Too Much for a Send Up

The artist Mathew Zefeldt asked me to contribute an essay to a catalog of his work. The publication features his recent hyperrealist paintings of simulated worlds informed directly by the 2013 video game Grand Theft Auto V. Through first-person gameplay, the essay “Too Much for A Sendup” critiques GTA V’s claim to satire while calling into question the video game’s graphical surplus in it's endless pursuit of computer generated realism.
Writing, 2023
Postcard from the city of Los Angeles that reads "Los Angeles, City of Angels". Ayham Ghraowi

Postcard from the city of Los Angeles

Perched upon an overlook above the city, I notice that the scattering of clouds in the sunset is as motionless as a hand-painted scenic backdrop. Yet despite their stillness, I know that, because an entire day here lasts only 48 minutes, I haven’t much time before night suddenly falls.

I am trying to get a sense of the city limits, to make out the farthest reaches of the metropolis before me. In the two minutes I have left of this panorama, I shuffle my feet and adjust my orientation to get a better look at the sunset. An artificial lens flare appears across my sightline, reminding me that this moment is mediated through the interface of a video game.

Time’s up. The game engine gears up to cast a darkening purple haze upon the palm trees lining the boulevard. It’s all part of a vista that seems unmistakably Los Angeles even though I know it to be Los Santos, the fictional city that serves as the setting of the video game Grand Theft Auto V. Released in 2013 by Rockstar Games, GTA V, as it is often referred to, is part of a larger suite of immersive open worlds that purport to hold up a satirical mirror to contemporary American society, from culture to politics and everything in between.

In Los Santos, saints stand in for angels not only in place name but also as the mascot of the city’s Major League Baseball team: In lieu of the Los Angeles Angels, fans root for the Los Santos Saints. The bizarro team’s slogan—”Your City's Premier Baseball Team, Until We Get a Better Offer”—is emblematic of the pithy commentary on the vacuous corporate interests that one so often encounters in this fictionalized version of Los Angeles.

When it comes to satire, a fictional city such as Los Santos is arguably the most important character. For example, in middle America, there’s the generic Springfield, setting of The Simpsons, which the creators of the longest-running sitcom use to represent an “Everywhere,” or “Anytown,” U.S.A. The name of the city, like so many of the show’s references, leverages familiarity to lampoon American middle-class society and culture. I am not the only one, surely, who still recites the factoid that every U.S. state has a Springfield. In writing this essay, I finally fact-checked it, only to find that the number is actually only 34 states. Nonetheless, it is just enough for fans to think that the show is based on their very own, or nearby, Springfield. It is an ambiguity encouraged by the show’s creator, Matt Groening—who, when confronted with the question of whether the city is Springfield, Ohio, or Springfield, Massachusetts, or Springfield, wherever, has been known to coyly respond: “Yup, that’s right.”

Ayham Ghraowi

The Simpsons, “Beware My Cheating Bart,” Season 23, Episode 18

Familiarity is the tried-and-true crutch in a parody formula. For the joke to land, any given song by the parody musician Weird Al needs to hook you with a melody that was once your earworm. 1 Weird Al belting out “Like a surgeon/Cuttin' for the very first time'' is just as catchy as Madonna’s “Like a Virgin.” A parody’s associative connections, however, are not required to be so direct with its reference. The Simpsons appropriates generic images of the domestic life idealized in 1950s sitcoms such as Father Knows Best and Leave It to Beaver. The nuclear family, as the embodiment of dominant moral values and cultural norms, is satirized as dysfunctional consummate consumers who have a dedicated engagement with their television. While far from idyllic, the Simpsons’ television watching will often play a central role in incorporating real-world problems into an episode’s narrative. In an early episode titled “Homer’s Odyssey,” a recently unemployed and depressed Homer Simpson is splayed across the couch as the television flickers across his blank stare. One night, as Homer is watching Loaftime, a cable network marketed specifically to the unemployed, an advertisement for Duff Beer breaks the dad’s catatonic spell. The commercial calls out: “Unemployed? Out of work? Sober? You sat around the house all day, but now it's Duff time! Duff, the beer that makes the days fly by!” Suddenly motivated, Homer mutters to himself, “Beer—now there’s a temporary solution.” Suddenly revived by promises from the mass-market, cheaper-than-water American lager parody, Homer mutters to himself, “Beer—now there’s a temporary solution.”

