The Garden in the Machine
by Miguel Penabella
I’m still astounded at how an unassuming trailer for the PlayStation 4 rerelease of Grand Theft Auto V reframed my entire understanding of the game. In eighty seconds, the trailer reroutes our attention away from the underwhelming storyline and characters, and toward the open-endedness of sandbox pleasures, gesturing at a focus on Grand Theft Auto Online over the main campaign. Second, it demonstrates the technical spectacle and capabilities of the next-generation hardware that enables the polished visualizations. And third—and most importantly—it centralizes the landscapes of the game as a source of attraction in itself.
This trailer suggests that Grand Theft Auto V is a game fundamentally about the West. Specifically, it evokes the work of theorist Leo Marx, who in his seminal 1964 book The Machine in the Garden, discussed how the mythic pastoral ideal of America abruptly collided with the westward spread of industrialization. Technologies like railroads or steamboats represent shocking interruptions to natural idyll, violently shattering the ways America is imagined in literature amidst the broader narrative of historical and industrial change that reorganized peoples, territories, and cultures.
The trailer follows a similar thematic approach, beginning with clips of a depopulated natural world. Ocean waves crash against rocky seaside bluffs, a frenzy of hammerhead sharks circle the waters, and soaring mountains eclipse the wildlife that race across its purple and orange ridges.
Human industry interrupts this arcadia. A locomotive barrels towards the camera like a battering ram, a construction worker stumbles after nearly being flattened by a monstrous dump truck, and industrial and mining operations eviscerate the landscape, belching out toxic smoke and swapping green pastures for featureless brown dirt.
The transition is startling. The trailer narrativizes the shock of Manifest Destiny, quickly moving from wilderness to the systemic ordering of the grids and networks that comprise the city, effectively extinguishing the pastoral ideal. It’s Koyaanisqatsi in eighty seconds, transporting us from the wonders of nature to the spectacle of seeing traffic ceaselessly grinding through urban gridlock like a river of metal.
“All this is yours to explore, to reap, to conquer,” the trailer implicitly proposes, and it’s exactly what you do in the game. You accumulate real estate and luxury cars, amassing wealth by murder. You discover landmarks in an uncharted map, taming the landscape as you purchase property or wreak havoc on the frontier. At one point in the trailer, a billboard announces, “America is for Americans,” laying claim to the land and reinforcing the imperialist campaign of modern settler capitalism. It’s Manifest Destiny in a digitized form, propagandizing to players that this world is theirs and theirs alone.
Look at the high-resolution displays, the saturated colors, the smooth frame rates, and reclaim all that is lost. Leo Marx wrote about the machine disrupting and potentially destroying the garden, but this Californian simulacrum is the machine that enables us to reenter and experience it again. ◒
Miguel Penabella is a PhD student investigating slow cinema and game spaces. He is an editor and columnist for Haywire Magazine. His writing has been featured in Kill Screen, Playboy, Waypoint, and Unwinnable, and he blogs on Invalid Memory.