Wednesday, 26 March 2014

There are no controversial videogames

I criticised Grand Theft Auto V for being toothless and safe, for not feeling punkish in the way the old games did. In part, that's because, unlike in the 90s, when it was a plucky British start-up, Rockstar is now a global conglomerate, helmed by multi-millionaires.

But it's also because of how the game treats killing. Contrary to hysterical news reports, the people you murder in GTA are not innocent pedestrians - they're twisted caricatures. A crime game with true grit would have players gun down people who had done nothing wrong. It would make no excuses for the protagonist. GTA lets players feel like their victims deserve it. The pedestrians are all venal, gobby gargoyles, parodies of the most repugnant excesses in Western culture. As they walk by, they make sexist and materialistic remarks, droning about mobile phones, tit jobs and self obsessions. The cops in GTA IV are a fantastic example. They're all fat guys, who stand in the street moaning about immigrants and having to do their job. They're emblematic of bloated, ineffective bureaucracy, the lazy cynicism with which Rockstar approaches American politics. The last thing they are is people. Speaking in loud, so-called humorous soundbytes, they serve merely as sounding boards for the game's didactic. Killing them, when they're so openly and totally despicable, so clearly designed to be hated, is not a controversial act. It's what anyone playing the game would be expected to do.

Violence in games is only legitimate if committed against discernible individuals, whose deaths have a traceable, adverse affect on either the fictional world or the narrative. In Grand Theft Auto, neither of these metrics apply. Your victims are cartoon characters and their deaths feel less like tragedy, or drama, and more like housework - like you're cleaning the game world up by eliminating them. Because of that, not only is the violence gratuitous, but the protagonists have no complexity. Once you accept that the people they murder are all bad, all, in a sense, inhuman, no amount of swear-words or defecation jokes can give give GTA's leading men any edge. They aren't hypocritical or difficult to understand. Their behaviour isn't questionable, or in any sense opaque. With satirical dialogue spilling from the mouths of every pedestrian in Grand Theft Auto, the player can rest assured that whomever he kills, he or she is bad. The violence becomes blase, reasoned, acceptable. And the protagonists, repeatedly murdering cartoonish representations of people, rather than people, become as action movie characters: righteous, uninteresting and morally uncomplicated.

A truly controversial game would have players murder characters who didn't deserve it, characters who were defenseless, innocent or morally upstanding. A tired example, but Spec Ops: The Line perhaps comes closest to this. Other violent, so-called contentious games, such as Hitman and Manhunt, overemphasise the criminal backgrounds of the people the player kills. Via writing and visual design, they affirm that the player is better than the people he kills; that they are worse than him. It's a cowardly approach that strips violence of all its power, all its meaning. If there's a single reason mainstream game narratives are simplistic, to the point of blandness, it's because writers have never truly embraced the idea of an anti-hero. Max Payne, 47, Niko Bellic, Kane, Lynch, Jackie Estacado - they are all higher on the moral-o-meter than their victims. True controversy doesn't exist in games. The so-called bad guys that we occasionally control are just thinly veiled versions of conventional heroes.


  1. So... Skyrim? The Dark Brotherhood and Thieves Guild questlines put you against completely blameless and often rather likeable characters. I still feel slightly bad about bullying people in Riften into paying money they can't afford.

  2. Go play Dark Side in any of the Star Wars role-playing games. ;)