Love and Hate in Los Santos

I am loathe to write about Grand Theft Auto V, and yet here it is Wednesday morning, and I am on a deadline, and I know I’m going to have to write about it because it’s the only thing my brain is going to let me talk about until I excise these opinions. It’s like when my four-year-old asks for dessert before he’s finished his brussel sprouts. It’s just not going to happen, pal.

Well, writing about Grand Theft Auto V is eating my brussel sprouts, so let’s just get through this with minimum pain.

The other thing I know is that before I get to the opinions part, I need to write a review of GTA 5, because until you’ve written one of those, a subset of readers will assume any comment is a review. So, let’s get that out of the way too.

Grand Theft Auto V – Review

GTA 5 is perhaps the most expensive game ever made, and the sheer magnitude of the accomplishment delivered by Rockstar cannot be understated. It delivers again and again with next-generation graphics on an Xbox 360/PS3, clean and easy to use mechanics, a complicated and engaging narrative, and, above all else, a dense, living world with endless things to do. It’s the kind of game you could spend weeks or months with and still feel like you haven’t seen everything, even exceeding games like Skyrim in the breadth and depth of its world.
Objectively, the game not only delivers on the core of what defines the Grand Theft Auto series, it is arguably as much an evolution of the open-world gameplay model as GTA 3 was when it launched on the PlayStation. It’s like watching a bumble bee fly; you wonder how it doesn’t collapse under its own weight, how the Rockstar team didn’t succumb to simply losing themselves or their direction under the tangled web of game systems, and yet there it is, flying like an insult to God, defying every rule you thought you knew.

In short, as a video game and a technological achievement, GTA 5 is brilliant.

Score: 300 stolen cars out of a downtown parking lot.

Thus endeth the review.

I hate GTA 5.

Or maybe I hate being impressed by GTA 5. Or maybe I like GTA 5 the game, and hate GTA 5 the racist, misogynist, foul-tempered, inconsistent, paranoid-schizophrenic psychopath. Honestly, I’m not sure. All I know for sure is that playing GTA 5 is like eating a jalapeño-bacon double-cheeseburger three months after having heart surgery. It’s so good while you’re doing it, but you know it’s just terrible for you and that if you die from it you have no one to blame but yourself.

Well, maybe it’s not exactly like that either, but you get the idea.

Grand Theft Auto V is like reading a Mario Puzo novel, except that it’s been rewritten by one of the random people I’ve played Call of Duty against on Xbox Live. It’s like hanging out with the family you love, except you got stuck sitting next to the uncle that loves to lower his voice and start his sentences with, “I’m not racist, but … .” It’s like hanging out with your best friend, except that just recently he’s gotten interested in politics without also getting interested in having any education on political issues.

The game is a monument to itself, a stubborn stereotype with its heels dug in deep. It’s the annoying “bad guy” on reality television that has realized the only way it’s going to get noticed is by being the unapologetic yet vaguely charismatic jerk that the promo announcer can call “the guy all of America looooves to hate!” It is, in other words, the videogame equivalent of Simon Cowell, a successful and clearly intelligent creature obsessed with its own image and motivated exclusively by its ego and impenetrable illusion of self-accomplishment.

Yes, in part this is about the stupid, childish and completely unnecessary way the game treats women. The sloppy and hollow way the female characters of GTA 5 are written are all the more inexcusable because of Red Dead Redemption, which stands in stark contrast. It’s also in part because it is willfully violent, and gleefully bathes in the blood of the insignificant chattel of stereotypes that make up the population of Los Santos.

But I’m not looking to be a white knight here or a prude. While I agree entirely with the criticisms laid at Rockstar’s feet for apparently willfully playing not just to the lowest common denominator, but perpetuating stereotypes that have practical and measurably negative impacts, my actual complaint here is that by doing so they are just continuing to play into the self-obsessed cult of themselves to which they clearly have a dogmatic allegiance. In other words, it’s not that they are portraying violence, racism, sexism or other societal ills. It’s that they’re doing it in the laziest most meaningless ways possible.

If you want to tell a story about one of those isms, then by all means do so. But give it some kind of substance. For all the work GTA5 does in telling a reasonable story of its main characters, it constantly undermines itself by abandoning that clever storytelling when the opportunity comes to make a woman or a middle-eastern man look ridiculous. It’s like the game stops every few minutes or so to say, “hang on, I’ll get back to the story in a sec, but check out this chick over here. What a bitch, amirite?”

No. You’re not.

I’m sure, that some of the decision makers around GTA 5 love articles and opinions just like this one. First of all, with more than a billion in sales, the perfect response to criticism like this is, “I can’t hear you over the deafening sound of people buying, playing and loving our game.” And that’s fine, because I don’t expect you to change. This isn’t about you, it’s actually about me.

