If art reflects culture, then Rockstar Games is one of the most substantial social commentators of our generation. For almost 20 years, the studio has picked to pieces real-world political, economic and social issues, satirising, mocking and parodying them in equal measure.
This is the story of Rockstar as time travellers across America, creating cultural criticism for the digital age."
Each Rockstar game is as much a contemporary commentary as it is a recreation of a specific period. Though they hop between characters, cities and decades at will, many of the messages and themes within each Rockstar game remain solid - the dangers of patriotism, the corruption of influence, the greed and sensationalism of capitalism, and the cutting satirisation of the media, to name just a few.
Based in the UK, Rockstar North’s perception of America is a projection, exaggerated and hyper-realised, that better enables satire. More than any modern-day satirist, Rockstar's meditations on America are the one continuous theme in its opus. This is the story of Rockstar as time travellers across America, creating cultural criticism for the digital age.
Rockstar – then known as DMA Design – made its first trip to Liberty City back in 1997. The first GTA, originally called Race’n’Chase before the Houser brothers changed it (imagine queuing up for Race’n’Chase 5 this September), clumped Rockstar’s home cities together in one interconnected play-space. Liberty City, Vice City and the state of San Andreas - Rockstar’s versions of New York, Miami and the California/Nevada area - provided a huge open world to explore and create chaos within, but they weren’t characters in themselves yet.
Original maps for Grand Theft Auto (1997).
GTA’s sequel was released 2 years later in 1999, but abandoned any sense of time and place altogether. Set in the fictional location of ‘Anywhere, USA’, GTA 2 lost connection with the real world and its story, characters and themes were pretty ineffective as a result. There’s no space to satirise if you have nothing to pin that mockery onto, no recognisable backdrop.
Rockstar returned to Liberty City in 2001, and it was then that the studio began to emerge as the time-travelling satirist we know today. GTA III’s Liberty City was a buzzing hub of crime, drugs and depravity all wrapped up in one glorious open world. It aped New York down to the tiniest details, but it also spoke much louder about the state of America at that time.
The fact that Rockstar chose to talk about the Here and Now completely changed the GTA series. It evolved from contextless violence and mayhem to a piece of work that carried a theme and a message with it. Rooted in the present, GTA III’s world, characters, plotlines, the conversations on the radio and even particular mission names all highlighted how expertly fine-tuned Rockstar’s satire had become.
GTA III’s present-day had a hard hitting relevance that gave it a razor sharp edge. Replaying it, the violence and brutality feels more visceral than the later, more stylised games. While Rockstar would continually loop through time exploring the ages, Liberty City has been a present-day constant that the studio has always returned to, which makes it more relatable than any of the series’ other locations. Liberty City has evolved as Grand Theft Auto has, and its satire is a constant that speaks directly to us as we evolve as an audience. This connection arguably makes it the series’ true home.
And when Rockstar used Liberty City as a commentary on the real world, the real world encroached on Rockstar’s Liberty City in return. In response to the events of 9/11, just a few months before GTA III’s release, Rockstar changed the entire box-art design because they felt the original would be too raw. Certain sensitive mission objectives and stories were removed, and character motives were altered to avoid comparisons to the terrorist attacks. The colour scheme of the in-game police was also changed to soften their resemblance to the real-life NYPD, to respect those that lost their lives on that horrific day. So soon after the attacks had clawed at the heart of New York, Rockstar had to be extremely careful about the very thing that sets a Grand Theft Auto game apart from its contemporaries: that humorous and satirical core.
In Vice City, Rockstar ventured further into symbolism. Abandoning the anchored reality of the present for the sleazy glam of the 80s, Vice City didn’t just recreate the superficial trappings of its time, cruising down the neon lit freeway with Jean Michel Jarre blaring out of a crappy hi-fi, but the atmosphere of an entire era. Rockstar brought a decade’s worth of culturally impactful films, TV shows, music and people to the game world, but with their own neat little touches and idiosyncrasies that made it more than an homage. Vice City was to be a symbol of what the 80s represented, rather than just a singular location.
Perhaps most important to that symbolic presentation was the casting of Ray Liotta as the game’s protagonist, Tommy Vercetti. Having starred in Goodfellas, Liotta was the ultimate gangster’s gangster, and was a key device in bringing Vice City’s 80s era to life. Vercetti was an amalgamation of several notorious characters of the time, including some of those from Scorsese’s movie, but the similarities to Tony Montana were clearest - especially in Tommy’s in-game mansion, and his slick, dark, pinstriped suit labeled ‘Mr Vercetti’, just like Montana’s in Scarface.
San Andreas was an entirely different adventure for Rockstar. Set in the early 90s, it too brought together a whole host of pop culture references and relevant social issues of the period. Like Vice City aped the sleaze of the 80s, San Andreas aped 90s crime dramas.
The game’s Las Venturas strip is almost entirely inspired by Casino, also evoking throwbacks to Vice City - Rockstar wouldn't leave behind such a sumptuous chunk of its fictional America lightly. An in-game car chase is inspired by To Live and Die in LA - the second time the film gets referenced in the GTA universe - and Pulp Fiction gets a neat quote (“I don't know you, wrong number, prank caller, prank caller!") ripped from a conversation between Travolta’s Vincent Vega and his friend, Lance. Lastly, the game’s main antagonist, Officer Tenpenny, is a parody of Denzel Washington's character in Training Day.
San Andreas also tied up a neat character arc that highlights how closely intersected the GTA games are, despite the large passage of time between each. Claude - GTA III’s protagonist - shows up a number of times throughout the game, appearing in the background of cutscenes, or getting direct mentions in dialogue. Claude left San Andreas for Liberty City in 1992, and then went on to star in his own game almost a decade later, but Rockstar continued to make retrospective nods to its own universe, forming a timeline that feels relatable and real in this fictional America.
