Grand Theft Auto, Ed McBain & Nora Roberts

The challenge of continued relevance

GTA 1 gameplay image (1997)

The new Grand Theft Auto is coming. How will the latest entry in a now-25-year-old franchise adapt to a new era of gaming? George Osborn muses in his Video Game Industry Memo):

The game’s often distasteful, but undoubtedly entertaining, subversion worked in a world where the industry was young, concerns about the medium ran rampant and the franchise itself was seen as a growing part of that. The world, though, changed….

The idea that ‘games can be for adults’ has shifted from revolutionary concept to known wisdom, with the average age of players in the UK hitting a comfortable mid 30s in that period of time…. And the concept of GTA as the edgy outsider has been utterly demolished as a result of GTA 5’s multi-billion dollar success.

As a result, Rockstar can’t sell the subversive narrative of old because it doesn’t fit the game, it’s business or the industry any more.

Andrew Griffin from the Independent adds an additional dimension into the mix. It is not only a new context for gaming, but for gamers as well:

Sometimes, Grand Theft Auto feels a little like an ethical version of the uncanny valley: you can do almost anything, in a world that feels almost life-like, but the almost means that you feel empowered to do anything but have a flicker of guilt or sadness when it happens…. But in more recent versions of GTA I have felt something a bit sadder and less outraged: when I do something bad in the game, I feel something like regret, even if it is muted a little by the knowledge that nothing in its universe matters.

Confession: I’ve never even played GTA. Still, you don’t need to be an active gamer to appreciate this as a major cultural moment, and admire GTA’s place in history. There are few cultural properties that have even existed continuously for four decades, and here’s one that’s thrived… and in the most fast-changing and radically-fluctuating creative sector to boot.

Map of Vice City (1997)

Osborn compares the franchise to the Rolling Stones, which is appropriate, with their six decades of success. In publishing, authors that consistently sell for a quarter-century are valuable: an author that actually tops the charts for that length of time is a rare beast of the King and Grisham species. Or for one more contrast: GTA predates the (expiring?) MCU by over a decade. GTA is a thing.

I particularly admire the two pieces side by side because Osborn looks at how the world has changed around (and often because of) GTA, and how the franchise has evolved from subversive outsider to mainstream to the last champion of a category. Meanwhile, Griffin (in the frustratingly unlinkable newsletter - just subscribe now and take it on faith!) takes a more introspective look. Does the subversive still feel indulgent, or have permissive worlds lost their allure? Is that a matter of an individual maturing and changing, or the whole culture changing? And what does that mean for our engagement with other virtual worlds as well?

Ed McBain and the 87th Precinct » We Are Cult

This is only tangentially related, but two of my favourite authors are Ed McBain and John D MacDonald. Both wrote, successfully, for a very, very long time - with series that spanned multiple decades. But they had two very different approaches to the passage of time.

McBain adapted his series and its characters to the world. They faced new challenges, adopted new techniques and technologies, changed their vocabulary and their politics. McBain’s 87th Precinct was always contemporary. Whereas MacDonald’s Travis McGee was always estranged from his time: a defining part of his character was a distaste for modernity, and perpetual ennui. As McGee’s adventures continued, he became more and more exhausted and frustrated, tilting at windmills that largely existed outside of the books. McGee was frozen in time, heroically jogging backwards on a treadmill. There are advantages to both strategies. Many of McBain’s books now seem dated, where as MacDonald’s had obsolescence by design. But at the point of each release, the 87th Precinct books were fresh and relevant, while Travis McGee was stuck inside a specific moment - one rapidly disappearing into a misty past.

What Osborn and Griffin describe is a game - an entertainment and cultural franchise - that’s making active decisions on how to stay relevant over time. Does it engage with contemporary culture? Does it leverage nostalgia? Or does it try to - as it successfully did in the past - create something new entirely?

Thank you to everyone that reached out to share their own stories after last week’s newsletter - both in emails and comments. I have been following Boris Johnson’s appearance at the Inquiry, and it is as dissatisfying as I expected. There’s absolutely no accountability on display, or even indications of empathy. Even in the sense of long-term learnings, I fear the Inquiry will not get much out of a man with no sense of self-reflection or responsibility. My only - rather petty - consolation: Johnson is a man obsessed with his place in history, and I suspect it will be, to say the least, ‘unkind’.

What I’m reading (offline):

  • The Long Game by Elena Armas - Yet another Goodreads Choice pick; probably my last for this year. A grab bag of tropes in this one: the high-powered exec in exile, the grumpy tattooed athlete, daddy issues, mega-quirky small town, enemies to lovers, one bed, adorable baby animals, etc. etc. etc. It is probably the best of the Choice books I’ve read. Which is a mixed compliment.

  • Streethlethal by Steven Barnes - Streetlethal is an absolutely enjoyable early 1980s romp in a seedy near-future where gangs and corporation peddle drugs in a post-collapse California. It is a Blaxploition film: down to the character tropes and the plot beats. This is a huge amount of fun, and, unlike other cyberpunk books from the time, it is undeniably in a Black world, with all the characters casually reflecting a far more, uh, inclusive dystopian vision. The ‘guns, babes and cyborgs’ aesthetic is on full display here: modern cyberpunk owes more to books like Streetlethal than Neuromancer. Never underestimate the long-term influence of quality pulp.

  • The Damned Utd by David Peace - Probably about time I read this, eh? The thing is, I just did not like Nineteen Seventy-Four. I’m enjoying this more, which is a relative thing: I am fascinated by the context (and can’t wait to do a deep dive into reportage) and I always appreciate good sportswriting as an art in and of itself. But Peace’s style rubs me the wrong way - this is stream of consciousness from the POV of an angry, seething man. I think it is, perhaps, too well written, as I simply feel dirty after every chapter. I want to cheer for Clough, but he makes it really hard. Perhaps that’s the point.

What I’m writing:

  • I’ve contributed to a few ‘year’s best’ listicles that will be popping up over the next month.

  • Anne and I are shipping our next ‘In the Weeds’ column to ParSec.

  • I’m in the strange situation of reviewing, and lightly tweaking, the 20k-ish words of editorial matter for The Big Book of Cyberpunk in advance of the UK release. It wouldn’t be fair if it were completely different, but I am excited that my home turf will be treated to a few new fiddles and Easter Eggs.

What I’m reading (online):

Speaking of genre-defining success across the decades, the New York Times intereviewed Nora Roberts, and she is awesome:

It was very easy to dismiss the entire [Romance] genre and all the readers because they’re not reading something you think is good for them, like broccoli. Women buy books, and they buy them often. And they buy them sometimes by the bag full. And what’s wrong with that? I think we should all be able to read anything we want to read. Because when you think about the illiteracy rate in this country alone, every book read for pleasure is a miracle, a celebration. It’s glorious.

On the subject of long-term thinking (and some people who aren’t as good as it as Nora Roberts): a handy explainer of ‘effective altruism’ and ‘accelerationism’ and the gray space/overlap between them. In short: let’s not hand the keys to our future to billionaires, no matter how shiny their pseudo-philosophy may seem.

“Website as home.” This is a sweet mini-manifesto, and a thoughtful perspective on our online ‘spaces’ and how we make them more personal and more hygge. Anne and I have been talking a lot about how we miss websites: the (relative) permanence, the depth, the immersion. When you’re on a website, you are entering a space; you get to explore and settle in and revisit when they have something new to show off. Social media feels - as designed - a public space. It is never personal. (In fact, when you try to personalise it, the algorithm chucks bricks through your window.)

Who else misses websites?

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