Excepting further delays, Grand Theft Auto V [official site] is due to finally arrive on PC on April 18th. In anticipation, Nathan Ditum sent us this piece about how the series' increased fidelity has created problems, and why that same "miraculous detail" is why his love for it endures.
Recently I was reminded by Helen Lewis of the New Statesmen of the current predominance of a certain kind of opinion writing, which can be summarised as “As a blank, I feel x about y.” This formulation can be limiting, to the writer as well as the pursuit of the ideas at hand, but probably also reflects something laudable about at least trying to diversify from a monolithic consensus. As a white middle-class male approaching middle age I am of course precisely the pale demographic flob from which this archetypal pitch is trying to escape, so it is with a sense of irony which apparently no longer exists in GTA itself that I present this: a list of reasons why, as a representative of the default morass of accumulated privileged perspective, I feel culturally and morally compromised by some of the bad bits in GTA V.
The amount of times black characters written by other white men like me say the ‘N’ word
“You the one all pumped up on doing this lick, nigga. I’m getting my money in the hood. I’m straight, fool.”
Did the game’s credited writers actually come up with this line? The Rockstar creative team is an overwhelmingly white group led by Dan Houser, an English man in his 40s. The problem this gives me is that instead of playing the game I can’t stop thinking about the process. When writing the script, did they type out all the times the characters say the ‘N’ word and own it, forthrightly? Or did they feed a nude line with no vernacular to the actors with a look of earnest encouragement. “Just say what you normally say because, you know, we can’t - that would be grotesque appropriation - but it’s OK for us to record you doing it and put it in our game, probably.”
This article suggests the latter - a fluid process where actors help fill in all the parts the game’s actual writers don’t have the cultural leverage to articulate - but of course that doesn’t escape the grim social tourism of a group of rich mostly white guys selling these scenes as entertainment. It’s that particular combination of author and output which makes me want to be in a different room when they’re playing out. The Wire, for comparison’s sake, wasn’t just entertainment but a social excavation. Quentin Tarantino at least grew up in the same neighbourhoods his films portray, and, until Django Unchained, they were also portrayed from a white perspective looking in. GTA V can’t claim either defence, and I can’t stop thinking about its scenes featuring Franklin and Lamar as a kind of gruesome cultural puppetry. It’s Punch & Judy: The Minstrel Special. And there aren’t even any sausages.
Also this line in that article, from GTA voice actor Lazlow Jones, is the best line. “...we don't want a goofy L.A actor who went to a fancy school trying to be a hard gang member. There's nothing worse than that.” Which is funny because I can definitely think of one thing.
The fact that GTA did realistic dogs before it managed realistic women
I stole that line from someone on Twitter and I can’t remember who, but the important bit is that it’s true. GTA V’s Chop the dog is more like a dog than any of GTA V’s women are like women I’ve met or who exist.
And even then, unrealistic women are potentially fine. Mrs Incredible, for instance, can turn into a parachute and yet I consider her a good role model for my young daughter. The problem really is that the depiction of women in GTA V is hateful and mad. Every substantial female role is characterised by sex. Michael is married to Amanda, a one-time stripper and prostitute turned tennis coach-fucking wife. His daughter, Tracy, is a cam girl going by the name Tracy Suxx who flirts with the porn industry. One of Michael’s missions is to forcibly retrieve her from a party thrown by porn execs, putting you in the odd position of ‘saving’ a woman from sexual exploitation in a game which revels in rubbing women’s faces in the shaming idea of sex like a dog grabbed by the scruff and forced to contemplate its own indiscreet and steaming shit.
If that sounds strong then consider that, early on, when the game has only had time to introduce us to four centrally recurring male characters and not a single woman, two of those male characters (in a game marked by the sexual obsessions of its protagonists) have a conversation that condemns a woman for enjoying sex. The actual exchange:
“This chump change. How am I gonna knock a bad, grown and sexy bitch if I don’t got a fat pee-zocket?” (writes Dan Houser).
“Who you trying to impress?”
