On Tuesday night, the BBC aired The Gamechangers, their one-off drama about the making of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and the court cases brought against Rockstar Games by US lawyer Jack Thompson. This seems like rich subject matter, but the results proved a disappointment in nearly every way.
Other people have already written accurate reviews and rounded up what Rockstar and former GTA developers thought of it, so I’m not going to do either of those things. Instead I want to talk about the film’s failure to offer insight – or even to attempt to depict – the game development process. Mostly I’m going to talk about James L. Brooks’ 1987 movie Broadcast News.
Dramatising the creative process is difficult, because there’s little that’s active or exciting about the reality of making things. It would be hard to endure long scenes of people sitting, thinking, hunched over a computer or a piece of paper, as I am now while I write this. The creative process is perhaps even harder to depict in videogames, given that the process isn’t leading towards any kind of performance. Where biopics about musicians have the thrill of an eventual music performance to add levity and motion to their stories, an international team building a videogame leads only towards more people, in their homes, hunched over computers to play it.
Yet still I think dramatising that process is possible, and Broadcast News is part of the reason why. The film stars Holly Hunter, Al Brooks and William Hurt as television news reporters, and while there is performance involved, the film also depicts the mechanisms of production, including writing, shooting, producing and editing. The Gamechangers shunts any equivalent activities entirely off-screen, whereas Broadcast News not only puts them on-screen, it uses them to convey character and to develop personal relationships.
Here’s a scene in which Holly Hunter and Al Brooks are recording and making final edits to a story minutes before it’s due to be broadcast.
Not only does the scene show actual editing and recording happening, it also tells you about Holly Hunter’s character’s obsessive attention to detail and her stubborn commitment to quality. It’s tense and exciting. There’s reaction shots which establish more about William Hurt’s character than the entirety of Gamechangers told me about Sam Houser. Better yet, the scene is funny.
Broadcast News is full of moments like these. Scenes which find ways to elevate the creative process, which move beyond that figure hunched over a desk even while still remaining or feeling authentic. These moments aren’t just set dressing either. They serve to humanise the characters by letting us see their fears, their desires, and all the other stuff that makes for compelling characters and stories.
By comparison, The Gamechangers seems afraid to deal with the details of game production. That hurts not only the authenticity of the story, but there’s also nothing put in its place. Its characters seem idle and uninteresting because what’s active and interesting about them has been removed, leaving only the broad strokes: Sam Houser has a beard, Sam Houser likes ping pong, Sam Houser wears Rockstar branded clothing in case you forget what he does for a living because there’s no other evidence of it on screen.
Here’s another scene from Broadcast News. I could embed the whole movie this way:
The same again: drama, humour, revealing of character, and it moves the relationship along between Hurt and Hunter’s characters, and all while doing the work.
I can think of plenty of other films and television shows that succeed just as well, mostly by heightening reality to some extent, such that the creative act at its core works as a metaphor or example for whatever else the show is trying to say. Sam Seaborn’s obsessive commitment to writing a birthday message on The West Wing, even after he finds out it was given to him to do as a lark, exemplifies not just the character but the show’s whole romantic portrait of public service.
The Gamechangers tells us nothing about process and, as a result, tells us less about people than it should. Even if you put aside that it’s not set in Edinburgh, where much of the graft happens, there’s still no scene to show, for example, the writing process. One moment they’re in an office talking about taking it “to the next level,” the next they’re setting their game amid Los Angeles’ gangs. One moment they’re in a restaurant talking about wanting to do something more than a film pastiche, and the next moment CJ is their main character. How were these decisions made, or why, and what does that have to do with the characters, the story, or anything? It’s never clear. We’re told that Sam Houser is a genius, because that’s what other characters call him, but he only ever speaks in general and naive clichés.
Admittedly half the film – the marginally better half – is concerned with depicting Jack Thompson’s perspective as a lawyer who believes violent videogames are corrupting the young. Thompson’s rougher edges seem ignored, but at least you understand his motivation, and there’s a procedural rhythm, albeit truncated, to the court actions he pursues. You almost root for him.
Gamechangers was commissioned as part of the BBC’s Make It Digital campaign, which is designed to inspire young people to become interested in coding. Given that, it’s terribly disappointing that the film embraces the myth of the ‘ideas man’: the creative visionary with no apparent technical skills who makes demands until the work magically appears. Even though Sam Houser presumably did write an email that read “I’d like to see: Full sex.” – Houser’s emails from the period are about the only thing from Rockstar that the BBC had access to – it’s a shame the story didn’t focus elsewhere.
Perhaps instead it could have focused upon Dave Jones, an apprentice engineer who followed his interest in programming when he used his £3,000 redundancy package from a watch factory to take software engineering classes and co-found a games company called DMA Design with friends from Dundee’s Kingsway Amateur Computer Club.
This feature was originally published as part of, and thanks to, The RPS Supporter Program.