You see, I really enjoy playing Grand Theft Auto V — the game itself, I mean. Like I said at the beginning, it’s a brilliant game, and in many ways a testament to how immersive and complex a game world can be. It’s a thing that you want to be able to point to and show off as an accomplishment. But then the next moment, GTA 5 opens its mouth and something newly ignorant, embarrassing and stupid comes pouring out.

And like that uncle at the dinner party, the game always tries to hide its offensiveness under a patina of parody or self-righteousness, but it doesn't work. Instead of being deep or complex it sounds instead like Uwe Boll’s pitch for a Postal 2 movie. It’s like they think they’re the first guy to come up with the idea of getting to tell racist or sexist jokes under the guise of using the jokes themselves as a commentary against ignorance or inequality. The I’ll-tell-the-most-racist-joke-to-show-how-wrong-racism-is idea has long since been exposed as disingenuous, or at least counterproductive .

Look, I get it. I’m a forty-year-old man with a wife and two kids, and worse than that, I’ve got all these annoying ideologies about social change in and out of the games industry, desiring things to be more inclusive and to tone down the unnecessarily divisive rhetoric. It’s all very annoyingly liberal-agenda-nonsense to a lot of people, and if you bristle against that kind of bleeding-heart naïveté, then this definitely isn’t going to resonate with you. I mean, I think one of the best games of the year is Gone Home, so who the hell am I to be critiquing GTA 5? For Chrissake, I feed my kids brussel sprouts; that’s really all you need to know, right there.

It’s ok, because I’ve already lost. The market has clearly spoken, and my grousing about GTA 5 being a cultural step backwards has been considered and summarily dismissed. The verdict is already in, and all I’ve got left is some sour grapes and self-imposed white/male guilt. And, in the end, I think that may be why I hate GTA 5 so much.

Because it won.

Comments

Mex wrote:

If I was worried about anything, is that we're growing old and turning into the dudes that thought Doom would train everyone to be a killer and make satanic rituals. I don't understand where's the morality when reviewing other games. And then you turn off the game and go enjoy Breaking Bad.

Thanks Mex, that helps a ton! I was definitely not understanding what you were getting at.

I actually share a bit of this concern myself. While I do feel pretty strongly about "feminist issues" (whatever that means) I don't think games like GTA 5 that are objectively sexist are going to ruin anyone's life. Trying to overstate the impact media has on the people who enjoy it can make a lot of arguments seems pretty shrill and hyperbolic. I don't think I've seen that much here, though.

To both sides of the issue I'll say this: pointing out GTA is sexist, racist and all kinds of other "ists" doesn't mean you can't enjoy it and it certainly doesn't mean people who do are automatically assholes. There's a lot of fear of being branded as someone who is on the side of something everyone generally thinks is bad. We have to be brave and willing to take a hard look at our personal views and what's important to us. Trying to have your cake and eat it too (play GTA V AND judge people who play GTA V) is not being totally honest or comfortable with yourself.

I can play GTA V, have fun AND point out there's a lot of problems with the lazy, stereotypical and bullsh*t ways they write women. One doesn't contradict the other. It's certainly not the basis for a good argument. Waving our arms around about people who play the game being monsters or people who DON'T play the game being out of touch prudes is a gross oversimplification of the human experience.

This was posted on Qt3, and I thought it was applicable. The author is Sharon Cho.

I’m a 50 year old female gamer who absolutely loves Rockstar games, especially Red Dead Redemption. My wife and I (yes, we’re lesbians) have been playing Grand Theft Auto V since it came out. We’re slowly wending our way through the storyline, taking our time to drive around and discover random events.

On the latest Quarter to Three Games Podcast, Tom Chick talked about how Rockstar is telling a specific story and because this story doesn’t really have anything to do with women, it shouldn’t have to worry about issues of misogyny. His point was also that Rockstar and other developers shouldn’t have to rein in anything because someone might mistake the content for reality. I certainly understand what he’s saying. Since I used to work in the comic book industry, I too am a strong advocate for “just because a story/game is violent doesn’t mean that people will become violent by exposure.”

However, I just have to point out a thing or two. I think we can agree that most people in the world are taught that stealing is bad, and that killing to get what you want is out of the question, and even that lying/cheating is generally a no-no. But can you say the same about how to treat women? If society had a handle on how women were treated, there’d be no rape/death threats for Anita Sarkeesian’s exploration into gender issues within the gaming community.

