This piece is a column I sold to Cracked that never ran because of a scheduling conflict. While I generally try to keep to my own style on this site, I didn’t want to let this one go to waste.
Grand Theft Auto V is the entertainment event of the year. It raked in over a billion dollars in just three days, a record for every form of media. By the time sales start to slow the developers at Rockstar will have enough money to make Scrooge McDuck’s fortune look like chump change. If they make it rain in the club, everyone will drown. They’ll need to hire a maid whose only job is to clean up after their money fights. The game’s a big success, is what I’m trying to say here.
But while GTAV is certainly fun, it’s not without its flaws. And that’s worrying, because these flaws aren’t just little bugs—they’re examples of everything that’s wrong with modern gaming. So in-between taking prostitutes for rides in helicopters that you then crash into other, less fortunate prostitutes, see if you notice that…
4. The Industry Still Has No Idea how to Connect Story with Gameplay
Everyone, I’d like you to meet Michael.
Michael, one of GTAV’s three playable characters, is a retired criminal who’s drawn back into the lifestyle by boredom, family problems and the fact that playing a game where you do nothing but watch a guy drink scotch and reminisce about the old days would be called Sim Visit Grandpa. Since he robs banks for a living he’s obviously no boy scout, but he’s still an affable guy that tries to keep his criminal acts clean.
In the game’s first mission, Michael and I killed 26 cops.
To put that in perspective, only two police officers were killed in California (the state GTAV is set in) in all of 2012. I’ve killed more than two cops in GTAV by accidentally backing over them.
The bodies pile up like they’re in a Rambo movie because having more people to shoot is more fun. It wouldn’t be an exciting bank robbery if you only had to tie up a couple of underpaid, apathetic guards who are just trying to work their way through night school. You can’t ramp an exploding motorcycle onto the jerk who stole your parking spot in reality, so why should a virtual robbery be any more realistic?
But think about this in terms of storytelling. I don’t care if you’re the bastard child of Jeffrey Dahmer and Cobra Commander; killing 26 people is going to mess with your head. Michael shouldn’t be kicking back in a sundrenched mansion, he should be a depressed, PTSD-riddled alcoholic.
And that was just the prologue. By now I’ve single-handedly lead the funeral industry into a golden age, but there’s no indication that Michael is bothered by it. He never even mentions that he’s created enough widows to form a weirdly themed baseball league, because if he did he’d be drawing attention to how fundamentally ridiculous the game’s violence is. But his indifference makes this likeable guy I’m supposed to care about look like a murderous sociopath.
As long as video games fail to weave gameplay and story together every character is going to come across as schizophrenic. In an early mission with a different character, Franklin, he gives his buddy shit for always getting them in trouble while he’s trying to keep a low profile. This is after I arrived at the end of a 10 minute police chase in a stolen car, during which I accidentally mowed down at least three pedestrians. Triple vehicular homicide is generally frowned upon, but Franklin and the game treated it as if it had never happened.
GTAV is far from the only game to suffer from this absurd disconnect (BioShock Infinite, for example, is the tale of a man who rescues a girl by murdering an entire city), but its wild success and rave reviews means that this is what the mainstream media and casual gamers will associate with good storytelling. And if we let this be the standard, the video game industry isn’t getting its Citizen Kane anytime soon.
3. The Industry Still Doesn’t Know how to Portray Women
When you boot up GTAV the first loading screen doesn’t show you the main characters or a sweet ride. It shows you this:
Now, I’m no prude. I masturbate to my video games just like you do. But that image sums up the role of basically every single female character in the game. They’re either strippers, hookers or sluts, or nags and adulterers keeping men down with their buzzkilling vaginas. I haven’t finished the game yet, so maybe I haven’t met the happily married mother of two who works in marketing and volunteers at the soup kitchen in her spare time, but I’m pretty sure if that happens it will turn out she’s a sex worker who caters to clients with an oddly specific fetish.
The gaming community has gotten better (okay, less awful) at discussing gender, and GTA games are known for their sharp social satire. And yet they’re tone deaf when it comes to women, and few reviews have mentioned the massive gender gap. That sends an uncomfortable message: it’s all well and good to debate the portrayal of women in dinky little games, but when a blockbuster comes out you should run along with your cute little concerns and let the manly bro dudes ogle virtual tits.
And man, there are tits to be had. I’m pretty sure they spent more time working on boob physics than they did on their shitty cover system. Now, as the women I make uncomfortable on the bus know, I have nothing against looking at boobs. But if the best you can think to do with women in your game is to take their tops off and expect me to giggle because ha ha, breasts, I’m going to be insulted. I’m not 12 years old, you’re not blowing my mind. I’m looking for good characterisation—if I wanted to see breasts I’d use the webcam I hid in my neighbour’s shower.
It’s a frustrating problem because it’s so easy to fix. You don’t necessarily need a female protagonist—one of the bigwigs at Rockstar said GTAV has no leading ladies because “the concept of being masculine was so key to this story,” and that’s fair. But how hard would it be to throw in a woman or two that’s not awful?