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A player visiting Limited Gas, a gas station and convenience store

Los Santos, like Springfield, is a parody city made up of parodies, each of which attempts to depict a grotesque consumer culture wrought by a free-market economy. A GTA V player can click the “stalk” button on the profiles of a Facebook-inspired social networking site named “Lifeinvader”— a company that also manufactures a tablet known as the "efriend." Or they can stop by “Limited Gasoline,” a chain of gas stations and convenience stores whose slogan, “It's here 'till it runs out,” alludes to the overuse and eventual depletion of fossil fuels. Inside one of these establishments, a player will find a well-stocked inventory of parody products including “Ego Chaser,” energy bars marketed to “desperate middle-aged men who haven’t played sports for years but are suddenly obsessed with triathlons.”

Whereas the Simpsons spend their days on the couch in front of a television—watching programs that are at times interrupted by local entertainer Krusty the Clown pushing his latest business venture—Grand Theft Auto players cruise around in their (most likely hijacked) vehicles, the necessary and primary means of transportation through this expansive open world. Earlier today, before I made it to this overlook, I was one of these fugitives exploring Los Santos in a stolen Karin Asterope while listening to Radio Los Santos. Blaring from my car speakers came an obscene amount of in-game advertisements. I heard come-ons for shows such as Rehab Island and Implant Outsource—produced on the premise that “American health care is in shambles.” I was also warned about the looming apocalypse caused by “aliens, zombies, or global financial meltdown” and that I needed to be prepared by shopping at Ammu-nation for all my firearm needs. Some of these parodies are titillatingly acerbic, but most of this content is uncomfortably crass: off-color jokes that rely on misogyny and racial stereotyping. And while each parody arguably holds up a funhouse mirror to some aspect of real-world media, the video game’s claim to satire remains muddled when experiencing the parodies en masse.

Ayham Ghraowi

A Cluckin’ Bell fried chicken fast food restaurant modeled after a real California Pizza Kitchen, located in Beverly Center in Los Angeles

At this point during my aimless driving, I decided that I could not take much more of the incessant radio commercials and continued to scour for more parodies on foot. I eventually walked past the Cluckin’ Bell at Rockford Plaza. The Los Santos chain is a parody of fast food restaurants, something between a KFC and a Popeyes, with a logo that incorporates the tower bell icon from the Taco Bell brand. The parody medley may be a reference to the fact that most fast food chains in America are owned by a single multinational corporation—Yum! Brands Inc. Beyond that, this specific Cluckin’ Bell franchise is hardly a satire. The mockery here is politically apathetic and does little to suggest, for example, a call to transform the fast food industry’s factory farming or improve its labor practices. I realize then that while satire may strategically employ parody, the distinction between the two is important. Both illuminate absurdity, but satire does so critically, with a specific moral or ethical purpose. Parody is only imitative, focused on nothing more than making sure any humorous allusion is legible.

As I continued walking along the ledge outside the restaurant, past where some of the patrons sat and grubbed on their Fowl Burger, I wondered about the video game’s method of overloading the player with parodies. Is it even possible to interpret a sweeping, satirical critique of capitalism from this wide landscape of parodies? I had been, thus far, unsuccessful in trying to make that leap without defaulting to some generalized and lazy nihilistic interpretation of Western society. I decided instead that it is worth pursuing a curious “funniness” that glimmers in the sheer scale of seductive video game graphics, particularly how it starts to mirror, in less and less subtle ways, the overabundance and ecological waste inherent to the contemporary American economy.

I cannot quite make out the punch line, but there is certainly humor in considering how endless options of indistinguishable commodities in the Amazon recommendation algorithm have informed the inclusion of adjustable graphics settings in Grand Theft Auto. As a player, I can set the “Population Variety'' not only to prevent the possibility of NPC (non-player character) doppelgängers incidentally strolling next to each other, but also to guarantee that the same two vehicles will never be witnessed in a scene together.

Dialing up the setting implies that the game engine has a seemingly bottomless sample space to pull new car makes and models. When I make such an adjustment, the auto manufacturers in Los Santos surely brace for a spike in production. Still on foot, and now miles away from Cluckin’ Bell, I tried to time how long it would take for the city to be overrun with one-of-a-kind cars. The production process must not be instantaneous because, just then, I happened upon two cars of the same exact make and model, parked next to one another in a lot. It brought to mind a painting I had seen recently by artist Mathew Zefeldt that features two red Vapid Radiuses—crossover SUVs based on the Ford Edge—pulling up next to each other at an intersection. Titled Re_Spawn 3 (Doppelganger), the 2021 painting is likely a commentary on a simulated world’s preoccupation with limiting the likelihood of repeated models and textures. It is an ideology of uniqueness that proclaims that anything short of a highly detailed virtual environment would compromise a player’s immersive experience. This commitment to the unrepeatable can also be seen in a recent patent by Rockstar Games that evidently improves the behavior of NPCs with artificial intelligence so that, for example, “each NPC can define its own specific characteristics for traversing the road nodes.” 2

