Body Count How Rockstar Deconstructed Gaming's False Morality
Published Jul 01, 2012Nathan Drake, the "hero" of the Uncharted series, is an Indiana Jones-type treasure hunter who cracks wise and makes women swoon. At least that's how he's presented. But if you actually think about the thousands of dead bodies he leaves strewn about historic sites, the guy's white hat seems awfully red.
Drake's not alone. Game after game stars heroes trailed by bloody wakes and not judged for it. This is where Rockstar Games ― the makers of antihero action game Max Payne 3 and subject of David Kushner's new book Jacked: The Outlaw Story of Grand Theft Auto ― have always differed from its competitors, and why they've always been "controversial." "The leap was radical," Kushner writes of the original GTA. "In the short history of games, players had always been the heroes, not the antihero."
But the pixilated protagonists in other games certainly weren't acting particularly heroic. Wouldn't these massive body counts at least make more sense being racked up bad guys? And while Max Payne is an cop-turned-bodyguard in his third outing ― and largely trades his old NYC stomping grounds for the more exotic climes of São Paulo, Brazil ― the fact that he kills as many henchmen as Drake is at least explained, if notably not justified, by his antiheroic character development. At no point does Rockstar try to put metaphorical Isotoner gloves over Payne's bloodstained hands.
It's been almost a decade since we last saw him and Payne is a mess. He's a hopeless drunk ― in fact, his ever-present wooziness is incorporated into the art direction, with the graphics regularly doubling up and strobing out as visual reminders about how wasted he is, both emotionally and physically. He's also psychologically damaged from his stint protecting the streets. He's not alone.
The game is full of damaged folks, not least of whom is Payne's Vietnam vet neighbour, who saves our antihero's ass in a flashback level by bursting, half-naked, into their mobster-invaded apartment hallway shouting "Come to me you sinners, you evil men! You were born in filth and squalor, but today you will be cleansed ― cleansed in fire!" Then he blows himself up.
It's dark, surreal and provocative ― not only are you saved by a suicide bomber, but he's clearly broken from his time fighting in an unjust war. Soldiers are supposed to be heroes, but this scraggly, pants-less PTSD sufferer hardly fits the traditional mould from games like Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon: Future Soldier.
Oh, and our ass needs saving in the first place because we killed the local mob boss's son, and all of his friends, after a drunken dispute in the bar where we were drowning our sorrows. Again.
The Max Payne franchise's film noire aesthetic suits this antiheroic outlook, but it also fits the studio's entire canon. Rockstar deconstructs modern gaming by pointing out the obvious: anyone who slaughters as many people as traditional game heroes do isn't much of a good guy. In fact, they might be psychopaths.
Rockstar emerged from DNA Studios, which created the original top-down Grand Theft Auto and employed future founders Sam and Dan Houser, whose British upbringing provided an outsider's perspective of American-style heroism. It usually takes decades before revisionist art like Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven takes hold and redefines early works. But the Housers have proffered this deconstructionist approach concurrently, especially once GTA III car-jacked pop culture.
Critics focus on the cop-and-hooker killing and reviewers proselytize about the open-world freedom, but what gives these games so much cultural impact is how they force us to see the shades of grey. The cops and politicians in the Grand Theft Auto games are corrupt, while the criminal stars, be they west coast gangbangers or Eastern European mobsters, also engage in heroic acts. Everyone in L.A. Noire seem soaked in evil. Red Dead Redemption's John Marston was once an outlaw, but he'd retired ― it's the government that takes him from his family and forces him to pick his six-shooter back up and kill his old gang.
Rather than making Drake more complex, creators Naughty Dog just made sure he's always attacked first. "We know sometimes it's jarring," they said of his killing sprees to CVG.com. "We go to great lengths not to make it any more jarring than it has to be."
But the Housers, as usual, go much further even though Payne's police background situates him as enough of a "good" guy to avoid controversy. Instead, they give him a self-awareness that doubles as an implicit attack on an industry that lacks the same.
"So I guess I'd become me what they wanted me to be, a killer. Some rent-a-clown with a gun who puts holes in other bad guys," Payne narrates, with hardboiled resignation. "Well, that's what they had paid for, so in the end that's what they got. I wouldn't know right from wrong if one of them was helping the poor and the other was banging my sister."