Stray Toughts: Press “X” to antagonize.

That we saw this one coming, doesn’t mean we should just brush it off.

It’s official now: Telltale Games is truly done for. It was an inevitable outcome, taking into account the financial and creative issues that had been simmering within the company for years. Doesn’t make it any less heartbreaking though.

It seems like only yesterday we were mourning their near-extinction (or at the very least I am. I still play Tales and Wolf Among Us as often as I can), when a game in particular, from a totally different developer, stole the spotlight in a similar fashion. That aforementioned game being Read Dead Redemption 2, and said fashion being… complex.

Controversial seems more accurate, come to think of it.

Rockstar Games is widely recognized (and to be fair, deservedly so) as one of the most noteworthy game developers in the industry nowadays, up there in company of the likes of Naughty Dog (the Uncharted and The Last of Us series), Bethesda Game Studios (the Elders Scrolls and Fallout series) and the Nintendo EPD Team (First-party Nintendo titles). When it comes to Rockstar, the level of polish and overall attention to detail that is on display with every single one of their games, often walks a very thin line between jaw-droppingly impressive and, as of late, eye-brow-raising obsessiveness. Case on point, in RDR2, your horses testicles do shrink in the cold. Really makes you wonder what the person who found out was doing at the time.

Horse anatomy and attention to detail aside, Read Dead Redemption 2 has taken the industry by storm ever since the reviews started pouring in. The animation, physics, jaw-dropping graphics and the way the game has managed to surpass expectations due to its ground-breaking realism, Rockstar Games has begun to show the signs of a fine wine: the older it gets, the better it gets. But as it turns out, when creating coverage for said game, reviewers and news editors alike have praised the game, just as much as they’ve pointed out the fair amount of accusations and troubling reports regarding the work conditions under the which its developers crafted the game. I believe that in order to better understand how this came to be, we need to take a look back in the company’s history. If we truly wish for the game industry to keep moving forward, we need to be aware of how far we’ve made it, as well as the long road ahead of us still.

So let’s stop beating around the bush and look no further than their latest addition to the Grand Theft Auto series: Grand Theft Auto V.

Released way back in 2013, right from the get go, Grand Theft Auto V could easily be described or recognized by one phrase: F*cking impressive. An undeniable commercial success and constantly cited as one of the most remarkable games in the 7th home console generation, the game’s scale and technical achievements were, at the time and taking into consideration the limitations of the then current-gen hardware, truly groundbreaking. That’s one way to use a $265 million budget.

The thing is, there’s was catch to said success. If there’s any other adjective that can be used to accurately describe a project such as this one (and by extension the company behind it), it’s controversial. While an undeniably fun experience that oozes thrills, has no shortage of must-share anecdotes and perfectly showcases Rockstar’s philosophy and finesse when it comes to game design(on a purely technical level), another hallmark that’s come to define the company as a whole by now is their carelessness when approaching narrative as a whole. While Read Dead Redemption 2’s issues lie in its clunky controls and slowly paced game mechanics, back in it’s day (GTA V type of day), Rockstar made a resounding impression all across the gaming industry due to how it crossed the line and delivered an action-packed thrill ride that also happened to be misogynistic, racist and lazy when approaching themes that were unequivocally meant to get people talking about the game.

So yeah, you could say they delivered the whole package. Blatantly obvious warts and all.

Does a single game in Rockstar’s repertoire reflect the entire company’s beliefs and values? No. The original Read Dead Redemption remains a surprisingly solid game, despite being released almost 9 years ago. L.A Noire is still one of their most ambitious titles ever released. Neither of these had any controversies surrounding a hot-coffee mod or misogynistic tendencies, right? Right. They’re slightly flawed examples of what a game developer can create when enough effort, boldness and creativity is poured into a project.

And besides, the issues surrounding this games are only related to crunch/working overtime and employee exploitation. No big deal.

Oh, wait.

Rockstar Games has had a long history with taking advantage of its employees. There’s no sugar coating it. In the past couple weeks, more than enough has been said regarding the company’s unethical working conditions. To make matters worse, this issues have been present throughout Rockstar’s history, dating all the way back to the development and release of the original Red Dead Redemption. Consistency, both good and bad, appears to be their motto.