Ayham Ghraowi

Mathew Zefeldt, Re_Spawn 3 (Doppelganger), 2021

The fact that GTA V can handle the production of 347 unique vehicles at my beck and call only seems to underscore that Los Santos is a world predicated on an economy as subject to influence and fluctuation as our own in reality. My particular setting preferences and game play affect this economy, as do my interactions with other players. I can participate in the in-game stock market by buying and selling stocks of parody companies through BAWSAQ, the NASDAQ spoof. The in-game stock exchange is connected to Rockstar’s online network; changes in the market are affected by the debauchery of a community at large in their respective version of Los Santos. For example, as players purchase their weapons, shares in Ammu-nation (traded as AMU) will rise. A greater circulation of weapons begets more violence, creating a feedback loop that secures Ammu-nation as a blue-chip stock. These game mechanics mirror a morbid cycle in the real world: Americans, motivated by the threat of gun legislation after a mass shooting, will buy more guns and raise the stock prices of firearm manufacturers. It is such a reliable pattern that investors, upon hearing news of an attack, scramble to accumulate their stock. Considering the consistency of violence in Grand Theft Auto, players can similarly forecast a sure thing to yield a significant return.

The C-5 Galaxy cargo plane toilet cover in question

Players who come into some money from the stock market and are bored by the regular hijacking of Bravado Buffalos (Dodge Chargers) or Obey Tailgaters (Audi A6’s), can squander their earnings on tanks and helicopters from Warstock Cache & Carry, an illegal distributor of military vehicles. Included in Warstock’s inventory are Titans, large military transport aircrafts priced at $2 million. In terms of parody, there is not much that is funny about the Titan. But video game joke writers in search of new material can look no further than the budgets of the military-industrial complex and its continued influence; consider, for example, the exposé in 2018 that revealed a line item for a $10,000 custom toilet seat cover for a C-5 Galaxy military plane.3 Replacing the Vietnam era aircraft’s outdated replacement part prompted the government to hire a manufacturer to produce the seat from scratch. When pressed to explain the purchase, Air Force officials argued that the potty price gouging was merely “a case of supply-chain economics gone wrong.” The all too familiar aw-shucks attitude embodies the absurdities of the contemporary economy. Wasteful purchases such as these by the Pentagon helps pad the bill it sends to Congress, making all but certain annual funding increases for defense contractors and leaving priorities like public health, environmental protection, and education to compete for what remains in the federal discretionary budget.

The reckless confluence of war profiteering and fiscal profligacy is the epitome of government dysfunction. But poking fun at policymaking yoked to corporate interests is low hanging fruit. In our contemporary politics of consumption, when the shit hits the fan the jokes write themselves. But the jokes aren’t funny anymore. The comedy seems to have hit its limit. Los Angeles is Los Santos, and the twain are synced by an inter-reality trade system of absurdism. As the real city and the fictional city become increasingly indistinguishable, there may be a need for “parody checkers,” quasi–fact checkers who must determine if a joke is ludicrous enough.

It is a predicament that evidently plagued Dan Houser, the former creative director and head writer of the Grand Theft Auto series. Before leaving the company, he explained in a 2018 interview that reality is now “beyond satire,” adding that a new Grand Theft Auto game “would be out of date within two minutes, everything is changing so fast.”4 Nevertheless, such a quandary has not prevented the video game’s developers from working mandatory overtime, expanding the GTA open world and stocking it with ever more absurd commodity parodies. It is difficult to overlook the irony of a video game whose critique of capitalism is built by thousands of uncredited, underpaid, and overworked contract developers.

Employers take advantage of a developer’s passion for video games and their desire to work on software they have a personal connection to, no matter the working conditions. But long-held industry practices such as “crunch,” in which employees work 60 to 100 hours a week to hit a milestone, have finally pushed them to unionize.5 It is unlikely, however, that this will do anything to restrain the pervasive devotion developers have to advancing imaging technologies. As a result, all of the graphical surplus produced in an endless pursuit of computer-generated realism has required video game players to continuously invest in the latest graphics cards, which can provide the frame buffers needed to load the vast amount of textures. Due to the rapid production and obsolescence cycle of gaming hardware, the construction of video game worlds boosts emissions that equate annually to the carbon footprint of five million automobiles.6

Ayham Ghraowi

The smog that blankets Los Santos

Ayham Ghraowi

Cruising around Los Santos during a texture pop-in event with a vanished highway, a billboard panel, and parts of the road.

