When it comes to stirring up a controversy about Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto series, just take your pick.
We've long moved past being alarmed by the idea of hiring and then mugging hookers or driving over pedestrians. We've seen more than our share of drug use, heard plenty of filthy language and become accustomed to the in-game nudity. The fifth installment, released Sept. 17, had to go big or go home, and Rockstar really swung for the fences.
The game has drawn the most fire for its mission "By the Book," which makes players torture a suspect for the FBI, even if you don't want to. After pulling the man's teeth out, shocking him with jumper cables, breaking his leg with a Stillson wrench or otherwise terrorizing him as he eventually begs for the sweet release of death, the game makes an odd turn and tries to paint you as the nice guy, because you don't believe the acts you just performed were necessary. There's a lengthy soliloquy about the wrongheadness of torture, which I assume is supposed to act as an element of moral satire.
But there's another portion of the game that makes me uneasy, and it's all the more troubling because of its popularity: The Vanilla Unicorn strip club.
It's not because all the strippers are topless, since really, what would you expect at a strip club? It's the minigame in the VIP room, in which the objective of your player is to grope the stripper performing a lap dance when the bouncer isn't looking. The goal here is to fill up the dancer's "Like" meter to the point where she wants to take you home for some offscreen sex, then reward you with discount lap dances in the future.
This one has its share of notoriety, too. It's plastered all over YouTube, and Conan O'Brien comically spent most of his time in the club while playing the game for a bit on his TBS show. But it seems there's little room for outrage on this one.
You know, the mission in which you molest and degrade a stripper with the intention of using her for sex. Most people don't seem to find anything wrong with that. At least, not in the context of Grand Theft Auto V.
Let there be no mistake — this is one fabulous piece of software. The immersiveness of the trademark sandbox gameplay, the coupling of a sprawling environment and engaging crime drama, is a milestone in video games. Slavering over the graphic violence and profane actions you can (quite literally) execute only goes so far. The Michael Mann-esque experience of the story and its mechanics is yet another step to realizing a true interactive, filmlike adventure.
The vicarious realization of base power fantasies is part of what drives GTA sales. There's a reason the game sold $1 billion in units in a mere three days, the fastest piece of entertainment in any medium to reach that benchmark, and it isn't because everyone wants to try out the lifelike driving physics. It's because the game, unlike an ultraviolent movie or book or even play (Richard III has children being murdered in it, remember), allows players to do things they in no way would do in reality.
Except in the case of the Vanilla Unicorn. And that's the problem.
Here we have a game that not only tolerates the debasement of women, it rewards it. Somehow it strikes me as being much worse than beating someone with a crowbar; maybe it's because I have a young daughter at home these days.
"Yes, these are exaggerations of misogynistic undercurrents in our own society, but not satirical ones," Gamespot's Carolyn Petit wrote. "With nothing in the narrative to underscore how insane and wrong this is, all the game does is reinforce and celebrate sexism."
While "By the Book" conveys, however clumsily, a sense that the act of torture is not only immoral, but misguided, a trip the Vanilla Unicorn contains no message other than, "Isn't this fun?" There's some true Clockwork Orange flavor mixed up in this attitude.
But who cares what I say? Change.org has launched one of its largest petitions ever, full of PC gamers demanding Rockstar and Take-Two Interactive port the title over to their systems, so they can play this paean to droogism. It has more than 500,000 signatures.
— Joshua Gillin writes about video games and entertainment news for tbt*. Feel free to challenge his opinons at firstname.lastname@example.org.