say no.” Perhaps the reason that Franklin is unable to say no to people (beyond the fact that he is intended as an avatar for your typical story-driven GTA player) is because he has developed a reflexive sense of guilt when being asked to help. Everyone he cared about in his pre-prison life needs to lean on him, and if he didn’t say ‘yes’ to almost every request, his friends would be jobless and/or dead. Even when Franklin escapes to Vinewood Hills, he cannot escape his predicament of being perpetually viewed as merely a black man from Chamberlain Hills. No amount of money can pull him out of the system.
Finally, the pressures set upon the black American underclass are explored through Tanisha. Tanisha, Franklin’s unrequited love interest, has escaped from the ghetto by managing to marry a doctor. As such, even though she is shown to be clever, she did not manage to pull herself out of the system by her own hard work and sacrifice. However, just as Franklin’s wealth does not mentally separate him from Chamberlain Hills, neither does Tanisha’s. In fact, Tanisha could arguably be said to be even more stuck into the system than Franklin is. The most powerful scene for Tanisha, which is also Lamar Down, shows that she still considers the ghetto to be a comprehensive unit which must lean on itself and should not be escaped from, lest those left behind find themselves in dire straits. However, what’s interesting is that Tanisha only projects this onto Franklin, and not onto herself. She sees herself as escaped, and free of the troubles in Chamberlain Hills. There is no evidence that she ever visits or helps to rebuild her old neighborhood. The only time she even makes an effort to help the people she left in Chamberlain Hills is when she confronts Franklin, and she does so by making him feel guilty that he is not being a part of the system. Even though she thinks of herself as ‘escaped’, she is nonetheless condemned to the cyclical mental state that those still left in Chamberlain Hills must endure.
The characters in Grand Theft Auto V, when viewed in a context of being a critique of the state of the black American underclass, are able to tell a very rich and subtle story which goes far beyond a simple murder simulator. Rockstar has generated a world which allows them to reflect on the troubles that people in modern-day ghettos must face every day, and why those troubles are not so easy to escape from. The blatant violence in the Grand Theft Auto formula allows Rockstar to boldly address these issues in the way that more politically correct video game series never could. For that reason, Grand Theft Auto V deserves all the praise it gets, and more.