Everyone and their pet monkey is playing GTAV and there’s a plethora of reviews out there, so this isn’t going to be a conventional review but rather a rambling discussion of what is probably going to be the end-cap game for this generation of consoles for many people.
As ever, GTAV has attracted its fair share of controversy. There’s the usual pearl-clutching about the prostitutes and the violence but a few other things as well. The fact is, controversy draws attention and the more people complain and fuss about a controversial media artefact the more attention – and sales – it gets. You’d really think that people would understand this by now and would refrain from helping their ‘enemies’ but this behaviour persists and media of all sorts continues to reap the benefits of idiots who can be poked with sticks until they provide free publicity.
The trick is to have something of substance to back that up and while GTA IV was overshadowed by clone games like Sleeping Dogs and Saint’s Row, GTA V seems to come back out on top again.
The heart of all these controversies is the inability of a very few cranks and a huge number of critics to tell the difference between fantasy and reality. Since the days of Wertham – and even before – there has been a movement to try and claim something that someone doesn’t like as the cause of some broader social ill. The claims differ, but the argument is always the same whether it’s ‘D&D makes people satanists’ or ‘video games cause violence’. It’s pretty much always bollocks, but here we are again and again and again.
There’s been two particular areas of controversy for GTA V that are relatively new. The first of these is a prolonged torture scene where, at the behest of the FIB, Trevor (the resident psycho) takes to an Azerbaijani with various torture implements in order to get information to aid in the assassination of another Azerbaijani. This is pretty damn graphic and horrible with little of the immediate humour that’s to be found elsewhere throughout the game – though some black humour remains.
The scene is difficult and uncomfortable for people, but torture should be difficult and uncomfortable. The scene pushes the boundaries beyond gunning down waves of anonymous arseholes and puts you in the position of directly harming an innocent man in horrible ways.
Yet the scene serves several important purposes.
- It shows that Trevor’s psychosis is not, at least not entirely, made up. There’s some suggestion that he is ‘acting’ now and again throughout the game, playing the ‘role’ of the dangerous psycho with a bit of self-referential pretend acting. The scene shows that there is a genuine core of horror to the Trevor character beyond the clownish psycho ‘act’ and that he is genuinely damaged and detached in some way.
- It is an important satirical scene in the commentary that Trevor provides later on it and the uselessness of torture as a means of extracting information. He also lets the torture victim go, showing the alternate side to him. One that cares about the underdog and hates bullies (at least ones that aren’t him).
- The scene is uncomfortable and horrible and as such serves as a useful counterpoint to the exaggerated and impersonal ‘fun’ violence of the rest of the game. Horrible things should be uncomfortable, should be horrible. We should be repulsed by torture and it should make us uncomfortable.
GTA has always had a bit of a difficult relationship with women. Well, with fictional cipher-women (and men) that don’t really exist. It plays to the existing gangster/gang/crime tropes and always had. If it didn’t play to these existing fictional artifices it wouldn’t play to the genre and wouldn’t be what it is. The source material is ‘sexist’ in that it is about what stubbornly remains primarily a man’s world. It’s also an exaggeration of both the real world organised/gang crime and the movies and series which are – themselves – an exaggerated form. It doubles down on it.
There’s no female character in GTA V, something which has raised comment this time around. This is significant in itself because some of the commentators saying this would be the kind to normally disparage GTA as being an awful, horrible, sexist and everything wrong with the world. If they want to play, that’s progress.
Part of the problem, in making games that include women and that are explicit and violent, is that violence against women (or children for that matter) leads to higher ratings for games and a great deal of complaints. This is the same problem that dogged the most recent Lara Croft game with the presumption that the violence against her was necessary sexual or that it disempowered the character in some way, rather than demonstrating her resilience (as it would with John McClane in Die Hard by way of comparison).
