Critical Intel

Critical Intel
GTA's Morality Is More Complex Than You Realize

Robert Rath | 19 Sep 2013 12:00
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But the power of suggestion isn't the only thing driving player-character ethical interaction. At other times, the character may assert his or her own brand of ethics through events that don't involve player choice, like cutscenes, dialogue and required missions. Here the player's values aren't filtered through the character, but rather the game dictates to the player about what kind of person the character is. Maybe it's Cole Phelps cheating on his wife, for instance, or Trevor torturing someone. These unchangeable constants draw the character's boundaries so that they're a separate, even opposing force to the player's morality - one you're informing rather than fully controlling. Setting a character against the player may be accidental, or it may be a specific design decision to alienate the player from the character and emphasize a particularly terrible or significant act. Every crime game does this at one point or another, but if it's handled improperly the developers are in danger of losing the player.

When you create strong characters that have different values from the player you risk going too far and creating a character that's unrelatable. Hypocritical as it may be, audiences will generally allow criminal protagonists to do reprehensible things provided they're motivated by a larger idea like redemption, justice, or the American Dream. We're more comfortable with people who kill for their values than those who kill for greed. Rockstar, it seems, has decided to push this envelope in GTA V. Only time will tell if it pays off, or if they've made a vast misjudgment and made their characters unlikable.

But players and characters aren't the only moral forces in games - we also have to acknowledge the moral and ethical codes of the world itself.

Psychology tells us that environment has a major influence on people's behavior, and crime fiction as a genre understand this implicitly. Like the crime dramas it appropriates, GTA both uses its cities as a character and an excuse for protagonists to break laws. Both Liberty City and Los Santos have a corrupting influence familiar to crime fiction - the big bad metropolis that takes ordinary men and makes them into monsters. Nobody's clean, especially the people who claim to be. A car repo dealership treads the boundaries of legality. Girlfriends turn out to be shadowy government agents. Politicians lie and cops break the law. San Andreas showed a city carved up among gangs allied with dirty cops, where family ties were the only thing defending social order. GTA IV focused on the fallen American Dream from the perspective of a cynical migrant who saw the country as no different from Eastern Europe. GTA V explores post-recession trauma and the self-obsessed digital age. These games portray society as a scam, elevating its lawbreaker protagonists as people who refuse to be duped by the system. According to the GTA's philosophy the world is a dirty, dog-eat-dog place, and the only logical reaction is to become the meanest, dirtiest dog. Rather than fighting the system, they're rolling with it.

This isn't something Rockstar created. Gangster movies propagated the idea in the 1930s, when the Great Depression made the population lose faith in society. In the 18th and 19th centuries the British poor celebrated criminals who used illegal means to break out of poverty. Even ancient myths celebrate Prometheus stealing fire from the selfish gods - the original heist. Rule-breaking narratives are potent stories to anyone who feels society has disenfranchised, ignored or cheated them. It's as old as human culture and probably the most powerful tool Rockstar uses to shape the ethical framework of its world. After all, if the police aren't following the rules, why should we? Why let the rich game the system when we have the tools and intelligence to make money too? If society has abandoned its own rules, does it not make us superior for keeping our own code of loyalty and brotherhood? The bankrupt shell of civilization turns into a playground in this view, with moral equivalency giving the player license to do as he or she pleases. This is how GTA V casts Southern California bank robbers as entrepreneurs, suggesting that a stickup is the same as a startup.

Of course, this narrative is a lie and it always has been. In real life police corruption, though it does happen, is nowhere near what you'd expect from the crime genre. Society, overall, follows its own rules and is not on the brink. But GTA is not reality, it is fiction, and is therefore entitled to construct its own vision of reality even if it's entirely skewed. This is not to suggest that Rockstar cannot bear any responsibility for unethical or gross elements in GTA V - indeed, I'm sure we'll hear a great deal about this in the future - but to suggest that when we look at the game's internal morality we understand that there's more there than meets the eye.

Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher currently based in Hong Kong. You can follow his exploits at or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp.

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