Grand Theft Auto V Hype’s War on Criticism

September 17, 2013

Hazlitt regular contributor Navneet Alang writes about the weirdness and wonder of modern techno-culture. He has a PhD that is technically in English...

If the world seems just a bit stickier this week, I regret to inform you that it’s not due to the last gasps of a humid summer. After months of teasing and buildup, Grand Theft Auto V will burst upon the world on September 17th in an eruption of gamer delight—and, well, if that controller isn’t yours, I wouldn’t touch it before giving it a wipedown.

The impending gaming orgy, however, will be accompanied by a similarly lubricious and inescapable torrent of reaction and response. This came to a head on Monday when the embargo on reviews lifted and writing about the game threatened to flood the world in an ooze of—this is generous—cultural critique.

Such a rapturous and enthusiastic welcome for the game is the logical extension of Hype, that pulsing undercurrent that is both the cause and effect of mass-market entertainment. Hype—the circulation of excited chatter in advance of an object of entertainment or art—has become the norm for any “blockbuster” title or franchise. Be it a Batman film, a Pynchon novel, an HBO series, or breathlessly discussed game, Hype is the inescapable force that pushes a work to the cultural forefront and demands a response. Hype is “what people are talking about right now.”

Hype is thus always a game of identification. Align yourself with the Hype, or angrily reject it—those are your choices. But in that swirl of reactive self-inscription, it is the start of Hype—in its innocuous-seeming cousin, The Tease—that is most interesting. It is there that the pernicious effects of Hype do their worst, fostering mediocrity and foreclosing criticism.

Over the years, Grand Theft Auto has become such a cultural event in large part because its open-ended gameplay allows it to be all things to all people. The vast majority of those who buy GTA games never finish them; instead, they simply wander around the massive digital landscapes, “doing stuff.” To the uninitiated, it sounds vapid, but it can be rewarding and creative, too.

The other reason GTA is so popular, though, is that Rockstar, who make the series, have become masters of marketing.Teases are released months or years in advance, showing only a sketch outline of the world players might inhabit—glimpses of what one can do—but never more.

It works so well because, at its core, Hype is possibility, particularly in its genesis as The Tease. The Tease paints a vague, impressionist image of what is being sold, leaving us to fill in the spaces with our desire for the perfect piece of entertainment. Having caught a glimmer of, say, the wide open spaces or planes flying across the world of GTA V, players can project their future selves into the seemingly limitless freedom they are going to be allowed.

It extends beyond games. Whether Hans Zimmer’s thunderous score in the Man of Steel trailer, the winks and whispers around Fifty Shades of Grey, or the endless rumours about Apple’s latest, it is precisely the emotional pull of the indefinite, the unfinished, and the promise of more that sustains Hype.

Hype-as-possibility thus also provides a way to project our longings into a yet-to-be-formed space. Over the weeks and months, as the object of our craving draws closer, we are able to place into that absence our desires for entertainment, art, and culture.

So let’s say you’re a game creator, or a Hollywood exec, or the head of Kanye’s marketing team: having instilled this lust in a fan base—having simultaneously created the desire for your product and the expectation that such desire will be fulfilled—do you run the risk of doing something innovative and challenging? Or do you, like Joss Whedon making the The Avengers, simply give fans what they want?

Because the long cycle of Hype is one of the few ways to produce the necessary expectation to punch through the noise to create a mainstream success, novelty, unfamiliarity and artistic innovation become obstacles. If Hype is the fire of the entertainment marketing industry, it does not burn—is not passed around excitedly online; does not inspire thinkpieces, forum chatter, and blog posts—if the fuel is not recognizable, neatly digestible spectacle and gloss. It is not that mass market Hollywood film, gaming, or the music industry are themselves creatively bankrupt; it’s that the cycle of Hype relies on creating desire that must be then fulfilled for as many as possible by appealing to the broadest, lowest common denominator.

The frothing reaction to Grand Theft Auto from the enthusiast press, who predominantly write consumer advice rather than criticism, was thus not a phenomenon separate from the title or its marketing. The tease, the buildup, the months-long aching arousal, and the critical release upon launch are how entertainment fits into our lives and the economy.

It’s all a royal mess, and was delightfully skewered by critic Leigh Alexander, whose deadpan, satirical review takes to task the group who should act as a roadblock for the convoy of Hype, rather than its cheerleaders: critics. In it, Alexander also suggests that GTA V might be misogynistic, as does this quite smart review at Gamespot—which then goes on to give Grand Theft Auto V its Editor’s Choice Award.

It’s as if in the torrent of Hype, political critique is another kind of roadblock. It interrupts the flow of desire and pleasure with the harsh, jarring reminder of things-that-are-not-fun. Another “low” 3.5/5 score for GTA V from a reviewer who called out the game’s sociopathic protagonists was treated as heresy amongst core gamers, in no small part because it was a dissenting voice amongst a roar of accolades and praise. As it turns out, what Hype cannot bear is criticism, a lone “no” among an ocean of “yes”—as if what sustains it is only forward movement, rather than the nobility or desirability of thing being Hyped itself.

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Hazlitt regular contributor Navneet Alang writes about the weirdness and wonder of modern techno-culture. He has a PhD that is technically in English Literature, but was really just about Twitter.