The Return of Grand Theft Auto

GTA V is the latest in the controversial video game series (Rockstar Games)

GTA V is the latest in the controversial video game series (Rockstar Games)

Unless you have been living under a rock, on a desert island or in some underground bunker cut off from the rest of the world this week, you are likely aware that the latest installment in Rockstar GamesGrand Theft Auto video game seriesGrand Theft Auto V—has been released and is selling faster than any video game in history.

In its first day, the game often blamed for inciting real-life violence—especially in children or nearly any mentally disturbed individual who chooses to take innocent lives—made a whopping $800 million worldwide. This was twice as much as most analysts predicted, but GTA V still has momentum and in only three days topped the $1 billion mark—roughly one-fifth as long as it took Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 to reach the same milestone.

Think of it like this: One of the biggest Hollywood blockbusters of all time—The Dark Knight—made just over $1 billion worldwide, while the James Cameron epic Avatar cleared almost $2.8 billion. Both of these figures should be easy enough for GTA V to eclipse, and some expect this to happen as early as November.

By a video game!

Granted, GTA V cost as much as many motion pictures to produce—somewhere in the neighborhood of $140 million—and took longer to get done—the Rockstar people have been working on it since releasing the mediocre GTA IV in 2008—but it certainly seems to have paid off. Of course, it isn’t without its share of controversy.

Hell, it wouldn’t be Grand Theft Auto if it didn’t piss off somebody along the way.

At the moment—and despite carrying a rating “M” sticker indicating it is only for mature audiences (which could actually disqualify many adults, too)—GTA V is being criticized for the usual suspects: violence, language, misogyny, sex. But some key features, scenes and missions really have people fired up. Animal rights folks have asked for the game to be boycotted since it allows players to run over, kill and even behead animals. However, most of the negative attention has been focused on one mission in particular known as “By the Book.”

This torture scene has human rights groups up in arms (Rockstar Games)

This torture scene has human rights groups up in arms (Rockstar Games)

In “By the Book,” players—and their in-game doppelgängers Trevor and Michael—are commanded by the FBI to extract information from a suspect by means of torture. Beating, pulling teeth and electrocuting the prisoner are all options as players try to squeeze names, locations and other vital data out of him. The scene is supposedly very gruesome and, by the end, rather unnecessary since the captive likely would have “spilled his guts” without all the pain and suffering. Of course, the character of Trevor addresses this very issue in the game:

Torture’s for the torturer. Or the guy giving the order to the torturer. You torture for the good times! We should all admit that. It’s useless as a means of getting information.”

Now I’ll be the first to agree that glamorizing torture—or even violence in general—is a bad idea. However—and having played GTA since its inception in 1997 for the first PlayStation game console—I don’t think that’s what the people at Rockstar Games are doing. Yes, things like sex, violence and destruction help sell more video games—not to mention books, films and a host of other consumer products—but there is an obvious reason for that: it’s what people see in their daily lives!

Turn on the news and you are likely to encounter some of the same evil and violent acts seen in GTA V and most of its predecessors. One of the fundamental rules of any creative field is to focus on what you know, what you see and what you experience. For writers, it’s the “write what you know” advice you often receive from more seasoned veterans. So when you drop everything, take a look around and try to determine what it is you actually know—as well as what your intended audience or customers know—sex, violence and even torture inevitably appear.

In America, for instance, there have been countless news stories about our government’s use of torture methods like water boarding. But we also hear about the torture and abuse being perpetrated by governments all over the world, sometimes against their own citizens. Then we hear an account of some unlucky American journalist who is abducted by Islamic radicals, tortured endlessly and finally beheaded on camera for the whole world to see.

Los Santos or Los Angeles? You be the judge (Rockstar Games)

Los Santos or Los Angeles? You be the judge (Rockstar Games)

These things make an impression, wouldn’t you agree? And while it might be in poor taste to allow video gamers to participate in torture simply by pressing some buttons on a controller, it is much better than having them wield a machete to perform the same gruesome and criminal act in reality. And to me, that’s Rockstar Games’ angle. What they do is more social commentary than violence promotion, and it’s obvious their formula works. Otherwise we wouldn’t be buying it and talking about it so much, would we?

To me, Grand Theft Auto has always been more about catharsis—a purging of anti-civilization and misanthropic feelings through the artistic medium of the video game. Whether or not we care to admit it, we all experience moments when our positive, uplifting thoughts are replaced by dark, evil ones. Someone pulls out in front of us and we mutter how we wish they were dead. A guy flirts with your girlfriend, so you threaten to rip off his head and shit down his neck if he doesn’t back off. Does this mean you would actually do something so violent and—let’s face it—gross? Of course not, but the thoughts sometimes cross your mind.

Parents aren't too fond of the sex and nudity in GTA V, either (Rockstar Games)

Parents aren’t too fond of the sex and nudity in GTA V, either (Rockstar Games)

And that’s the big difference to me: GTA V is a game. It can be violent, there is some sex and every other word sounds like it comes from the mouth of a sailor, but I could say the same for some films and television shows I’ve seen, too. I should also mention that GTA V operates well within the system we as a society have created for it. The game is intended for mature audiences and has been labeled as such, which is no different from rating a film with an R or even an X. Does this mean some kids won’t sneak into a movie theater, search for porn online or even play GTA V? Of course not, but until we can control everything—which I certainly don’t think should be our goal anyway—we need to remember that art isn’t the problem; we as a society are the problem.

So how about we stop blaming video games like GTA V for everything? I think taking a long, hard look at ourselves would be much more productive.

