Friday, 25 September 2015

The Gamechangers review: You're a Rockstar hoodie top, Harry

As reported earlier, the BBC has commissioned a one-off drama about the making of the Grand Theft Auto (GTA) series and the controversy surrounding the "hot coffee" scandal and Jack Thompson's legal crusade against GTA devs, Rockstar Games. However, the actual  Rockstar Games have completely disowned the drama. Even as going as far as trying to take legal action against the BBC. Needless to say, The Gamechangers has not been endorsed by Take Two Interactive or Rockstar Games. But is it any good? The BBC have been rotten at making games-related content. Is the tide about the change? Or did you not see the header image?

From the off, you're given a clue that this isn't a meticulous recreation of how the GTA games are made, and about the people who made them, with this title card

Meaning, some characters/events/dialogue were made up to make the film more interesting and/or to give it more of a structured narrative. Which is nothing new, films have been doing that for years. But you have to realise just how flexible the term "based on a true story" is. 

The story begins with a news report, bigging up the (then) imminent release of GTA: Vice City. The awful American accents ponder if new game will top the "seminal GTA 3". Rockstar Games' top nob, Sam Houser (played by Daniel Radcliffe), sporting a beard that makes him look like a 13 year old sitcom character- who's glued a fake beard on his face to get served at a pub- after watching said news report, he then leaves his flat to cycle to work, where some of the buildings briefly turn into wire-frame models, because he sees the world as a video game, man. He's a true visionary, on a bike! While Houser cycles to work, a radio phone-in, also discussing Vice Vice City, talks to a enthusiastic fan who sounds more like a unconvincing PR plant. His upbeat regurgitation of some PR blurb sounds like he's reading from the same script as the news reader from before, and he also calls GTA 3 "seminal". Did the writer, James Woods, lose his thesaurus?  Also, both refer to Sam Houser, as if he's a Hideo Kojima-type, self publicist, who loves to slap his name on everything, from the game box to the promotional keyrings. Ask any games journo about trying to get an interview from Huser, or Rockstar in general, and see how much of a gaming celebrity he is.  This jarring dialogue, poor fact checking and half-arsed revisionism is the start of how this film means to go on.

In my previous piece about the potential signs of Gamechangers being shit, I only correctly predicted two; an awful scene where Houser and his team go to the ghetto to film for research. A car pulls up and a gangbanger jumps out, and menaces them. When he finds out they're the producers of GTA, he goes all fanboy, pontificating how much he loves the games, and call them "rockstars". This usual piece of hack writing gets used as a narrative short cut. Because "Shall we just call ourselves Rockstar?" isn't quite interesting enough, so you make up some bit of happenstance to make the naming of a game developer more interesting. Except, at that point, they're already called Rockstar Games. What was this scene for? Other than offering a segway into the beginning of making GTA: San Andreas, which was already done in a classic 'round the table scene- where Houser confirms he wants the next GTA to star a black man. "Can we have a black lead in a game? Has anyone done that?" asks (I'm guessing) their main marketing guy "No, we will" replies Houser. So there's your first bit of cast iron gaming history; San Andreas (released 2004) was the first game to star a black person. And paved the way for other games to star a person of colour, like Beyond Good and Evil (2003), Shaq-Fu (1994), and Frank Bruno's Boxing (1985). So there's a lovely piece of revisionist history and outright ignorance to tick off your bingo card. Not only does Gamechangers ignore games from the previous two decades to star a POC, but it also whitewashes the initial creation of the GTA series by Scottish dev team, DMA Design- now known as Rockstar North. So the film is just happy to let you believe Houser created the series. And probably Lemmings too. Also, what were Rockstar doing in "da hood" anyway? I love GTA San Andreas, and enjoyed the story but it wasn't exactly The Wire. Or did I miss the episode where Omar stole a jetpack?

WARNING: HACK MOVIE TROPE! A boy, in a dilapidated house, is playing Vice City. His mother is drunkenly shuffling past, and lights a cigarette up- so you know she's a duff mum. Both are mutually oblivious to each other's vices- because the magic of cinema. This boy is supposed to be Devin Moore- the teenager who, after being arrested for stealing a car, he grabbed one officer's gun and shot him and two other officers before escaping in a police car-before he was apprehended again and later sentence to murder. So there's Moore, playing Vice City, transfixed by all the gun action and we go into a 2001-esque hypnosis via the tv shot, where the images are somehow reprogramming the young man, or is representing the merging of his perception of reality and fiction? I don't know, it looks slightly like the intro to Doctor Who to me.

"Exterminate Lance Vance! Exterminate! Exterminate!"

