Like clockwork, there’s another Grand Theft Auto outrage brewing.
Why? Because this time it’s in first-person.
Yes, GTA 5, the best-selling mayhem simulator from Rockstar Games, has just been re-released with a first-person mode for PS4 and Xbox One.
While the game is essentially the same as that released last year – with all the trademark violence, sexism and callous dark humour you expect by definition from the title – it also allows you to take a different perspective – literally – on proceedings.
Previously in GTA, you viewed almost everything from a third-person perspective, controlling your character from above.
In the new version, you can choose to zoom down into the character’s head – and view everything as they see it.
Yes, this means everything. You can kill people as if you’re doing it, go to strip clubs and gawp at cartoony half-naked dancers, and — indeed — hire a prostitute and get her to perform a sex act on you in your car. You can shoot dogs, run over mimes, blow up passenger aircraft and murder literally thousands of people.
It looks like this:
And is has caused a reaction. The New York Daily News called it the “most graphic version yet”. IB Times called it “nightmarish”. Daily Mail said it was “outrageous”. The Mirror, to its credit, is a bit more philisophical. Business Insider said the game featured “realistic” sex with prostitutes.
Clearly this stuff isn’t for everyone. And if you found GTA to be offensive, or just caustically stupid, before the latest release, you still will. It is brutal and horrible. In first person, some people might feel those reactions more intensely. But the game is also still funny, silly and addictive. If you loved it before, you still will. The game is an 18 for a reason – it assumes its customers to be adults, capable of making an active choice about the content and tone of their entertainment. There are limits too – there are no kids in GTA, for instance, which hints at the fact the game does have moral boundaries, though it pretends not to.
But there are two things this latest version of GTA 5 is not.
The first, in my view, is that GTA in first-person is not by definition more offensive than in third-person. While the crimes you can commit in the game are perhaps more visceral and chaotic in the game’s (imperfect, mechanically) FPV mode, they are also (having played the game) somewhat more comical too. The cartoony, over-the-top faces and style of the graphics are just more obvious in first person, and that lessens their impact.
Sometimes first-person gives the violence some added brutality. Hitting someone with your car in first-person is horrifying, with the heavy thud of a body and the smashing of bloodied glass, whereas in third-person it’s obviously intended to be comic, and is more ‘distant’ from the player.
But at times the first-person violence is less graphic than before, too. There are no realistic wounds or mutilations in GTA, and while in third-person your imagination often fills in those blanks, in first person it makes you more aware that these characters are puppets, not fragile human beings.
And no, it doesn’t feel like ‘you’re really there’ – not any more than Call of Duty feels like you’re ‘really’ a soldier, or Forza feels like you’re ‘really’ driving a car. It’s an obviously abstract, non-real experience, playing on a 2D screen via a plastic controller. We used to think Grand Theft Auto 1 was a ‘realistic’ crime sim and the tabloids reacted accordingly. That game was a top-down, one-dimensional, pixelated daub by comparison to GTA 5. No doubt we will look back on this game in 20 years and feel exactly the same.
The second thing GTA 5 is not is a “realistic” prostitution simulator. Those scenes in particular are definitely weird and — if someone else is in the room watching you play the game — utterly humiliating. But they are not sexually explicit or graphic, showing less actual nudity than the average HBO series.
And as for ‘realistic’? The ‘reality’ of prostitution is a billion complex perspectives on an often brutal, but seemingly endemic trade that utterly defies the possibility of realistic treatment in a game. It is women being forced into the sex trade by their families. It is (depending on your statistical method) up to £4.3 billion spent on sex in Britain per year. It’s students selling their bodies to pay university fees. It is beyond my experience, and the experience of most GTA players.
And in this context, the ‘realistic’ prostitution in GTA — driving up to a garish-looking, pretty poorly-drawn 3D model in fishnets, watching her bob up and down on you for 10 seconds and then driving off again with a press of ‘R2 — is, yes, pathetic and pointless. But it is not realistic. It couldn’t be, and doesn’t attempt to be, and the result is that it’s only as offensive as it was before.
The point is that GTA in first-person is different, but mostly the same as GTA in third-person. For some people it is a darkly funny, defiantly intense way to let off steam in a ridiculous fantasy version of LA. For others it’s an off-putting, perhaps sickeningly callous and puerile way to spend your time.
In first-person it’s possible your reaction will be intensified either way, or not. But just shifting the camera doesn’t mean GTA has crossed the Rubicon of bad taste. It’s on the same side as you thought it was 12 months ago.