I’ve been playing a lot of Grand Theft Auto V recently. This won’t be a full review of that game; I’ll just leave you with an overview of my thoughts on it. It’s fun, but I don’t think it really deserves the 10/10s it’s been getting. The writing and humor are excellent, and some of the fake websites you can access on the in-game Internet make it worth the price I paid for a used copy. The game is also beautiful; some of the sunsets are as breathtaking on-screen as IRL California sunsets would be. On the other hand, I think it has some fairly serious flaws. I don’t know why they changed the driving controls—it’s now R2 to accelerate and L2 to brake in cars, while it was the X and Square buttons on the PS2 games (I skipped over Grand Theft Auto IV; fro, what I understand it also has the R2-L2 system). You can change it back, but it’s still odd. More importantly, the police are now super-annoying (you can’t escape them just by going into a Pay N Spray anymore) and the car controls seem much worse; even with maximum driving skills, it seems like the slightest bump from another car will make yours careen out of control. Finally, there’s a bit less character customization. In GTA: San Andreas, you could change the main character’s clothes, hair and beard, and give him tattoos, but you could also make him fat (by eating out a lot) or really buff (by going to the gym a lot). While there are three main characters in GTAV and you can give all of them different clothes, hair, and tattoos, you can’t make them fat or muscular like you could in San Andreas, which is mildly disappointing. There’s as much character customization as you could want in GTA: Online (it comes with the GTAV CD, i.e it’s played as a part of GTAV), but the problem with that is the game suffers from loading problems if you’re signed into the Internet, and as far as I know they haven’t fixed that (fairly serious) glitch yet. Bad moves, Rockstar.
That’s not really what I’d like to spend much time talking about today, though. I’d rather like to discuss morality in video games, and some thoughts on the subject I’ve began to entertain after playing the latest GTA.
First, I should note I’ve not played all these games. I’ve only played Grand Theft Auto III, Vice City, San Andreas, and now Grand Theft Auto V. I haven’t played I, II, or IV or any spinoffs/expansions. So maybe the other entries in the series contain elements that refute the analysis I’m about to give you. If so, feel free to correct me in the comments—I’ll appreciate it!
Now, in case anyone doesn’t know, the thing with the Grand Theft Auto games is that you play as a criminal. And an exceedingly bad one, if you choose. You can buy assault rifles in game and slaughter hundreds of innocent people, buy a rocket launcher and blow up the police cars and helicopters that come to chase you if you do, and after that you can have sex with a prostitute to heal yourself if you’ve taken any damage, kill her afterwards to get your money back, and then kill the paramedics who come to save her and then take their ambulance. So, yes, you can choose to be incredibly depraved, but…
The game doesn’t really force you to be so.
Aside from optional “rampage” bonus missions where you get a higher score for killing tons of people, the main storylines of the games don’t force you to do really abominable things like kill lots of innocent civilians. They may involve immoral crimes, of course—drug/weapons trafficking, you often have to rob banks or hijack vehicles for some story missions—but nothing as bad as mass murder. And most—virtually all, as far as I recall—of the people you have to kill are evil in their own ways as well, like corrupt cops, other criminals and bank robbers, dishonest paparazzi, and so on.
The protagonists aren’t pure evil either, and often have some positive qualities of their own. In GTA III, the protagonist was a typical silent, nameless hero (only given a name in GTA: San Andreas), but in Vice City, the main character Tommy Vercetti had a soft side. He was brutal and crazy, but also showed kindness to an old man who reminded him of his father. In San Andreas, protag CJ is depicted as a tough and brutal inner-city hoodlum, but he’s loyal to his friends and genuinely cares about his sister. And in GTAV, all three of the playable characters have their good points. Franklin (the black guy) is also tough and willing to kill if he has to, but he’s loyal to his friends, especially Michael, the second protagonist (middle-aged white guy). Mike is a former thief and robber, but he has a fatherly concern for Franklin and he also tries to be a good father to his actual kids, even though it’s almost impossible for him to do so, being a former criminal. The last protagonist, Trevor (skinnier white guy) is the most morally reprehensible, being a crazy drug addict who’s willing to kill nearly anyone. However, even he isn’t a complete reprobate. He’s fiercely loyal to his best friend (Michael) and looks out for the welfare of Michael’s children. So none of these guys are completely without any redeeming qualities. None of them are really evil.
And, to some extent, you’re not even allowed to be really evil either. You can kill bunches of people and steal stuff, but as far as I know, there are some things you can’t do in every GTA game. No rape, for instance. You can have sex with prostitutes (and kill them afterwards), and in San Andreas there was some controversy over an explicit sex scene hidden in the game, but you can’t hold anyone down (male or female) and have your way with them while they’re kicking and screaming and resisting. In GTA V, Trevor makes some threatening rape jokes (to other men), but that’s about it, as far as I’ve seen. Similarly, you can’t hurt or kill children in any of the games. They’re completely absent; there were supposed to be schoolbuses in GTA III, but were removed before the game was released, according to this article I found. It seems to me, again, that the game is outrightly forbidding the player from becoming truly, or at least absolutely irredeemably, evil. As horrible as killing lots of innocents may be, killing children is on a whole other level, an even worse one. That’s a line the Grand Theft Auto series isn’t willing to cross, despite how much it pushes the envelope.
What can we conclude about this? The conclusion I‘ve reached, at least, is that while it can be good to be bad, evil—pure, undeniable evil—just isn’t very fun. I can’t think of many games which force the player to be genuinely evil. Those that allow you to be, like Ogre Battle (as I praised here) give you a choice. Yes, you can go down the path of darkness, but you don’t have to, you can be a good guy if you want. And in those games where the plot requires you to be evil, such as, say, Dungeon Keeper or the Orcish campaign in Warcraft, there’s almost always an element of humor and levity to keep things from getting too dark. The Orcs genocide the Humans and other races in the Warcraft games, but they say goofy stuff like “stop poking me!!!” while doing so (if you click their units enough times). You play a villain trying to destroy a good kingdom in Dungeon Keeper, but the monsters and demons you summon are generally goofy rather than scary and there are a lot of jokes throughout the game. Video games are supposed to be fun, above all, and I think that most people would be weirded out rather than entertained if a game forced them to do really evil, reprehensible things, at least above a certain level. Thus, while Grand Theft Auto gives you the option to kill civilians, you don’t absolutely have to, and even if you choose to, you can’t kill kids or rape people. In games like Dungeon Keeper or Warcraft, you can play as evil, genocidal villains, but not usually as “pure,” straight-up villains, they always have a bit of humor added in.
Now, of course, public opinion plays a part in this too. If a game had rape or killing of children, it would probably accrue way too much controversy and get banned. There are rape games, of course, but those are only sold on places like DLsite or J-list (i.e, Japanese porn vendors), not on mainstream sites or places like Gamestop IRL. Still, I think evil’s lack of appeal is still a significant reason we don’t see too many games with truly and entirely morally bankrupt protagonists. Even if there were no constraints on the market, I doubt any game where you could kill kids wantonly or rape people would have much appeal outside of a very small niche. Evil just isn’t that much fun, and in the world of games, that means it’s not that profitable.