Clearly, this has nothing to do with arcade games, but I thought I should cover it anyway because I am in a unique position in that I am a gamer, who grew up with GTA, but not a fan. I played the first game a fair bit, because it was unlike anything else around at the time, but I only played a demo of the lackluster sequel and never played GTA III, San Andreas or GTA V. I have put a few hours into Vice City and GTA IV, but they never held my attention. You see, I don't like gangsters. I find no joy in tales of exploitation, violence, trafficking and corruption for personal gain — in fact I find it all abhorrent. As such, neither gangster games nor movies appeal to me. I'm also a father, who has a duty of care to make sure his children only play age-appropriate games; I would not let my kids near GTA or anything else with similar levels of violence. With that declaration out of the way, let's get on with the review.
The Gamechangers stars Daniel Radcliffe as Rockstar co-founder Sam Houser and Bill Paxton as Florida attorney Jack Thompson. The story starts with a completely unbelievable fake news story about the hotly anticipated Vice City and how "Sam Houser's Rockstar Games" have made two top selling games in one year. It also shows footage of Vice City, with lots of random violence and vehicular murder. I recognise that this opening provides the setup most viewers need, but it is ridiculous for several reasons. First, television news never talks that enthusiastically about a video game release and second, the GTA series had not made that much of an impact on mainstream media at the time of Vice City's release — all the attention came later.
The first 10 mins of The Gamechangers alternates between Radcliffe's Houser as he instructs his team about his vision for San Andreas, Paxton's Thompson as he potters around his Florida home, being all homely and Christian, and Devin Moore (played by Thabo Rametsi) as he plays Vice City for hours on end. This eventually leads to Moore's shooting spree in the police station, followed by his theft of a police car (which is shot to look like a driving scene in GTA). On reading in the news that Moore compared life to a video game, Thompson embarks on taking down the makers of "murder simulator" Grand Theft Auto. It also looks at the controversy San Andreas caused when hackers found hidden pornographic animations on the game disc (dubbed Hot Coffee), which Thompson used to bolster his campaign before his own misconduct got him disbarred. Along the way we get lots of shallow insights into the game making process, including the long hours, dedication and aspiration required of the developers and artists.
The importance of the word dramatisation here cannot be understated, as this is a completely unauthorised script, written without any contribution from either Rockstar or Thompson. It is based entirely on newspaper stories, court documents and interviews with "many of those involved", whatever that means. You'd have thought the powers that be at BBC would have shied away from a script that was simultaneously so lacking in substance and so steeped in potential controversy, but no, they just ploughed on ahead anyway. The result is a film that feels skin-deep and I came away feeling no more enlightened about the situation than I was reading the articles Kotaku and Gamespot ran at the time.
The other big problem for me is writer James Woods's clear bias towards Rockstar Games. By the 7 min mark, the film establishes Houser as a visionary, leading the charge to make serious, forward thinking video games that go beyond anything a movie can do and frames Thompson as a self-aggrandising puritan trying to enforce his vision of what's acceptable on the American youth. The film maintains this bias throughout, so any chance of it being taken seriously as an argument against the notion of violent video games causing violent behaviour is lost. As someone who loves games, I personally found this very disappointing, because whatever my feelings are about GTA, I genuinely do not believe a video game alone can cause anyone, let alone a child, to commit multiple homicides. That is not to say kids should get free-reign to play what they like, because there is still the issue of what's age appropriate.
In terms of performances, Radcliffe is fine with what little character Woods gave him and while Paxton has more to work with, his performance is a little OTT. The rest of the characters are utterly forgettable and we never get a clear insight into anybody's motivations, least of all Devin Moore's (Rametsi has less than a few minutes of dialogue from beginning to end). And finally, while the film is clearly on the side of the game makers for most of its 90 minute running time, it does something at the end which flips that on its head in an utterly stupid and crass way.
The Gamechangers handles one of the few game development stories worth telling with too little depth, too much bias and too much fiction for the sake of drama to be enjoyable for gamers or taken seriously by anyone else. It seems the curse of adapting games into movies applies to documentaries as well as fantasies.
If you haven't seen The Gamechangers and live in the UK, you can see it for yourself on iPlayer for the next few weeks. Here's the link: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b06ccjn9/the-gamechangers