Occasionally, in my more inward, honest moments, I sometimes think that I’m a bit of a snob. A gaming snob, that is.
These moments are rare. After all, I wouldn’t have beef with a game just because it doesn’t nourish my intellect sufficiently. Just this week I’ve been glued to Call of Juarez Gunslinger, whose appeal lies squarely and unashamedly in the simple practice of ‘shooting guys in the face’, as its trailer proudly professes. Granted, it does this brilliantly. It drips with a wickedly self-deprecating sense of humour, polished off with a lick of comic-book inspired artistic wizardry, and bounds along with the speed of a greyhound on Red Bull. But highbrow brain food it is not.
It’s with genuine puzzlement, then, that I wonder why I never like games made by Rockstar. Not as nearly as much as I feel I should, anyway. Everybody loves Rockstar. They’re called Rockstar, for crying out loud. They’re like the better looking, funnier, sexier, more rebellious version of Valve. They deliberately fan the flames of their own games’ controversy. They’re the pioneers of the open world sandbox whose titles never fail to hit both critical and commercial acclaim. In the universe of high school cliques, they’re the guy who turns up at the end of the day on a Harley, smoking a cigar and wearing boots he made himself out of buffalo hide.
Needless to say, this guy is a bit of a dick. And that’s the impression I get from Rockstar games. There’s just something about them, especially Grand Theft Auto, that’s just…nasty.
I’m not talking about gore. Or profanities. Or even violence. Plenty of games have this in spades and it doesn’t bother me in the slightest. But there’s something about the sheer gratuitousness that’s so integral to the spirit of the world’s most infamous franchise that just leaves me feeling a bit empty. Spirit, in fact, is something that it lacks. I have a theory why.
In the case of violence or whatever, the gratuitousness that’s so rife in games serves its own purpose. I don’t need Call of Juarez to teach me that there is luscious satisfaction in blowing off a digital head with a digital shotgun. That’s all fine. But when it comes to GTA, there’s something else that is celebrated for its own sake: being an asshole.
There’s nothing new or shocking anymore about a hero with moral flaws. The ‘Antihero’ is so integral to gaming that it’s a cliché. Deadpool, Batman, Snake, Agent 47, Adam Jensen, Ezio…I’m not exactly having to pick these Antiheroes out of the crowd. But Rockstar have to go one step further. They strip their protagonists of any redeemable qualities altogether. The vile gangsters whose shoes you fill are left unadulterated by even the loosest moral code. They are universally selfish, greedy, misogynistic, disgusting bastards. And it’s all supposed to be super fun and hilarious.
Don’t get me wrong, I shun the view as much as the next guy that in-game fiction can corrupt out-of-game attitudes. That lazy accusation has never been backed up by any significant evidence, and those that make it are usually alien to the world of gaming and generally have nothing better to do. No, what I have an issue with is how it affects the actual experience of the game. To me, something is lost when you have absolutely no emotional connection with the characters you are controlling or interacting with. There’s a hollowness that rings when you’re smashing in a prostitute’s face with a baseball bat with the ease of cooking a Pot Noodle. Maybe there’s something wrong with me, but I don’t actually find it to be that much fun.
Sure, there are missions – it’s not totally aimless violence… And sure, you don’t have to act like a monster. But we all know that this is told to us with a cheeky wink and an elbow nudge. We know full well that going off-mission, and off-moral, is pretty much the cornerstone of GTA’s success, and in this regard, the strastopherically-hyped GTA V looks to be no different.
So, fine, don’t buy it. But that’s the problem. I think I might want it.
Games like Just Cause 2 and the early GTAs undeniably catered to the restless child in me who wanted nothing more than to aimlessly wonder a fictional landscape, getting up to increasingly ludicrous shenanigans with aeroplanes and generally causing as much havoc as the game would let me. And this is what calls to me from the trailers for GTA V. The world it creates promises to be more expansive, more intricate, more varied and more outrageous than ever before. It cost more money to make than almost every Hollywood blockbuster ever – a sum it has recouped in pre-orders alone. I can well believe that even as I type this, there are thousands, if not millions, of players, smashing juggernauts into buildings and flying private jets into the sea under its hypnotically escapist spell.
It also promises to be typically bursting with satire and spoofery, holding up a black mirror to our modern society through a deep network of fictional websites, radio stations and TV shows. This is all fine, but I have a suspicion it will look more like self-congratulatory prattle than genuinely clever witticisms. There’s my snobbish side coming out again. Dammit.
So this brings me back to my initial question. Do I want it? Pff, I don’t know.
I’ll probably have to buy it to find out.