Grand Theft Auto V may have broken all kinds of records in the Guinness World Records but a game of its notoriety is bound to rankle certain groups’ sensibilities and annoy them. Which is how most gamers tend to see the self-righteous “cultural criticism” directed by the so-called “feminists” towards GTA V right from when the moment the first details about the game emerged.
It began pretty much when Rockstar announced that there will be three protagonists in GTAV and then went on to briefly profile Michael, Trevor and Franklin. The disappointment from some sections who felt it was a missed opportunity on Rockstar’s behalf to not choose to have the series’ first female protagonist was apparent. Or maybe, as many saw it at that point, it was merely a conscious decision from Rockstar that may somehow tie in with the game’s themes which at that point were unknown to the general public.
As the release drew nearer and more information about the game’s story and the trio’s background emerged in impressively detailed trailers, it became apparent that the choice to have all three protagonists as male was apt as apparently GTAV dealt with “masculinity in modern era“. Not the most unique theme and some even ridiculed the fact that another game was exploring “masculinity” of all things when there were so many issues that could be focused on even if it were through GTA’s broken lens of parody disguised as satire.
Yet, what many of us didn’t exactly see before playing the game was the three protagonists of GTA V which share many similarities with those from the series’ past was going to be the chief hint on the game’s prime target for its “satire” : itself.
There is a definite problem with self-parody in general because it all depends on to what extent the writers are willing to point fingers and laugh at the series. There are plenty of examples of self-parodies succeeding when writers take a no-holds barred approach and a critical gaze at their own work. On the other hand, when the writers’ maintain a degree of superiority and pride in some of their work, the self-parodies can often fall flat.
Then there’s the problem of the medium itself. Games were intensely niche a few decades ago and have expanded into a larger and more wider player base quite quickly. Even if there have been desperate attempts to hold onto that “niche attitude” by some gamers by putting forth terms like “hardcore gamer” or “pure games“, the external truth paints a vastly different story. Games and the people and issues they stand for are rapidly changing by definition (or without any, in some cases). Trying to parody in such a young medium that despite its once- niche existence has rapidly evolved into a vast playground can be a potentially dangerous thing as you are risking retreading over the same ground when chances are people no longer care about that ground.
People often forget that game worlds and characters that are “transplanted” from one era to another can feel incredibly like caricatures. This may not be true for series that are detached from cultural movements like Mario, Zelda or Pokemon but it does matter for series that in either our enjoyment or disgust show what we are actually like.
Kris Ligman wrote a great piece on the problems of “retroseriality” with regards to Saints Row particularly but also touched upon the problematic aspects of Duke Nukem Forever via statements made by Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw. Just like how Gearbox(or whoever made most of that game) thought that transplanting Duke from 1996 to 2012 and painting the image as a self-parody will absolve it from the game’s troubling aspects, then they soon found out that they were wrong. Besides the really committed fans, nobody could digest Duke Nukem Forever *cue for a typical Duke toilet joke*
GTA V in many ways faces a similar problem. Its mechanics and the world may make it infinitely more appealing(and a better game) to the masses than DNF but in its attempt to self-parodying by lifting shallow character caricatures from its past and juxtaposing them upon the protagonists results in an awkward and incoherent mish-mash of themes. Among its’ “pursuit of dollar” theme, the game also tries hard to view “the problem of masculinity in modern age”.
There’s also the problem of Rockstar wanting to call GTA V a “satire“
Let’s break that problem first. The way I see it is that a parody or even a satire basically works in two stages: which I’ll break into layman terms as “mock” and “be mocked“. The parodies that succeed always maintain a good balance of pointing fingers at others and at its self. However, GTA V doesn’t do that. It shows Michael, Franklin and Trevor constantly berating their wives, girlfriends, the young “millennials” and the whole lot, but rarely if ever does the game turn the magnifying glass onto their protagonists.
Compare that with GTA IV where Niko’s victories were almost always accompanied by a definite loss and the whole game was a delirious dance between wins and losses, the stakes getting higher every time. Niko, who gets visibly affected by everything he does throughout the game, eventually chooses to wallow in the destruction his “pursuit for American Dream” has brought upon him.GTA IV both makes the player want and hate the American Dream.
In contrast, GTA V has no bearings of what it’s targeting. It ceaselessly hates everything apparently to signify how men in mid-life crisis (how Franklin fits in the equation remains a mystery) function while wrapping all its protagonists within a protective shield that safeguards them from the game’s naive scrutiny. Mock and only mock.
So, the question of GTA V being a satire — a term that Rockstar seems to be taking great pride in after GTAIV and want to hold onto is resolved: it’s not a satire.
Which then leaves Rockstar alone with its self-referential nods to its own past by taking the caricatures of past protagonists and pasting them onto different aspects of Franklin, Trevor and Michael in its attempt to self-parody without ever giving it a second thought to how those same caricatures work in the context of 2013.
Because guess what? It doesn’t work very well either.
If the reaction is telling, the criticism Rockstar has gotten from both game-related and mainstream media is legit and not spearheaded by a “Games Are Evil” lawyer. Tom Bissell wrote an excellent “Letter to Niko” that underlined the key issues with GTA V as that “old man trying to be cool” and failing at it.
Many gamers for whom cultural issues are of less importance continue to enjoy GTA but hardly because of its story. Most are either exploring its beautifully rich world or creating mayhem online but the words and scenes that happened in between the “Welcome to Los Santos” and “Fin” screen ring hollow and mostly forgotten.
For a game that works on so many different levels, it doesn’t mean GTA V is an abject failure. Far from it, it is a competent game that’s hampered by the fact that Rockstar are not-so-great storytellers that happen to be classic control freaks which ruins two of the many key aspects of their game.
Maybe,those who continue to see the cultural criticism of GTA V as a “feminist-driven” action will continue to laugh at them by pointing how Rockstar is making millions out of misogynistic content.
The problem even doesn’t lie entirely there. The problem lies that all the words written by the writers which Rockstar does pay a lot of importance to seem to have all gone to waste as GTA V is neither a satire by any stretch of imagination nor is it a half-decent parody. It’s capable of laughing everyone but at its’ own self. It even mocks “video game violence” to the Realistic Killing Simulator that parodies Call of Duty’s killstreaks yet it doesn’t take a gaze at its ownself on how it fits into that equation.
In a young medium that has gone through a rapid change from its once-niche status, trying to look just one way when parodying can be very problematic and GTA V is a living testament of that. The sad part is that while the series’ potential to be a sharp satire is continually ignored all while Rockstar continues to believe in the fact that they are the “Jon Stewart” of Games. Thing is they neither have the topical wit to be Jon Stewart nor the inherent irony to be “The Onion” because they are simply looking at creating humor one-way — only through the characters’ eyes and not at the character themselves(or the reader in The Onion’s case).
As the self-appointed “guides of the medium”, it should technically be the duty of game critics to set Rockstar in the right way of course, but….oh wait. Not when we are still bickering over scores all the while pressurizing those who didn’t like a game where there’s legitimately a lot to not like about.
The only scene of GTA V that rings as honest is sadly also its final one. “I’m getting too old for this” can be seen as a lament for both the characters, Rockstar, the disillusioned fans or gamers tired of the same-old issues springing up over and over again. Like its characters caught in a mid-life crisis desperately looking for a purpose, GTA needs to find its identity again or stick being an old man in a hipster’s clothes trying to be “cool” with its satire when both its grasp on what that word means and the world it lives in increasingly fade out from its consciousness.