Guns, Guilt and Grand Theft Auto

In a crowded market place on a gloriously bright Spring morning, my wife and I are trying to find a decent avocado when the bouncing strains of Blurred Lines by Thicke come from a nearby radio. We’d discussed it only a day earlier, playing voyeur to both the ‘clean’ and naked breasted versions of the video. We’d gone so far as to look up interviews of the goateed Thicke. We had dismissed the frightening lyrical nudges towards non-consensual sex as despairing examples of contemporary misogyny. United by our disgust, we felt morally superior. Closer, even. 

But as I heard it that morning I squeezed an avocado in despair. 

‘Bugger it,’ I said, ‘it’s such a shame it’s a good fucking song.’

More depressing than the disturbing lyrics, video, and media commentary is the fact that Blurred Lines is an effective pop song. It’s well-written, addictive and gorgeously produced. The devil, after all, cloaks himself in the most pleasing of guises.

I felt a similar echo of inner-conflict as I sunk over thirty hours of gameplay into Grand Theft Auto V.  The game passed over a billion dollars in sales within the first three days of its release. It’s become one of the most talked about and most played games ever created. 

I lost the first handful of hours into GTAV in the blink of an eye. The game is set in Los Santos, a fictional and satirical cousin to Los Angeles. The geographic scale of the city is only matched by its dense verisimilitude. Players can fly planes, sail boats, choose from over a dozen radio stations, drink booze, invest in the internal stock market, phone friends, buy clothes, and play golf, tennis, or even take a yoga session. 

You can also shoot anyone and escape police notice with relative ease. The traffic in Los Santos feels genuinely responsive, but pedestrians are often too slow to escape your high-speed car and will be ground underneath your tyres, or flung comically into the air. 

And, of course, you can avail yourself of a prolific number of strip joints and prostitutes. I did this within the first hour of playing. I unintentionally (promise) pulled up by a street corner where an offer was made, and I took it. It certainly wasn’t lust that made me take the bunch of highly rendered polygons into a beautifully shaded alleyway and watch the two sets of computer code gyrate suggestively. It was nothing more than good old fashioned juvenile curiosity. Grand Theft Auto plays into the boyish question that plagues us all: how far can I go?

GTA lets you go a long way. In fact, it encourages you. It is simultaneously one of the best and worst games ever created. It’s abhorrent and it’s beautiful. Like Blurred Lines, and so much of contemporary misogyny, it is a perfectly well-crafted expression of its medium. And it’s ethically questionable at best. 

One could argue (and many do), that the game’s violence is its greatest sin. But violence in video games is gradually becoming accepted as a pillar of the medium, for better or worse. It was the inescapable misogyny that made me almost switch off the game. Like all good addicts, I never did. 

Grand Theft Auto positions itself as a satire, or at least, that’s what the majority of critics (who almost universally applaud the game and label it a ‘masterpiece’) claim it’s doing. But satirising what? Well, everything. Celebrity, drug culture, the economy, masculinity, torture, psychiatry, video games and misogyny are all subject to the machine-gun approach of mockery. This unsophisticated approach makes it almost impossible to discern any real meaning from the game. If there’s a purpose behind any of the juvenile name-calling, it’s lost in the chaotic exhibitionism of the game’s characters. It comes across as immature. It’s giving a finger to the world.

The only subtleties lie in the three main characters, who each display potentially redeeming qualities in their respective mayhems. Michael, the middle-aged criminal forced to come out of retirement, is made to fight for his spoiled family. Franklin, a low-level gangster climbing the criminal ladder, has a high honor code and is the only character to ever express doubt over violent actions. Trevor, the most extreme and psychopathic of all the characters, argues that he values honesty. He is always true to himself, and that’s all that really matters. A baneful excuse for moral corruption, but when compared to the other characters in the game, it becomes a compelling argument.

Any depth that is found in the male characters isn’t spared on the small handful of female characters, who are little more than cartoons. 

Franklin’s aunt is a ‘feminist’, prone to chanting loudly and going on inane marches. It’s a goofy representation of an empowered black woman. The final time we see her in the game, she’s abruptly told to shut the hell up by Trevor. And she does. 

Michael’s wife and daughter are spoilt, over-sexed, promiscuous, thin and, in the case of his daughter particularly, incredibly stupid. 

Trevor has no women in his life, except perhaps the toothless drug addict we discover when we first meet Trevor, trousers around his ankles, screwing her over a trailer kitchen counter. Trevor falls in love for a Spanish house maid later in the game, but the romance is a comical farce that goes undeveloped.

The game has received the majority of its controversy for Trevor’s torture mission, where players take control over a variety of home-made tools served to commit ‘enhanced interrogation’ techniques upon a very scared low-level criminal. This, like most of GTA’s violence, felt too cartoon-like to really horrify me. Perhaps this was because I was expecting it. 

The point of the game where I was most disturbed came an hour or so later. Trevor stays with a friend whose wife is loudly unhappy with their marriage. When the frustrations break into an argument, Trevor can’t take her shouts of disgust, and we see him going into a blind rage. At this point, the game blacks out, a distinct rarity in the way the game is edited. The next time we see Trevor, he’s walking out of the apartment, covered in blood from head to toe, as are the apartment windows he leaves behind. He twitches and mumbles angrily. You’re instructed to drive to a strip club to blow off steam. When Trevor enters, the lifeless women are apparently un troubled by a client who has clearly just committed an awful act of violence. There is never a follow-up on the dual murder, triggered by a woman protesting against Trevor’s immoral behaviour. 

Even the most lenient of game players is forced to ask why this piece of story-telling exists in the game. What point are the makers trying to prove? Is this meant to be funny? Distrubing? Or both? The lack of precision around the entire narrative means the makers come across as something they’re clearly not: unintelligent.

Andy Warhol famously said ‘Art is what you can get away with.’ Warhol would’ve loved the plethora of pot-shots the game takes at countless cultural icons. But where Warhol made clear and direct visual statements, GTA is chaotic. This is a point that I disagree on with most critics who have reviewed the game. No part of GTA V's narrative is innovative. In fact, it’s downright boring. It’s a carbon copy of every other title in the series, but bigger and more beautiful. True innovation makes a game memorable, and after completing the single-player campaign and putting an hour or so into the online mode, I’m unlikely to go back. 

The lack of clear innovation stops GTA from becoming a masterpiece. As much as the critics applaud it, I genuinely believe the title will be forgotten within the decade. Video games in 2013 are more likely to be remembered, hopefully, for finely crafted narratives such as The Last of Us or even the emotional depth found in the female lead of the re-vamped Tomb Raider. GTA feels almost as vapid as its equally commercial counter part Call of Duty. Superbly created games, but without guts. 

It’s easy to condemn Grand Theft Auto, and it’s very easy to celebrate it. So is it a good game, or a bad one? The truth is very complicated. Perhaps this is its greatest success as a piece of art, the very idea that it doesn’t sit well. But that sounds like an excuse to me. Grand Theft Auto represents a failing on both player and developer. The developer provided the prostitute on the corner, and I took up the offer. I was curious, but it added nothing to my life, nothing to the story, and is a cheap trick, spawned from a philosophy that puts spectacle over substance.

I like to think of it not as the zenith of this generation of gaming, but as a starting point. It’s not a complete masterpiece, but the first brush stroke for a new generation. This is what games could continue to be. It is all of our responsibilities to see what else they could become. It’s time to ask the curious little boy inside of us all to grow up.