It is a statistic that warrants a closer look at the Los Santos landscape and the inclusion of what seems to be the simulated smog that blankets the city. The haze certainly adds a cinematic quality to the gameplay and at times contributes to the drama of the action. But the environmental effect also has a practical purpose by assisting in the limited draw or render distance of objects in a three-dimensional scene. The volumetric pollution occludes parts of the city to help the game get away with models of a lower-poly mesh farther away from the camera perspective. The computational power needed to render this world is likely tanking the air quality for the population of Los Santos.

The smog workaround for rendering is all well and good for when a player is stationary. However, without a sufficient graphics processing unit, the immersive environment will suffer from pop-in, the delayed appearance of elements as a player traverses the world. I noticed this earlier, right before I made my way up to the summit of Mount Haan Drive in Vinewood Hills. As I sped down Vinewood Boulevard, a highway appeared suddenly ahead of me, materializing like an oasis in a desert hallucination. Piles of cardboard, newspaper boxes, and fire hydrants started to sprinkle the curb as I continued to burn rubber. The spatial lag also meant that I missed out on the unrendered billboard advertisements and storefront promotional signs that would have been plastered across downtown. Though jarring at times, pop-in inadvertently provided me with a temporary respite from the expanding urbanization in Los Santos by cracking open the city’s infrastructure and offering a rare, complete view of the sky. It’s akin to the novelty of seeing the shrunken-down skyline and latticework of buildings-to-be in the historical photographs of an iconic metropolis.

Ayham Ghraowi

Mathew Zefeldt, Foreground Middleground Background, 2022-23

Once the texture loading was complete, however, pop-in finally ceased and my view was once again obstructed by a city polluted by parody. It's now clear to me that if this video game offered a lesson to learn, it would be moot. A player like me moving through an open world lousy with absurdities would not be able to see the satirical forest for the parody trees. There’s far too much for a sendup. This is why I have journeyed all the way up here, facing this sunset, high above the city: I want to gain some perspective and assess the satirical message of the city as a whole.

I am not the first to pursue such a pilgrimage. There are a few kindred spirits found in another painting by Zefeldt. Made across 2022 and 2023, Foreground Middleground Background is split into four quadrants, each of which includes a re-rendered Grand Theft Auto V interface featuring a character standing among the mountainous hinterland of Los Santos. I read them as Zefeldt’s avatar, clothed in differing outfits. All four seem to have, like me, ventured out of the city in order to confirm whether a comprehensive satire can ascend. All that seems to have surfaced are the large white letters, in the spirit of the Hollywood sign landmark, that spell out V-I-N-E-W-O-O-D. The avatars appear contemplative, their feet planted firmly upon the eroded terrain textures, yet there is a restlessness in their bodily orientation that recalls the compositional technique known as “Rückenfigur,” made popular by those German Romantics in the late 18th and early 19th centuries who depicted their subjects brooding over a scene, back toward the viewer. The technique is exemplified, about 200 years prior to the release of Grand Theft Auto V, by the figure in Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog. I wonder if, like me and possibly Zefeldt’s avatars, Friedrich’s wanderer has reached the end of a journey — or whatever the equivalent of completing a video game is in his universe. And if that is the case, then he may have similarly reached the limit of the material world, only to be confronted with an ostensibly boundless landscape and how absurd it would be to try and totalize it.

Ayham Ghraowi

Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, ca. 1817

Notes

1.

What kind of Simpsons fan would I be without mentioning the double parody in the episode that features Weird Al performing a parody of the song “Shave Me” by Homer Simpson’s grunge band, which is itself a parody of Nirvana’s “Rape Me”?

2.

Matt Purslow. “Rockstar Developers Patent New NPC Tech, Potentially for GTA 6.” IGN, January 18, 2021.

3.

Aaron Gregg. “The Air Force’s $10,000 toilet cover.” The Washington Post, July 14, 2018.

4.

Sam White. “Red Dead Redemption 2: The inside story of the most lifelike video game ever.” GQ, October 24, 2018.

5.

German Lopez. “Unions and Video Games: Gaming is a huge industry, and workers are trying to unionize.” The New York Times, January 24, 2023.

6.

Evan Mills, Norman Bourassa, Leo Rainer, Jimmy Mai, Arman Shehabi, Nathaniel Mills. “Toward Greener Gaming: Estimating National Energy Use and Energy Efficiency Potential.” The Computer Games Journal, Issue 3 (April 2019).