I’m going to spend a lot of time criticizing Grand Theft Auto V. I know I’ve already tipped my hand in the earlier entries of this series, and you can probably guess what some of my complaints will be: The tone is inconsistent to the point of incoherency. The story structure is endlessly meandering. The humor is broad, lazy, and scattershot. The characters have abrupt and unearned shifts in behavior that the writer tries to pass off as character arcs. Its depiction of California culture is ugly, mean, and oddly shallow. I know other people have covered a lot of this ground before me. I mean, obviously. It’s pretty hard to say something novel when your review shows up five years late to the party.
But I’ve been doing this game critic hustle long enough to know that the first line of defense against these complaints will be, “No Shamus. You just didn’t ‘get’ it. See, this game is actually satire.” So let’s put that point to rest right now.
I’ll admit that this game thinks it’s doing satire. But its not. It’s doing mockery, which is a much less sophisticated form of humor.
Satire is focusing on a target and holding up their follies, abuses, and shortcomings to ridicule, ideally with the intent of shaming individuals, corporations, government, or society itself. Sometimes this is done with the aim of offering constructive criticism, and sometimes it’s just done to blow off steam. In contrast, mockery is just depicting something as stupid or evil to show your distaste for it.
Perhaps An Analogy Would Be Useful
Let’s say I want to make fun of Electronic Arts CEO Andrew Wilson. If I wanted to satirize him, then perhaps I could set up a comedy sketch of an EA board meeting. One of the underlings asks Andrew what his plans are to increase the earnings of the next Titanfall game, to which he replies “Lootboxes“. Then they ask him what the plan is for the next Mirror’s Edge game, and he replies “Lootboxes”. The accountant stands up and announces that profits are up 20%. He asks what sort of ventures they should spend this money on. “Lootboxes,” Andrew nods definitively.
Then someone from catering shows up and asks what the board would like to eat today. An argument begins among the other board members but Andrew silences them by insisting on “Lootboxes”. His secretary comes in. His wife in on the phone. Their first child has just been born and she wants to know what to name her. Andrew takes the phone into his shaking hand and – overcome with joy – tells her “Lootboxes”.
I won’t claim this is a brilliant skit or anything. I don’t think it would pass muster in the SNL writer’s room. But it is satire. Andrew Wilson seems to be a man with one idea and a lot of recent problems at EA stem from him trying to cram lootboxes into games whether it makes sense or not. This skit just takes that idea to the next level – that lootboxes are actually his reflexive answer to everything – and allows that idea to create an absurd situation.
For contrast, if I just want to mock Wilson then I can put on a suit, adopt a dumb cross-eyed facial expression, and put on a cartoonishly derpy speech impediment. I’ll march back and forth on stage with a goofy stick-up-the-ass gait and announce, “HURR DURR. I’M ANDREW WILSON AND I LOVE MONEY. DUH. VIDEOGAMES SUCK.”
Mockery can feel good. It can be funny and cathartic. But it’s not satire. We associate satire with higher forms of comedy and we associate mockery with the lower stuff. Grand Theft Auto has incredible production values and it does a lot of satire-ish kind of things, so we tend to give GTA a pass and treat it like a higher class of humor.
The problem is that Rockstar isn’t American. They’re Scots. Which is fine, except the all of their satire is aimed at the United States and it feels like they have no understanding of their target. A good example of bad mockery is when it drills down and tries to tackle specific targets and the alleged satire is so far removed from the target you can’t tell what the intended target is.
The risk here is that if I attack some of the game’s clumsier attempts at political “satire”, I’ll end up arguing with people who will insist I’m just disagreeing because I don’t like the game’s politics. I could deflect that by announcing my political positions up frontSpoiler: I’m going to actually do this in a future entry. It’s going to be weird., but that would hopelessly derail the topic and we’d end up criticizing politics instead of criticizing the satire. That’s a mug’s game and I’m not falling for it.
So instead of going for the obvious targets, let’s pick on some of the topics that are low on controversy. But to make sure we don’t get lost on topics that are perhaps too frivolous, let’s focus on instances where the developers spent money on the attempted satire.
