Loading up GTA3 for the first time since moving house and finding that the last time I’d saved the game was 11th April was quite depressing, readers, I can tell you. As I’m sure has become obvious if you’ve read any of my previous posts about this game, I absolutely love it. And going back to it after 8 months was both really comforting, like seeing an old friend after years of not being in contact and clicking instantly as soon as you meet, and incredibly daunting, as I own probably hundreds of video games, many of which I’ve never actually played, and if it’s taking me this long to play just one, how long is it going to take me to play them all? But anyway, I’m getting off topic. I’m here to talk about Grand Theft Auto III, and how it encapsulates the lie at the heart of consumer capitalism. Aha! No! Too late to stop reading now! I have you in my web.
While playing GTA3 and becoming more and more familiar with my surroundings, to the point where I didn’t need a map to get around, I would often forget that I was only exploring a third of the full game, the other two being inaccessible until you reach a certain point in the game’s story. This first island that I had access to, known as Portland in the GTA version of New York called Liberty City, is analogous to Queens or Brooklyn in the real New York, and therefore consists largely of industrial parks, factories, docks and warehouses. As such, it is not a very wealthy area. GTA3’s programmers, using the not exactly advanced PS2 hardware, display this in a simple but very effective way which helps you suspend your disbelief and imagine that this a real, living, breathing world, by having the vehicles you see out on the roads in Portland ‘match up’ with the sort of area it is; you see Triad fish vans in Chinatown, sinister black Mafia saloons in Little Italy, and an awful lot of old, beaten up estate cars and pick-ups trucks, because as I said, this is not a wealthy area. It’s such a nice, subtle little touch of realism which doesn’t impede upon your ability to play the game at all, (as concessions to realism will in later games in the series, but that’s a discussion for another time) it just means that early on in the game, probably the fastest and most reliable car you’ll find to drive around is a taxi cab. That is, until you come across the showroom.
Compared to everything else you’ve seen in the game so far, this thing looks like a vision. Not built for economy, or space, or reliability, but for speed, for looks, for status. Naturally, I stole it. And it drove as well as it looked. The best part of the loose, arcade style controls of GTA3 (and subsequent GTA games of this generation) is that every car can feel so different to drive, and this one in particular, the Banshee, feels like floating on a turbo-charged cloud. Corners which I would previously have had to slow down for and turn into gingerly, I was now sailing round at full speed, perhaps powersliding slightly, in order to show off what a Big Man I am. It was wonderful. A mission in which I had to race several Mexican gang members in supercars around the city now became a doddle, as they crashed into each other on the first corner and I whizzed ahead only to be vaguely reminded that I was racing anyone as they threw themselves head-first into trees and lamposts in my peripheral vision.
The fact that my car was fancier than everything else on the road was quite rewarding just in itself, I felt like I was finally making progress in the game, ‘making my way in the world’, so to speak, even though all I’d done was steal a car off a forecourt. And that’s when I started thinking about consumerism. I’d done nothing to ‘earn’ this car, to earn this feeling of superiority, and yet I felt great about it. And this thought process was, to me, at least, disturbingly familiar to instances in real life. How often do you feel really proud after buying a new phone, a new games console, or a new TV? Why is this? Because we are conditioned to. Because as soon as we are old enough to watch television and process what is happening on screen, we are potential customers to advertisers.
And it’s not just the adverts in between the programmes of course, often the TV shows themselves present us with images of lifestyles far beyond our means, this so-called ‘aspirational’ television re-enforces the idea that to own the newest thing, the most expensive thing, is the way to be happy. And I’m not just talking about obvious targets like Made In Chelsea or TOWIE here, programmes such as Top Gear and The Gadget Show do the exact same thing. The recent near-riots over TVs and iPads on Black Friday show what a massive effect this kind of influencing can have on people, and the sneering, condescending tone of news broadcasters and people on social media commenting on was what happening upset me far more than the actual events, the hypocrisy of a system whereby this stuff is rammed down our throats and then people are mocked and called names for swallowing it just doesn’t sit well with me somehow.
But again, I’m getting off topic. Once I finally reached the point in GTA3 where the second island (Staunton Island, subbing in for Reality’s Manhattan Island) was available to me, I drove over the bridge in my now slightly battle-worn Banshee to discover the sights of a wealthier part of the city. A place I now felt I belonged, having fought my way to the top of the organised crime game in Portland, after blowing up the Triad’s fish factory in a quite spectacular fashion. And while driving round, I did find that I belonged here. Slightly more, in fact, than I’d really wanted to.
Banshees. Everywhere. At one point it seemed like every second car I drove past was a Banshee, as common on Staunton Island as pick-up trucks were in Portland. Where once I felt superior, as if this in-game object gave me status as a crimelord, I now felt like one of the crowd again. I had ‘risen above’ one crowd only to join another. And this, this, dear readers, is the lie of consumer capitalism. That by acquiring, we somehow separate ourselves, when of course the opposite is true. The method of escape they give us is the same one they give everybody, and far from becoming more individual as is promised, we become more alike. Think of car adverts, for the best example of this. As beautifully parodied in the ‘Canyonero’ advert in the classic Simpsons episode ‘The Last Temptation of Krust’, you will only ever see cars in adverts driving through deserted mountains, or skyscraper-filled cities at night, always on completely empty roads, suggesting freedom, escape, independence, glamour and style. Far away from the reality of a four mile tailback on the A1 Southbound in the driving rain, but then such is the nature of advertising, and of consumer capitalism in general. A lie which sells cars is a justified lie.
I think I’ve discovered why it takes me so long to complete video games.