Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Whining About Grand Theft Auto V, Part 1. Cars Are Awesome, and Girls Are Icky.

Sigh. OK. Let's do this thing.
"[GTA V] is the endpoint of the American dream."
- Dan Houser, Rockstar Head Writer and VP

I think we can all agree at this point that Grand Theft Auto V rests comfortably at the absolute pinnacle of the game industry.

Its Metacritic score is an impossibly high 97, head and shoulders above any other game anywhere ever. It took only a few days to garner over a Billion-with-a-B dollars in sales. While it's nowhere near as dominant in the Game of the Year awards as I expected (perhaps some of the lavish acclaim has been rethought), it is still doing respectably well.

Is there any standard, critical and financial, by which this game can't be considered the finest our industry has to offer?

And yet, is there anyone who can look me in the eye and tell me that it is not a flawed piece of work? Now that the dust has cleared, will anyone step forward and give an unqualified endorsement of it? Practically every lavish review comes with a huge qualification. "It's a fantastic experience, just ignore the [boilerplate missions/flat characters/hideous torture scene/misogyny]."

I played through about 2/3 of the GTAV storyline before I lost interest.  This pains me greatly, because I am a huge, HUGE Grand Theft Auto fan. I have unapologetically defended the series for years. You know how serious a fan I am? I finished Grand Theft Auto IV! The whole thing! Who did that, seriously?

I found fun bits, parts that are done really well, and a lot of stuff that just doesn't work. It is an important, ambitious title, and it deserves a solid dissection. Not just a "Fine. 10/10. Whatever. Is Battlefield 4 working yet?"

I've read a million reviews and analyses of this thing, and I have a few critiques I'd like to add (not that anyone from Rockstar will ever read them or care). Not as some moral scold. I'm not morally better than this series. I'm just a dedicated gamer who wants to love these games again.

At least we now know how Rockstar pictures their fans.

Don't Blame the Reviewers

Reviewing a game like Grand Theft Auto V is an incredibly thankless task. You're flown to a hotel. You get the disk. You let out a long sigh. You play for 10 hours straight. You go out for a stiff drink. You give it 93/100. You go out for a stiff drink.

What's the alternative? If you actually engage the flaws of the game, you get millions of belligerent (and even threatening) messages, and NOBODY enjoys that. Then there are demands that your site does a new review. Then you might lose your advertising dollars (and your job).

A perfect example is the Gamespot review by Carolyn Petit. It's a lavishly positive 9/10 review, that just happens to mention that the game is "profoundly misogynistic". (Which it is.) The comments thread on the article is, as of this writing, over 22000 (!!!) posts of rage.

Reviewers are humans. Editors are humans. Having this much anger directed at you, even from anonymous ghosts over the internet, is shaking, even before you consider the real business punishment that can result from actual criticism.

It's a bizarre system, one determined to punish honest feedback, replacing it with an avalanche of meaningless rating scores.

The next part is the one that'll make people mad. As a calming influence, here is a bunny.

Oh, and About the Misogyny Thing

Every reviewer goes on, rightly, about the incredible scale and depth and detail of GTAV's game world. The game is amazingly big and lovingly rendered. It does an excellent job of evoking real-life Los Angeles.

And yet, with all the money and effort that went into making the world, you know what there wasn't room for? A single female character that wasn't a hooker, a stripper, or a shrew.

And let's be super clear. I'm not saying every story everywhere ever needs to have women in it (or men). But what I AM saying is that GTAV's story would be improved by more variety in the cast. It's all grumpy, bitter dudes grousing at each other for forty hours. It's dour and repetitive, and it needed something to liven it up. (I'll get back to this in detail in Part 2.)

But back to misogyny. Of course GTAV is misogynistic. It's not a bug. It's a feature. It's a selling point. And that is not a crime. Some people simply want their fantasy world to be a He-Man Boy's Club, and Rockstar is making infinite dollars selling it to them.

If that's what you want, fine. It's not against the law. But at least admit it! Don't freak out when someone points out the obvious.

Young men, you already won. You got the game you wanted, and you made it a success. Thus, you will get plenty more of what you want. However, the rest of us are still allowed to say that something is gross. You can't keep us from expressing opinions. That is one thing the game industry cannot bend over backwards to give you.

Yes, I'm about to tie Gone Home into this. This is a Difficulty Level 4 Game Critic Maneuver (DL4GCM). We'll see if I stick the landing.

