So it has been one solid week since Grand Theft Auto 5 hit the streets – so to speak. As one might suspect, the fallout has been huge. I should point out that I’ve completed about 57.5% of it (I should know, the game keeps making me aware of it) so consider this as 57.5% of a critical review. The post is somewhat spoiler-ish.
Back in November 2012, I wrote a little post about how predictable the GTA5 trailer looked, coupled with a counter factual imagining of how possible Breaking Bad influences could have changed their ludic enterprise. I was far too naive in imagining such an alternate universe where Rockstar, might have thrown a chunk of their money and resources into creating something with depth (amusingly since GTA’s release, the post has generated about 25,000 hits alone, just from suckers googling “GTA5″ and “Breaking Bad”). Needless to say in the final game there are a few mediocre ‘in-joke’ references, and possible fan-made pastiches, but no gut-wrenching depth.
So I’m not in the least bit surprised to see the critical fallout in the last seven days. Like any good blogpost, a multitude of links will suffice:
As always, Cameron Kunzelman hits several nails on the proverbial head concerning the franchise’s conservative ideology / capitalist realism HERE. Lana Polansky echoes these statements HERE by reading the vast expanse of GTA’s map and gameplay potential as an allegory of its conservative nature. Leigh Alexander weighed in with a parody, then a full scale assault. A lot of coverage has been generated surrounding the game’s early torture scene, (aside from the content, I was more impressed that Rockstar managed to elicit some sort of response out of me) The old Keif’ Stuart has argued that GTA has finally silenced any sceptical mainstream concerns about video games becoming a legitimate medium, politically, culturally and (especially) financially. Even Nick Clegg’s thrown out a half-arsed response, as if the last 10 years of relative maturity didn’t happen.
I don’t want to add anything to the splendid and perfectly valid critiques on the GTA’s ideological content (FWIW, I think Rockstar are incredibly good at replicating Sloterdijk’s understanding of popular [K]ynicism, that is enlightened false consciousness – every GTA player is a nihilistic cynic, as well playing a nihilistically motivated game. They know that LA life is meant to be false, the police are corrupt, and corporate ideology rules the day – yet, that does not give Rockstar the means to present such cynicism from a neutral stand point. It might be enlightened, but it’s still false).
Beyond this, it might be worth actually reflecting on GTA5 from an industry viewpoint, related to an analogous status with cinema. The biggest problem I have with it is, why no risk? Why rollout mediocre controversy on the surface of ‘press RT and LT to torture’, instead of narrative or ludic ambiguity endemic to certain characters? For example, why are Michael’s family all so uncharacteristically horrible, and their relationships deliberately presented as nihilistically hateful? I get controversial satire, and exaggerated realism, but it’s hardly as risky as social complexity.
I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that, in light of GTA’s success the videogame industry and the cinema industry have now come full circle. Most coverage concerning GTA 5 has been about the cost of its production (£170 million / $220 million), the expert analyst prediction of it’s market impact, only to be followed by generating $1 Billion worth of revenue in three days. All of these predictions and stats seem to matter more than any ethics, morals, aesthetics or innovations of the game itself. Needless to say, Take-Two shares went up, making an extraordinary amount of dough for investors who won’t ever play the game anyway, like Carl Icahn.
The glorifying budget syndrome usually illustrates the ideological justification of Hollywood film budgets: the commercial backbone of the industry, or alternative mechanisms designed to alleviate ‘risk’. Expect all of these features to be part and parcel of AAA games in the near future, as their commercial reliance is dispersed alongside future generations. GTA5, BioShock Infinite, Call of Duty, The Last of Us: the 2013 AAA ‘stock’ are far more dispersed than the summer blockbusters, but all the more reliant in propping up an industry which relies on these lucrative ‘big hitters’ to fund other projects, apparently.
But like Hollywood blockbusters, this is no more than an ideological ruse, designed to persuade themselves and everyone else that AAA developers are constantly in the throws of panic subsumed by a declining industry (unlike the majority of actual indies developers, who actually are). “We need to justify this budget” they say, “we need to make the necessary return.” “We need to dumb down the content, making the world even bigger, and misogynist so that the game/film is accessible to widest possible audience”, usually white males. Hear the embedded cries of the industry, “we need these games – the industry needs your attention.”
The idea seems to be that industries ‘want’ paying customers to see the manifest result of $200 – $250 million thrown onto a screen without much care, or in GTA’s case, the manifest result of a bigger world to explore, again, without much care. Cinema spectators want to see the money on the screen, gamers want to see the money in the system. To some, that might be a good thing – a sense of legitimacy in video games, despite it being just as (if not more) corpulent. But as the cinema industry relation grinds it teeth, it reveals how seriously developers control the ideological release of their games, such as Rockstar’s “embargo”: again another cinema trope (why stop reviewers from reviewing the game early, if they know it will sell by the truckload?).
The thing is, if anyone studies cinema returns with any depth, you’ll know that relatively few AAA blockbusters actually lose money. The well-known film critic Mark Kermode even came up with a formula for AAA blockbusters, so that if the cinema industry followed them, he argues, no AAA release should ever lose money. I’m being quick here.
- First – it must have a newsworthy budget. The sort of budget that tabloids that can really report on.
- Second – it must have spectacular visuals, spectators must be able to ‘see’ that budget on screen, and be tantalised with trailers.
- Thirdly – It must not be a comedy, It can be anything else, but not a comedy – as word of mouth and taste does not typically work in its favour.
- Fourthly – it must have a well-known bankable ‘A’ list star, to front the film and give the project a marketable focus.
Now Kermode does not endorse these rules, rather, he comments on them as a well-worn rule of thumb pointing out an insidious, ideological point. If these rules work, and at least guarantee that no AAA film production will lose money, or be subject to risk, why are so many blockbuster films so utterly lacklustre? Why do they feel that they need to dumb down the general intelligence so much, that the content must reach the lowest common denominator, when their predicted revenue is somewhat guaranteed? In other words, if there is no financial risk, then why stick with conservative content matter?
If the game industry is so worried about the so-called time-eating, haemorrhaging costs of game production, they need to find their own version of Kermode’s formula (certainly the first and second rules are salient enough). Except they won’t, otherwise they’ll lose all ideological control of their precious subject matter. Ideologies can afford to lose money, but not the set of inherent ideas and values keeping spectators at bay, without them realising why they are inherited.
So again, why no risk Rockstar? Why the biting satire, but not the social complexity? What have you got to lose, if it isn’t the financial risk? Ludic century? Pah.