26 September 2013

Late to the Party #3 - Gee Tee Ay Musing

Rostopher is usually...

#3 - Gee Tee Ay Musing

Spoilers throughout. You have been warned.

So it has come to pass - Rockstar's generational opus is upon us, as may have been hinted at ever so slightly in the last issue. And now, I've had an opportunity to play it! Shocker, I know, but it seems curiously necessary to point out that now, I have actually played the game. Well, most of it. It's just that a lot of the cricism came way to early for people to have actually played through the whole thing. Just throwing that out that.

Any-bally-hoo, we'll start with a micro-review, and about half-way through it, we'll move on to the actual meat of the matter, because...well, that's where it is: half-way through a review! 
GTA V is a really quite brilliant game. On the technical side, it's hugely impressive, particularly given that it's currently running on 8-year-old hardware. The fidelity of the world is the highlight - a self-contained, satirical snapshot of modern American society. Los Santos' rotten, corrupt heart hidden beneath a sheen of sunshine, fast cars and palm trees; Sandy Shores, a blistering, dust-covered hickville...sorry, 'home of rural Americans'; Grapeseed, your quiet little whitebread town; and Paleto Bay, your tiny beach community. Despite the triple-protagonist gimmick eliminating their necessity, you'll still find yourself setting out on drives from one mission to another, or indeed from nowhere to nowhere else. 

Allow me to paint a picture - and in no way will it do justice to the majesty of it, but I'll do my damn best.

I had been messing about on a jetski as Michael, the mobster archetype protagonist, and found myself in Paleto Bay just as the sun set over the water. I beached the jetski, and wandered into town, locating a suitable unmanned vehicle and performing the titular crime. The radio tunes in to a station playing some impressively smooth jazz, and I pull into the local garage to clean the car up. I checked my map, and saw that Michael's next mission was back at his house in Rockford Hills, a wealthy suburb in north Los Santos. I set my sat-nav marker, and set off, the route carrying me along the west coast of San Andreas, chasing the sun as she hid herself beneath the horizon. On the cusp of her disappearing, I vanish into the tunnel that takes you underneath Fort Zancudo, and emerge into the night. Streetlights, brake-lights and headlights streak past as I cross the bridge over Lago Zancudo, and I take the turn-off onto Route 68, clambering steadily uphill and then heading down into the winding, challenging road through Tongva Valley. The hills either side suddenly give way, and I'm greeting by the glistening, festering, neon-glinting jewel that is Los Santos, the full moon hovering low over her, welcoming me back.

Something like this. Only with more smooth jazz.
I pulled over.

Sounds good, no? This is Rockstar's true achievement with this piece of software - a living, breathing, dynamic, infinitely intriguing landscape to explore. It's literally jaw-dropping.

Controls-wise - whilst a bit fiddly to get to grips with in some scenarios, and not without occasional frustrations - are a slick hybridisation of three distinct gameplay types (namely third-person action, driving and piloting), and they're each satisfying enough that you can forgive some occasional control quirks. On top of the astounding diversity of stuff that you can mess around with - guns, bombs, cars, planes, bikes, boats, frikkin' submarines, and yes, the list goes on after 'frikkin submarines' - there's an outrageously deep veneer of customisation.

It's quite simply the most technically accomplished sandbox game released this generation, and a perfect generational swansong - showcasing exactly what the supposedly aging hardware in the Xbox 360 and PS3 was capable of all along.

But it's in the story-telling, and its unexpectedly varied interpretation that we're going to be dwelling on for the rest of this piece.

As you are probably aware, Grand Theft Auto is gaming's grand crime saga - all set in the same fictional, twisted version of America, they tell tales of nobodies achieving the American dream rather more violently and sordidly than strictly necessary. This rodeo is a little different, primarily in that there are no less than three protagonists - which, in absolute truth, was the next logical step in GTA's evolution. But there's also the fact that all three are wash-ups, in their own way, rather than nobodies. Franklin, a sardonic gang-banger who alienates everyone around him; Michael, a witness-protected ex-bank robber whose lack of empathy is causing his family life to fall apart; and Trevor, a certifiably insane pseudo-Canadian redneck (yeah, get your head around that one!).