The game’s plot and characters are representations of real issues of the decade. The crack epidemic that spanned America during the late 80s and early 90s was a major theme throughout the game, as were the 1992 LA riots, which Rockstar spoofs in the game’s climax. The LAPD Rampart scandal, where several corrupt CRASH (Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums) officers planted forged evidence and falsely imprisoned, shot and beat people, also featured in the game's narrative. Several of the game’s main antagonists were written based on perpetrators involved in the scandal, and Rockstar even made use of the CRASH motto - “intimidate those who intimidate others” - to really drive that satiric nail home.
The game’s approach to ethnicity became contentious in some circles, too, which is another example of how Rockstar games seep over into real-world discussion. The New York Times published an article back in August 2004 that discussed the “disturbing” trends of “racial stereotyping” in the game, calling Rockstar “insidious.” It’s an issue that deserves deeper and more extensive discussion, and with GTA V featuring the series’ only other African American lead, it’s likely to come up again.
GTA IV was an important step for Rockstar. It was a homecoming for the series. It shifted the tone, maturing and changing how Rockstar chose to present itself, and key to it all was the redefined Liberty City. A shining jewel of American corruption, HD Liberty City was a very different place to the one Rockstar created nearly 10 years previously. It was a more detailed, dynamic vision of the character of New York, with more room to explore. It had vibrancy and life, while iconic landmarks like Time Square, the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building were all given their own unique Rockstar touch.
The Statue of Happiness is Rockstar’s ultimate piece of satire. Resembling Hillary Clinton with a steaming cup of coffee in her right hand, the statue is a reference to Hot Coffee, GTA’s own major controversy. The fiasco saw then-Senator Clinton, along with others in government, pushing for the stricter regulation of video games, even introducing the Family Entertainment Protection Act to better protect children from inappropriate content. As well as mocking Clinton, the statue’s tablet points fun at the naivety of immigrants entering the country, scrutinising the falsified ideals of the American Dream. The inscription reads, “Send us your brightest, your smartest, your most intelligent, Yearning to breathe free and submit to our authority, Watch us trick them into wiping rich people's asses, While we convince them it's a land of opportunity.”
Rockstar uses immigrants, particularly Niko, as agents in the studio’s satirisation of New York and America. As a foreigner entering the country in pursuit of fortune, Niko’s outspoken, blunt, cynical critique of the American people, their culture and way of life echoed Rockstar’s own bold inspections. Niko had an opinion, and his scathing analysis of America and its strange ideologies - its celebrity obsession and infatuation with material possessions - was more prevalent than in any previous GTA character.
Niko was the perfect vehicle for Rockstar to push forward its skewed vision of the Land of Opportunity and the lie of the American dream: the impossibility of living a clean life and the elitism of the financially advantaged.
In Liberty City’s capitalist world, money rules all. In this regard, GTA IV is Rockstar’s pièce de résistance, and the relationship between Rockstar’s sardonic satire and the role of its characters in that portrayal is at its most intimate. The Statue of Happiness may wield a great stone inscription mocking each and every immigrant that sails past into Liberty City, but Niko is standing right there flipping the bird at every American he encounters.
Post-9/11 hysteria was another prominent topic in IV, a strong link to the Liberty City we saw in GTA III. Radio station conversations highlight the level of racial stereotyping and paranoia that engulfed America in the wake of the attacks. However, while portions of the game map were initially cordoned off due to an attempted terrorist threat , Liberty City still respected its inspiration and trod carefully when parodying it. For all its accurate representations of present day New York, Ground Zero was featured nowhere in the game.
GTA’s America would never have been possible without the actions of John Marston and his contemporaries in Wild West America. Red Dead was as much about the death of John Marston’s world as it was about the birth of Claude’s, Tommy’s, CJ’s and Niko’s. Rockstar San Diego returned to the beginning of the 20th century, a time when they could set the ground rules, when America was going through radical, irreversible changes. It was a commentary on a place they understood but never knew directly - rather like Rockstar North’s modern America.
John Marston’s America also offered up further questions about the transformation and eventual death of the Wild West, and how someone striving to do what was right in the here and now could never escape their past. Like the GTA games, where the impossibility of leading a good life affects every character, Red Dead concentrated on the difficulties in leaving a bad life behind. Marston was doomed from day one, another unfortunate victim of time’s onward march, but if he hadn’t played the game set out in front of him and let America transform into the place it is today, you wouldn’t have Grand Theft Auto at all. In that sense, John Marston is the first GTA character that ever lived, his death was necessary for the eventual creation of the series, and Red Dead is possibly the best Grand Theft Auto game made yet.
As GTA V returns to present-day America, with economic recession, family, greed and ambition as apparent key themes, it’s interesting to see Rockstar expand its story to include three main protagonists. If IV was a commentary on America through the eyes of a cynical foreigner, V may well be an analysis of present day America from the perspective of its own citizens. This invites a stronger, more unforgiving level of satire; the kind that strikes from home turf, so to speak, with each character providing a different view on America from varying backgrounds and communities. Jumping between Michael, Trevor and Franklin is an indication that Rockstar is now exploring three different perspectives; three worlds within one, which itself is a completely new evolution for the GTA series.
This new Los Santos represents a complete reconceptualisation of Grand Theft Auto, and perhaps of the developer, too. Obey and Survive is the motto of the LSPD, but Rockstar has survived by disobeying: by holding up a warped mirror to the society it satirises and inviting us all to take a closer look at it, even when that satire cuts close to the bone. Rockstar has never been afraid of controversy. It has travelled through time, but it has always been on the cutting edge.
Source : ign[dot]com