Archive | August, 2013

Why my respect for Grand Theft Auto is up in smoke.

21 Aug

**NB** This is about the single player component of the game, not the online multiplayer.

To gamers the world over, there is one franchise that many might argue is the biggest of them all. The Daddy, or perhaps more appropriately, The Don Corleone of game franchises. Arguably more culturally significant than Call Of Duty, no doubt generating more column inches than any other series since it was birthed to the world in 1997, stoking concerned parent’s and the conservative right’s fire upon each new iteration’s release. I am of course referring to Grand Theft Auto (GTA), which if you weren’t paying attention has a new installment (GTA V) due in just under a month’s time, the seventh main release in its controversial history (GTA III had two pseudo-sequels). Come September 17th, you’ll know all about it, whether you want to or not.

For the uninitiated, Grand Theft Auto puts players in the shoes of a sometimes nameless and usually aimless protagonist in a huge city. In gaming terms this type of world would be called a “sandbox,” not to be confused with “open world.” The game allows the player almost complete freedom to do as they wish.  They may either choose to follow the games’ main story and complete missions, usually involving murder, intimidation, extortion and other such nefarious activities, or, the player can simply wander off and do their own thing. This usually involves causing as much mayhem as possible, getting into the sort of car chases that would make all the blood in Sheriff John Bunnell’s body rush to his second head. Other, more sinister and evil activities that are well documented involve, to give a notorious example, paying for sex with a hooker (the sex itself isn’t portrayed in-game), and then beating her to death and taking your money from her bloodied corpse.

Understandably, this sort of thing upsets many people and it’s not difficult to see why. It’s not totally unreasonable to ask, do games really need to depict this sort of thing? On the other hand, should they shy away from such subject matter? The makers of GTA, Rockstar Studios, would argue that they are depicting the real world, scraping away at the American Dream, exposing the seedy underbelly that exists beneath the pristine exterior and is hidden away from innocent American eyes. The game does this, but admittedly with no subtlety or knack for satire, through mock TV shows that your character can watch when in his apartment, and on dozens of radio stations that play in the background whilst driving any of the games’ huge array of vehicles. GTA does actually have something to say about America and amounts to far more than nearly all other games combined. The problem is, its attempt at satire is more akin to watching Greg Wallace attempting to cut through a badly cooked fillet steak with a sledgehammer.

You may be reading this and thinking that I hate GTA. Well, I sort of do and I sort of don’t. I used to love it when the very first game was released back in the mid-to-late 90s. Back then technology only allowed DMA (the series’ creators and some of whom would later form Rockstar Studios) to make a game that allowed players a top down perspective. 3D gaming was still in its infancy and detail on characters, environments and, well, pretty much everything we see now was nothing but a dream back then so wasn’t remotely possible. As a result the game took on a very cartoonish art style and as a result the violence, whilst arguably more deranged than in recent installments, seemed so ridiculous it looked more like something you might see on South Park. It’s very appearance made the whole thing seem utterly bonkers. Most importantly the game did two other things: it didn’t take itself seriously, and it oozed charm – it knew it was daft.

As technology has advanced so too, quite rightly, has Rockstar’s ambitions. That is to be expected of any studio working to produce something of artistic merit. They have some very talented writers working for them (in fact the man who runs the company is their lead writer) who feel that through video games, they can satirize and make players think about the world they live in, both virtual and real. The problem, however, stems from Rockstar’s quest for this hallowed realism. Now it seems their goal is to create the most realistic world possible, the sort of world that players would want to get lost in.

Judging by today’s coverage of GTA V, it would appear that Rockstar’s attempts at recreating reality seems to involve giving players, according to America’s Entertainment and Software Ratings Board, the opportunity for their character to smoke pot, either via a bong or a spliff. I think you know what I’m going to ask now… why? This is actually completely at odds with what Rockstar and most of their games attempt to achieve – the depiction of the real America. From a gaming perspective, it is also utterly pointless. As someone has pointed in the comments on the article linked above, it is like starving yourself for days only to then ring up Pizza Hut and ask the person on the other end of the line to read out the menu to you, and then hang up.

