The Gamechangers is a TV movie by BBC Scotland, focusing on the troubles faced by Grand Theft Auto developers Rockstar – in particular, GTA creator Sam Houser (Daniel Radcliffe) during the development of San Andreas in the early 2000s. A parallel storyline traces the journey of Jack Thompson (Bill Paxton), the Florida lawyer who launched a disastrously failed civil case around the same time. It sounds like an interesting concept, which makes its status as a nigh-unwatchable waste of airtime all the sadder.
Radcliffe’s casting will account for roughly 50 per cent of the viewing figures, and to give him credit he acts the part of Houser well. Paxton fares less well, seemingly playing the caricature of Christian evangelicals that Richard Dawkins sees in his nightmares. It’s unclear whether Thompson is supposed to be a well-meaning but misguided moral guardian, a greedy and fame-obsessed sneak, or a repressed and angry man looking for an outlet. It’s possible to be any of those, or possible even two at the same time, but all three doesn’t work and gives us the impression of a psychopath in a thriller.
Houser may be well acted, but his script is poor. Radcliffe spends his considerable talent discussing a sex scene to a creepy degree and generally acting like a 2015 hipster in 2003. The hipster aesthetic is strong with this one, actually. The characters all look like they’ve been dragged backwards through a Rockstar merchandising warehouse followed by a lumberjack’s outfitters. The Rockstar offices, though containing a curiously limited number of lightbulbs, are all chrome and glass, a seriously off-putting working environment which seems to be there mainly so the producers didn’t have to build a proper set. The GTA murals on the wall are nice, though. I’d have one.
The show generally displays its ignorance of gaming and technology pretty brazenly. “We need a new game engine” says Houser in one scene, only to be followed one cut later by said engine in a basically functional state. Never mind that engine development can take years – willing suspension of disbelief and all that – it’s just not clear why they felt it necessary to include at all.
It was a nice touch early on when the team were repeatedly shown playing table tennis, to Houser’s apparent delight. This nice little in-joke – Rockstar’s famous and rather out-of-character Table Tennis game appearing in 2006 – proceeded to be ruined by characters repeatedly banging on about it, in a display of telling instead of showing that Hideo Kojima would probably have turned away from out of embarrassment.
Ultimately, The Gamechangers didn’t know what it wanted to be. Was it a buddy comedy about the quirky game designer and his chums? Was it a joke at Thompson’s expense about him getting worked up over those silly video games we love so much? Was it a warning about corporate culture and the stress it can put on people? The show couldn’t tell us, and apparently neither could Rockstar, who called it “random, made up bollocks” on Twitter. As the show so proudly claimed it wasn’t endorsed by the developers, this is hardly surprising.
The story of one of the most popular, yet controversial games of the PS2 era is no doubt at points an interesting one. So is the Jack Thompson case and his subsequent disbarment from practicing law. There’s a decent story in the hacking and subsequent revelation of the Hot Coffee mod as well, no doubt. They’re the sort of stories that in, say, a miniseries, could make for a nice arc following the developers through their most exciting yet difficult period. Cramming all those stories into 90 minutes, with some not even begun until late in the game, makes for an incoherent mess.
Rockstar’s games have contributed much to the medium of gaming, and helped make it a legitimate form of mature entertainment instead of simply the natural extension of children’s toys. We thought it had helped the perception that gaming was now treated as an art form – that this meandering weirdness is the treatment it gets proves that we are simply not there yet.