Some Things GTAV Gets Perfectly Right

No series becomes such an institution without getting some things right, and GTAV has mastered two elements that explain most of its everlasting popularity.

First, the world is mind-boggling huge and rendered to exacting detail. This sort of thing is a huge and expensive job, but it results in a kind of miracle: A world that is fun to just wander around in. See a pretty house up on a hill? You can go up there, poke around, find people sitting by the pool, and murder them.

The transgressive joy of being able to wander anywhere you want is one of the key features of the series. (Just as one of the most fun things about Gone Home is the evil pleasure of simply going through peoples' stuff. And, yes, I did just come up with the long sought-after Grand Theft Auto-Gone Home connection. You're welcome.)

Second, driving around is fun. The weird clumsy driving in Grand Theft Auto IV is gone, and peeling down the roads in a sports car at a zillion miles an hour is a simple good time.

Also, and this doesn't get appreciated enough, the driving AI for the characters is amazing. I played a bunch of missions involving high-speed chases through busy streets, and all of the cars moved perfectly believably and never ran into things in dumb ways.

It's one of those super-fiddly technical accomplishments that's really, really easy to underrate. I can't imagine all of the hours it must have taken to get that to work right.

Every plane offers a free one-way teleportation to the nearest hospital.
But That's Just the Cars

It's a constant of Grand Theft Auto games. They find the person on the team who is the biggest enemy of fun, and they put that person in charge of the planes and helicopters.

I mean, my God. The driving is so forgiving that if you roll your car onto its back (always the insta-fail kiss of death in older GTA games), you just need to waggle the joystick a few times and it magically flops back onto the tires. It looks goofy.

But when you have to land a plane, you better have your ailerons and rudders and propellors and landing gear and what-nots just so, or else! If not, well, you fail and get to try again after five more minutes of flying. If you don't have the patience for an hour of this, I believe the XBox Skip Mission button is the blue one.

(A Skip Mission button is, itself, a confession of flawed game design, but that's a battle for another day.)

Part two. TWO. I can't recommend this video highly enough. Skip forward to 2:40 or so. The delight at spending only a few imaginary dollars to sleep with an imaginary stripper is the opposite of infectious.

Another Thing GTAV Gets Perfectly Right

The wish-fulfillment.

And I'm not talking about the obvious wish-fulfillment, like the violence or the drugs or the ludicrous way you can get strippers to sleep with you.

I'm talking about the little, more relatable things. In particular, I'm talking about how, early in the game, two of your three characters can actually own a house. A nice house, with tasteful furniture, a view, and no crushing mortgage I can never pay off.

You want an impossible fantasy for the young people playing the game? Can't beat actually owning a nice house.

All they need is a side-mission in which you pay off your suffocating college debt, and the game will be complete.

(This is the first half. I go on about the storytelling and characters next week.)

61 comments:

  1. I'll try to put up part 2 next week.

    One little note, though. I am fully aware that Rockstar won't care about what I wrote. Nor should they. They're rich. My hope is that it will influence the people writing the games that compete with GTAV. That is my mad, impossible dream.

    - Jeff Vogel

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  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  3. So far I totally agree with you, although you missed the biggest flaw I saw, not enough heist missions to make the "hireling" improvement even matter. I was so excited when I got the first one and thought there might actually be a long series of heists :(

    (deleted my previous comment since the post was updated)

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  4. I love the tags...Another thought-provoking and very funny post, I'm very much looking forward to part 2, many thanks.

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  5. I don't buy the misogyny argument. The GTA games have always been about making fun of everyone. Male, female, liberal, conservative, gay, straight, black, white, hick, homie. You say: "you know what there wasn't room for? A single female character that wasn't a hooker, a stripper, or a shrew." But what else was there no room for? A single male character that wasn't an irredeemable psychopath (all three main characters), a lazy slob, a pervert, a complete imbecile, etc... Half the fun of the GTA games is that they're equal opportunity abusers. We ALL can enjoy it because it lampoons EVERYONE.

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    Replies
    1. Disclaimer: I haven't player any GTA. I know what they are about, but I just don't have console and haven't actually played them.

      Even if that's true, how that doesn't make it misogynist? I mean, it can be all for the laughs and in an ironic way, but it still be it.

      I think that there is a difference between "people playing this game are misogynist" / "RockStar is misogynist" and "the game is misogynist". The game could be it because it wants to create a world, an experience. The fantasy of a crime world, where guys are pervert hit men and women are hot stripers. Where you can blow up police cars with bazookas and had very small consequences. And laugh about it, because it's all so over the top that it's funny and it's a good parody.

