Between wonder and shame: the conflict at the heart of GTAV

I admire the detail and artistry that has gone into the creation of Los Santos a great deal. Rockstar has pushed two ageing consoles to their technical limits, and GTAV gets so much right; the shootouts, the countless incidental gags and details, the heists, the weight of the cars – escaping from the authorities is as thrilling as it has ever been. And the myriad idle pleasures in the game evoke a sense of place unlike any other GTA, whether you are wandering its streets, taking a selfie, getting a stupid haircut, pootling around on a bike or simply gazing out across the game’s glistening vistas.

Its highs are a confluence of technical achievement and game design which, as we said in our GTAV review, sends an intimidating message to the rest of the industry. Beat that.

And yet when GTAV disappoints, it really disappoints. The misogyny, the cliched characters and the cringeworthy dialogue. Tedious, lengthy missions which require you to operate a crane or do an endless fucking yoga routine or drive from A to B enduring a volley of aimless NPC chatter.

I’m playing GTAV as I suspect most people are – a two or three all-too-brief half hour sessions midweek, a snatched hour or two at the weekend. So firing up GTAV to progress through the main story has become a game of chance – will the next half an hour be a brilliant, explosive guns-and-helicopters romp across Los Santos, or a dreary spot of enforced busywork? Will it give me reason to admire Rockstar’s work or end up feeling vaguely ashamed of myself?

For every magnificent high, there’s an equally grubby low. Making the paparazzi missions intentionally, overtly unpleasant to complete doesn’t turn them into well-observed interactive satire – it just makes them unpleasant, plain and simple. I resent having to do anything for Michael’s horrid family, and yet I scramble to their aid whenever they call in the hope they’ll stop being quite so repellent. Never has a videogame inspired such personal conflict.

The world is brilliant, the mechanics superb; but forget its technical accomplishments and there’s a lot to criticise here. Michael and Franklin feel like an amalgamation of other characters we’ve seen many times before, ripped wholesale from decades-old crime and gangster films and asked to try and keep up in 2013’s biggest videogame. So it’s no wonder they are so utterly upstaged by Trevor – at least he reflects the game he stars in. He’s among the biggest conundrums in a game which has many, both one of the funniest and despicable characters I’ve ever encountered.

The three character setup might expose some clichéd writing on Rockstar’s part, but again, the mechanics of it are magnificent. It’s a change of scenery and pacing that you, the player, controls – a quick-fix, anti-boredom ejector seat which dodges having to schlep back into town when a mission ends out in the sticks.

For me, it’s a discrepancy which speaks of the wider conflict within GTAV. Judged on technical merit alone, it is a peerless game. And yet in its deeply unpleasant, at times irresponsible characters, uneven attempts at satire and grim depiction of women and minorities, it leaves me feeling conflicted. The South Park approach to comedy is to make fun of everyone equally, but there’s a nastiness to GTAVs sniping which reaches for satire and fails far too often. Why is a game universally considered spiteful and misogynistic getting unprecedented high scores? Have we, as critics, dismissed its glaring failures all too readily? Should we be asking more of Rockstar at this point in the medium’s development?

There might still be a lingering force of habit here. Themes, morals, narrative and characterisation actually worthy of discussion are a relatively new thing in games critcism. Years ago, plotlines and characters only really existed as vague justification for the game’s events – an arbritary save-the-princess sideline. For most of the industry’s lifetime, in fact, games have been assessed on the integrity of their mechanics, their ability to entertain and the depth of their challenge. Reviews were once consumer advice, designed to answer the question: is it worth buying?

Games have evolved plenty since then, and so has how we review games. But has the critical process moved on quite enough?

I’m not suggesting that we refrain from celebrating towering technical achievements like GTAV, and I’m certainly not wagging my finger disapprovingly at those enjoying it. I’m enjoying it too, but far less than I thought I would – the series has always been an amoral vacuum, and there will always be illicit thrills in its playground of criminal excess, but I can’t help feeling it should have matured a little by now.

GTAV is brilliant, misguided, tedious and thrilling; its mirror on our world is at once unspeakably dumb and offensive and yet sharply observed and hilarious. It represents everything that’s brilliant about videogames, and encapsulates everything that’s wrong with them. It inspires wonder and shame in equal measure. I’m still playing Grand Theft Auto V, and I still don’t know what to think of it.

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