There is violence against women in GTA of course, but it is primarily the result of the player going ‘off the rails’ rather than being baked into the plot. You can, if you choose, run over prostitutes, snipe anyone with huge sunglasses on the beach or mercilessly slaughter every woman you see but that’s on you and your choice. Within the plot itself you can deliver a few innocent ladies to a cannibal cult but their fate happens off screen. You also kill Molly Schultz, but indirectly in that she panics and flees from you and then suffers a horrible fate as a consequence of her own stupidity.
This feels a little cautious for GTA which hasn’t been quite so cautious in the past, with missions to spy on and kill cheating spouses, golddiggers etc. Perhaps even Rockstar felt they had to be a bit more cautious in the recent atmosphere and that seems like a shame. Equality is when everyone is treated just as badly as each other and exempting women from the action and the violence – even as NPCs in the fight scenes which are exclusively male.
It’s a Man’s World
I think the reason a female character is absent, beyond the potential criticisms that would be involved in that (you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t) is that GTA V’s characters and story are, indeed, very much telling male stories.
Series writer and co-creator Dan Houser told The Guardian that GTA V was all male because “the concept of being masculine was so key to this story.”
It sounds like a bad excuse for leaving women out but as I played the game I found that statement rang more and more true. It is about masculine stories, more so it is about crisis-of-masculinity stories. There’s been some criticism that the characters are each ‘pathetic’ in their own way but that strikes me as unfair and dismissive.
None of these men fit into the world in which they find themselves and each reacts to it in a different way.
Mike betrays his principles and his friends for a shot at what is supposed to be the good life, but it’s also a betrayal of self, leaving him profoundly unsatisfied with two ungrateful kids and a spouse who – at least at the outset – hates him and cheats on him. His daughter is an out of control fame whore and his son is an infuriating do-nothing slob. Perhaps meant to be a sly poke at the people playing the game themselves. Mike tries to redeem himself with therapy and new-age bullshit but what saves him in the end is being himself and stopping trying to be anything else. Detente comes when his family accepts him and their situation and understands he does the best he can with a bad hand.
Franklin is trying to overcome his situation. He’s come up in the ‘hood’ and is ambitious. He is constantly being held back by his aunt, his childhood friend and the gangs obsessions with each other. Getting ‘out’ is seen as a betrayal of his roots and everything he does to better himself costs him friends, home, family and his girlfriend Tanisha who remains loyal to her past and origins and sees him as fake for trying to progress. Franklin remains unresolved by the end of the story, he has success but is still tied to his past by his friends and past.
Trevor is, on the face of it, an entirely superficial and clownish psychopath. There’s more to him though. He’s the friend left behind, the bachelor, the crazy guy who is your friend but your family or spouse don’t like. The guy you give up but miss forever. He’s loyal to a fault and expects the same of everyone. He’s an avatar of unrestrained masculinity, of violence and sexuality without the restraint and control that most men learn from the moment adolescence sets in. Some of what he says and does is fake, a front to maintain his reputation, other parts aren’t. He is, in many ways, the monster that men are portrayed as being in some feminist opinion and theory.
There may be no female characters but women are key to the story, for each man they’re a powerful motivator and shaper in their life. For Mike his wife is his world, even if she is a two (three, four?) timing bitch. For Franklin, his ex Tanisha hangs over his life like a cloud and may be part of the reason he wants to escape or better himself, to show he’s as good for her as her rich educated fiancée is. For Trevor, though you don’t find out until the very end, his mother is the defining woman in his life and the way she acts towards him and treats him makes sudden and abrupt sense of him as a person.
Midlife crisis, drive to ‘make it’, and the temptation to just stop giving a fuck.
The game is great, much better than GTAIV which lost the plot a bit and included a bunch of annoying features. The heists are the stand out feature and it’s a shame there weren’t more of them. I was concerned that three characters would lose focus and make for a weaker story but it does work. Of the characters Mike has the most complete story and the best arc, Trevor is fun and interesting – as a freak – and the only real weak point in the game is Franklin who feels like a bit of an afterthought.
It’ll be interesting to see how the online version works out.
If I never hear the word ‘nigger’ again, I’ll be happy.
PS: Rockstar, please make a new version of GTA London. We’ve spent enough time on the yanks and it’s about time to bring it back home.