Grand Theft Auto V and critic-proof games

Feature Ryan Lambie 18 Sep 2013 - 06:15

Rockstar's GTA V may be one of the most anticipated games of the year, but should it be beyond criticism? Absolutely not, Ryan writes...

At the time of writing, two pieces of popular culture are dominating the conversation on social media: the latest episode of Breaking Bad and the release of Grand Theft Auto V. Both the final season of Breaking Bad and the latest instalment in Rockstar's series have been massively anticipated, and rightly so - they represent the culmination of an awful lot of work on the part of their respective writers, actors and creators, and years of anticipation on the part of the people who devotedly follow them.

In the case of GTA V, it's remarkable to look back at the series and see how far it's come - from a top-down action game made by a relatively small team of developers, to a multi-million dollar media event akin to the release of a Lord Of The Rings movie. The anticipation can be felt in just about every review that's appeared online over the past day or so; the GTA series carries so much history and cultural weight that the arrival of a new one carries a huge weight of expectation. But even with all the hype surrounding it, the overall consensus so far is that GTA V really has been worth the wait.

Yet drill down further, past the Metacritic aggregate marks, past the scores, and into the body of the reviews themselves, and you'll naturally find one or two common areas of criticism. Some have picked fault with some of the game's troubling scenes of violence - deemed by a few writers as being over the top, even by the series' standards - and a rather dismissive treatment of its female characters.

It's interesting to note that the minor faults picked by critics so far haven't been at GTA V's technical aspects - the verdict appears to be that the game's a staggering achievement in terms of programming and design - but its writing and storytelling. In Chris Plante's review for Polygon, he writes that there are "more interesting female characters on Grand Theft Auto 5's disc art than there are in Grand Theft Auto 5.

In his otherwise glowing review, Eurogamer's Tom Bramwell takes issue with one scene of violence in particular, writing that, "It's not a great moment for the game, which can't pull it off without it feeling gratuitous."

The Escapist's Greg Tito goes further, and suggests that "Forcing players to murder people, not in a gamey 'I killed you to complete a goal' way that defines this medium, but in a terrorizing and demeaning way, is not what will make videogames great."

Inevitably, some vocal commenters haven't taken these criticisms lightly. Some have, bizarrely, reacted with dismay when the game's been given a nine instead of a 10, as though a nine isn't a particularly good score. More worryingly, there's also an awful lot of anger directed at reviewers who've picked fault with GTA V's storytelling.

The most notable example of this can be found beneath Carolyn Petit's review over on Gamespot. In an otherwise extremely positive review (she awarded it a nine out of 10), she suggested that some aspects of the story were "troubling", and that the writers' inconsistent depiction of torture and violence undermined what was presumably intended as sharp social satire.

"GTA V is an imperfect yet astounding game," Petit writes, "that has great characters and an innovative and exciting narrative structure, even if the story it uses that structure to tell is hobbled at times by inconsistent character behavior, muddled political messages and rampant misogyny."

At the time of writing, this review has a staggering 15194 comments piled up beneath it, and that figure's rising constantly. While many comments defend the writer's right to their opinion, many others are less tolerant. Far less tolerant.

"Her JOB is to review games without personal bias," one commenter writes. "This reeks so horribly of personal feminist agenda it's pathetic.  We'll stop bitching when they hire competent staff and leave politics out of game reviews." 

Leaving the horrendous personal attacks on writers in these reviews aside - and the number of these is disquieting in the extreme, as writer Helen Lewis points out - the underlying opinion behind these comments is quite strange. Time and again, the argument that 'political views' and 'feminist agendas' shouldn't be discussed or criticised in a videogame review rears its head. Several commenters state, in no uncertain terms, that a writer shouldn't mark a game down from a 10 to a nine because of an aspect they found distasteful.

The most hilarious common element in these comments, surely, is that reviewers should criticise something "without personal bias".

