The Gamechangers, the BBC’s factual take on the history of Grand Theft Auto, aired last night to mixed reviews from critics and fans of the gaming industry alike.
The Gamechangers is particularly polarising straight off the bat, not only because the film clearly states that it was made without Rockstar’s approval, but also because for some unknown reason, it states that it has reshuffled the order of events as they happened, for “dramatic effect.” Why the BBC felt the need to state the latter is beyond me, and it almost instantly adds an amount of suspicion to the factual basis of the events of the film.
However the film at its core, is actually rather good. Events start 6 months before the release of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, with everyone in Rockstar being kept in line by a somewhat dictatorial Sam Houser in an effort to get the project finished. Daniel Radcliffe’s performance as Houser is truly remarkable, and he manages to constantly tread the fine line of being seen as either a visionary within the industry, or a control freak with a total disregard for the rules and the law.
Then the incident at the police station in Alabama takes place, in which a disillusioned teen shoots and kills three police officers upon being apprehended, and later states that “life is like a video game, you have to die sometime.” The entire thing is done in one clean shot, making it look hauntingly like a section of Grand Theft Auto with the camera just behind the teens head. At this point it’s very unclear what The Gamechangers wants to focus on. Does it want to be a thought piece, or just a factual retelling of the history of Grand Theft Auto?
For the middle section of the drama, the film actually chooses to focus on neither of the above, but instead shines a light on both Houser and Jack Thompson, the latter being the lawyer that chose to go after Rockstar over the use of violence in video games. Bill Paxton matches Radcliffe’s performance in every sense as Thompson, giving us a man on a personal crusade against video games, as well as being borderline insane at times.
I’ve seen plenty of people assume The Gamechangers would take the side of Thompson, condemning violence in video games and taking a jab at the games industry. If anything, the film wisely stays away from either side, showing us the madness of both Houser and Thompson, and while the film does become a little too focussed on the personality of Thompson in the middle stages, it’s actually to show us how disillusioned with society he is, giving us a poor view of both men in the process.
I’m not sure it’s entirely fair to call The Gamechangers “the story of Grand Theft Auto”, mainly because it chooses to deviate from the source material (the court documents from the Thompson case) at various stages. Only in the latter 20 minutes of the film does the focus shift off of both Houser and Thompson and come back to the game itself, as Rockstar are hit with a lawsuit over the uncovering of a prohibited sex scene that they left within the code of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.
When the focus does shift back to the lawsuit in the last 20 minutes, it becomes really intriguing as a moral dilemma. The film actually leaves the door open for the viewer to make their own mind up as to whether or not Rockstar were in breach of the law here, as the company ultimately avoids a huge fine for the sex scene left in the product that would’ve got the game banned in many areas. I suspect many viewers will agree with Thompson’s view that they “got a slap on the wrist”, but it’s definitely not clear as to whether Rockstar were in the wrong.
The Gamechangers never actually raises the moral question of whether or not violence so prevalent should be allowed in any form of entertainment, at least until the final credits roll. In doing this the film is somewhat clever, as on one hand it’s left to the viewer to determine the issue of violence in entertainment, but on the other hand it almost entirely avoids the topic, instead choosing to focus a little too much on the personalities of Houser and Thompson.
You can’t exactly fault a factual drama for avoiding a moral dilemma, but it still would’ve been nice to have more of a focus on the debate surrounding the use of violence. Radcliffe and Paxton’s performances absolutely carry the film, providing weight to both sides of the issue and each showing us very flawed men in the process. The Gamechangers is a dubious retelling of the story of Grand Theft Auto, but leaves the debate surrounding violence wide open and avoiding a definitive conclusion.