Sure, there’s plenty of individuals within the company that feel the extra hours put into these games have been necessary and worth it, but the point remains as clear as day: While the polish and quality of the games this company has delivered is unquestionable, the work conditions that have led to said games are inexcusable.

Am I being to harsh? Biased? Probably. I know the benefits and down-sides of working my a** off. I understand that in order to buy myself my very own PS4 and a whole bunch of games I’ve been aching to play for up to 6 years, I had to work for 2 months straight, 6 days a week and 7 hours a day. Tit for tat. Much like my own struggle, I also understand that making videogames isn’t a straight-forward endeavor. Games such as God of War, Super Mario Odyssey or Gears of War 4 didn’t just pop out of the ground like daisies. Even flagship, genre-defining gems such as Halo 2 had less-than-ideal development cycles. Taking this examples into consideration, it’s fair to say that making videogames isn’t a walk in the park. Thing is, the fact that it’s hard, doesn’t mean it isn’t worth it. But something that some developers and publishers need to understand, is that the previously mentioned fact does NOT mean that in order to get those games, the people behind them should be left out of the credits if they don’t “pull their own weight”, nor does it mean that employees should be grateful about being laid off (without severance) because they “need to see the bigger picture”, or that they should stop whining that they were forced to stay in the office longer than they are being payed for.

It’s ridiculous that we need to reiterate this, but then again, the remaining choice is staying silent and allowing this to continue happening without acknowledging just how wrong it is.

Now back to GTA V. While the missteps of one game shouldn’t come to define the development studio as a whole, said issues do show a lack of concern from it’s higher-ups and designers to properly address strong thematic elements, a clear lack of interest in going beyond shock value and spectacle, as well as avoiding the use of its narrative and game mechanics to communicate to it’s considerable audience something genuinely compelling and worth spending dozens of hours in.

For the sake of my criticism being at least partially constructive, here’s what I think could have been done: The acknowledgement of how women and minorities are still treated to this day (like sh*t basically), as well as the consequences this can have in said individuals and society; using its main and supporting characters alike to make players see how issues such as racism, verbal (and physical) abuse and stigmas can drive an individual to make questionable choices; how freedom of speech can often become a double-edged sword when approached carelessly. These are all intriguing questions or themes that could’ve been explored in Grand Theft Auto V. After all, it’s a game that, even approximately 5 years after its initial release, is still being played by consumers and supported by its developers. Ripe with potential, but sadly, an experience that appears to settle for style over substance.

Is it absolutely necessary for developers to explore said themes? Do games have the obligation of delivering anything else than thrills, bombastic action set-pieces or quite simply a form of escapism in its most raw and unadulterated state? Take Sunset Overdrive as an example. A brightly colored, stylistic and fun Xbox One exclusive, developed by none other than Insomniac Games way back in 2014. That game, while not a masterpiece and packing its fair share of missteps and annoyances, still managed to captivate its audience, thanks to a clear sense of identity. It knew its focus or hook wasn’t drama, high personal stakes or a complicated narrative, overflowing with subtext or allegory. It was, to put it simply, an energetic, dumb and “unabashedly enthusiastic” third person shooter that a lucky few got to enjoy. Good thing it’s coming to PC, huh? If Saints Row is your cup of tea, Sunset Overdrive will be right up your alley.

Which begs the question: If Insomniac can make a game like this, why can’t Rockstar?

Does Rockstar actually need to deliver a complex narrative? Should GTA V strive for anything more than a satirical, detailed and ambitious piece of entertainment? Would the game benefit from it?

Yeah, I think it would.

You see, the real problem with the game lies in its commitment (or lack thereof) to tackling the issues and themes it brings up. That torture scene is gruesome enough as it is, but due to the lack of commentary or weight in Trevor’s story arch (he’s the character who participates in the scene as the torturer), the entire scene comes across as jarring, unnecessary, and for some (including myself), even repulsive. The depiction of women in-game doesn’t fare any better, and overall, the best way to describe the satire that the game constantly bombards you with is ultimately shallow. It doesn’t make the gameplay feel more meaningful, nor does it make its characters any more interesting. It’s just there, blasting through your car stereo as you speed through Los Santo’s streets and avenues, trying to squeeze a laugh out of you, even if it is fueled by sarcasm. Whether it’s a mission that is definitely not making a reference to Lindsay Lohan, or a minigame where you “make it rain” on a female stripper, Grand Theft Auto V tries to make you believe it’s smart and bold in the themes it explores. Problem is, the game actively choses to reinforce said stigmas. Through it’s 40-ish hour long campaign experience, GTA V never strives for anything more than excess and bare-bones satire. While undeniably overflowing with content and detail, said components are overshadowed by the half-baked ideas in its narrative and what ends up feeling like the apotheosis of nihilism in western society.