Ultimately, reviewers are ordinary human beings, with their own histories, likes and dislikes, hang-ups and personal opinions. As an expert and enthusiast in their chosen field, it's the critic's job to look at a piece of art, place it in its context - against the artist's previous work, and its particular backdrop as a whole - and see how it compares. It's the critic's job to deconstruct that piece of art, as intelligently and diligently as they can, and try to relate to other people what does and does not work about it.

In many cases, what they think works or does not work will be informed by their own particular experiences or expertise. If, say, an expert in the modern social history of Los Angeles got their hands on Grand Theft Auto V, their review may be somewhat different from a film critic's. If a female reviewer's confronted by a game where women are oddly or poorly presented, the observations they make will inevitably be different from a young male - though it's equally possible that a young male might flag these issues up, too. 

In a game like Grand Theft Auto V, where the story is at least as important as the mechanics of driving and shooting, the story should be deconstructed and criticised as fully as any other element - and if writers find areas for criticism there, then so be it. The GTA series has always flirted with controversy, and long satirised things like advertising and ideals like the American dream, and comparing Rockstar's success in this area with its earlier games is surely a valid topic of discussion.

For a very vocal segment of the gaming community, it seems that the critical dissection of the most highly-anticipated games is off the table. Head to a website that's given GTA V 10 out of 10, and it's like a parallel universe of virtual cheers and back-slaps: "10 - hey, let's give it a read then," reads a comment on C&VG. IGN's comments section is relatively cordial, until someone comes crashing in with the horrifying news that Gamespot gave the game nine out of 10.

The unwritten rule appears to be: mark down the game we're looking forward to at your peril.

Admittedly, we're dealing with a vocal minority of videogame fans here, at least when you compare them with the millions of people who'll likely buy the game over the next few months. But such an aggressive reaction towards critics who've dared to question a major new release - even in the midst of an otherwise positive review - is surely a sign of anticipation spilling over into toxic fanaticism.

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The comments on that Gamespot review are appalling! There are now comments from people declaring her as a "sexual deviant" with "gender identity issues". Just because she dared to raise the elephant in the room with GTA. It is a pity really, and I say this as a massive gamer, but gaming is still a really immature medium. It is getting better, games like The Last Of Us are showing that gaming is able to tell a mature and interesting story. But we still largely cater for the lowest common denominator. No amount of improved specs, physics, and graphics can get past that. GTA V (which is a stunning game) is just another example of that. Its an incredible achievement, but it really hasn't moved on at all since the first game in 1997, which is a shame.
Having said all of that it is about entertainment, ad there is no doubt that GTA V is very entertaining. In that respect if passes with flying colours, we do need games like GTA. I just wish that developers, especially when they get so much right, spend a bit more time thinking about how they can do more.
But then GTA is supposed to be a satire piece on American society, if those comments are anything to go by maybe Rockstar got it right afterall...

Given that I've seen a few reviews express discomfort at the torture scene, I'm surprised there's been no mention that it's no longer BBFC rated, and as such has the rather ineffective PEGI rating in its place.

It's also a surprise how there's still more emotion attached to "out of ten" ratings than the other accepted method of rating out of five stars. People will accept things can get five star ratings, but the idea of a 10 out of 10 creates such a furore.

Erm, these are probably the exact same morons that cry into their hands about Ben Affleck being Batman. Why are we even talking about these idiots? Why even give them the space online or the time of day?

Reviews no longer have any value with games like GTA. Giving it anything less than a 9.5 is an invite for a lynchmob who demand a 10 just because it's GTA and any new GTA is obviously the best thing ever. In most cases these nutjobs haven't event started playing the game themselves.

GTA IV almost universally got a 10 in most reviews despite tons of issues and simply not being anywhere near as good as some previous GTA titles. GTA V is similarly treated like the second coming of Jesus. It isn't. It's yet another overhyped and overrated video game. A good one but certainly not worthy of the hyperbole.