Anime is Stupid
In the game, you can park your character in front of the TV and watch some shows and commercials. One is an anime skit that seems to have been made by someone who’s never watched anime. If you’re trying to satirize something, then you want to mimic the look and feel of your target so the rest of it lands. Just like on Saturday Night Live, the first step in poking fun at Sean Connery is getting a cast member to do a proper impression of Sean Connery. And so if you want to make fun of anime then your first step ought to be something that superficially looks and feels like anime.
But this skit in GTA V doesn’t look like anime, it doesn’t sound like anime, the dialog doesn’t flow like anime, and it doesn’t even have any of the stereotypical markers of anime. Yes, it has girls in skimpy outfits which you might think is anime-ish, but none of it really fits. The outfits are wrong, the body shapes are wrong, the situations are wrong, and the framing is wrong.
It’s not like anime is beyond satire! Anime is a nice, big, juicy target filled with silly tropes that are instantly recognizable and thus ripe for humor. If I was going to take a swipe at anime then maybe I’d hit some of these ideas:
- Why are these kids being left to save the world with no adult supervision?
- The sexulaization of characters that are underage by western standards.
- The odd cadence and awkward pauses that result from translating a very rapid, poeticOr so I’ve been told many times. I don’t know anything about Japanese myself. language to the slower and more workmanlike English.
- All of these people look the same aside from hair shape / color.
- Somehow nobody can tell this boy / girl is actually a girl / boy, despite their many flagrant gaffs and countless vocal, physiological, verbal, and behavioral cues.
- People explaining their superpowers as they use them.
- People standing around talking during what is supposedly a fight.
- The classic freeze-frame shots during moments of high action.
- This plot is an incomprehensible mix of goofy-ass technology, deeply interconnected relationships, and hokey metaphysical bullshit.
And so on. By all means, take a swipe at Fullmetal Alchemist, Dragonball Z, Last Airbender, Cowboy Bebop, Neon Genesis Evangelion, the Macross Saga, or any of the other sacred cows of anime fandom. Anime, like any form of entertainment, has lots of odd tropes and habits and quirks. You just need to understand those quirks before you begin writing.
Instead of zeroing in on these many satire-ready quirks, the GTA V anime just has girls in skimpy outfits. Yes, those sorts of anime shows do exist. But they’re not really the most popular or well-known. And even among fanservice-based shows, this isn’t really how they work or what they look like or how their fanservice works. I won’t say that there aren’t any anime that look like this, because I’m sure if you dig around you can probably find some obscure hentai title that works like Princess Robot Bubblegum. But then you’re not satirizing anime. You’re just making fun of this one show that almost nobody has seen. It’s like making fun of “Hollywood” by doing a parody of The Room. It doesn’t work.
The accents are wrong. They’ve got a guy with an awful “Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s” Asian-ish accent opposite girls with California accents. But anime is either subbed (all Japanese) or dubbed (all English) so this doesn’t feel right. The art style is wrong. The outfits and body types are way off. The framing, pacing, and subject matter are wrong. This isn’t satire. It’s just mockery, and it doesn’t have anything to say about anime.
Also, it’s crass, mean, ugly, and not at all funny.
The King of Beers
Then there’s the Pisswasser commercial, which is a swipe at American beer… Drinkers? Manufacturers? Advertisers? I have no idea. It depicts beer not as a product for blue-collar American workers, or even as a product for rednecks, but as a product for hayseed yokels. The commercial features stereotypical inbred hillbillies, drinking beer. One of them has sex with a pig.
This isn’t how beer commercials look. It’s not how beer companies see themselves. It’s not how beer drinkers see themselves. It’s not how beer drinkers see beer commercials. It’s not even an exaggeration of any of those things. (For my money, this is a far smarter satire of beer commercials. Although I suppose that’s more a parody of advertising tropes than beer. Still. At least the writer is familiar with the topic they’re lampooning.) The writer has marched out on stage saying, “HUR DUR. BEER IS SO DUMB. AMERICA LIKES BEER. AMERICA IS DUMB.”
It’s like if I tried to make fun of Scotland so I made a commercial about five guys all named Angus who wear kilts, play the bagpipes, and are paedophiles. That’s not a satire of Scotsmen. That’s just the three most shallow things an outsider can name, along with a bit of mean-spirited cultural slander.
