It’s been a long time since I wrote about videogames on this site. I wrote about Google’s fraudulent Alphastar AI that played Starcraft 2 really well, by cheating, and Halo 2, my least favourite game of all time. But it’s difficult for me to justify writing about games since I don’t play them anymore, and the disgustingly exploitative video game industry is rarely explicitly political. At least not since gamergate. Or if they are I just haven’t been paying enough attention.
In the summer of 2020, after a police officer killed George Floyd, Rockstar Games quietly shelved a mode of play it had planned to release for its Grand Theft Auto Online game.
Called Cops ‘n’ Crooks, the mode was a twist on the children’s game where players organize into teams of good guys and bad guys, but seemed especially tone-deaf during the global reckoning over police violence. Senior executives at the company, concerned about how the narrative might be interpreted during a time of heightened skepticism and mistrust of American police, put it aside. They still haven’t made plans to bring it back, according to people familiar with development.
This was one of several politically sensitive actions Rockstar, a division of Take-Two Interactive Software Inc., has taken in recent years. The company removed transphobic jokes from the most recent console release of Grand Theft Auto V and significantly narrowed its gender pay gap. Rockstar’s next game, Grand Theft Auto VI, will include a playable female protagonist for the first time, according to people familiar with the game. The woman, who is Latina, will be one of a pair of leading characters in a story influenced by the bank robbers Bonnie and Clyde, the people said. Developers are also being cautious not to “punch down” by making jokes about marginalized groups, the people said, in contrast to previous games.
This might be a controversial opinion, but the GTA games always gargled balls. The late Shamus Young had a pretty good breakdown of the awful gameplay of the series.
One of the things which bugs me about Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories (and its many siblings) is the appalling lack of freedom when encountering challenges: There are a dozen apparent ways to attempt to solve a problem. One of them is correct. Retry until you guess right.
Most missions require a certain degree of foreknowledge. Going into a situation, you never know if you will need a fast car, a heavy car, a motorcycle, or if you will be fighting on foot. Will you fight many weak foes (bring a pistol) or a single strong one (bring a shotgun) or will you need to be shooting while driving? (Bring a submachine gun.) You have to try a mission a few times to know what you’re up against and use that knowledge to prepare, but then the game thwarts attempts to otherwise use that knowledge to your advantage. You have to use some foreknowledge, but not too much, and only when the game allows.
… *Shamus details the truly awful mission design*
I have a perfect picture in my mind of how this mission is supposed to go: I get to the garage just as the car with Sal is pulling away. Then I have a high-speed chase across town, but the bad guys pull away from me. They park the car at the crusher and step away, thinking they won. Then I fly in, nab the car out from under the crusher at the last second and narrowly make my escape in a hail of bullets.
The author of this mission isn’t designing a game, he’s writing a movie scene, and I’m acting as a stuntman who isn’t allowed to read the script. I have to feel around for the railroad plot and figure out my place in it. If this was in any other game, players wouldn’t stand for this sort of thing. In a lot of ways GTA is a terrible game that takes place in an outstanding gameworld with high production values.
The GTA games have always sucked as actual games. The missions are overly “polished,” with no real room for gameplay. The shooting is just aiming and pressing the trigger button. The driving is incredibly shallow compared to a serious driving game. And it’s not like there’s that much else to do.
Back to Bloomberg.
Moves like these once seemed unthinkable for a company whose best-selling franchise is a satirical depiction of America that involves playing gangsters who kill civilians and where women are mostly depicted as sex objects. Grand Theft Auto V was a nihilistic parody that threw insults at everything, from right-wing radio hosts to liberal politicians. Inside the company, the tone wasn’t much different. Rockstar employees described a workplace culture full of drinking, brawling and excursions to strip clubs. The company was an early symbol of an industry-wide problem of long hours at the office, known as crunch, in which staff were expected to be at their desks many nights and weekends in order to keep a game on schedule.
GTA 5 was one of the most overhyped games of all time. I never played it myself, aside from one quick session at a friend’s house, but it followed the very predictable course of all GTA titles.
Which is to say that it got absurdly good critic reviews, followed by very mediocre audience reviews. That’s because critics like the combination of things that can be best summed up as “polish,” while the audience wants an actual game.