This leads to a very graphic recreation of the killing, where the camera takes a behind-the-shoulder angle, making the killings look like it's a GTA mission, right down the camera moving up when Moore steals a police car. So either the director is visualising Moore's lost grip on reality or dropping in some fan wank for the gamecocks? This leads in to our other player, Jack Thompson, as played by Bill "they should of called it, game over man!" Paxton.

Pretty certain Batman didn't get interviewed for the Sakeesian Effect

Here, we see Thompson as a humble, christian, family man; picking his wife up from work, having a casual phone conversation- warning a potential client that he's "toxic", on account of his legal battles against shock jocks and shit rappers- while doing a bit of night putting. In a conversation with his wife, after meeting Devin Moore, he's convinced Moore just panicked in the heat of the moment (something Moore later admitted to, because he didn't want to go to jail) and didn't really know what he was doing, because playing so much GTA had re-wired him to kill on a whim. This version of Thompson seems lightyears away from the massively unprofessional, homophobic, right wing chummer, who's mad as a feral dog with no cock. And yes, the Batman thing is real.

Back at Rockstar, they've got San Andreas to make, not that you really see any of it. Houser wants San Andreas to have a entirely new graphics engine, so he asks for one. Who knew it was that easy, eh? In between moments of hinting at Rockstar Table Tennis, Houser discusses the idea of having a sex mini-game, because "No-one's ever done a sex scene in a game before". Despite protests, that a sex scene could result in a "mature" rating- thus risking the ire of big retailers- Houser is insistent on it's inclusion, because there's never been a sex scene in a game before. So next time you play X-Man (1983), or Golgo 13: Secret Episode (1988) you'll know Rockstar did it first. Which is followed by WARNING: ANOTHER HACK MOVIE TROPE! Footage of people (one assumes those who do the majority of the actual work) endlessly tapping away on keyboards, while lines of code are superimposed as they tik-tak away on getting a wireframe model to nosh off another one. All while observing the golden rule of film/tv; no one uses a mouse, ever.

Computer,computer,computer, all done!

Thompson heads up a class action against Rockstar and Take Two, blaming the police shooting on GTA as the true cause. He visits a neurologist, a military trainer, his expert witnesses he intends to bring to the trial. Then (by pure luck or the director's talent finally kicking in) in a  awfully prescient moment, Thompson starts receiving death threats. I wonder if any of those people- in defence of games or not- would later be part of the hate group who welcomed him with open arms, because they had a mutual opponent?

Meanwhile, San Andreas is behind schedule, and Houser is told the sex mini-game will seriously effect sales. Houser, finally convinced, agrees to have it cut out, despite there being no time to properly write it out, and the upcoming trial is starting to get to him. It's one of the few times Radcliffe actually squeezes some character out. The Devin Moore suit gets dismissed, and it's all back to work on San Andreas, so queue crunch time montage! Lots more shots of fingers, banging away on keys, more wireframe models of buildings, designs being stuck to walls, having arguments (Radcliffe does a nice bit of angry, pen throwing), doing  motion capture (what, this late on?), and breakdancing...that's right, breakdancing.

"Did I order the break dancers? I forgot under the pressure of this beard"

Don't forget, this drama was commissioned as part of the BBC's "Make It Digital" season, an initiative to get more people into programming  and the tech industry. I feel sorry for anyone who saw this, and dropped everything to become a game dev. Like those poor sods who saw Top Gun and signed up to the Navy, thinking it was all shagging and volleyball. Granted, I wasn't expecting one hour of the minutiae of coding that shoot 'em up, you play in Carl's living room- it's not the focus of the story- but at there's not even a mention Rockstar North, you know, the people who actually make the GTA games, in Scotland? So if you were inspired to enter the games industry, don't blame me when you find out it's not all trips to LA and ping pong tournaments.

Back in the story, San Andreas is released to mega sales, then we cut to the Netherlands. Some guy buys his copy of San Andreas, legs it home and plays the shit out of it -again, we see the "it's like he's in another world, and my's full of stars!...Or prostitutes" effect. After playing it, dutch boy hacks into the game code, using different kinds of code, then he finds some different code, that's in the code, that isn't regular code.

It's only the fucking code for fucking in the game! So  Hacker Vanderbonk (as I've taken to calling him) discovers the code is animation for a sex scene. If you've never played any of the GTA series, then you've no idea of the "hot coffee" debacle, where PC modders were able to, crudely, realise the scrapped sex mini-game. The American game ratings board threw the book at Rockstar,  changed San Andreas' rating from "mature" to "adults only", prompting patches for the PC version, that disabled Hot Coffee. While the console version (which required the action replay disc to activate it) was withdrawn from store shelves, and produced fixed copies at  great cost to Take-Two. Worse still, the US government stepped in, when the Federal Trade Commission brought legal action against Take-Two. Jack Thompson had a field day, but ultimately no one went to prison when Take-Two settled with the FTC and took the aforementioned action to remove the sex mini-game.

