Ryan Leas in The Atlantic:
Ain’t the American Dream grand? Michael, one of three playable characters in “Grand Theft Auto V,” yells this periodically during firefights, typically when you’re rampaging against cops. In a nutshell, that context is all you need to understand the wicked smirk specific to the GTA franchise’s exaggerated vision of America. It’s always hard to pin down exactly what the ultra-successful series is. “GTA” is equal parts incisively clever and on the nose. It pushes boundaries with some of the most mature content in mainstream video games while channeling that content toward juvenile ends, tapping into latent teenage dreams of anarchy. The games acerbically critique American consumerism while also offering a world in which driving up on a sidewalk and running down civilians is cause for laughing out loud.
Throughout, one thing has been consistent. In its continual mining of classic American crime dramas, from “The Godfather” to “Scarface” to “Heat,” the GTA franchise automatically inherits that tradition’s outlaw take on undying American Dream tropes. The upward mobility, the rags to riches, all with a pistol in one hand and a bag of money in the other. Through its knowing recalibration of this traditional structure, “GTA” would like to position itself as subversive. And, no doubt, its vision of America has always been an amusingly satirical one, that proclamation of “Ain’t the American Dream grand?” delivered with a healthy amount of sarcasm. But it’s also fantasy fulfillment. As much as this newest iteration of “GTA” skewers American culture, it also captures how the GTA franchise as a whole plays into a more contemporary tradition — a new, digital American frontier in which to play out our inherited myth over and over. One that urges us to press “Start” once more, but on the pretense of what is, ultimately, a batch of false promises.
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