For me, the complaint isn’t necessarily that Rockstar is misogynistic. It’s that in Grand Theft Auto V, and other GTA games, women are treated as one-dimensional things. Even cars and weapons have more depth than women. I’m only a bit into the game, and I haven’t gotten to the torture scene yet, but so far women in Grand Theft Auto V are airheaded new wave feminists who sound crazy (both Michael’s wife & Franklin’s aunt are in this vein) or airheaded fame seeking sh*ts who can only scream “you’re ruining my life!” One of the best things about Red Dead Redemption was Bonnie MacFarlane. Why? Because she was a well thought out character who had depth.

Why is it okay for us to play a game where carjacking is the norm? Because the vast majority of folks aren’t likely to commit grand theft auto. But what about treating women like objects? Even my nephew, who was raised by three strong women, has enacted forcing a woman to go down on him, in my presence. At the time, he was trying to prove his masculinity to me. This is why in boy toys like Grand Theft Auto, removing content like touching strippers without consent might be better for the world. Yes, it’s okay to have dark humor regarding things that we know are wrong. The problem is, within the current boy culture, treating women like sh*t or like an object isn’t a wrong thing. So in this case, excusing misogynistic content by calling it dark humor is the ol’ boys club creating a wall.

TheHipGamer wrote:
wordsmythe wrote:
TheHipGamer wrote:

Judging people based on the games they play is a slippery slope; we don't brook this nonsense when it's done by pundits telling us that videogames makes us killers, so how about not embracing it when it makes us feel morally superior?

I don't think anyone's said that GTA5 turns players into jerks. I think the notion is more that it's really well tailored for people who might already be jerks.

That's really disappointing.

I'm not saying that it's only going to appeal to those people, but I certainly could see how it could. The Columbine killers were messed up independently of Quake, but they found something they liked in Quake that might have resonated with their bent. Not Quake's fault, though it remains worth discussing what it is we expose ourselves to and how, or what parents let their children be exposed to and how.

And it's certainly worth taking the time to think about what it is that's passing through our minds. It certainly doesn't brainwash us, but it's possible that we get used to not reacting as strongly about things because we have experienced caricatures of them. Thanks to FPS games, I am much quicker to visually check down as I pass blind corners. Thanks to juggling soccer balls, I'm more likely to view my feet as useful appendages. If all the characterization and story in GTA isn't worth paying attention to, then I struggle to see why they paid all those writers instead of sticking to abstract shapes.

Certis wrote:

To both sides of the issue I'll say this: pointing out GTA is sexist, racist and all kinds of other "ists" doesn't mean you can't enjoy it and it certainly doesn't mean people who do are automatically assholes. There's a lot of fear of being branded as someone who is on the side of something everyone generally thinks is bad. We have to be brave and willing to take a hard look at our personal views and what's important to us. Trying to have your cake and eat it too (play GTA V AND judge people who play GTA V) is not being totally honest or comfortable with yourself.

I can play GTA V, have fun AND point out there's a lot of problems with the lazy, stereotypical and bullsh*t ways they write women. One doesn't contradict the other. It's certainly not the basis for a good argument. Waving our arms around about people who play the game being monsters or people who DON'T play the game being out of touch prudes is a gross oversimplification of the human experience.

Word.

My problem with all of the GTA series has been the same - it's a de facto "sandbox" game, in the purest definition of the word.

FYI, my definition of a sandbox game is "a game that offers a thousand different ways to get bored."

GTA's illusion of freedom is paper-thin. You have to do these missions and there's an inevitable order to the core ones, and the rest of the time your so-called "freedom" amounts to which hookers you run over, and in what kind of vehicle you do it.

Gameplay mechanics-wise, it is as superficial as any other railroaded game, and its pretense to the contrary is a paper-thin illusion.

This is Rockstar M.O. Nothing for me to see here, so I move along.

shihonage wrote:

...

Shihonage my man, are you BACK?!!

shihonage wrote:

My problem with all of the GTA series has been the same - it's a de facto "sandbox" game, in the purest definition of the word.

FYI, my definition of a sandbox game is "a game that offers a thousand different ways to get bored."

GTA's illusion of freedom is paper-thin. You have to do these missions and there's an inevitable order to the core ones, and the rest of the time your so-called "freedom" amounts to which hookers you run over, and in what kind of vehicle you do it.

Gameplay mechanics-wise, it is as superficial as any other railroaded game, and its pretense to the contrary is a paper-thin illusion.

This is Rockstar M.O. Nothing for me to see here, so I move along.

Have you played GTA V?