Isn't it also the case that reviewers who marked GTA 4 anything beneath a 9 have not been given review copies of V? Rockstar sound like prissy little bitches themselves

So far the most depressing thing about the game is overhearing little kids bragging to their mates how they're playing "Grand Theft Auto Vee" and wondering why the box says "GTA Vee" when everyone calls it "GTA 5".

this is one of the most over-rated series in videogame history and the violent and misogynistic content is totally inappropiate for a game which young children will be clamouring to play

You're entitled to your opinion of course but I feel it is rated appropriately and that is my opinion. Children might be clamouring to play it, but if they do get there hands on it, that's not the game/Rockstar's fault... it's the parent's

I think Rockstar can partly be blamed for it for this one. It isn't BBFC rated so any kid can buy it. At least when the BBFC certificate made it illegal to sell to under 18's a good portion of blame could be laid upon the parents taking it to the counter and buying it for their 10 year old. By not having the rating it gives the impression Rockstar opted out of submitting it for the purpose of sales. I'll end this comment by admitting that I'm only assuming this as I have little knowledge of how games get BBFC ratings, and also saying I will now shut about the rating, lest I look like someone preaching across as many boards as they can find.

The BBFC ratings are no longer applied to video games, its been that way for a year or two now. This is because PEGI are now considered the gaming equivalent for age ratings. When the BBFC rated some games anyone could buy a PEGI rated game despite the age it ranked because it only acted as a guideline. Nowadays, if it's rated PEGI 18, you cannot buy that game unless you are 18. So no, any kid can't just go out and buy it. PEGI has the same authority over games as the BBFC do over films.

If any child plays it it is no different than them seeing an adult film. The parents should have stopped them. If they do not then it is their failure as parents. Video games do not exist to raise your children for you.

It is an excellent game but it does have issues. Franklin is a likeable enouhg character but his cast of friends are all degenerate scum, and not even in the entertaining way of Saints Rows over the top sidekicks. Michael has a horrible family of annoying characters, the only likeable people are the guys who help you rob the banks!

I stand corrected, thank you. Guess I'll have to find something else to grumble about now.
I remember talking to a colleague who was considering buying Red Dead Redemption for her 10 year old (hence my mentioning 10yr olds). Gun violence? Fine. Scenes of naked strung up corpses? Cool with it. Cannibal character? Not a problem. Hunting and skinning animals? Sure, why not. And do you know what the tipping point would've been for her to not let her child have the game? Prostitutes. Show as much violence as you want in a game, but nooooo prositutes.
Yeah, that's it. I think I found my something else to grumble about.

The same thing happened with the last game.
"GTA Aye Vee"
Do kids not get taught about roman numerals anymore?

The game is an adult game so the content is appropriate and it is even restriced for sale to minors. Just like any film or book or any other media aimed at adults.

Books are never age-restricted as far as I'm aware.

The things that main trio do, they shouldn't really be expected to be likable characters.

This is a common problem in all online reviews, movies, Tech the lot. Look at the iPhone 5s reviews at the moment and all you get is abuse to the reviewer if he says anything positive. These sad pathetic keyboard warriors are going to see review sites ban comments as they are getting out of hand.
One of the reasons I like DoG is it has far more normal comments and a place you can debate and discuss points

Excellent article. I love these games as much as the next guy, but it really shocks me that some people can't process the fact that a gaming series where you run people over and kill hookers wouldn't be for everyone...

Its also interesting that you bring up Breaking Bad. Already people are attributing knife-point muggings and shooting spree's to the game. Yet nothing i've seen in the game so far is any worse than anything i've seen in breaking bad..... or the soprano's..... or Scarface.... or the trailer for Machete Kills. Yet nobody ever accuses those. Its sad that 2 thematically similar peices of entertainment can be judged so differently due to being on different mediums.

Similar thing happened for IV... I thought that game was very good but I definitely didn't think it was a perfect 10.

I seriously doubt the 2000+ commenters haven't played the game from start to finish either. I bet some of them haven't played at all.

Grabbed GTA V yesterday. Have to say, within 10 minutes I'd I tuned out of most of the dialogue - it turned out, there's only so much "b*tch-motherf*cker-n*gger" I can take in one sitting. It's just a relentless torrent that never seems to let up.

