Experiences in Old Sports Games: Grand Theft Auto V

All sports games are divisive. Either you are a fan of the sport and its digital representation, or you find them utterly boring. And no sports game is quite as divisive along these lines as the golf video game. To most people, the idea of virtual golf is duller than than the pain of a lingering bruise. But to others it is a joy, if not an obsession. These players range from folks who enjoy a drunken game of Golden Tee at the bar, to the fans of EA’s Tiger Woods series, and finally to the madmen who still play Links. Capturing this audience is difficult, as there are only so many ways to distinguish a  new golf game from those that came before. This brings me to this week’s game:

This is the only game I've played since Tuesday so this is the game you're going to get.

This is the only game I’ve played since Tuesday so this is the game you’re going to get.

In 2013, Rockstar Games released its first foray into the highly competitive golf market with Grand Theft Auto V for the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3. Rockstar was previously known for its work in revolutionizing the world of virtual ping pong with Rockstar Games Presents Table Tennis as well as the wildly successful bowling title, Episodes from Liberty City. However these were just warm-ups for the Scottish developer as they prepared to tackle the national sport of their homeland.

Thank God no one is sensitive about racism towards the Scottish because this picture.  This picture.

Thank God no one is sensitive about racism towards the Scottish because this picture. This picture.

The name Grand Theft Auto V originates from a phrase in the Doric dialect of Old Scots, “graend ‘heft otta V”, which refers to a very specific set of circumstances in the game of golf, when the ball is removed from play on the green (the “graend ‘heft”)  by an otter or other woodland creature (the “otta”). This permits the golfer to take another swing from the “V”, which was the ancient equivalent to the golf tee–a v-shaped piece of wood used to hold the ball on the first drive that was in fashion before industrialization allowed for the mass production of proper tees.  Up until the invention of otter traps, this phrase was common parlance on the Old Course at St. Andrews.

“Aye! Ye baill gyan missin’.  Looken like a graend ‘heft otta V, taik ‘er back.”

Aye!  Nah again!

Aye! Nah again!

As demonstrated by its choice of title, Grand Theft Auto V seeks to return the sport of golf to its Scottish roots. Unlike in the United States, where golf is considered s port of privilege, only open to the wealthy, in Scotland it is considered a far more egalitarian affair. Some of the most famous courses in the world, including the aforementioned St. Andrews, are open to the public. There are several government-owned courses with subsidized fees that are accessible to everyone.

To further its goal of the democratization of golf, Grand Theft Auto V allows you to play as three characters from across the spectrum of social privilege. Rather than provide a selection of real golfers, these three golfers–Michael, Franklin, and Trevor–are fictional. Michael is a retired, wealthy man.  The kind you would expect to see on the golf course.  Franklin is an African-American of limited means, and Trevor is white trash incarnate.  In St. Louis, we would call Trevor a hoosier but anywhere else that’s just going to sound like he’s from Indiana.  St. Louis is weird about the word “hoosier”.  I don’t think Trevor is from Indiana.

Franklin enjoys a day on the golf course.

Franklin enjoys a day on the golf course.

Back in the Nintendo 64/Playstation 1 era, the days of games like Waialae Country Club: True Golf Classics, only including one golf course was acceptable. However, for a 2013 release, the inclusion of only a single 9 hole course was rather disappointing. This may be a reflection on Rockstar’s Scottish view of golf.  Rather than offer a variety of locations, which would be available to a jet-setting celebrity or CEO, Grand Theft Auto V encourages a laser-like focus on a single local course.

The location, in this case, is the fictional city of Los Santos. This is likely a licensing issue, as representing the existence of the course in any real city would pose a risk of brand confusion with any real course within that city. This may be disappointing to hardcore golf fanatics who have grown accustomed to the realism of the Tiger Woods series, but it’s not without reason. The specific layout of golf courses are protected from duplication or adaptation by the International Links Protection Agreement of 1998, which states that any recreation–physical or otherwise–of a protected property must be approved by a joint panel of judges selected from the U.S. judiciary, the Scottish Court of Session, and the International Court of Justice. EA, with its long-running series, has been willing to draft the necessary petitions and pay the necessary bribes, but Rockstar chose to forgo the hassle for its first attempt at a golf game. Incidentally, the poorly drafted definition of “links” in the 1998 ILPA is also the reason very few video games directly use the phrase “hot dog”, and instead use the generic “processed sausage”.

