Last night saw the long-awaited airing of the BBC's controversial dramatization of Rockstar's creation of Grand Theft Auto, The Gamechangers.
At least, that is what we thought it would be about. In reality the 90-minute show didn't seem to tell any particular story. The events depicted the period between the releases of GTA Vice City and San Andreas. Sam Houser, played by Harry Potter's Daniel Radcliffe, is shown as wanting to push the possibilities of the series, developing Vice City's bite-sized cultural snapshot into the a fully-blown 3D world.
Houser's desire to accurately depict sex in the game and the subsequent ‘Hot Coffee' scandal formed the thrust of the narrative tension, although if any character provided the anchor to the events it was, bizarrely, disbarred lawyer Jack Thompson. His moral tirade against GTA, while at times presented as unhinged, also leant Thompson a depth of character not afforded to any others.
Ultimately he was the only figure the viewer was encouraged to sympathise with, at times leading to the feeling that if the BBC hoped to achieve anything it was to raise concern about video game violence.
None of which is to say that video game violence isn't a subject that should be explored. Of course it is, and indeed, the most striking sequence of the film – Devin Moore's murder of three – was designed explicitly to bring that subject into sharp contrast.
But in a film ostensibly pitched as part of the BBC's Make It Digital education campaign, why this was chosen as the focus over GTA's actual development is a mystery. In fact, the act of development itself was barely acknowledged, and when it was the details were more often than not farcical. At one point Houser asks for a new, in-house game engine – in the next scene he has one.
There's also the issue of factual inaccuracies, which were of course inevitable but clearly proved a point of contention both for Rockstar and some of the individuals involved in the game's development. Rockstar itself even challenged the BBC on Twitter, labelling the show as random, made up bollocks”:
Don't underestimate the significance of this public statement, either. Rockstar's content may be edgy but the public facing side of the company itself is anything but.
Overall it's hard to fathom the purpose of The Gamechangers. A drama without much in the way of actual, well, drama, that also served little educational purpose. About the only thing going for it were the decent performances of the headline acts. Those tuning in to see Radcliffe and Paxton in action would perhaps have left satisfied, to a point. But at a time where TV drama is as varied and often excellent as it is, The Gamechangers felt entirely out of its depth.
Is it good that video games culture can serve as the focus of mainstream TV programming? Sure, that's progress, of a sort. But clearly we're yet to progress to the point where games can thematically equate to anything other than violence, although who is to blame for that is another debate entirely.