A SEMI-QUICK (and PERSONAL) SIDE NOTE:

As I mentioned earlier, I have been playing Grand Theft Auto since its early days—when the graphics and game play were terrible, but still the best thing around at that time. And I remember when Grand Theft Auto III came out and changed the face of gaming forever. Hell, I still return to my old PlayStation 2 to enjoy it and my personal favorite—Vice Cityon the rare occasion.

San Andreas was also pretty good, but like many of you, I was disappointed by GTA IV. Some spin-off games like Liberty City Stories were okay, I suppose, but I was really looking forward to GTA V. The way I figured, all the annoying little things about the last few games would be worked out and from there only improvements could be made.

In other words, GTA V would be the game that finally got it right… that saw all the little pieces of the puzzle fall neatly into place.

The first Grand Theft Auto seems like eons ago (DMA Design/BMG)

The first Grand Theft Auto seems like eons ago (DMA Design/BMG)

Whether or not GTA V lived up to the hype I (and others) created for it, I can’t say. Unlike those hardcore gamers out there, I didn’t preorder it or stand in line Monday night to pick it up once it hit store shelves. The “old me” would have done that, to be sure, but he’s long gone. I still game, mind you—most frequently on my cell phone in the form of Words with Friends or The Sims Freeplay—but those Mountain Dew and cigarette-fueled marathon gaming sessions of my youth have been replaced by work obligations, weekend plans and a host of other activities.

I still enjoy the occasional destruction of GTA, though. And from what I can tell, GTA V is everything I imagined and more.

For whatever reason, I bought the game yesterday morning—along with some meds for an upset stomach that kept me out of work for the day—and fully intended to get some serious game time in. After opening it and setting it beside my PS3, though, a funny thing happened: I didn’t touch it for the next nine hours. It was 10 p.m. before I finally installed and launched the damn thing.

At the time, I wasn’t sure why I delayed my GTA V experience because I filled the time with other tasks that demanded my attention. There were some house chores, a few last-minute things for work, a couple of errands thrown in… nothing out of the ordinary, but all somewhat more important than gaming, at least to the middle-aged man in the mirror. And I even finished everything in time to start playing by late afternoon, but it still didn’t happen.

Part of the problem, I think, is that I know how I am… or at least how I used to be… when it comes to video games. I already have an obsessive personality—definitely a mild to average case of OCD—with ADD that I medicate and some other “eccentricities.” Who doesn’t, right? When I’ve played Grand Theft Auto in the past, then, I have always done so to the extreme. Hours turn into days. Days into weeks. Weeks into months. I ignore the people around me, lose interest in how I present myself to others and obsess over completing every nit-picky detail of whatever game sucked me into its nightmare at the time.

It is not a pretty sight, to say the least.

So before sticking that CD into the console, I thought twice about it. I also took some time to see what others were saying online about their first experience with GTA V. And what I learned kept me away from the game a little bit longer: everyone loved it! Not only that, but they were playing so much that cheats were already being discovered. For those of you who don’t know, most of the cheats in GTA games involve specific button sequences you can enter for free weapons, ammunition, armor, vehicles and other advantages. Figuring them all out can be tedious, but those who seek them often post their results online pretty quickly.

A great game that I’ve been waiting years to play—coupled with all the great things people were saying about it and all the time they were spending actually playing it—freaked me out a little. Once I started playing, and knowing my sorted past, would I be able to stop? Would I find the game as enjoyable as everyone else, or was this really setting me up for a huge let-down?

By 10:00, I realized that I was over-thinking this far too much. I pumped myself up and it was finally time to see what GTA V was all about. I opened the case, carefully extracted the game and loaded it into my PS3, ready to see what happened next.

Boom. Software update.

Since I broke my old habits of gaming all the time, it’s been a while since I played my PS3. A software update was required, so I went ahead and got that done. Moments later it was back to the game. I was still pumped, mind you, only slightly less than before. It did feel good to see that Rockstar logo flash across the screen again, so I was gearing up to start wreaking havoc.

Boom. Installing the game.

The original Grand Theft Auto (Rockstar Games)

The original Grand Theft Auto (Rockstar Games)

This process took a little longer and I found myself staring at GTA V scenes and listening to funky music for quite some time. I spent some of that time refreshing myself on the controls—which button you use to shoot, which one operates the hand brake and so on. You’d be surprised how quickly this comes back to you after you’ve logged thousands of hours of game time. It’s like riding a bike, only much, much easier.

Time passed and finally GTA V was ready to play. Since this was my first time experiencing it, I watched all of the introductory scenes that many gamers skip past, interested in knowing the story since fellow writers took the time to create one. It isn’t all about carjacking and strippers, after all.

The opening scene was pretty intense: several masked robbers breaking into a bank. I was enjoying the action until I suddenly realized something: I was supposed to be playing as one of the characters!

I was hooked immediately.

To be perfectly honest, I only played for a few hours last night and still haven’t played the game today. I plan to, of course, but had a few things to accomplish first. At the moment I am able to control my marathon gamer tendencies, but I’m not sure how long this is likely to last. GTA V is tremendous and there is a lot to do—from jet skiing and golfing to missions and chaos—so I have only scratched the surface. But I can say this: those two hours were tantalizing and the game has been calling to me ever since.

I’m off to answer that call now, but please do me a favor. If you don’t hear from me for a few days, let someone know. By then I’ll probably require medical attention or at least professional help—as will millions of other gamers around the world, I’m sure… but GTA V is worth it!

Posted on September 21, 2013, in Perspectives and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 45 Comments.

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