During the last couple of weeks, homosexuality has found itself dragged into the media spotlight of the UK. It has been at the heart of recent controversy and debate, surprisingly so in a country that has arguably welcomed it as a part of society and national culture more than most.
It began when Daily Mail columnist Jan Moir made unfounded insinuations regards the death of former boy band member Stephen Gately, suggesting that there was more to the incident than had been reported despite a post-mortem stating that he “died of natural causes.” Moir somehow managed to link Gately’s death to his lifestyle as a homosexual, and then called into question the “happily-ever-after myth of civil partnerships.” Moir’s piece was widely condemned as “vile” and “hateful” by both the media and public, with over 25,000 complaints filed to the Press Complaints Commission on the day that the article was posted.
Moir’s column was then briefly discussed during an edition of political debate-based television show Question Time, a particularly controversial edition because it featured the first appearance on the show of British National Party leader Nick Griffin. When asked about Jan Moir’s piece on the show, Griffin ultimately described the concept of two men kissing as “creepy” to him, inciting boos and jeers from the audience. This alluded to the BNP’s beliefs that homosexuality should be returned “to the closet,” only tolerated as long as it’s kept private.
With all this recent controversy, I found myself wondering what Rockstar, itself a British developer, thought as they released the new downloadable episode pack for Grand Theft Auto IV: the brilliantly titled The Ballad of Gay Tony. The timing couldn’t be better or worse depending on the developer’s outlook, leaving me to wonder if Rockstar is rubbing its hands with glee or bracing itself for yet another media barrage against one of its games’ divisive themes?
The Ballad of Gay Tony isn’t ashamed of being bubbly in its presentation.
Grand Theft Auto games have never shied away from controversial topics, instead embracing them with such vigor as to leave no doubt about the developers’ intentions. In fact, the series’ success has largely been based upon the outrage lobbied towards its mature subject matter. While mainstream media and the government scorn its use of violence, drugs, prostitutes and guns in what most still consider a children’s medium, the kids themselves look up to GTA as the naughty game with all the cool stuff that you can’t find elsewhere. Of course, as the industry matures, the truth of that will become thinner and thinner, but that won’t stop the same critics from raising the roof. When it comes to video games, GTA is still the go-to title for mainstream criticism and despair.
As of right now, a few days after its retail and digital release, The Ballad of Gay Tony has seen little mention within the mainstream press. Unsurprisingly so, given that the larger outlets are always a month or so behind the gaming times, but is it possible that this game will get by without any mainstream discussion?
Episodic content remains something of an alien concept for those outside of gaming; even with its infamous display of male genitalia, GTA IV’s first episode, The Lost and Damned, didn’t make much of a mainstream dent. On retail store shelves, Gay Tony is masked under the title Episodes from Liberty City. As you can see from the picture below, it would take a keen observer to spot the word ‘gay’ in the small print on the box. Clearly, someone in PR was aware of the effect that this word could have on sales.
Not that easy to spot the word ’gay’ there.
The irony here is that The Ballad of Gay Tony is in no way homophobic. In fact, it’s actually very pro-homosexuality, not that it will likely appear that way from a casual glance. For most of the game, the Gay Tony character is near hysterical, his mood labile and wild, and he’s often exposed as weak and effeminate compared to the player’s character, Luis Lopez. The words ‘fag’ and ‘homo’ are often used derogatorily about Tony behind his back, and the game’s gay club, ‘Hercules’, is outrageously stereotypical, with all its clubbers aligned with the scantily-clad, “YMCA”-like interpretation of gay men.
But this is where the mainstream press simply fail to get GTA; its characters and its social commentary are not revealed through casual glances. It takes time with the game to understand Gay Tony. He’s a middle-aged homosexual still living a hedonistic 80s-like nightlife, a lifestyle that’s becoming increasingly incompatible with the competitive nightclub scene and darker days of a modern-day Liberty City. He’s known as Gay Tony within the city because he put that name out there himself, unashamed of his sexuality despite the city’s pervading homophobia. It’s to his credit that he’s largely regarded as a nightclub entrepreneur within the press, despite having clearly reached his success by being a beacon for gay men in the city. His success, it would seem, has come against all the odds.
Then there’s his personality–which is identifiably gay in the sense of how mainstream culture has locked effeminate traits and homosexuality together–but he is by no means a stereotype. His hysteria, which surfaces as the game progresses, is more down to his excessive drug use than anything else. When (seemingly) sober, he comes across as level-headed, while still a little flamboyant. His determination can even make him quite ruthless, even if he exercises this ruthlessness through his unfortunate lackey Luis.
And it’s his relationship with Luis that is of most interest. At the start of the game, Luis’ respect for Gay Tony is never in doubt. Tony was the man who helped Luis rebuild his life after he got out of jail. Luis regards Tony as a father figure, and quickly chastises anyone who refers to Tony with derogatory, homophobic slang. This gets Luis nothing but abuse, with his authority being undermined by insinuations of there being more to his relationship with Gay Tony than meets the eye (even though Luis is definitely and quite actively straight) or by ridicule of him being the errand boy for his gay business partner. As the game goes on (and as Tony gets himself into more and more trouble), it becomes clear that the constant abuse and degradation is getting to Luis, eventually compromising his relationship with Tony.
For a game that makes no pretense of being over-the-top in its missions – at one point you steal a tank that is being air-transported across the city, all for a bling-obsessed Arab – there’s some understated merit and depth within its storyline. The Ballad of Gay Tony doesn’t just feature a strong, gay character, but it also focuses on a purely platonic relationship between him and another man. For gaming, this kind of thoughtful, tolerant and unafraid writing is largely unheard of, again showing Rockstar trying to push the boundaries as aptly as they always have. Sure, The Ballad of Gay Tony is not totally kind to its gay characters, but why should it be? No group, ethnicity, or part of American culture has ever been free from mocking in the GTA universe.
The Ballad of Gay Tony is still primarily about having fun and messing around.
I think Flynn DeMarco. Editor-in-Chief of Gaygamer.net, best summed up my feelings on The Ballad of Gay Tony in a piece he wrote for The Escapist early last month: “Whether or not you like its tactics, Rockstar has done a great job incorporating gay characters into their games, effectively showing that LGBT subjects are nothing to be scared of. The Ballad of Gay Tony marks a turning point in showing a fully realized, non-stereotypical gay character, a trend that I hope will seep its way into other games.”
So, with all this good work done by Rockstar with Gay Tony, will we see the British mainstream press tripping over themselves to make note of the important steps taken forward by one of gaming’s most notorious series, especially in the light of recent controversy surrounding homosexuality? Like Hell we will. There’s still too much timidity on someone’s part at either Microsoft or Rockstar to really promote The Ballad of Gay Tony as a name, and there’s little chance that the mainstream press are about to back down given the fact that gaming remains all but a vilified medium by the British government. It’s amazing to say it about a series as grand as Grand Theft Auto, but I think The Ballad of Gay Tony’s deeper charms will largely go unnoticed.
Then again, I don’t think Rockstar is looking for that kind of praise within the mainstream – that’s not how they roll. Maybe they’ll be happy with a few of us offering a thumbs-up as they continue to do what they’ve been doing for a while: quietly moving the industry forward while taking all of the blame with open arms.