In 2001, the “Grand Theft Auto” franchise landed on the radar of mainstream culture by offending most everyone who wasn’t a gamer. Its carjacking, prostitutes and murder scenarios were defended as a satire of violent and misogynistic video game culture. Watchdog groups and politicians didn’t see the irony.
But beyond the controversy, its appeal was in its danger — a place where the kill-at-will, hypersexualized fantasy worlds of interactive entertainment were let loose in cities based on grown-up, real-world places (New York, Miami and now, once again, Los Angeles).
Today, the series has become a well-honed formula, a place guaranteed to deliver top-of-the line game mechanics in the most fully-realized digital worlds. Culturally, however, the franchise has hardly grown since 2001.
The first rape joke is delivered by a college-age boy who’s playing a violent video game. “I don’t care if you’re 12, I’ll still rape you,” he shouts at a character in the fictional game-within-a-game titled “Molested.”
Many “Grand Theft Auto” staples later — strip clubs, robberies and murders that come as easy as blowing bubbles — characters tune into a talk-radio show in which they’ll be advised to crush a woman’s sternum during sex. “Most women,” it’s reasoned, “love that.”
The need to offend has become shtick for the 16-year-old series, and at this point, it’s a tactic that’s exhausting at best. Consider it the video game equivalent of the MTV Video Music Awards. It exists because it’s too big to fail, and where it once represented risk-taking unpredictability, the franchise is now simply twerking its way into the headlines.
This week the game raked in $1 billion within three days of its Tuesday release. And it isn’t just the public who made this installment of the series the fastest-selling entertainment product ever. On the aggregation site Metacritic, it’s trending close to a 100 out of 100 among video game cognoscenti.
“Grand Theft Auto V,” which follows three morally corrupt men in “Los Santos” (the franchise’s take on Los Angeles), is technologically impressive in its re-creation of the world we actually live in. Its open universe is unparalleled, allowing players to go anywhere at nearly any time via cartoonishly high-speed car chases and an ability to swap between three characters at once.
But its stubborn sexism and stale social commentary is lazy at best; a relic from a time when games weren’t regularly offering thoughtful experiences.
Here a fancy boat is described as the kind “that makes a young impressionable girl drop her pants and spread her legs.” Lap dances are a game where you attempt to grope a girl out of view of security guards.
Yet the majority of the game critic community has decided to treat “Grand Theft Auto V’s” rampant misogyny and violence against women as a pesky housefly, a slight annoyance that doesn’t detract from all that’s remarkably polished. Though some of the defensiveness may be genuine for this ambitiously free-form game, it’s also rooted in the fear of being labeled as one of those clueless souls who doesn’t quite get the joke or, worse, is offended by it.
But much of this knee-jerk cheerleading is a lost opportunity. If “Auto V” had advanced as much culturally and emotionally as it has mechanically, it might merit the kudos and prove to those who write off games as immature just how far the medium has come.
Even attempts at social commentary here are embarrassingly one-dimensional. One hip coffeeshop brags that its tea is exploited from the Third World. There’s the Whole Foods-like store with a “shop with superiority” slogan, and a dumpster-diving movement of “freegans” are described as “nonproductive members of society by choice.” Perhaps they need to go back and take tips from “South Park,” a series that started around the same time.
As for its treatment of Los Angeles? Our city is certainly deserving of satire, and had “Grand Theft Auto” created a restaurant with a 45-page water menu, it might have been funny, but even LACMA’s Ray’s and Stark beat them to it. Instead, the denizens of Los Santos complain about casting directors, whine about scripts and sleep with producers. All that’s missing is a dingbat blond. Oh wait, that’s in there too.
For all its expertly detailed traffic patterns on freeways and city streets, creative takes on places like the Hollywood Bowl and Pershing Square and intricate heists, “Grand Theft Auto V” lacks the deft narrative touches of its modern-day peers. Naughty Dog’s “The Last of Us” and Telltale’s “The Walking Dead” prove that you can wring tears out of the zombie genre, and the tiny little border control game “Papers, Please” shows games can capture human desperation almost as deftly as film.
As the biggest game around, “Grand Theft Auto V” should be able to reach these notes and more. But just when you think the game has hit a groove and maybe somewhere around Hour 30 will turn into “Breaking Bad,” you get in a car, turn it on and hear someone advising a character to crush a woman’s sternum. Nearly everyone who plays the game is smart enough to know this is all done in the name of satire, but to what end? One of the best-designed games in the world doesn’t even attempt to answer that question.
– Todd Martens | firstname.lastname@example.org
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