Not only is this not satire, it’s also not particularly funny. It’s shallow, lazy, ugly, and wrong. It says more about what the designers think about America than it does about America itself. It’s why I find the humor in this game to be off-putting. This isn’t a playful swipe at the United States and its many satire-worthy shortcomings, this is a mean-spirited mockery of the American people, perpetrated by someone who doesn’t seem to understand their target.
How can you swing and miss at a beer commercial? These things have a gigantic bulls-eye painted on them by way of many well-known and time-honored tropes:
- The ads always talk about snow-capped mountains and nature, implying that the product comes from the rocky mountains and not from an industrial facility in MexicoOr wherever..
- The ads have this heavy-handed subtext that opening one of these beers will cause loads of conventionally-attractive women to show up and be instantly charmed by whoever owns the beer. That’s ridiculous and everyone knows it and yet this style of commercial is older than I am. That’s practically an entire joke in itself. Just change the subtext into text.
- Like all drinks, the ads are selling self-image. It’s all vague and obvious: Hard work. American Pride. Friendship. Can-do attitude. Integrity. It doesn’t matter if these ideas are real or not. If you want to satirize a beer commercial, just take that same voice-over and juxtapose it with dissonant or contradictory images. Easy.
- The commercials often tie themselves to totally unrelated imagery like race cars, American footballHand Egg.
, horses, pickup trucks, or other things that people like. It’s easy to push this into satire by loosening the connection between the aspirational object and the beer itself. The commercial is basically saying “Our company likes whatever stuff you like.” So make that explicit in the voiceover rather than implied. Make it sound like the narrator is willing to say anything for the viewer’s approval. Have them claim to like contradictory things. Have it start off with familiar stuff and then spiral into surreal desperation as the commercial goes on.
The point is that in order to properly satirize a beer commercial, you need to imitate them. Copy the existing form, but change some part to make them more “true”. Having a hillbilly screw a pig doesn’t make any sense, since it is both less true and less like a beer commercial. (If you’re trading in crass tropes, then lower and middle-class people drink beer, and hillbillies drink homemade moonshine.)
The humor in this game is so far off-base that even when I agree with the writer, I still disagree with their expression of that idea.
As one example of dozens: I hate reality television. I mean I really deeply despise itTo be clear, I’m talking about celebrity drama and public shaming as entertainment. Jersey Shore et al. If you’re one of those people who files stuff like “Mythbusters” or “How it’s Made” into “reality TV” then I should make it clear that I’m totally cool with that sort of thing.. I hate seeing it, I hate that celebrity gossip is so celebrated, and I’m embarrassed by proxy that my culture is associated with this sort of entertainmentNot that I think it shouldn’t exist. If people want their junk food TV, let them have their junk food TV. Their right to watch trashy lowbrow television comes from the same place as my right to play trashy lowbrow videogames like this one.. So I should be an easy lay for material that pokes fun at reality TV. I’m already predisposed to want to ridicule the target in question.
And yet the swipes GTA V takes at reality TV leave me completely cold. Am I supposed to laugh during these scenes? I hope not, because it always makes me feel sad and uncomfortable. It’s a supposedly satirical situation in which nothing funny is said and no clever observations are made. The story presents a gross strawman version of reality TV, calls it stupid, and moves on.
Sure, amid all the frantic stabbing GTA does sometimes manage to hit a vein and properly satirize a topic. But the game strikes out far more often than it hits. Satire ought to be clever, observant, or mischievous. But if I had to sum up the attempted satire in GTA V I think I’d describe it as “mean and angry”, which is not a good recipe for comedy. GTA spends a lot of time clumsily mocking topics and ideas the writers don’t seem to understand, and so I’m going to declare right now that “It’s SATIRE!” is not a valid defense for something obnoxious, incoherent, or flat-out wrong.
 Spoiler: I’m going to actually do this in a future entry. It’s going to be weird.
 Or so I’ve been told many times. I don’t know anything about Japanese myself.
 Or wherever.
 Hand Egg.
 To be clear, I’m talking about celebrity drama and public shaming as entertainment. Jersey Shore et al. If you’re one of those people who files stuff like “Mythbusters” or “How it’s Made” into “reality TV” then I should make it clear that I’m totally cool with that sort of thing.
 Not that I think it shouldn’t exist. If people want their junk food TV, let them have their junk food TV. Their right to watch trashy lowbrow television comes from the same place as my right to play trashy lowbrow videogames like this one.
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