And the GTA games aren’t even games, because the gameplay is so shallow. Instead they’re more like cartoonish city simulators where you can go on rampages everywhere if you’d like. I guess that offers some appeal, and the only thing I ever did in those games that was actually enjoyable was going on rampages, so I understand. But it’s a shallow experience that quickly wears thin.
And as for this supposedly biting satire, Shamus Young again had a great article on that.
Then there’s the Pisswasser commercial, which is a swipe at American beer… Drinkers? Manufacturers? Advertisers? I have no idea. It depicts beer not as a product for blue-collar American workers, or even as a product for rednecks, but as a product for hayseed yokels. The commercial features stereotypical inbred hillbillies, drinking beer. One of them has sex with a pig.
This isn’t how beer commercials look. It’s not how beer companies see themselves. It’s not how beer drinkers see themselves. It’s not how beer drinkers see beer commercials. It’s not even an exaggeration of any of those things. (For my money, this is a far smarter satire of beer commercials. Although I suppose that’s more a parody of advertising tropes than beer. Still. At least the writer is familiar with the topic they’re lampooning.) The writer has marched out on stage saying, “HUR DUR. BEER IS SO DUMB. AMERICA LIKES BEER. AMERICA IS DUMB.”
It’s like if I tried to make fun of Scotland so I made a commercial about five guys all named Angus who wear kilts, play the bagpipes, and are paedophiles. That’s not a satire of Scotsmen. That’s just the three most shallow things an outsider can name, along with a bit of mean-spirited cultural slander.
Not only is this not satire, it’s also not particularly funny. It’s shallow, lazy, ugly, and wrong. It says more about what the designers think about America than it does about America itself. It’s why I find the humor in this game to be off-putting. This isn’t a playful swipe at the United States and its many satire-worthy shortcomings, this is a mean-spirited mockery of the American people, perpetrated by someone who doesn’t seem to understand their target.
I included the “satirical” video above.
How can you swing and miss at a beer commercial? These things have a gigantic bulls-eye painted on them by way of many well-known and time-honored tropes:
- The ads always talk about snow-capped mountains and nature, implying that the product comes from the rocky mountains and not from an industrial facility in Mexico.
- The ads have this heavy-handed subtext that opening one of these beers will cause loads of conventionally-attractive women to show up and be instantly charmed by whoever owns the beer. That’s ridiculous and everyone knows it and yet this style of commercial is older than I am. That’s practically an entire joke in itself. Just change the subtext into text.
- Like all drinks, the ads are selling self-image. It’s all vague and obvious: Hard work. American Pride. Friendship. Can-do attitude. Integrity. It doesn’t matter if these ideas are real or not. If you want to satirize a beer commercial, just take that same voice-over and juxtapose it with dissonant or contradictory images. Easy.
- The commercials often tie themselves to totally unrelated imagery like race cars, American football
, horses, pickup trucks, or other things that people like. It’s easy to push this into satire by loosening the connection between the aspirational object and the beer itself. The commercial is basically saying “Our company likes whatever stuff you like.” So make that explicit in the voiceover rather than implied. Make it sound like the narrator is willing to say anything for the viewer’s approval. Have them claim to like contradictory things. Have it start off with familiar stuff and then spiral into surreal desperation as the commercial goes on.
The point is that in order to properly satirize a beer commercial, you need to imitate them. Copy the existing form, but change some part to make them more “true”. Having a hillbilly screw a pig doesn’t make any sense, since it is both less true and less like a beer commercial. (If you’re trading in crass tropes, then lower and middle-class people drink beer, and hillbillies drink homemade moonshine.)
The “satire” in these games is not particularly clever or even satirical. It’s just mean-spirited and lazy “hurr durr these people are dumb,” tier “humour.”It’s mockery, not satire, and not particularly intelligent or competent even as mockery.
But now they won’t even be doing any somewhat funny mockery, which they could do with trannies and BLM/George Floyd, because their (((executives))) at Take Two came and put the hammer down. I expect GTA 6 to get even more glowing critic reviews and be an even more empty and worthless consoomerist experience as a result.
These games have always been well polished turds, being the complete triumph of slickness over actual substance. Only now they’ll also be pushing the politics of our parasite class pretty much explicitly.