Smoking pot is not, as far as I’m aware, anything that might be considered dark or nefarious. Obviously it’s production and distribution may be a different story altogether and I don’t doubt that it is smoked by people who may not have given thought to or are just blissfully ignorant of its possibly sinister origins. But as for actually smoking it, the modern consensus would be that it apparently does society no ill (the effects on one’s mental health is a debate for another time). But why did Rockstar choose pot? Surely, based on their apparent love of films and television (though sadly not books) they could have latched on to the fact that crystal meth use is an epidemic across America and actually ruins lives, so why not portray an individual, even if just a supporting character whose presence is fleeting, that has had their life destroyed by it?  Wouldn’t that be the way to expose what lies beneath?

Amongst all the silly stunts and car chases and criminal activity, wouldn’t it be great to have a moment where the player is actively engaging with a character that would stop them in their tracks? GTA V seems determined to ape The Sopranos and The Wire (but all the wrong parts of both) so why not take a leaf out of Breaking Bad‘s book? After all, one of the playable characters in GTA V has retired from the life of crime only to be dragged back in. A perfect opportunity gone to waste? Absolutely. The target audience would no doubt understand the reference to Breaking Bad and it’s twisted morality tale, but most importantly, they would have some serious food for thought, particularly American audiences. But it’s also far easier to make stoner jokes.

This leads me to my main gripe with GTA. It has so much potential but Rockstar would rather do their research for each new iteration, as writer of Father Ted and The I.T. Crowd Graham Lineham perfectly described it, by watching Scarface twenty times. GTA could be revolutionary for gaming as a medium and forge a new path for mainstream games, but instead chooses to cater to the ignorant and the demographic who don’t want to think about the consequences of their actions and the people who share the same world as them. As a franchise, GTA has one of the largest fanbases so regardless of how bad a new game’s reviews are (which is never), they will always sell. Why not use that safety net and make something truly daring? Rockstar seem unaware of the fact that they are effectively the Pixar of video games, but for adults. No matter the quality of their output, it will turn a profit on opening weekend. Would Pixar, fresh from the success of Toy Story in 1995, have made WALL•E or Up as their next film? Of course they wouldn’t. They earned their ability to express themselves artistically by making consistently entertaining films, building up their audience and as a result, the freedom to make whatever they want. To prove this, go on to Google and look up their film Inside Out which is due for release in 2015. See what I mean?

My other bone of contention with Rockstar’s behemoth of a franchise is the illusion of choice and freedom that players are faced with. It is an outright lie and again, completely undermines Rockstar’s attempt at creating a truly living and breathing world that gives players the choice to do what they want. Examples of this include the fact that players can customise their character’s appearance and deck him out in all sorts of attire, from suits, to Hawaiian shirts, players can earn themselves a wardrobe to choose from. These clothes are purchased from shops and then if the player wishes they could have a different outfit for every day of the week. I mean, that’s what we do in real isn’t it? So why not give players the option to donate say, a coat to a homeless person, rather than just the opportunity to punch, kick, shoot or run them over in a stolen taxi? Why can’t I donate money I’ve earned, however illegally, to an in-game charity? Why can’t I do stuff to make the world I’m in a better place as opposed to merely adhering to the games’ status quo? Every choice the game offers you is something which is inherently evil, wrong or just plain idiotic. To use an example from the recent masterpiece Bioshock Infinite, every flick of the games’ coin ends up landing on heads.

GTA games are a technical marvel and GTA V‘s release next month is no doubt the biggest event on the entertainment calendar, of that there can be no doubt. They are fun, mindless and riotously entertaining, but up to a point where the mayhem batters me into submission after a couple of hours and I just end up turning it off and never playing it again. Is it because I’m getting older and just losing interest in AAA titles? Not at all, Battlefield 4 is my most anticipated game this year and that is truly mindless. The difference is that BF4 isn’t pretending to be something it isn’t. It’s a game about getting an enormous bolt action sniper rifle and shooting the pilot out from the cockpit of an attack helicopter from half a mile away. It has no pretensions of being anything more. GTA V does, and as much as I’m in a tiny minority, for me it fails to deliver on its promise and has seemingly done so again with this latest version, and undermines its raison d’être. My worry is that Rockstar will be content to simply rinse the gaming public for their money and not truly innovate like they are clearly capable. The talent is there no question. It’s their refusal to take creative risks that is not only stifling this once superb series, but the gaming industry as a whole. After the disappointment of GTA IV I’d really hoped this time that Rockstar would deliver. Unfortunately, they have seemingly settled for more of the same.

Like the needless spliffs in their imminent release, my respect for Rockstar and their once pioneering franchise, is up in smoke.