EDIT: Didn't mean to sound passive aggressive -- it's a sincere question. I've found a ton of activities of interest in GTA V: there's a good tennis game, a player-influenced stock market, a handful of movies and TV series, the ability to modify the cars and enhance them, real estate, a huge world to explore, planes and helicopters, RPG-lite skills to build, and so on. It's not really just a matter of "which hookers you run over", and hasn't been since (arguably) GTA III?

TheHipGamer wrote:

Have you played GTA V?

EDIT: Didn't mean to sound passive aggressive -- it's a sincere question. I've found a ton of activities of interest in GTA V: there's a good tennis game, a player-influenced stock market, a handful of movies and TV series, the ability to modify the cars and enhance them, real estate, a huge world to explore, planes and helicopters, RPG-lite skills to build, and so on. It's not really just a matter of "which hookers you run over", and hasn't been since (arguably) GTA III?

Nope, but I played GTA 4, GTA:Chinatown Wars, and Red Dead Redemption.

There's no real procedural gameplay for the player to engage in, or real choice&consequence asides from a few specific and blatant triggers.

Car customization in these games is about as significant to me as spending 30 minutes putting the eyeliner makeup on your Mass Effect character, because nobody will ever react to how he/she looks.

RPG-lite skill progression is part of everything now, even in many games where it needlessly complicates what's supposed to be joyful and easy-to-grasp gameplay. It doesn't make a game into an RPG, either.

GTA formula remained the same since GTA 3. There hasn't been any major enhancement to how the game functions, aside from various distractions-of-no-consequence. Is groping a rendered dancer in a bar really "fun gameplay", or merely a mundane gimmick that also makes you feel sad about your own life?

I lean toward the latter.

Gorilla.800.lbs wrote:
shihonage wrote:

...

Shihonage my man, are you BACK?!!

Apparently I'm back to continue poisoning people's enjoyment of videogames. Eh, I'm trying to quit.

Sort of.

I have paid close attention to more than a few hours of GTA V - as played by a friend - to get an idea of whether or not it is a game I would be interested in acquiring. These hours were comprised from different stages within the game, a few from the beginning, a few from further in. To date the most interesting aspects of GTA V that I have found are articles such as this, and their follow up discussions.

In viewing the game it all looks so very similar to what has been done before. The graphics are more impressive. The world is considerably larger. The objects that can be interacted with have multiplied drastically. Nevertheless, at its core it is still the same game as before, just prettier and with more up to date controversies laced throughout. The characters may be new, but at the same time have stories that are not entirely fresh for the series. Trevor has his moments. The other two can be a little predictable, a little dull.

The last mission I saw involved a military helicopter air lifting a submarine to a research base out in the ocean. The subsequent driving, and subsequent flying, immediately struck me as a glamorized copy and paste from previous titles. The chatter between the three lead characters en route was far from engaging. The parts either side of the mission - as dictated by the player with the controller - were erratic driving and scuffles with the police, as well as fetch and gather quests for vehicles. An earlier mission saw the Soprano character on a bicycle race with his son, that became a jet-ski shoot-out surrounding his daughter. Whether one finds those moments interesting or a waste of time is not as important as the fact that the gameplay involved looked lackluster and superficial. Compare it to Far Cry 3 (open world, land and sea vehicles, shooting) and it is a load of old rubbish.

The majority of my co-workers have the game and are playing it regularly. When they ask me where I am at with my playthrough, they proceed to eulogize about the hilarity of the violence, and the nudity to be found. This follows the looks of befuddlement at my not owning the game, of course.

I don't dispute that others may have fun with the game. I neither query them for their reasons out of anything other than an honest lack of understanding. I ask should their answer cause the penny to drop, and subsequently see me purchase and enjoy another video game.

At present I somewhat dislike GTA V for all of the negativity it will garner for my favorite hobby, as well as the questionable review scores it has achieved based on its being a "technical marvel" and very, very popular.

I have been told that because I haven't played GTA IV I cannot really comment on the differences between it and V. I say the fact that I haven't played IV and am still not impressed by V is surely more detrimental. I look at V and I see San Andreas on better hardware. Yet others are playing it and calling it one of the best.

Great article. There is always a tinge of embarrassment I feel whenever I play a GTA game, because it really does like appealing to a demographic that's young, rude, and uses sexual terms I have to look up on Urban Dictionary. I know, I know, I'm old.

I couldn't figure it out as I was playing it. Is it satire? A fun-house mirror pointed back at America, showing a warped reflection of culture? Scratch that - I'd like to imagine the misogyny levels are no where near as bad. Or is the misogyny reflected back at America's insatiable consumption of porn and objectification of women, where Miley is some sort of pioneering Twerkqueen for our youth?

