Warning: This piece has some story spoilers.
Polite society has nothing to like about Grand Theft Auto V, the urban crime video game that generated $1 billion worth of sales in just three days. The title smashed all records, but it’s an embarrassment to the respectable video game establishment that wants a Disney-like image. Even as Grand Theft Auto V pushes gaming into a high state of awareness in the mass market, the game industry leaders would rather forget about it. This game allows players to engage in disgustingly bad behavior that will make parents everywhere cringe, but the game appears to be more popular than ever.
It raises the uncomfortable question: Is this game incredibly popular because it is so irredeemably indecent? If you figure that the larger mass market enjoys cute games without extreme violence, then Grand Theft Auto’s audience should be getting smaller. In this age when we can play with Pokémon on a 3DS or Angry Birds on an iPad, GTA V seems like a throwback to the days when a “gamer” was a maladjusted and angry young male who had no friends. This title is more violent and repulsive in its portrayals of women than past titles. I used to have this rule where I only played “good guys” in a video game. But there’s just no way to stand by that rule and play this game. There are no “good guys” among the three main characters, Franklin, Michael, and Trevor. The nicest among them is Franklin, a young peacemaker up-and-coming criminal who is also a cold-hearted assassin. He kills for a $5,000 payment. By the end of the game, I had turned these assassinations into an art form.
This is kind of inconvenient and embarrassing as the video game industry seeks its place at the table among other kinds of entertainment and art. The industry welcomes the pop in sales that it will see as cash registers keep on ringing through the holidays. This is the high tide of the game business and the current generation of consoles. But the Entertainment Software Association, the lobbying group that represents the big game companies, felt the need to point out that some video games — all of them less popular than GTA — teach you a sense of right and wrong by giving players more ethical choices to make in games. Gamers are more diverse than ever, to the point that the term “gamer” means as much as a “movier” or “TV watcher.” But everybody feels the need to play this game that really ought to appeal to only a hardcore audience that tolerates torture scenes. If we are a peace-loving people, why do we like this game so much?
I’ve finished the 69 missions in the game. Rockstar delivers an outstanding experience that reflects the polish and ambition of a $260 million project in the works for five years. GTA V deserves the average 97 out of 100 rating on the review aggregator site Metacritic. I played it for more than 40 hours because I didn’t want to miss out on one of the cultural events of our times. Everybody is playing GTA V, so I had to join in on the fun and try to finish it before other people did. I wanted to know the ending before somebody spoiled it for me. The reason this game is popular is because it has been hand-crafted by artisans who have the time and money to create something that reflects their finest workmanship. I agree that the folks at Rockstar games, led by Sam and Dan Houser, are geniuses who have become very adept at flipping their middle fingers at the world.
The freedom to be bad
But I feel like I’ve been manipulated by evil geniuses. Grand Theft Auto V lets you do everything bad that you can possibly do, and often it gives you no choice about it. Two minutes into the game, two black characters banter with racially and sexually charged chatter, tossing the N word out once every 30 seconds. You cannot modify their talk so they are more polite. When you first meet the third of the main characters, he is humping a female meth addict from behind, and then he kills her angry boyfriend by stomping him to death. You don’t get to choose whether to stomp or not. In the game’s most controversial scene, you have to torture a man in order to complete a mission. You have no power to prevent these things from happening if you want to finish the game’s long story arc.
When you do have choice, it isn’t pretty. Your character can get high on marijuana and even campaign to make it legal. You can receive oral sex from a prostitute in a car, and you get the choice of viewing it from different angles. Your character can get lap dances in a strip club and you get to decide whether to risk touching them and incurring the bouncer’s ire. You can change the station in your car’s radio, listening to hate-speech-filled songs or pop music. You pretty much have to kill people, but you do get a choice of many different kinds of weapons to use.
