Rich Stanton on: GTA's growing pains
The tone problem in Rockstar's classic series.
Starting today, four regular columnists will be taking turns to fill the Saturday morning opinion slot here on Eurogamer: game developer David Goldfarb, roving games writer Cara Ellison, actual pub landlord Jon "Log" Blyth and, kicking us off below, a writer who surely needs little introduction to Eurogamer readers, Rich Stanton. Find out more about the columnists in this editor's blog.
My favourite thing to do in GTA is drive nowhere in particular. You see all sorts. The sun fading over mountains, random fights between pedestrians and - at night - you can feel the whole vibe of the city change. One evening, cruising as Franklin, I clocked a prostitute and out of professional curiosity (I promise) pulled over.
She said something about how nice my car was. One of the things about GTA is that it's so immersive you forget you're playing GTA - until a prompt such as 'press d-pad right to beckon prostitute' pops up. Thanks to Twitter I knew that being serviced in first-person was an option, so of course did it.
What followed was one of the most grim and grotty audiovisual experiences I've ever had in the medium. The pictures speak for themselves, and as for the script the sensitive may want to skip these quotes: "Stretch me" / "I'm a little slut" / "F*** this Southern whore" / "You wore my p**** out."
I've never really paid much attention to the prostitutes in GTA games, though of course it's impossible not to be aware of them, largely because I considered them one of the more boring aspects of such an amazing world. That changed when I saw one in GTA 5: she stuck out as one of those aspects of the world that, in the shift between generations, have become awful.
They point up a tension that runs through GTA 4 and GTA 5. Many series have trouble jumping between hardware generations but, in a purely technical sense, Rockstar North has absolutely excelled. The textures, the physics, the sheer vibrancy of the cities it managed to create are in the truest sense awesome - I frequently have to stop playing just to look at things for a moment.
The tone went through less of a change. The GTA games came to global prominence in the PS2 era, where though the visual style was nodding towards realism the overall effect was quite cartoony. You know that CJ's supposed to be a man, for example, but he doesn't actually look like a man. Compare his face to Franklin's, or Tommy Vercetti to Michael, or GTA 3's protagonist to Nico. It's not that GTA 4 and 5's characters look like real people, but that they're so much closer than what has come before.
GTA 5 on PS4 looks better than ever, and so the prostitutes are absolutely grim. Prostitution just isn't very funny when you think about it - when you really think about it - and GTA 5 is still presenting it as a kind of fratboy lark while it's being played out by incredibly detailed character models that are comprehensively voice-acted. This problem is only compounded by the new first-person mode. If you want an example of Rockstar's double standards, players are forced to control GTA 5's harrowing torture scene from the original third-person perspective.
I wonder about the developers who coded these prostitute interactions, animated them, coached the voice actors through them. Because I'm a straight man and my question is - who is this for? Is there anyone out there who finds the GTA 5 prostitutes funny rather than gross? Is there anyone who - ulp! - finds them arousing? Or are they just there because - and this is my suspicion - they've been in previous GTAs and Rockstar didn't really think about what they were becoming?
Let me cut off one counter-argument immediately, which would be to point out that as a society we're fine with violent entertainment but immediately go all Victorian when sex crops up. This is absolutely true. In this specific context, however, it's worth noting that the violence is interactive whereas the sex is passive. All you do is pay and watch a cut-scene play out. I have more respect for San Andreas's infamous cut Hot Coffee sequence than what GTA 5 does, because at least the former was a mini-game - regardless of its effectiveness or execution, it used the medium. GTA 5's sex is just a collection of grubby shorts.
The prostitutes are part of a wider theme in 'equal opportunity offender' GTA, where every female character is either a screeching harridan, a whacked-out crack whore or a bouncy piece of eye candy. You can make your own female avatar in multiplayer, of course, but that's neither here nor there. I find the series' attitude to women interesting, because one of the video game quotes I most admire is from Rockstar president Sam Houser discussing CJ's status as a black lead in San Andreas, and the minor kickback this caused. Houser told Edge magazine his response to such people was "frankly mate, we don't want you buying our game anyway."
Compare this attitude to, for example, homosexuals. There are four homosexual male characters in GTA 4 that I'm aware of - Anthony 'Gay Tony' Prince, Marcus, Bernie Crane and Evan Moss. If you get into a fight, three of the four will use the female pedestrian sound effect to indicate distress. Cutting-edge stuff, eh? I can't help but feel that this, alongside GTA 5's gay bar with a sign saying 'Trannies Welcome', will be looked back on in 50 years in the same way we now look at the black servant Mammy Two Shoes in Tom & Jerry.
Let's break it down: is saying that gay people scream like women an interesting or clever or true point? I'd say it's a childish insult founded on prejudice. Then consider GTA's wider humour with the same criteria. Internet cafés called Tw@. A stock ticker called BAWSAQ. Extreme caricatures of both left- and right-wing politicians, lawyers, housewives, gold resellers, prostitutes, used-car dealers and everyone else. But is saying that politicians are corrupt an interesting point to make? Is presenting every young black character as a 'hood life' refugee based in any kind of reality, or lazy racial stereotyping? Is it all just low-hanging fruit and base humour?
The point is that GTA isn't actually a reflection of society, as is often claimed, but a collection of stereotypes and movie parodies jumbled together. Rockstar's cultural inspirations have never had much to do with living in a big city, but instead come from Hollywood, TV and music - GoodFellas, Miami Vice and gangster rap the most obvious suspects. GTA is not so much a reflection of life as a reflection of fictional lives, a pastiche rather than a satire. You could argue GTA 4 was trying to twist this into an immigrant's perspective on Americana, and fair enough, but it seemed like an awfully familiar one.
GTA has handled the leap between generations superbly in a technical sense, but it hasn't dealt nearly as well with the consequences. GTA now looks and feels closer to the real world than it ever has before, but tonally it remains stuck in cartoon land - and so many of its elements seem different, despite being mechanically unchanged, because the look means they are different..
GTA is often hailed as modern Scotland's greatest cultural export. In some ways it is, and perhaps GTA's greatest success is that many people think it's an American game - rather than an outsider's take on Americana, all ambivalence and magpie's eye. But the deeper below the surface you look, the more troubling that becomes. The GTA games are some of the best ever made, absolutely amazing, but at the same time the world view they present is relentlessly small-minded, petty and mean. GTA doesn't ever actually go after anyone - satirise specific political figures, movements, or social problems. It picks easy targets for teenage humour.
That's fine as far as it goes, but it's why I take issue with the frequently applied 'satire' label. Satire should make you think. Satire should expose the flaws in its targets mercilessly and leave the audience to think for itself. GTA's world isn't satire so much as stupid - every time it's the same old jokes with a new lick of paint. Which, if you ask me, weren't all that funny in the first place.
It makes you think. Who is GTA's audience, and who is it sending up? Perhaps it's people like me who over-think these things. Or perhaps it's in Trevor. One of GTA 5's playable characters, Trevor is a complete asshole - and represents what would happen if the average GTA player's mentality was a person. Trevor is a toytown sociopath that kills with impunity, rips everyone off, shags anything going, and the introduction scene features him brutally killing Johnny Klebitz - the fondly-remembered lead character of The Lost and the Damned.
The acid touch that undercuts everything is that Trevor is absolutely honest about and true to his own scattered moral code - he objects strongly to racism - while being a genocidal pyromaniac with mommy issues. Perhaps Rockstar has a more complex and contradictory relationship with its audience than people allow for. Trevor is a mirror of GTA's players, and the hypocritical critics, a character set up to be hated. Which he is. Now that, at least, is funny.