GTA V TEACHES US THAT OPTIMISM IS A HARSH MISTRESS
It’s been nearly three years since I last played GTA V. It doesn’t seem like a long time, and yet I think that it took too long for me to play it again, this time on PS4. As soon as the opening credits started rolling, I was in familiar territory. I felt – and feel, because I have not finished the game yet – welcome. At home.
I don’t usually re-play games – apart from sports games, as it’s easy for one trade to ruin a whole season or career – but this felt… different. I missed these guys. I love Trevor, although at a safe distance, and Franklin too. Quentin Tarantino described Rio Bravo as a “hangout movie,” meaning it is highly re-watchable, because the viewer wants to spend the time with the characters again and again. I also have my favorite hangout movies – Goodfellas and The Damned United are two that come to mind – but GTA V is hands down my favorite hangout game. The first time around I just liked spending time with Trevor and Franklin, doing all the stuff a GTA player enjoys. Those two were cool. But Michael…
“In a way, life just passes him by”
The man wasn’t relatable for me. He had two kids, a wife, and lots of money, and I didn’t have any of that stuff. His problems were not my problems, his frustrations either. His missions were fine, but the idea of spending more time with him never appealed to me. Which is why I was so surprised that when I returned to the game this year I started to sympathize with him. In fact, now I kind of understand, and maybe even like him. These surprising emotions have nothing to do with me growing up (well, a little at least), getting married, and “fathering” two dogs – let’s leave money out of this – but are in a way connected with the main idea of Lauren Berlant’s book Cruel Optimism.
Blinded by the idea of ‘the good life’, instilled by capitalism, we tell ourselves stories in order for our lives to make sense: I wake up an hour earlier to jog before work, because my mind will work better during the day and make me more efficient; I take a course on communication to become a better leader at the office; etc. These are all optimistic assumptions about activities supposed to benefit us in the long run. The goal is to reach the object of our desire, whatever that might be. When obtaining that object, we will finally achieve happiness, as “the proximity to this object means proximity to the cluster of things that the object promises.” Of course, most of these assumptions are basically lies that we tell ourselves in order to persevere, but we internalize them to the point that we actually start to believe them.
While cruel in its own right, this is not what Berlant means by cruel optimism. For her, “optimism is cruel when it takes shape as an affectively stunning double bind: a binding to fantasies that block the satisfactions they offer, and a binding to the promise of optimism as such that the fantasies have come to represent.” What I’m pursuing may not always be what is best for me, yet I continue to pursue it because that is what is expected of me, in both objective and activity. I am supposed to want a bigger apartment, as then I’ll have more space for more stuff. In this new apartment I will be truly happy, I will have a bigger bed and a bigger TV. But to earn enough money to buy it I must first go to a well-paid job and stick to it, no matter how miserable it makes me feel and how many extra hours I must spend there. My boss is probably gonna be a dick too. My assumptions are optimistic, because I think this misery will eventually lead to an explosion of happiness. I guess you know how the story ends.
In the case of Michael Townley/De Santa, what is holding him back is his idea of ‘the good life’. Granted, he was in a way forced into it, as it was this life or prison, but the game eventually reveals that there is a way for him to avoid it. Before he meets Franklin, Michael spends his days drinking by the pool or in front of the television set. Michael is retired and rich, but he doesn’t do anything constructive with his time and resources. In the meantime, his ex-stripper wife cheats on him with her tennis coach and yoga instructor, his daughter parties with porn producers, and his son is the stereotypical lazy, aggressive teen playing brutal video games all day. In a way, life just passes him by.
“I think this misery will eventually lead to an explosion of happiness”
If Michael’s backstory is that of a man crippled by cruel optimism, his arc in the game itself hints at a way forward. Meeting Franklin jump starts him. While his assumptions that he may regain his family and sustain his happiness are also optimistic, they are not of the cruel kind, because he is actually enjoying himself and doing what he does best. “A relation of cruel optimism exists when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing,” and this is the exact opposite of that. With each mission Michael consequently purifies himself of his frustrations.
I really feel for Michael. He’s constantly struggling to balance his personal happiness with societal expectations. His whole family hates him, but that doesn’t stop him from loving them. He takes his wife shopping, plays tennis with her and wants to impress her by learning yoga. He tries to be a father figure to people who perceive him as nothing more than a meal ticket. Even though he fails, he doesn’t stop trying. He’s a videogame character, overconfident and overdrawn, yet I have nothing but respect for him. I know where his anger comes from, and… I like him.