If this factual drama about the makers of Grand Theft Auto ever finds its way over the pond, I implore you not to watch it. Seriously. You might have seen that Rockstar have already lashed out publicly at the programme. You might have thought that a serious legal drama with Daniel Radcliffe at the helm feels a bit like putting Elmo in charge of a major accounting firm. But just in case allow me to hammer the nail in a third time; The Gamechangers really, really isn’t very good.
Actually, scrap that Radcliffe remark. He’s not entirely to blame here. As Sam Houser, lead producer on the GTA series, he does at least hit most of the beats a rather lame script is telling him to hit. It’s just remarkable that what could’ve been an engaging, original development story has become an uninspired, largely pointless journey into fantasy.
Part of the problem appears to be a bizarre perception of what stories require focus here. Fresh off the success of Vice City, Houser and his development team get to work on San Andreas, looking for ways to make an already controversial game even edgier. This principally involves talking at length about sticking a sex scene in it. And I mean length. They talk about it for so long, in fact, that when, later, a new game engine is required to move forward, it conveniently pops into existence a couple of minutes later. If only the industry really worked this quickly. We wouldn’t have to wade through a year of hype and pre-order piffle to be disappointed by Generic Title 4.
Meanwhile, a press report blaming GTA for a violent crime catches the eye of conservative lawyer Jack Thompson, who vows to take Rockstar down for their depraved, sickening product. He’s the moral ying to Houser’s rebellious yang, and a daunting legal battle of wits ensues…before being thrown out of court straight away. Once again, maybe this wasn’t the best story to tell. Things briefly get more heated when the infamous hot coffee sex scene is exposed, causing ESRB to freak out about their now-lenient mature rating, but this too is sorted out in a jiffy. Game-changing stuff, lads.
To its credit, the film marks at the outset that nothing of what you’re about to see is in any way authorised by Rockstar, and that events have been changed to match the dramatic tone. By the time the text-pop ups disappear (retrospectively, they seem like excuses) you’ll feel a little nauseous. When Radcliffe walks into his office and immediately someone asks him, if he’s “seen the figures yet”, you’re already halfway to the bathroom to throw up.
But make sure not to cringe too hard too early. After all, you’ll need to save yourself for the contrived conversations in lieu of character development. “Ah, the successful wife” says Thompson as his wife sits down in his car. That’s her done then. No need for anything else to be said, we’ve got bollocks to make up. Take for example, a scene in which Radcliffe and co, dressed in full Tupac regalia, walk through a ghetto, nearly get shanked, and then make friends with their mugger over a mutual love for GTA. It’s hard to believe it. You won’t believe it. But believe it.
There are also plenty of weird touches. One or more characters on screen is always wearing an item of clothing with Rockstar or Grand Theft Auto scrawled across it. Are they contractually obliged, or just narcissistic? Houser also appears to have an obsession with Top Gun producer Don Simpson that could well be based in reality, but the way he looks to his Don poster in times of need is just cartoonish. Thompson’s son, tears welling in his eyes, tells his father he’s scared of being picked on for being the “GTA kid”. After 20 seconds of persuading, his way of thinking turns around completely. “Sounds great, Dad!” Okay then. Has anyone been keeping their eye on the runtime? It’s nearly up! End with anti-climax in court and cut to credits, stat!
So yes. The Gamechangers really, really wasn’t very good. But not necessarily because it banged the same games-cause-violence drum that’s been rattling around gamers’ heads for ages (but considerably less time than people have actually been murdering other people). To be fair, arguments are made for both sides, and the decision is left somewhat to the audience. That said, Thompson’s character ends up shined in a slightly brighter light, if only because he doesn’t alienate everyone he knows in the same way Houser does. Still, the dialogue is so unnatural, whether it’s one of Houser’s underlings – creators of the best satire our medium has to offer, remember – cracking an unfunny joke, or Thompson comparing himself to Batman, nobody comes off particularly well.
Really, there’s something about the entire exercise that felt symptomatic of a need to dumb down, to make gaming more palatable, which is really grating. You don’t need special video gamey effects draping over the city as Houser rides through on his bike, particularly if they look this naff. You don’t need to completely cut the development team out of the loop, restricting them to the odd frame of a m-m-m-m-montage. You don’t need to pass over the entire technical side of things. The Social Network did, but that film took liberties to improve a story. Here, when the means of GTA could have made for a much more intriguing narrative basis than the end, they’re vastly, and criminally, ignored.
And that’s the issue, one that’s likely never to be rectified now at least in GTA’s case. If Rockstar weren’t happy about the idea of a dramatization before, chances are they’re more likely to bring out a My Little Pony title on the Wii U than agree to one after The Gamechangers. And at a time when a great docudrama about game development could be so welcome in a world just coming to accept the medium, it might well dissuade other stories from coming to the forefront for years to come.
So I implore you not to watch The Gamechangers. You’ll spend half the time depressed. The other half you’ll spend daydreaming about a GTA game set in Hogwarts, watching Harry steal Cedric Diggory’s broomstick, shoot up Fred Weasley with an uzi, and kick Professor McGonagall until galleons spill out and spin in a circle above her corpse.
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