Being Cynical About Cynicism

Update: I debated revising the last sentence of this rant because I never want to attack developers — after all, I’ve had my own experiences working on problematic games — but I do feel it accurately reflects my perceptions of the game and its writing.

This isn’t a review. I haven’t finished GTA V yet. I’ve barely scratched its surface. This is just some scattered thoughts after the first few hours of gameplay.

Grand Theft Auto V is a technical marvel. As one of the last epic-tier releases of this console generation, it will undoubtedly be cited alongside the likes of Red Dead Redemption as an example of what these machines could do at their best. The digital city of Los Santos looks amazing and maintains an admirably consistent if not remarkable framerate. There are a number of small touches that make the world come alive in ways that video games often miss, like the way your characters reach forward to push open doors, or the way the fabric of their shirts and jackets stretches as they run. Rockstar Games has pulled off some truly laudable technical wizardry, and they should be proud of themselves for that.

It’s unfortunate then that I’m just not having very much fun with GTA V. Partly this is because the core gameplay of stealing cars and shooting things has lost some of its appeal since GTA III first brought those mechanics into the third dimension. Partly it’s because the series has failed to evolve as games like Saints Row IV have looked for ways to improve the experience of the open-world genre. But mostly it’s because the writing is so oppressively cynical.

Much has already been written about GTA V‘s sexist bent (here’s a good one that Elizabeth Simins linked on Twitter this morning: http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/articles/507050/20130918/grand-theft-auto-5-review.htm), so I’m going to take a look at something else instead, something that got under my skin when I was playing yesterday.

One of Michael’s early missions involves infiltrating the offices of a Facebook-like social media company and sabotaging their prototype for a new handheld device which is to be unveiled live in an Apple-esque ceremony. The motive for this little prank has something to do with a childhood rivalry between the mission giver and the company’s Zuckerbergian head. I won’t spoil the hi-lar-ious punchline, but I do want to rant a bit about this mission.

The social media company’s name is “LifeInvader.” That’s not a pun on Facebook or Twitter or Tumblr or even MySpace (that bastion of relevance in 2013 that somehow still seems to get mentioned whenever someone needs a social media site to skewer). No, it’s just “LifeInvader.” In the world of GTA V, that is the whole of social media boiled down to its essence. It’s just a thing that invades your life and your privacy. It reeks of middle-aged men going, “Ugh, Facebook, am I right?” It completely overlooks the fact that much of the game’s target demographic depends on the likes of Facebook and Twitter to stay in touch with their friends.

In order to break into the LifeInvader offices, Michael needs to blend in with the crowd. In one of the game’s more egregious tutorialization missteps, you’re told to dress Michael like a young tech guy, which in practice means going to a local clothing store and guessing which items the designers felt were appropriately youthful while the store’s employee chastises you each time you guess incorrectly. This is how the ability to shop for clothing is unlocked in GTA V.

Upon arriving at the LifeInvader offices dressed like an old man trying to look like a young man, Michael meets a shifty programmer who immediately begins leaking company secrets before — mistaking Michael for an IT guy — asking for help fixing a PC issue.

As Michael, we follow the coder through the offices of LifeInvader, which is decked out in tacky Silicon Valley startup decor, and is probably the one part of the mission I felt was genuinely funny and actually did hit the mark.

But then there’s the minigame in which you have to close porn popup ads on the coder’s machine so that you can run the antivirus program on the desktop. It’s not fun, and it’s not funny. It’s just irritating and embarrassing, not to mention dated. It’s 2013; who even sees popup ads anymore?

I said I wasn’t going to spoil the punchline, but it really does clinch the whole thing, so…sorry, spoilers. The payoff for all this elaborate Facebook skewering is that you, as Michael, have (unknowingly?) rigged the prototype mobile device with a bomb. In the middle of the live press conference, you — as Michael — call the number and watch as the Zuckerberg stand-in’s head explodes on camera.

You know that thing where games give you morality options, but the choices usually embody extreme good or extreme evil with no interesting gray area? GTA V doesn’t even give you that much.

The LifeInvader mission is far from the worst thing I’ve seen yet in GTA V. That dubious honor would probably go to the bit where you have to help a paparazzo film a celebrity sex tape, and of course there’s the already much-maligned torture scene that I’m super not looking forward to playing. This mission isn’t as crude, offensive, or shocking as either of those, but it does showcase the cynical one-dimensionality that plagues the world of GTA V. This is a world where everything is terrible and nothing has any redeeming qualities. That’s not a world I feel particularly inclined to inhabit.

I guess I could make a blanket statement like Grand Theft Auto is a cynical game made by people who no longer seem to enjoy what they do, but

2 thoughts on “Being Cynical About Cynicism

  1. Good article, and I think you’re spot on. I also think that that’s exactly what they were aiming for – and I’d go so far as to say that it’s what every GTA game since 3 has been aiming for all along. The series has long been a sharp satire of the american way of life. This game more than the others hits the nail on the head – there are no redeeming qualities to the people in the GTA series. Nor should there be – that’s the point they’re trying to make.

    That said, there is beauty to be found in the game. While playing last night I walked up a hill that was in the approximate location of a friend’s house in the Pacific Palisades in LA, and upon reaching the top of the hill I looked down upon Los Santos – it looked almost identical to the view at the top of the hill by my friend’s house. I was completely stunned.

    That is a world I am inclined to spend some time in while playing a ridiculous game about killing tons of people for no good reason.

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