Rockstar Games and the Narrative Problem of ‘Everyone is an Asshole’

[Originally published August 6, 2016]

Rockstar’s approach to world-building and character writing follows a principle that I call the Everyone Is An Asshole approach to storytelling. By this I mean: the overwhelming amount of players in a Rockstar world are cruel, violent, even evil people. Rockstar’s cynicism has always bothered me, but not as ‘cynicism;’ I think it makes for incongruous, broken narratives. It’s difficult to see the flaws in a more open, satirical narrative like the often directionless GTA titles, but that’s why Rockstar Vancouver gave us the relentlessly linear Max Payne 3. Unlike a GTA, Payne 3 encapsulates a singularly delivered moral message: Rich People are Bad, and Poor People are Good. It’s clunky and simplistic, but – on paper – I like seeing a game with something to say about class *cough* Inside *cough*

But a ‘good/evil’ moral message is fundamentally incompatible with the Everyone Is An Asshole principle. Here’s why:

1. Everybody in every walk of life is an asshole.

In their shallow invocation of Brazil, Max goes and leers at the lower class favelas for a level or two. Unfortunately, Rockstar couldn’t help but turn these sequences into 3rd person shooter playgrounds. As per Rockstar’s code of writing, this means that these people that you shoot must be Bad Guys, and that means that every person you see is either a gang member or an active participant in gang activity. This becomes a problem when you’re trying to portray the failings of a wealthy class. That statement falls a little flat when your rich assholes are as big a bunch of assholes as your poor assholes. Even worse, perhaps, is that the lower class consists of bad people simply because they are ‘bad.’ There’s never any sort of legitimate exploration as to why gang membership is so ubiquitous in these areas.

Gangs are bad, but gangs are also the result of systemic class/race injustices perpetuated by the status quos of a region. Gang members do bad things, but these bad things are predicated on extremely complicated, high stakes lifestyles – themselves predicated by the aforementioned injustices. Payne 3 is never interested in these injustices – only the results. ‘Rich people are bad, because they’re greedy. But poor people are also bad too, I guess, because they’re in gangs, and we have to make it okay for you to kill them.’

When people are bad ‘just because they are,’ they’re no longer explorations of a flesh-and-blood issue. They become wishy-washy figureheads of wishier-washier concepts like ‘good’ and ‘evil,’ and the world isn’t comprised of ‘good’ and ‘evil.’ It’s a series of systems placed along a spectrum of human benefit and suffering, all pulling each other every which way, and those systems belong to more than the boogeyman of cruel, evil men.

2. The villains aren’t bigger assholes, but they sure are louder assholes.

What’s the old The Incredibles adage? ‘If everyone’s super, then no one will be.’ Swap out ‘super’ with ‘evil,’ and you’ll run into a similar problem with the revenge aspects of Max Payne 3’s narrative. Revenge narratives are composed of three key components. The hero. The villain(s). The hero’s loss – i.e. their motivation. Given that this is a Rockstar-written Max Payne game, it should come as no surprise that the ‘hero’s loss’ is a murdered blonde white woman.

I can really see why they’re considered pioneers in video game writing.

They inherited their hero. They phoned in his motivation. Their villains don’t fare much better. Most of these guys have maybe a minute or two of screen time. The only reason the audience can tell the villains apart from the rest of the faceless gunman is that the villains give a brief monologue before they die. This is a problem Rockstar has always had – how do you create an antagonist in a world full of antagonists? Give them dialogue! Give them a philosophical monologue! They say. Well, yes. Villains can – and often should – speak. But evil people are more than evil plans. They’re more than twirling mustaches. They’re also their actions. Unfortunately, you can’t show a villain being villainous in a Rockstar universe. To do so would make them another commonality – another one of their lackeys committing atrocities on the streets. As sick as it sounds, it would humanize them in this world. Everyone commits monstrous acts – Max included. To show the villains doing the things everyone else does would deescalate their status, in a way. Rockstar attempts to differentiate its antagonists, then, by hiding them away and having other characters tell the player how big and bad these people are. But they’re not big and bad. They’re human – and they die like one. This is why Rockstar usually shies away from boss fights – to do so would peel back the curtain on the vulnerability of their ‘Big Bads.’