“Your auntie, Denise. With that ass, nigga. She got ass”
“She grown, yeah. She grown into a fucking idiot.”
“Nah she sexy.”
“Sexy? She more like obsessed with sex, nigga.”
“No, mad for the penis, that’s how I like my women, nigga”
Denise, the woman in question, is a constant annoyance to Franklin and often dampens the enjoyment of his life of killing people and driving cars for money. She has meetings of like-minded women, where they exercise and chant empowering slogans, and once Franklin leaves their shared house she turns it into a women’s centre. The game twists this feminism into an object of disgusted ridicule by glibly suggesting it’s a cover for old desperate women who are obsessed with - ahahaha - pelvic strength, before having its ultimate arbiter of whatever the fuck it stands for, Trevor, dismiss them all with some clever swear words. Which is good, inasmuch as it provides us with a usefully short example of how GTA V feels about women.
This article gets to the good bits on page two.
Fucking Trevor. I’d like to think he’s a self-aware projection of the super-id of everyone who’s ever played GTA, summoned by Rockstar as the ultimate ironic comment on their decades-long charting of the crinkled borders of obscenity. But that’s bollocks. He operates more as an unrestrained power fantasy for unhinged misogynists. With no meaningful humanity to latch on to he can’t tell us anything about ourselves, which leaves him useless as a signifier of anything except the pleasure of violence and the immediate satisfaction of destructive impulses.
I don’t want to play GTA as Trevor.
And yet I still love GTA
When I first played GTA III, fifteen years ago when I was at university, the game’s relationship with outrage felt thrilling. At that stage the ability to explore and trigger enormous violence in a realistic virtual world was groundbreaking. There was a sense that games as a whole had a point to prove, an increasingly sophisticated medium not yet given serious critical consideration, always the childish counterpart to cinema. Here the outrage, that charting of the borders of obscenity, was punching up. It was marking out a territory, a brash and punkish declaration of ability and ambition: “We can do this now.” In this context even the game’s treatment of prostitution - a wordless exchange, a euphemistically rocking car - served a robust purpose, articulating a sly, ironic demand to be taken seriously.
Contrast with GTA V, where just a few moments ago I picked up a woman and paid her first to have sex in my car and then to suck my imaginary cock, while she said things like “”I want to swallow all of your cum” and “Fuck my mouth”. At this point GTA is a huge and widely recognised phenomenon and the ability of games to provide experiences unsuitable for children is well established. So what the fuck does it add? It’s as though, without thinking, as technology has enabled Rockstar more fully articulate the reality of a virtual world - the streets, the trees, the people - it has applied this detail uniformly across everything a GTA game contains without considering the consequences. The answer “Because we can” isn’t good enough any more. We know you can. But, maybe, don’t.
And yet as well as hating GTA V I also love GTA V. Because while I don’t want to play as Trevor, I would quite like to play as a cloud. Flying is my favourite thing. Taking a taxi to the airport, stealing a plane and taking in the view over the city. I like to pull the camera round and watch the sun’s reflection sparkling over the surface of the ocean as I climb over the Vinewood sign. I like the sense of blue calm and beauty, and marvelling at that brilliantly articulated virtual world. I went so far as to take all the in-game flying lessons to make the plane less wobbly so my poignant flyovers were more poignant. If I could be a cloud - hovering in the quiet atmosphere like those brief transitional overhead shots the game generates as you switch characters - I wouldn’t even have to worry about running out of fuel or wing-clipping a skyscraper while dicking about with the camera to make the sunset look cool. I just want to admire the world - that impossible, beautiful space that doesn’t seem to recognise its own power of actualization.
Being a cloud I loom up and away from the awful people and close-up unpleasantness of Los Santos and observe it all from a sanitized height. But what would only be clearer from up there is that the miraculous detail of the world that I love is the very reason I can’t enjoy standing on the ground for very long. This is a different GTA to the one of my youth - like me, it’s white, middle-class and nearing middle-age, and it’s about time it faced up to its responsibilities.