Grand Theft Auto V and the Challenges of Too Much Freedom

You’ve probably heard of Grand Theft Auto V. It’s a video game which, depending on who you believe, is either a harbinger of the apocalypse or great fun. Titles in the Grand Theft Auto (or GTA) series are analysed, criticised and lauded more than any other games in history. I’m absolutely certain that the creators, Rockstar, love it this way. I’m writing about it! You didn’t see me wading in with a blog when I bought Little Big Planet Karting, did you? A question that keeps coming back to me when I read all the furore around the game is this: “Is GTA a “good” game, or not?” Good, in the sense that beyond the superficiality of its graphics and gameplay, is there something about the position it puts you in as a player which devalues its obvious achievements?

Commercially, it’s an unprecedented success. Technically, it’s astonishing. I know this, because unlike most people writing about GTA, I own it. It’s beautiful to look at, there are people wandering around the streets of Los Santos who you can believe lead real, meaningful lives. You should take a look at the GTA V trailer from the Rockstar site to see for yourself. In the way that good cinema guides you into suspending your disbelief about the obvious unreality of what you see on screen, GTA creates an immersive world where you’re not distracted by the mechanics. There are no rogue boom mikes or wobbling walls here.

Our three "heroes"
Our three "heroes"

What there is is a huge world in which you can galumph around shooting people, or run people over with a myriad of different vehicles, or simply punch people in the nose. You’re rewarded for stealing things. You won’t get anywhere without murdering a few policemen. There’s an aggressive dog that will bite people for you. You play alternately as three characters – one of whom in particular is an unhinged psychopath. It doesn’t sound very nice, does it? No wonder commentators are up in arms.

You could of course spend your time sightseeing, listening to your choice of music as you gently explore the countryside. Follow it up with a yoga session or some tennis. Watch some TV, go online and play the stock market. It’s all there if you want it.

There are two distinct elements of the game, something which those who shriek loudest seem to miss. The core game involves completing missions in which you play a criminal trying to commit crimes. Now, if you don’t like the premise, that’s entirely fair enough. All I’d ask is for you to be consistent and recognise a common trope with crime films and novels which revel in the excitement and escapism of grand imaginary law-breaking. However, this may very well not be your genre and that’s a reasonable position to take.

The other side of GTA is the one which causes more trouble – the freedom given to the player to operate almost at will in a hyper-real world of minimal consequences. Rockstar has created an environment where you can guide your character into unpleasant situations and enjoy them. You can be violent and misogynistic if you like. Nothing terrible will happen to your character. Frankly, you could die in a gunfight with police after punching a random woman to death and it’s not going to affect your game a great deal. Does that make Rockstar culpable for your choices, or worse, guilty of promoting them? By giving the player great freedom, are they handing over too much responsibility?

Games are unique in offering you the opportunity to step into a fantasy world and control the actions of another character. Lots of games involve killing people or things, for two reasons – one, a bit of threat is exciting, and two, it's an easy thing to explain to players - point at that, shoot it. Grand Theft Auto lets you do this to innocent characters and offers virtually no judgement. Does that make it "bad"? I think this is the crux of the matter. Is it wrong for a game to allow you to control your character in such a way? GTA is exceptionally knowing. It's laden with sarcasm, is ruthless in its satirical swipes at the worst of American culture, and it ultimately seems to be saying, "Yes, our characters are nasty, but look at the world! Is that actually any better?"

Now you can buy that argument or not, but games always leave the player in control of their responses to the situation in front of them. In the end, what might be the cause of most concern to people criticising GTA is not the game itself, but the questionable human emotions it stirs in some players. Is GTA a "good game"? Unquestionably yes. What it isn't is morally unambiguous, or real. And whether you consider that to be a good or bad thing might depend on how confident you are in making those judgements about yourself.