Sex in GTA 5, much like most other things in GTA 5, can now be enjoyed/endured in first-person mode. I can't help but find the scandal surrounding it a little wearying to say the least. Just because you're looking out through the eyes of the characters rather than controlling them in the third-person doesn't make the fact that you can have virtual sex with a virtual prostitute and then virtually kill her, if you choose to, any worse than before.
I've played a few hours of the new-gen version of GTA V, and the first-person mode does make a significant difference. Everything is a little more immediate, the painstakingly detailed world, scrubbed up to somehow look even better than it did last year, is more immersive than before. Los Santos fills more alive in this version, and I have to say that I really felt like I was a part of a living, breathing environment far more than I did in the original.
Perhaps it's for these reasons that people are getting uppity about the sex. True to form, the Daily Fail called it "outrageous", the IBTimes wheeled out some "experts" without any links to relative studies. To its credit, though, the Mirror delivered a very carefully-measured piece, highlighting that actually we still have absolutely no clear evidence just how much of an effect games have on real-life situations:
On the violence side, let's remind ourselves of the many studies and meta-analyses that have shown that there is absolutely no clearly defined link between violent video games and aggression in those who play them.
There is no established link between violent video games and real-world violence
In the few studies that do find a weak link between aggressive behaviour and video games, there tends to be little context: do games make you more aggressive that playing or watching a team sport like football, for example?
Now, let's be clear, video games seldom deal with sex particularly well. Part of it, when talking about the act itself, is the animation, of course -- no one wants to see mannequins bumping uglies. Whatever emotional capacity a gaming sex scene might have had is quickly lost when the entire thing disappears off into the uncanny valley like a burning car careening off of a cliff. The alternative is the sort of soft-focus fumbling seen in Mass Effect, which just made me laugh.
I laughed at the sex in GTA 5 too, wondering just how many teenagers (let's not kid ourselves about the reality of the situation) playing the game or seeing clips on YouTube would actually think that sex was essentially a twenty second grunt-and-cliche fest where the man does nothing, gets a resounding endorsement from his partner, and leaves with an empty wallet. Then I realised that might actually be a possibility, which made me stop laughing. Then I stared into the impassive, lumpy visage of the woman sat next to me in the car, and I just reflected on how sad the whole thing is.
It might surprise you that I actually don't spend my time going around the worlds of GTA picking up hookers left, right, and centre. There just always seem to be better things to do in these games. But I had to see what the fuss was about, and I found that far from proving titillating or even particularly offensive, the first-person view really rams home the mechanical nature of the act. It's thoroughly depressing and dehumanising stuff, a sleazy representation of a sleazy act. In that sense, as depressing as that is, GTA 5 might present one of the most emotionally-honest sex scenes in gaming -- representative of a culture losing intimacy to online porn, the continued commodification of sex and sexuality, something absolutely keeping in tone with the game's loose commentary on capitalist culture.
Of course, the dichotomy at the heart of GTA has always been that it is a series that can be incredibly clever in its satire, brutally pin-sharp at times, but it can frequently devolve into lowbrow stupidity and asinine controversy for the sake of it. Sometimes that brings levity, sometimes it falls flat. When confronted by Bloomberg "Players have the right to have sex with a prostitute and then kill her. Is this true?"Take-Two CEO Strauss Zelnick played the art card:
"Well, I don’t look at it that way at all. Look, this is a criminal setting. It’s a gritty underworld. It is art. And I -- I embrace that art, and it’s beautiful art, but it is gritty. And let’s not make -- you know, let’s not make no bones about the environment in which we operate. And we stand shoulder to shoulder with other major motion picture releases and major television shows that explore a similar universe. So yeah, this is a tough universe because it’s a criminal universe."
In a way, Rockstar are able to have their cake and eat it too in this regard. Is the dead-eyed, lamentable nature of sex in GTA 5 a biting commentary on the way in which sexual relationships are conducted these days, or is it just something thrown in there to piss off papers like The Mail? For me, at least, as the GTA games have moved closer and closer to home, eschewing the period nature of the 80s pantomime of Vice City and the 90s Boyz n the Hood saga of San Andreas, the message has become more depressing, the distance between satire and reality dwindling with each release. As that separation between the two begins to blur, I must admit to finding the GTA games more problematic, though that's not necessarily a bad thing.
In games like GTA 5, reflective as they are of real-world issues that persist in parallel, recognisable fashion, these dark scenarios are simply delivered as they are. You play despicable characters in GTA, Rockstar give you the chance to be able to do some despicable things, and that's only gotten more true as the years have rolled on. But as someone who values choice, I quite like that to a certain degree. I find myself checking my behaviour in-game far more than I used to -- partly because I'm older and more mature, and partly because GTA's brand of satire has become more relevant to the world I actually live in. You can do these things, but that doesn't mean you should.
Zelnick is right in one regard: we need to make no bones about the sort of game we're dealing with. In many ways, I felt GTA 5's characters were representations of the ways in which we play GTA games -- Franklin, the car-boosting, likeable anti-hero symbol of the underclass; Michael, the businessman out to make sick bank through illicit means and empire-building; Trevor, the rampaging psychopath. But now that we've arrived firmly in the present day, one wonders where Rockstar can take the series now. Are there any taboos left to exploit? Do the Houser brothers have anything new left to say? Will GTA actually just implode and become a parody of itself?
Has it reached that point already?