      I am always very skeptic about "the pernicious effect of video games", because I think people can distinguish between fantasy and reality (yes, I now, I'm quite naïve Ok, most of the people). I think that, while video games (in aggregate), as any other cultural product, can give us clues about our culture, a game is just a game, and enjoying it in a healthy way is not necessarily an indication that you're a terrible person. It's what you do in real life and your interaction with others what defines if you're a terrible person.

      I always have the following example. There's this absolutely wonderful song, "It's a man's man's man's world" by James Brown (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IwuO2dfqrF4) It's a really REALLY sexist song (written by a woman, btw). But it's a WONDERFUL sexist song. I disagree absolutely with WHAT it says, but the HOW it says it is just marvellous (music, performance, even how the lyrics are constructed) Do I think that we should ban or hide it? Of course not! Do I think we should say "well, it's not that sexist, it was composed a long time ago, other era..."? Hell, no... It's just sexist, but it has other qualities that we can praise and discuss...

      Delete
    2. How can you disagree with that song? Are you gay?

      Delete
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  7. I thought switching the main missions to be more epic heists (with smaller setup missions) was a brilliant move. I agree with the previous poster that I wish there was more of them.

    I got a little bored in GTA4, but GTA5 is fun, and I'm still playing all the side missions and buying property because they aren't all boring, some of them are fun too.

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  8. Vice City was the last GTA I actually liked (never played San Andreas, but I heard it was good). I hated GTA IV for a lot of reasons, but one of them is evoked in that quote at the start of your post. It's clear that Rockstar now takes itself way too seriously. I grew very quickly tired of listening to the main character in GTA IV whine about his troubled past, and the writers clearly thought their satire on American vapidness was clever, when it was just heavy-handed, obvious, and annoying. Besides, any game that involves mass-murdering a thousand people in the space of an hour or two for no particular reason can't afford to take itself that seriously without busting right through my suspension of disbelief. (Unless running over 20 people on a date is normal.)

    It sounds like the gameplay in GTA5 might be an improvement, but for some reason, there wasn't a single second of gameplay in any of the promo videos I saw. It seemed more like they were trying be an edgy movie. But from what I've seen, if GTA V were a film, critics would probably peg it as 20 years too late to be relevant, made by a hack who watched Sopranos, Goodfellas, and a few Tarantino flicks, and decided to jump on the bandwagon.

    Besides which, I think Hunter Thompson would argue that the American Dream died back in the 80s, and I'm much more inclined to believe him.

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  9. "I think we can all agree at this point that Grand Theft Auto V rests comfortably at the absolute pinnacle of the game industry."

    Why do you begin with such terrible generalization? It is the pinnacle of the industry in the same way that Rambo films were the pinnacle of the 80s film making. Making a lot of money and having some fans doesn't make it best. There are people who enjoy this type of entertainment and there are those who find it mind-numbing and boring. It is not that the majority of people find it great... so no, we cannot agree on that.

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    Replies
    1. "Why do you begin with such terrible generalization?"

      Had you then taken the effort of reading paragraphs 2 and 3, you would have found the basis for my statement. I think I make the metrics I am using entirely clear. It's at the pinnacle because the industry, the critics, and the customers put it there.

      - Jeff Vogel

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  10. "But back to misogyny. Of course GTAV is misogynistic. It's not a bug. It's a feature. It's a selling point. And that is not a crime. Some people simply want their fantasy world to be a He-Man Boy's Club, and Rockstar is making infinite dollars selling it to them.

    If that's what you want, fine. It's not against the law. But at least admit it! Don't freak out when someone points out the obvious."

    Wait, wait. Those are not the same thing. You're talking about a boy's club, about the lack of female characters (there's at least one who's useful and cool, the hacker lady, just btw). And you say it's not necessary or mandatory, but more diverse would've beel cooler. OK, that's one point. And then you throw in "but of course, we can't deny the game is misogynistic.". Wait, we can. If it's not the cast of characters, what is it then?
    Because a game being made for a specific audience, being made a boy's club does not equal misogyny. Unless of course you're one of the insane social justice crusaders who perverted the word's meaning beyond repair.

    Repeat after me: HATE OF WOMEN.

    Where? What? Why? Of course we CAN ask why you'd think the game promotes such an idea, because simply taking your word for it would be a bit silly.

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