Grand Theft Auto V and critic-proof games

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.” 

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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.

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“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 switch 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 movie 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.

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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&VGIGN‘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.