In the BBC drama version of events, Sam Houser is a overstressed and paranoid, too caught up with all the break dancing and  making Rockstar Table Tennis to have known the code for Hot Coffee could be accessed by modders and hackers- who were originally blamed for creation of Hot Coffee- when he asked for it's removal; assuming no one would find the code, or he thought it was removed, full stop. It's hard to figure, as he squirms during a mock questioning by Rockstar's lawyers. One of whom has the most annoying- "I'm gonna play it like I'm Agent Smith in the Matrix"- phony American accent, who struggles to get a straight answer about what he knew about the code. Or you could just read this Eurogamer article about it, which sheds more light on the subject? Because it seems the production team didn't.

There's a protest outside Rockstar's New York office, Sam Houser is getting more paranoid and irate, everyone is working their arse off. Houser meets with the FTC, while Thompson has his day in court over whether he gets disbarred from practising law. Spoiler alert! Houser doesn't go to prison, GTA doesn't get banned, and Thompson isn't allowed to be a lawyer anymore. By the way, in the time it took you to read  that passage is actually longer than the trial scenes last. It's literally in, out, next scene. Oh, and if I seem to be using the word "code" a lot, well I picked it up from the film. It seems to be the only technical term, other than "rendering", the writer bothered to learn.

There's some stuff nicked from The Social Network, and it all ends with Houser walking out into a New York street, he stops in the road causing a car to stop, and he steals it- while the surrounding building turn into polygon models- as does the car Houser speeds off in, what looks like, GTA 4's Liberty City (an analogue for New York), because that's how Houser sees the world, man. He's a visionary! And that's one hour and twenty nine minutes of my life gone in vein.

If you couldn't tell, I didn't like this. The Gamechangers fails as both a piece of entertainment and as a expose into game development. Daniel Radcliffe is a good actor, but there's nothing to his Sam Houser (I'll come to that in a moment), other than he works a lot, demands a lot from his employees and he has a beard. It's like he's been asked to make a five course meal, and the only ingredient he was given was some plates. Houser didn't invent GTA, but he certainly was behind the series jump to 3D and has seen it through the increasingly successful sequels. But you get nothing of the man here, other than he, occasionally, shows emotions. Oh, and he wears Rockstar tops a lot. Is that characterisation? Well, that's as close to as you'll get to it. On the other hand, the portrayal of Jack Thompson veers wildly between well-intentioned, moral crusader, who got caught up in his own celebrity Or a possessed zealot, who saw himself as a religious Dirty Harry, as he lost his grip on reality. Which is doubly frustrating as I couldn't be sure if the film was trying to humanise Thompson or it just inconsistent writing. I suspect the latter- seeing as pretty much any research shows him up as the right wing, political hack he's always has been. A pity, seeing as Paxton shows glimpses of show-stealing fury, when Thompson goes off on one about how Rockstar is damming gamers to hell. Everyone else is instantly forgettable, bar the guy from Skins- with the punchable face- as the vice president of development and co-founder of Rockstar, Jamie King. Who's only made more punchable by his constant wearing of the t-shirt (a Rockstar one of course), jeans and suit jacket combo known as the "business mullet". But it is set in 2004, so fair enough on that one.

The film itself suffers from two, major, problems; firstly, when I mentioned how lacking in character Sam Houser is, that's because of this very telling credit...

Films being based on books is nothing new. But when the book you're basing your film on got chuff all time with the major players at Rockstar, and even tried to pass off quotes from an interview with Edge magazine, as if the author, Kushner, had spoken to Sam Houser himself, your script is fucked. So no wonder there was so little to this incarnation to Houser. The supposed expert on Rockstar hadn't even met the man in person.

The other issue with the plot. Despite all of what happens to Houser and Thompson, and how the film tries to occasionally draw parallels between the two (both men obsessed with the work they do, wow! What an exciting new type of character) but there's no real conflict between. Because neither Sam Houser or Jack Thompson ever met each other So there's no dramatic confrontation in court, no slanging match outside the Rockstar New York office, not even an angry exchange of emails. It's like watching 300 and the Persians and the Spartans spend the entire film moaning about each other, instead of fighting. Go back to the BBC's  dramatisation of the rivalry between Sinclair and Acorn computers, Micro Men, which probably had the same amount of artistic license, but it had actual conflict between the two leads, snappy dialogue and two captivating performances from Alexander Armstrong and Martin Freeman. As opposed to the glorified Crimewatch reenactment that The Gamechangers is. This isn't entertaining on it's own merits, it's not remotely educational about game production and certainly isn't much of an celebration of UK coding talent. Oh, by the way BBC, gaming has had a really shit last 12 months. So can you not do this kind of shit please?

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