In one random scene, I went to assist a young woman who said she needed help with a crazy guy. I followed her, and she led me into an ambush where three armed men killed my character. After that, I didn’t bother helping the poor innocent bystanders. The game trained me to think that there was no score in being good. Those bastards at Rockstar — they’re messing with my head. I am a kind person, but they’re turning me into someone who doesn’t care about taboos. Aren’t they?
Grand Theft Auto V contains a free and open world, where you can behave properly if you like and just enjoy driving through a beautifully rendered city called Los Santos, a version of modern Los Angeles. The cliffs of Santa Monica and its boardwalk are rendered with incredible realism. You can visit Muscle Beach or the beachfront in Venice.
But you do not have the freedom to play a female character. You have no choice but to torture a man in order to complete a mission. Your choice is to break his kneecap with a wrench, pull out his tooth with pliers, or electro-shock his breasts. If there is an ethical line to cross in the design of a video game, then Grand Theft Auto V creator Rockstar Games has defiantly taken a giant leap over that line. The game has the illusion of choice.
In my play sessions, I happily crossed the ethical lines, partly out of curiosity about the boundaries. The least of my crimes? I rarely stopped at red lights. In fact, I got so used to speeding in between cars waiting for red lights that I was tempted to do that in real life. I felt that I could do that because there were no consequences. I could run red lights, and the cops wouldn’t care. I could run into other cars and even run over pedestrians, but the cops wouldn’t be fast enough to catch me. Only when I took out my guns and began shooting strangers on the street did the police close in. I sometimes did this just to see whether I could survive the police onslaught. And sometimes I did.
The opponents of video games will take that all of this to mean that Grand Theft Auto V encourages criminal behavior. The gun violence in this game is as extreme as it gets. I’m a peace-loving person in the real world, but I slid into an ethical morass as I retaliated against thugs who tried to hurt my family and steal my stolen stuff. The game gave me the opportunity to express my inner badness. Even the sex scenes that were once taboo — if you recall the controversy around the censored “hot coffee” scene in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas — have now been included in the game. But the proponents of gaming can just as easily argue that Grand Theft Auto V is a giant release valve, enabling the public to let off the steam from their daily lives.
Often, parents will let their kids play Grand Theft Auto and other mature-rated games because they’re so popular. But they don’t realize that the game deliberately pushes the limits to show the underside of society. Some keen observers have noticed that Trevor, one of the three main characters who is a psychotic murderer, allows the player to explore the dark side of an open world much more than the other characters do. When we first meet him, he humps the meth addict and then murders her angry boyfriend by stomping his face into a bloody pulp. So when we play Trevor, we actually have the freedom to engage in acts that Trevor, being the psycho that he is, would do. We make choices that are akin to the choices that Trevor would make, and that gives us more freedom to be bad.
Is killing fun?
So why is this game so popular? The story about the friendship of Michael, Trevor, and Franklin is pretty compelling. I kept playing because I wanted to find out what happened between them.
Some of the redeeming qualities are the game’s humor and satire. The police are there to spy on you. The federal agents are from the Federal Investigation Bureau, or FIB. Michael’s son, Jimmy, plays a horrifically violent Call of Duty-like game where he gets points for turning other players into blood splotches and curses at them nonstop through his console headset. I laughed out loud when I was trying to burn a getaway van in the wilderness and mountain lion killed me.
You can log on to the Internet inside the game and join “Life Invader,” a parody of Facebook. On one of the early missions, your job is to infiltrate Life Invader’s headquarters and booby trap a prototype of the brand new “Life Invader phone.” That’s clearly a reference to the rumored Facebook phone. A character modeled after Mark Zuckerberg is giving a keynote speech to introduce the phone. When he gets up on stage and you trigger the phone to blow up in his ear. It’s a funny moment, but then it makes you feel pretty creepy. Is that what Rockstar’s game designers really want you to do to Mark Zuckerberg?