Their stories begin separate, but slowly intertwine as your progress through the game. You pull heists, run drugs, work for movie producers, and more, all in the name of making that sweet, sweet dollar.

The writing is great - sharp, acerbic and bitterly satirical, Dan Houser, Rupert Humphries and Micheal Unsworth emulate Parker and Stone as they tar everyone with the same brush. Celebrity culture, gang culture, nerd culture, corporate culture, capitalism, communism, conservatives, liberals, crap TV, rednecks, white trash, gangsters, psychologists - everything is torn asunder, revealing corrupt, festering hearts within each by way of an elegant, biting (and occasionally delightfully juvenile) sense of humour.

But most intriguingly of all, the game carries a fairly broad, blaring message, written in neon lights as glorious as Los Santos' nightscape:

This shit don't pay off. 

Not in the long run. Heists go bad, loyalties are questioned, terrifying murderers (or, as they're more commonly known, governments) irreversibly pissed off. The only way to actually earn the stacks of cash required to buy up property in the game is to honestly invest - and dishonestly skew, if so inclined - in the virtual stock market it presents.

Which makes those decrying it for corrupting our minds, for being morally bankrupt, quite odd indeed. I'm going to say it - did these people actually play the game? Did they take it in as a whole?

Is it the torture? It's the torture isn't it? Yeah, I thought you might say that. It's a fallacy, though. Sure, if you strip out every ounce of context, and presented me with a game that was literally just the torture part of the scene, I'd question your sanity, based on the fact that the barely interactive three-minute cinematic that you have there doesn't qualify as a 'game' in any sense of the word, saying nothing of its grimy, grotesque content.

But here's the thing - taken as a whole, Trevor is presented from the get-go as an unhinged psychopath.  

There's not a single shred of moral consistency to his actions, from his fluctuating approach to the value of human life, to his catastrophic mood swings (he loses his rag at the mere mention of the word 'motherfucker'), to his flip-flopping between embracing and vilifying his Canadian-tinged accent.

Heck, he's the closest thing the story has to a main antagonist, in story populated solely by antagonistic figures. You are playing as the villain when you engage in the torture scene - it's not glamourised, it's not fun, and the disturbing look of glee in Trevor's eyes is a technical marvel. It's meant to disgust you - that's what the scene wanted you to feel. 

It means you're a good person - give yourself a pat on the back!

This look glamourous to you? Then you need help, my friend.
Then there's the broader point - the torture is contained within a segment whereby the torture is enacted on behalf of the 'FIB' (switching the letters! Subtle!), and it ostensibly extracts information about a high-value terrorist target. The victim himself all but admits that he's telling them anything to get them to stop. Yet the FIB act on the information, issuing the order to the cold, heartless Michael to execute the target, without a second thought given. By anyone. The scene in its entirety decries this method of 'warfare'. 
The thing is, the one thing that I actually did think crossed the line hasn't been touched upon at all in mainstream media. The Escapist noted it in their fairly critical review of the game - a sequence wherein you unknowingly plant a bomb in the prototype of a smartphone about to be presented at a press conference, and proceed to detonate it on national television. I honestly went in expecting an ingenious, humiliating technological prank, not a brazen act of terrorism. This coupled with the fact that it's literally the only crime in the game with no risk of failure (a preceeding 'stealth' section is not challenging in the slightest) or any ramifications down the line makes it all the more unsettling. Yet the denouncement of torture is what gets us?

These're two ten-minute sections of a 25-hour-plus game. Did it attack the issues a little too bluntly? Maybe, but this is no reason to renounce the game unto Satan. 

It doesn't cross the line any more than any other media portraying torture, violence or depravity. I mean come on! We had a collective critical aneurism at the sheer bold brilliance of a scene that features a pregnant woman getting stabbed repeatedly in the belly in Game of Thrones. We must afford Grand Theft Auto the courtesy of being regarded on the same intellectual level, surely?

1 comment:

Lynne w said...

Final paragraph sums up this whole GTA violence debate, I think. Latest Fourth Estate outcry has just golf to be an excuse or the old smoke and mirrors routine.
Great perception description, Mr Rambler.