On the streets of Europe, it's all about Grand Theft Auto V
Could an expected $1 billion in sales for Grand Theft Auto V have something to do with a certain subversive, satirical tone about the US?
Warsaw, Poland — No surprises over here, on the other side of the Atlantic, that American culture is still a point of great fascination for Europeans.
Of course, some brands are ubiquitous: Apple, Coca-Cola, McDonald's, Starbucks. But the presence of US music, movies, television, and food in Europe extends to a bit more unusual labels and franchises. I've seen Subway sandwich shops and KFCs in Warsaw. I've seen movie posters for the Adam Sandler-led ensemble "Grown Ups 2" – or rather "Copains pour toujours 2" – in Paris. I even saw a billboard in Dublin advertising an American college football match next year between Penn State and UCF, to be played in Croke Park – a venue where the football is usually Gaelic in nature.
But the one bit of Americana that I've seen most frequently – and found most surprising – is neither food nor film. It's a video game: Grand Theft Auto V.
Grand Theft Auto V, or GTA5, is basically an interactive homage to American crime culture. The series, which spans more titles than just the "V" of its latest edition, has found inspiration in movies like The Godfather, Goodfellas, Scarface, Boyz in the Hood, New Jack City, and a host of other depictions of the criminal life. And it combines them into a single narrative structure within a giant sandbox of a world – in GTA5, a mythical mashup of American urbania known as San Andreas – where players can cheat, steal, and kill to their hearts' content. It is quintessentially American, at least on the surface.
Thus, it's seemed a bit odd to me that in every city I've visited in my European trip, I've been met with the stylized posters for GTA5. Faces of the three protagonists – or perhaps antiheroes – appear on street signs, on building walls, in windows.
To be sure, some of this is simple pre-release hype. All those posters featured "17 września", "17 septembre," or some other variation of the game's release date today. And it's going to be a huge seller, according to analysts: gaming site Gamasutra reports that analysts expect GTA5 sales to top $1 billion.
But I can't help but wonder if there's any kind of deeper significance to GTA5's broad European (and international) appeal.
At first blush, it looks like another, fairly typical instance of foreign obsession with American culture. Like Rome or Britain or France in their imperial heydays, the US produces culture that the world consumes.
But the game studio that developed the GTA series, is essentially British. (Scottish, to be precise). The substudio that developed GTA5 is Rockstar North, the "North" being a reference to its home in Edinburgh, Scotland. So in a way, GTA is not crime Americana, but rather a foreign homage to that Americana.
And it gets more subversive! Though the non-gaming world usually doesn't get past gameplay snippets featuring gunfire and violence, there's actually a strong satirical element to the GTA series. Past entries have thrown jabs at politicians, racism, crime, American jingoism, hypocrisy in its many forms. And while I haven't played this latest version, it appears to continue the trend. As an IGN UK review notes:
Everything about it drips satire: it rips into the Millennial generation, celebrities, the far right, the far left, the middle class, the media.... Nothing is safe from Rockstar’s sharp tongue, including modern video games. ...
Grand Theft Auto’s San Andreas is a fantasy, but the things it satirizes – greed, corruption, hypocrisy, the abuse of power – are all very real. If GTA IV was a targeted assassination of the American dream, GTA V takes aim at the modern American reality.
Which brings me back to my pondering. Is GTA's appeal abroad just another sign of American culture-worship? Or might it be an inversion of that worship, instead using the Americana medium to criticize the culture it emulates?
Of course, there's a simpler explanation: It's just a good game. And the critics certainly adore it.
But it does make me wonder. I'll have to wait until I get back to the States to find out.