Two German diplomats had to die to make this possible. Don't ask which ones.

Two German diplomats had to die to make this possible. Don’t ask which ones.

The gameplay in Grand Theft Auto V is simple, and like Rockstar Games Presents Table Tennis easy for a beginner to jump into. The game automatically suggests the club, trajectory, and desired strength for each swing of the club. These suggestions aren’t perfect, and if you want to get under part, you’ll have to learn to tweak them, but they do just fine for the first time on the green. There’s also some light RPG elements, as each character levels up as you play. Swings can increase your strength, and running from hole to hole has a chance to increase stamina. Diving into the water hazards can also increase lung capacity, presumably allowing your golfer to yell “FORE!” with greater power.

In Grand Theft Auto V, golf is a surprisingly brutal sport.

In Grand Theft Auto V, golf is a surprisingly brutal sport.

As you’ll note in the screenshot above, Grand Theft Auto V fills the background of the golf course with virtual buildings.  Unlike most sports games, however, GTA V supplements its rather simple gameplay with the option to explore the area surrounding the course. You can walk your character off of the course and into the city. You can go through the streets on foot, in a car, or in a number of aerial vehicles.

The purpose of this side activity is twofold.  First, it adds depth to a golf experience that can take less than thirty minutes to complete.  Second, it gives context to egalitarian theme that persists throughout the game. In exploring the various neighborhoods within a short distance of the golf course, the lines between the wealthy and the poor become blurred.  Within a few seconds, you can pass between mansions and slums, construction sites and beaches.

GTA V represents a message from the shores of Scotland to the heart of the United States: Golf is for everyone.

Franklin continues to enjoy golf, and doesn't want you to look at what's in the background of his picture.

Franklin continues to enjoy golf, and doesn’t want you to look at what’s in the background of his picture.

Now that I have horribly shoe-horned GTA V into the theme of this blog, I’ll write quickly what I think of the real game, as I have been surprised by just how much I’m enjoying it. I didn’t come into this year, or even this month, with much excitement for GTA V. Games like the Saints Row series, Sleeping Dogs, Just Cause 2 and Infamous had all progressed the open world action genre so much that I wasn’t sure if I wanted another GTA. I didn’t even particularly like GTA IV, though I can’t say for sure how much of that was due to a sluggish opening act and a lack of mid-mission checkpoints. Then I watched a trailer for GTA V, found out Tangerine Dream was working on the soundtrack, and heard some of the boasts about the size and scope of the game. I realized I had to play it, if only to keep up with the zeitgeist and to see how in God’s name it ran on the current, outdated consoles.

Turns out, GTA V is a pretty great game. In a lot of ways, it is more of the same, the radio/TV attempts at humor are oddly dissonant with the themes of the rest of the game, a female protagonist would have been nice, and there are some undeniably problematic issues that shouldn’t be ignored. But the formula has been refined to a point. The city and the countryside are gorgeous. And maybe for the first time since Vice City the storyline missions are actually fun to play.

Something has gone incredibly wrong.

Something has gone incredibly wrong.

Most remarkable, though, is how GTA V feels like an attack on itself and the forces that created it. Five years ago, Rockstar Games tried to dramatically chang its formula, reeling in the silliness of San Andreas and focusing on a more personal storyline about the cyclical terror of violence with GTA IV. The game was a huge success, but complaints about nagging side characters and the dissonance between the story and the typical GTA player’s desire to rampage around the city abounded.

Like Michael in GTA V, Rockstar wanted to move on from a life of creating mayhem and do something different. But mayhem is what is expected of them, and it’s the one thing that the world thinks they are good at. So they are dragged back in. The silliness is back. Mini guns, blimps, gas cans, drug trips, and exploding smartphones. But GTA V doesn’t thank its fans for pulling it back in. Rather, it forces the player to think about how awful it all is. The world of GTA V is full of vile, unlikable people. None more than Trevor, and literal embodiment of what fans want Rockstar to make. His character lives like every GTA player acts outside of missions. He is violence for violence’s sake. But he is also a pathetic sociopath, and the commentary couldn’t be clearer. You don’t want to play as Niko Bellic or John Marston, whose characters make you question your desire for indiscriminate violence? Then you have to be Trevor, and Trevor ain’t pretty. He’ll drag you, and Michael, and Franklin, and Rockstar itself into the darkest of places, where you’ll wish your cousin could give you a call to go bowling.

So maybe you should just stick to the golf course.

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