At the very, very least, the topic of strip clubs and prostitutes is ripe for comedy. GTAV pokes fun at almost every subject you can think of, and yet anything sex related is played oddly straight. Players are watching virtual pole dance routines, and I haven’t received this many pretend blowjobs since I first became old enough to fantasise about sex instead of owning a robot that made cotton candy and helped me solve mysteries. We deserve to be mocked.
2. Game Journalists Still Don’t Know What Journalism Means
Gaming journalists have always been a little too buddy-buddy with developers. You may remember the scandal where a Gamespot editor was fired for giving a bad review to a game that had paid for lots of ads. If you thought things have improved since then, you haven’t read IGN’s “10 Crazy, Awesome Things I Saw and Did in Grand Theft Auto Online.”
Previews are important—they let journalists tell gamers if all the amazing claims developers are making are true or full of more shit than my OKCupid profile.
Unless you’re IGN’s Ryan McCaffrey, in which case the definition of journalism is apparently “take your subject’s word for everything without investigating for yourself.” McCaffrey’s piece read like an advertisement written by Don Draper on mescaline. His GTAV experience was supposedly so “wild,” “breathtaking” and “stunning” I’m amazed the guy didn’t have a heart attack. Look, I don’t care how big of an erection a game gives you—your job as a gaming journalist is to set realistic expectations for gamers. It’s fine to be enthusiastic, but if you don’t have a single word of criticism or tempered realism you’re writing a press release, not a preview.
That’s doubly true if you’re just making shit up. Let’s take the number seven crazy thing Ryan saw and did, which was go to the movies. He hypes it up, but he also says…
Sadly, I wasn’t able to visit a theater during my hands-on time, nor would Rockstar provide any additional details, besides confirming that 16 of you can pack the theater.
So you couldn’t go to the movies, and Rockstar wouldn’t give you any details. So it wasn’t exactly a crazy awesome thing you saw or did, was it? But it’s cool, Rockstar told him it would be great. Well, writing previews just got a whole lot easier! The company said it would be awesome, so it totes will be! Don’t even worry, guys! It’s not like they might lie or exaggerate the quality of their own game to encourage sales!
Was this an isolated incident? I don’t know, and that’s the problem. Reviews of GTAV went on about how cool the elaborate heist missions are, but most failed to mention that 90% of the game in-between heists is driving from destination to destination to perform menial bullshit. In one mission I spent over 20 minutes doing nothing but drive, move fragile shipping containers with industrial equipment and wonder why I had spent 60 dollars on a simulation of a job I could be paid to actually perform in real life.
Maybe they just didn’t think it was worth mentioning, or maybe they were encouraged not to. Either way, annoyances like that are the entire reason people read reviews. If you’re not going to point out a game’s flaws you’re at best a lousy critic and at worst an ad-man in disguise. Or you’re one of those ad-lizardmen that run the government, but that’s a topic for another day.
1. Gamers Still Care About Technology More Than Gameplay
Spend any length of time reading about GTAV and you’re likely to come across the phrase “technical achievement” (or some variation of it) more often than you’ll find it in articles about the moon landing. And indeed, the game is an amazing technical achievement—Rockstar has created a living, breathing city that’s arguably the most detailed setting in gaming history. But everyone’s so caught up in talking about how your flip-flops actually flip and flop they forget to mention if the game is, you know, fun.
Now, don’t get me wrong—GTAV is fun. I only stopped taking days off work to play it because I ran out of grandmas I could claim had died. But in-between all the sweet motorcycle chases there’s enough frustration and idiocy to bring the experience down a notch.
For starters, a major plot point is preceded by a yoga mini-game, I guess to cater to GTA’s core fanbase of white suburban soccer moms. I failed a recon mission of a jewelry store because I had the audacity to walk behind the sales counter, despite being given absolutely no indication that this would immediately ruin my criminal career. Then there’s an entire series of missions based on driving a tow truck, after which I’m surprised I didn’t have to fill out tax forms to document the income.
When I tried to land a plane for the first time I crashed into a mountain because I was distracted by crazy camera angles and instructional text written in size 0.5 font, forcing me to redo the entire approach while listening to the exact same dialogue. After several tries I finally managed to land the stupid thing, and my reward was unlocking the flight school. Well, shit, that would have been handy about a dozen new curse words ago. I guess none of the femurfucks at Rockstar thought that one through.
These are flaws that would be easy to correct, but Rockstar has no incentive to. Review after review gave GTAV a perfect or near-perfect score on the basis of how amazing the technology is. Go to a forum and you’ll see gamers talking about how seeing shadows filtering through tree branches blew their minds. That’s great, but I didn’t buy GTAV to marvel at the beauty of delicate leaves caught in the soft evening sunlight. I bought it to make exploding things slam into other exploding things to create explosions that make more things explode. It’s like Rockstar built the coolest sandbox in the world, but for 50 minutes out of every hour the only thing kids are allowed to do in it is clean out clumps of cat piss.
It’s already easier to make a good looking game than it is to make a good game. That will only get worse with the next generation of consoles. But as long we continue to give blockbusters like GTAV a pass on their flaws because of how pretty they are, developers will have no motivation to improve on tried and true mediocrity. Which means in GTAVI we’ll all be amazed at how we can see every individual blade of grass get caught in the wind as we complete the mandatory two hour lawn mowing mission.