So what we’re left with is villains defined by their legend and their scale. They must be built up through a mythos delivered to the player via NPC dialogue, rather than displays of violence and corruption. It’s a necessary separation that ultimately harms the catharsis of the narrative. These antagonists must also be the biggest players in The Game of Evil, so as to make the other non-villain assholes seem like small fry in comparison. This, again, dilutes the moral message of the game. To say ‘well people in charge of organ harvesters are worse than people in charge of gangs’ is to say nothing. This is merely an invocation of evil, rather than an understanding of it. Rockstar’s inability to understand their evil is most pronounced, perhaps, when it offers up a solution.

Which brings us to this one last point.

3. The Protagonist is an asshole.

In video game narratives, the solution isn’t violence. It isn’t hacking the government. It isn’t fast driving.

The solution is the protagonist.

By the time the protagonist shows up, all the murder and death has already existed. Max Payne doesn’t introduce the idea of shooting dudes in the face. He’s just better at it than everyone else. This is a problem that most video games have to tackle, and that’s why so many choose to put their protagonists into worlds filled with a legacy of suffering. Better to have the protagonist be good at killing than to be the only killer, I suppose. It’s a convenient way to eliminate – or at least fictionally ignore – the brooding moral question: ‘is it okay to kill people?’

Well, no. But don’t tell Max that.

It’s not inherently ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’ for a protagonist to be a bad person. In fact, it kinda works with Max. He’s always been a morally grey man-on-the-brink. He hates everyone, and he hates himself.

BUT

Consider the implications of an asshole protagonist who is justified in – and rewarded for – killing everyone, despite the indiscriminate direction and consequences of his/her actions. We have two incompatible narratives here. Max Payne 3’s Max Payne is ‘righteous video game solution-protagonist’ and Rockstar asshole – all at once. He’s a bad person. Maybe just as bad as the people he kills.

Maybe worse.

The game actually attempts to address this point. One throwaway villain sardonically refers to Max as “The great American savoir of the poor,” and points out that Max has shot a hell of a lot of poor folks. Of course, this comes couched in between the villain’s claim that the organ clinic helps the poor. A clash of two assholes, without a single moral bone in either body.

Much like the argument that ‘one evil is worse than another,’ interactions consisting of ‘killers calling killers killers’ lacks the finesse required for philosophical impact. Take The Punisher by comparison. The best Punisher storylines involve moral arguments between Frank Castle and a non-lethal entity. When a man who kills as an explicit execution of his moral code clashes with someone who doesn’t, there’s actual conflict. There are real arguments based on rationalizations and morals, rather than delusional conjectures of ego.

When Max kills, he’s rewarded by the narrative because he happens to be on the ‘correct’ side of justice. But beyond his propensity for murder, he’s also a bad person. He never suffers the consequences for his flaws – others do. He stumbles and bumbles his way in slo-mo through setpieces of incredible violence, and never has to question himself or change. Even the game’s finale sees him return to drink – he just happens to be at a beachside bar instead of a shithole apartment.

It’s unfair to single out Rockstar for this issue, but it was Max Payne’s 15th birthday recently and I thought I’d revisit an old favorite from my late teens. Imagine my surprise. Rockstar’s ‘Asshole Doctrine’ is one of their most distinctive writing qualities, but they’re – by no means – the only ones who take this approach. It’s a pervasive video game problem. It’s been four years since the release of Max Payne 3, and we still see the same problems in ‘seminal’ titles like The Last of Us – albeit handled slightly better. It’s a problem that we ought to acknowledge and recognize, even if it takes our industry’s writers some time to fix.

When he’s not throwing shade at one of the biggest names in the game, chaboi – Tom Loughney – writes about video games. You can find those writings here. Follow him on twitter @tloughnessmnstr

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