I swear like a trooper, but even this .. well, you know when someone's swearing the world blind on purpose because they think it's cool ? Seemed a bit like that. Like a kid who's noticed a parent laugh at their using the word "bum" and is now repeating it, infinitely, caught in the joy of "being a bit naughty for naughty's sake"

As for the game itself, it does seem like a pretty decent technical achievement - quite impressed the old 360 could pull it off. Don't think it's really my kinda game, but hey-ho. Each to their own and all that.

Erm, are you the exact same moron who cries into his hands about people crying into their hands about Ben Attfleck being Batman? :P

I'm joking, I actually agree with you completely. Critics judging people when they know practically nothing about how the actor will be received are ridiculous and pathetic. It's a bit like people judging Peter Capaldi and Doctor Who or the new RoboCop.

I do feel there's an "us vs them" attitude sometimes with fans vs critics. Mind you some critics are clueless - the Daily Mail describes the entire GTA series in an article it ran yesterday as being about playing prostitutes. I'm not making that up. I've only dipped my toe into GTAV since buying it yesterday (I have another game I need to finish first) and I've already spotted a bug (a car disappearing from a garage which was supposed to save it), and I do find the game world a bit overwhelming (although I'm still unconvinced that it's bigger than GTA: San Andreas or GTA IV - certainly on the map the city doesn't look anywhere near as big as Liberty City). But the key is will I enjoy playing the game, and I fully expect I will. And it looks like the game has been set up to be more a virtual world than a linear game, so maybe it might be possible to do lots of other stuff in Los Santos without having to take part in some of the violence that has people concerned.

Because it's a cautionary tale about how people can go over the top. I'm surprised no one seems to remember that what's happening with Affleck is exactly the same scenario his character Holden describes in Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back when he talks about how Internet trolls were attacking the plans for a Bluntman and Chronic movie.

I don't give a crap what the tranny from Gamespot thinks. He is a seriously mentally ill person who's having his delusions indulged by the medical profession. A man is a man, a woman is a woman. It should be locked up.

I like Franklin's degenerate acquaintances! I think he's a great character (I'm not too far in story-wise though) for a GTA game. The really irritating thing about the reception for the game is the willful ignorance of its flaws though. It's still a cracker, worthy of 8.5-9, imo, but some it is objectively bad and should be recognised in reviews. I mean the on-foot controls are so awful, standard GTA, but still need to be serviceable. The misogyny is really uncomfortable as well. I think Rockstar have totally missed the mark if they're trying to satirise it because their are no decent female characters to establish the sexist line as idiotic.

There was an interesting comment on Metacritic the writer claimed to be a reviewer for a big magazine, he said that in his official review he had to give a score of at least 9 to the game - in his comment section review this was revised to 7 due to some of the points made in this article.
If this was genuine or not I don't know, but it seems believable.

It is illegal to purchase alcohol on behalf of minors in the UK, but not cigarettes, 18 rated films or videogames. A child may not be able to buy GTA for themselves, but parents are well within their rights to buy it for their 5 year old if they so wish.
Therefore, I believe it to be within the responsibility of the videogame manufacturers to make it clearer to parents, in the way that films have the statement "contains frequent strong language, strong bloody violence, scenes of torture and themes unsuitable for children". That way there cam be no argument that they don't know what their kids are playing.

Den of Geek overlords: I'm anti-censorship generally but can't comments like this, that offer nothing but insults from ignorant (and presumably impotent) ne'er-do-wells, just be deleted?

Any extreme comments or attitudes are quite disturbing most of the time. I found myself listening to LBC around 1.30 -1.50 yesterday afternoon and the female presenter was very anti video game as were several of the callers who rang in. They all seemed to be middle aged women of a similar age and when a young chap called in, he was just getting to make his point when the presenter just cut him off mid sentence to go back to a caller who agreed with her. Perhaps we should get all those extreme defenders from Gamespot to call up LBC and have a few words with the presenter on her LBC program.

Have a virtual high five overloads. I love this website even more now.

responsibility is with the parents there, just like r rated movies when i was a kid. I wanted to watch them my parents said no and i respected their answer.

ever been to the porn section?

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