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.