As someone who has a daughter, who knows Daddy loves video games, I'm glad she's still in the age of innocence. I know by the time the next GTA comes out, I won't be playing it so openly in the house. I think it says something if you imagine a gaming future locked in a room, sneaking downstairs for midnight sessions.

All that aside, it's amazing. One of the best games I have every played. I loved Skyrim dearly, but GTA really shows an amazing attention to detail in every square foot of Los Santos. It's taken the bar and raised it to the roof.

Still, one can hope for a mature, and well crafted story that I feel we deserve at this point. My mind was buzzing with the possibilities of crafting other types of stories in this playground, ones that might even uplift and challenge the way you think. Call me crazy.

See you in 5 years, locked in my gaming room, with my headphones on.

Swat wrote:

Still, one can hope for a mature, and well crafted story that I feel we deserve at this point. My mind was buzzing with the possibilities of crafting other types of stories in this playground, ones that might even uplift and challenge the way you think. Call me crazy.

Reminds me of the ambivalence in GTA4, which at the same time wanted to be a standard GTA game and tell an important story.

Swat wrote:

As someone who has a daughter, who knows Daddy loves video games, I'm glad she's still in the age of innocence. I know by the time the next GTA comes out, I won't be playing it so openly in the house. I think it says something if you imagine a gaming future locked in a room, sneaking downstairs for midnight sessions.

Look over all the games, movies, and TV shows that you enjoy and you'll likely come to the realization that you're gonna have to get used to doing so. GTA is far from being the only piece of media that isn't suitable for children.

Lambasting GTA in general, and GTA V in particular for being bad and offensive while offering Saint's Row any sort of praise is hypocrisy at it's finest. To say that it's awful on its face because it's trying to be serious, yet laud the other because it's just trying to be fun is ridiculous.

I agree that GTA has always been rather mediocre save for technical innovation, but let's not pretend that Saint's Row doesn't go out of it's way to be hyper-offensive and lambast GTA anything for being in the same ballpark. The game has always been about one dimensional stereotypes, and honestly, it probably always will be. But that's a failing of Rockstar in general, even if RDR managed to escape it for a little while.

AnimeJ wrote:

Lambasting GTA in general, and GTA V in particular for being bad and offensive while offering Saint's Row any sort of praise is hypocrisy at it's finest. To say that it's awful on its face because it's trying to be serious, yet laud the other because it's just trying to be fun is ridiculous.

GTA, and maybe GTA4 more than anything else, has a weird problem where it can't seem to commit to being serious or being farce, and ends up being less effective at either because of it. Saints Row doesn't have that problem.

In playing Saints Row 3 & 4 to completion I've seen neither a sexual harassment mini-game nor an explicit torture scene.

SR3 can be rather sex worker negative, but the women and people of colour are the strongest characters.

SR4 drops the 'ho' angle and continues to treat 'minority' characters with respect.

Thinking about it now, SR4 seems remarkably uncontroversial.

While i can concede that someone will disagree that it's better than GTA, but i don't thing that seeing them as different is necessarily hypocritical.

*edit*

2 further minor points.

Point the first. After reading Tom Chick's essay about the torture scene in GTA5 it actually seems like it's probably one of the smartest most on point parts of the game.

Second. I don't think inconsistency is necessarily hypocrisy, so liking one thing and not liking another that's similar but different enough is just an inconsistent and honest human reaction.

I am a bit behind on the podcast, so I just finished up the GTA5 section from last week. Having read this thread first, I found myself wishing that there could have been a discussion of the game in this thread like there was in the podcast. Seems like this conversation has a lot of judging and sanctimony going on here, and that was absent on the podcast.

Shame everyone has gotten so accusatory/defensive in here. It is just a game, after all:)

CannibalCrowley wrote:
Swat wrote:

As someone who has a daughter, who knows Daddy loves video games, I'm glad she's still in the age of innocence. I know by the time the next GTA comes out, I won't be playing it so openly in the house. I think it says something if you imagine a gaming future locked in a room, sneaking downstairs for midnight sessions.

Look over all the games, movies, and TV shows that you enjoy and you'll likely come to the realization that you're gonna have to get used to doing so. GTA is far from being the only piece of media that isn't suitable for children.

Agreed, and TV will be no exception. I'd say it's more of active versus passive layer of complexity that's added into the mix with GTA and other Hard 'M games. (i.e. that character on TV is being tortured, versus "Look, daddy is torturing that guy")

So, my interest level in this game has been zero, not so much due to its content but to the fact that Red Dead Redemption is the only Rockstar game I've ever really enjoyed (I never played Bully). But then I saw this video:

.

I might just have to rent it, if only to check it out for an hour or two.