Grand Theft Auto V has hit stores, adding another chapter in the historic GTA franchise developed by Rockstar Games. Starting as a top-down, open-world pseudo-3d action shooter in 1997, the series progressed into full-blown 3D graphics in 2001’s Grand Theft Auto III and has continued forward in visual prowess and player interactivity ever since.
Old school vehicular slaughter: GTA 1997
GTA V continues this tradition of progress, offering a further advanced graphics engine that renders a spectacular and expansive landscape for gamers to traverse. It also offers a narrative featuring three separate protagonists, whose lives can be jumped into by the player at nearly any time. In 1980, arcade game Defender created a world where events transpired outside of the player’s immediate view, giving just a hint of being inside an actual place where things are happening elsewhere and you better do something about it. The appeal of open-world games such as GTA hinges on the complexity and verisimilitude of the worlds they construct, but none have succeeded in crafting such a living clockwork like GTA V. There is something truly wondrous about flipping back to a character you had left at one location and finding them somewhere else on the map and involved in some other bit of chicanery. It truly feels like Los Santos is alive. The GTA games have always lent themselves to hilarious situations that players report about the crazy goings on in their various cities. In GTA V… well, to paraphrase the opening of an old TV drama, there are a million stories in the city of Los Santos.
Moon over Los Santos, GTA V 2013
Such stories abound in the overwhelmingly positive critic’s reviews the game has received. As of this writing, the Xbox 360 version of the game is the highest ranked game ever on the Metacritic review aggregate site, with a score of 98. You only need to play for a short while to know all the perfect scores are not being thrown around lightly. It’s not a perfect game… I don’t know that such a thing could even exist. There’s still some weirdness to the controls, a lack of precision that has persisted all the way from the original GTA III. This is especially accentuated in GTA V, which has multiple actions mapped to the limited set of buttons and keys that consoles can offer. However, it’s nothing that you don’t quickly get used to as you ravenously consume this incredible feast that Rockstar has provided. “A living, breathing world” is a phrase often bandied about concerning open-world games. In GTA V, it’s enough to take your breath away.
Another amazing story is how the GTA series, one of the most successful video game franchises of all time, almost never got out of the gate. It is related in this video from The Guardian, here. Of course, The Onion has to chime in too. I’ll close with this compilation of all the trailers for the game:
Headlines are trumpeting a tragic shooting that happened in Louisiana last Thursday, August 22. An 8-year-old boy shot his grandmother in the head with a .38 caliber handgun that belonged to her, while she was watching television.
A tragic story, for sure, where a lot of questions as to why it happened have to be answered. Where did he get the gun? Why was he unsupervised with it? Did he have even a modicum of gun safety knowledge?
The news media, of course, barely if at all touches on these questions. Instead, they stampede towards the easiest, most sensational assumption that video games are the culprit. Since the police have taken the trouble to mention in their statement that the young child was playing Grand Theft Auto IV “just before” the shooting, most of the headlines read something to the effect of “8-Year-Old kills caregiver after playing video game”. Causality is baked right into the headline.
Why not “Kid shoots grandmother after brushing teeth”? Can we instantly rule out aggressive teeth brushing as the main factor? How about “Child murders caregiver after hot cocoa”? Sugar has been linked to aggressive and uncontrolled behaviour in children for decades.
Even if you want to cloud the event with the idea that violent video games can contribute to real-life acts of violence, the question in this case must be asked: why was an 8-year-old playing a game labelled M for Mature? I only read one article that even mentions the fact that GTA IV is so rated, and surprisingly that source was the Fox News website.
Of course, in the end we all know why CNN and its ilk chooses to visibly and aggressively stir up controversy about video game violence over this deeply unfortunate occurrence. Because mentioning the rampant gun-culture in the U.S. is “un-American”. Because calling out bad parenting is “strident” and “lecturing”.
Because video games get clicks.
Nolan Bushnell helped to form the video game industry by creating Atari and PONG. These days he’s like the curmudgeonly neighbour who sits on his porch shaking his fist at people passing by and making pronouncements like in today’s “What Nolan Said”:
The quote is taken from yesterday’s Bloomberg’s “Inkblot” session with Bushnell, a kind of word-association interview they occasionally conduct. It’s not too surprising that he would disparage Rockstar’s notorious flagship title, as he has always shown a distaste for violence and sex in video games. In a mini-interview conducted by Newsweek in 2003, Bushnell noted a rule under his tenure at Atari, that while a programmer could destroy tanks and cars in a game, never a human figure directly. Perhaps this is his Mormonism peeking through.
During the Bloomberg interview, Bushnell’s one-word response to an image of stacks of GTA IV cases was “Dystopian”.