I know, I know. Too many fancy words. To sum up, while I can’t help but admire the hard work and polish that its developers put into every nook and cranny of the game, that doesn’t mean that I believe that the games issues are easy to overlook. Much like the latest entry in Ubisoft’s Far Cry series, Far Cry 5, the later game walks a precariously thin line between considerably intriguing and yawn-inducingly cautious in the themes it explores (the current political climate, religious extremism and manipulation coming from men and women in positions of power), but ultimately choses to play it safe. Both games suffer due to this lack of commitment and overall laziness, and while both game’s visuals, level of polish and fun-factor are all but undeniable, the same goes for their often frustrating flaws and, like I previously mentioned, disappointingly missed potential.

Games are a form of entertainment that can (and has) reached heights that not even its developers could’ve imagined. Rockstar games is one of the most renowned developers in the industry, and with the recent release of Read Dead Redemption 2, they’ve demonstrated that they can deliver. They are talented. They are passionate. They are bold. Said boldness doesn’t come free of cost though. Being the powerhouse that they are, I believe that Rockstar has a responsibility to be more tactful and conscious of the themes and ideas they chose to explore. Same goes for the way it decides to treat its employees.

Loot-boxes and crunch have become part of the vocabulary that best summarizes what this industry is all about, at the very least at the present time. We can do better than this. Taking advantage of consumers will never be acceptable, but neither should it be to ridicule developers (and by extension their efforts) and individuals, simply because they’re delivering a product that’s not to our liking. We as consumers are putting our money and time on the line, just as much as the designers, animators and writers that make said games. Instead of making fun of them, how about we try to speak our minds in a civilized, respectful way?

Did I do this in this article? I certainly hope so. I don’t hate or mean to make Rockstar Games look bad. I highly respect all of the developers currently employed by the company. While their games are not the type of experiences I enjoy, I can certainly appreciate the level of detail, passion and care that went into creating the city of Los Santos, the driving mechanics within the game, its ambition and all of its visual flair and tiny details that make the experience so damn impressive. It’s a game that shouldn’t be able to work as well as it does on last-gen consoles, and yet, Rockstar decided to give it a shot. And it worked. And it had a couple of misfires, at least from my point of view. While I admire the look and feel of the game, I think that GTA V is the perfect example of the point I’m trying to make: Rockstar Games is a studio that, while filled with talented, needs to pay close attention to the themes it decides to tackle, just as much as it needs to take better care of its own employees. It’s proven time and time again that it can deliver experiences that can defy and surpass all expectations. I sincerely hope it starts treating its own employees in a similar fashion.

Games are a form of entertainment with constantly tapped potential. This year alone, we got to enjoy the likes of Forza Horizon 4, Celeste, God of War, Dead Cells, Hitman 2 and yes, Read Dead Redemption 2. It’s been an awesome year for games. And so was the previous one. And the one before that. For every Star Wars Battlefront 2, we got a Titanfall 2 to even things out. Every time a title like Mass Effect Andromeda or Assassin’s Creed Unity has seen the light of day before it’s ready for it, another one such as Assassin’s Creed Odyssey or (hopefully) the upcoming Anthem, have come to redeem a developer’s credibility and talent.

We all can contribute to make this industry even better than it already is. Mark Brown for example, is currently working on a series of videos devoted to Accessibility in games, and how a handful of tweaks can make them available and, as the title of his series suggests, accessible for everyone, no matter your physical or mental limitations. For every video such as this one, the game community has answered with one like this (thanks Games for Change!).

So yeah, I think we can all do better. We already are. Let’s just keep the streak/combo going. It’s nice being nice after all.

References

My deepest thanks to all the authors and news editors that provided the information needed for this article.

Writer. Not well-known, but still.

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