When you get in your car, you can listen to faux talk radio. I turned on the radio once and heard a commercial advertising a game called DigiFarm. It advertised a “revolution in social” the same way that Zynga did with its FarmVille title, and it closes with a joke that it has no game play and is “truly worth 99 cents” on the iPhone. Franklin wins “employee of the month” because he does so a great job repossessing cars as part of a loan fraud scam, and his buddy Lamar is jealous. In this world, yoga teachers are lecherous. Smoking weed makes you see aliens or clowns that you have to shoot.
That retrograde satire never really ends. You never really hit the “event horizon” of this game. And that makes Grand Theft Auto V seem like a smarter and more creative game than you would expect. Trevor is a psycho, but he’s almost a loveable psycho, with a funny “cut here” tattoo that is a dotted line across his neck. When you switch to Trevor, you never know where he will be in the world. He wakes up next to a fat woman on the beach, or you switch to him as he is fleeing two cop cars in a chase.
You can steal a James Bond spy car from a movie set. And it’s funny when you press a button and you jettison the annoying actress in the passenger seat. You can also survive a long chase scene and see a villainous corporate woman get shredded into a bloody pulp as she is sucked into the turbines of a jet engine. But, once again, these scenes say a lot about the game’s attitude toward women.
There’s a secret formula here. Rockstar delivers the satire and subversive message to you along with all of the extreme game play so that you’ll laugh it off.
The crime is fun in this game because there are so many ways to perpetrate it. You can use such weapons as sticky bombs and sniper rifles to take out your targets. You can enlist your dog to hunt down your enemies. You can escape from a crime in a yellow submarine or a jet ski. You can fly helicopters and airplanes. You can even fly a biplane into the backside of a cargo plane in order to hijack it. You won’t get bored with the exquisitely planned heists of jewelry stores and banks.
Should you play it?
This seems like a dumb question, as the sales suggest that every adult hardcore gamer is going to play this game. You have to figure out your own ethics of game playing when it comes to Grand Theft Auto V. I’m not here to absolve you of the guilt of playing something that is a guilty pleasure. I think you should dwell upon that guilt and think about it.
You might justify playing the game because of its high quality. I wouldn’t go so far as to declare Grand Theft Auto V a work of art, as I have with titles like BioShock Infinite, The Last of Us, and Alan Wake. Sometimes, it seems that the writing in the game is silly, and so much worse than fine mobster shows like The Sopranos. The beginning of the game puts you into the midst of a big heist. But the climax of that prologue, which takes place a decade before the action of the game, is a pretty big letdown. The ending left me with a similar feeling of disappointment. I felt like better writing would have made it a lot more interesting.
Grand Theft Auto V will make every person think about whether it’s OK to explore the limits of human behavior. It will let you do an experiment by committing crimes and then seeing the consequences play out. As you do so, the humor and satire will work on your mind. Sometimes the black humor is right on target, and often it is just puerile. If you pay attention to the subtle digs, you’ll come out of the experience wiser, and less trusting of authority.
Is this game OK for you to play? Only you can answer that question. Don’t play it just because everybody else is. And don’t let your kid play it because their friends are playing it. That’s a cop-out. If you can laugh at racist and sexist jokes, you will like it. If you don’t, you may hate it. Would you play it with your mother watching you? Nope. Should women play it? I wouldn’t make assumptions about what women like or don’t like when it comes to this game. Would you play it in front of your little boys or girls? Nope. Should your four-year-old son play it? Nope.
This really is a game you should only play in adult company, and that company should be desensitized to the violence in the game. That narrows down the audience for GTAV significantly. But apparently, just about every person in this adult male hardcore gamer demographic is going to play this game. Of course, you know that a lot of parents aren’t paying attention, and they’re buying this game for their kids. Rockstar can take that to the bank.
Rockstar’s Dan Houser has said that the company doesn’t design games based on focus groups. If it did so, it would wind up with nice, safe content like Disney material. But Grand Theft Auto V is a success. Rather, it’s a masterpiece, because it was created by people who don’t care about what anybody else thinks. It was created by people who are single-minded about what they consider to be fun. And, indeed. I’ve played game. It’s fun.