Ain’t Love Grand
What may be the first truly crucial aesthetic argument of the 21st century – the proper place of video games in the pantheon of the arts – came to a head last week in a fairly spectacular fashion with the release of Grand Theft Auto V. The newest installment in the popular and critically acclaimed series of open-world crime thrillers had been hyped to the heavens and as eagerly anticipated as any entertainment product of this generation, but more than that, it was released at a time when video games and gamer culture are under a social microscope, with every aspect being picked apart and analyzed like a newly discovered herb from the Amazon that might prove to be the cure for cancer or the world’s deadliest poison.
I’ve been a fan of the GTA series since its early top-down iterations, which seem impossibly crude by contemporary standards. More than merely a successful franchise, it represents something nearly miraculous, a phenomenon that we see only occasionally in music and television, rarely in film, and almost never in literature: a product that is both the best and most popular thing of its kind. Video games are art, certainly; to me this has always been self-evident. And video games are also games, a fact that, I think, deepens rather than restricts their status as art, about which I’ll talk more later. But they are also items of commerce, a fact that is becoming obvious even to the terminally slow, such as entertainment journalists. GTAV certainly seemed like a spectacular risk, costing somewhere in the vicinity of $250 million to complete; this is a mind-boggling amount of money even to those of us used to the bloated budget numbers of contemporary film production. But it also raked in a staggering $1 billion within its first week of release, paying a margin-busting four-to-one to its producers even before such inevitabilities as online play, spinoff products and rumored in-game micro-transactions appeared.
Its appearance at a time of intense intersectionality in the gaming culture couldn’t have come at a better time. Such a ubiquitous object is likely to attract critics from all directions, from those with legitimate and articulate beefs to the mere contrarians who hate it for that ubiquity. Among the former were some worth addressing; the GTA series has always come under pressure for its high levels of antisocial violence, and this can only be partially mitigated by creative mastermind Dan Hauser’s front-loading it with the blackest of satirical intent. Several moments are particularly over the top (especially a torture scene that will be a lodestone for controversy until the next iteration of the game is released), and while there are plenty of games whose moral content is more grotesque and less self-aware than that of GTAV, it doesn’t let Rockstar Games off the hook to just point at worse offenders.
Then again, cheerfully repugnant criminality has always been part of the franchise’s DNA, and those who are acting as if the ability to murder innocents (much more difficult in this installment, incidentally, because police attention is now easier to attract and harder to escape) is something newly shocking are being deliberately naïve. Part of the problem, too, is the nature not only of GTA (which is, after all, an action thriller at heart, and thus part of a genre literally defined by its mayhem), but of gaming in general. In another coincidental bit of timing, this is also the 20th anniversary of Myst, one of the few video games that attempted to frame the actual method of play outside of the traditional boundaries of violence (or competition that equates to abstracted violence); but few games have tried, and fewer have succeeded, in breaking out of that structure. Video games are unique in that, in order to succeed, they must function both as art and as games, and the more artful – that is to say, the more human and involving the stories – the less they can turn away from human conflict as the source of their stories, and, thus, as the driver of their narratives.
Less easy to ignore is the charge that GTAV is infused with an ugly misogyny at a time when women in gaming are striving to make their voices heard, and to make it clear that they often feel threatened or marginalized by gaming culture. It’s especially disappointing since, while the GTA series has never had a leading female protagonists, it has often featured interesting female characters in support; with three main characters this time around, Rockstar surely missed a chance for not only inclusiveness but much broader and more interesting story possibilities and moral shadings. The satire, too, seems awfully forced this time out; previous scripts took their jabs at women, but in a sharper way, involving a broader cultural critique; many of GTAV’s missions involving women simply seem mean rather than pointed, hostile rather than critical. And while the three male leads are interesting enough, the game as a whole doesn’t have the depth of feeling that its predecessor, Grand Theft Auto IV – which recreated the gloomy, ill-fated, and helpless feel of a lot of ‘70s crime dramas – pulled off so successfully.
The trend towards placing moral choice in the hands of players is the currently preferred method of deepening the story of video games. This isn’t as effective a technique as it promises; even in games where it’s carried off more successfully than it is in GTAV, such as the first installment of BioShock and The Last of Us, it’s still little more than a magician’s force. Technological limitations still prevent the kind of moral branching that would mark a truly immersive interactive experience, even of the sort possible in a tabletop role-playing game. But this brings me to a related point: the peculiar appeal of video games – not as games, but as art – is that they make literal a promise that is often used only in a figurative sense. It is often said of a great film, novel or work of art that it creates an atmosphere or builds a world which we desire to explore and inhabit even after the conclusion of the story it tells. Usually, this is only accomplished through the nebulous workings of our imagination, but a skillfully executed video game (and for its handful of shortcomings in story, tone and character, Grand Theft Auto V is unquestionably that) is able to make it happen. We need not merely dream of what it would be like to explore the richly detailed world of the game’s Los Santos; we can do so, at our leisure, as much as we like.
While the “art” of GTAV is a bit of a comedown, particularly compared to its predecessor, the “game” is so vastly improved as to be almost beyond reproach. For its failures as an overarching narrative, it is still comprised of unforgettable, heart-stopping moments. Almost every aspect of play is vastly improved. Cars handle more realistically, traffic behaves more rationally, and gunfire is more deadly and terrifying. Clothing looks more natural and faces are more expressive. Skill-building, recreational activities, and social interaction are less arbitrary than in GTA: San Andreas, and less irritating than in GTAIV. Many things that video games in general and GTA in particular have never done especially well – darkness, wilderness, underwater scenes, free aiming, and vehicular physics – are tremendously accomplished. The music is, typically, phenomenal and wide-ranging, and the addition of a score is an enhancement and not a distraction; the acting is top-notch (despite the cavils of some fans who decry the loss of celebrity voices) and there is so much casual dialogue, much of it highly enjoyable, that it’s almost hard to believe. And its primary selling point as a gaming experience, for both casual and hardcore gamers – its immense, rewarding, beautifully detailed, and infinitely playable open world – is simply beyond any game I have ever encountered. There are natural environments and constructed realities that are quite literally capable of readjusting your whole perception of a game world, and if anything, it feels even more lived-in and “real” than the faux-New York of GTAIV, which won well-deserved praise on that count when it was first released.
The release of Grand Theft Auto V may be both the pinnacle of an era and its end. With such vast amounts of profit at stake, game-makers, like film studios, are likely to become far more risk-averse and apt to put all their resources into sequels, spin-offs, franchised properties and other known quantities. And with a critical establishment that continues to demand innovation while remaining leery of controversy, and a viewing pool that gets more diverse every day, we may also see a rise in balkanization, target marketing, and focus grouping as the collaborative design-by-committee approach moves from the “game” side to the “art” side of the equation. While it is certainly not free of flaws, nor should we show any meekness in pointing them out, it is very possibly the last time in this newest of artistic media that we will see something that is both the biggest and the best. If we fail to appreciate it now, it is at our great peril as critical consumers in the future.