The Ballad of Gay Tony: Who Is the Man?
The Ballad of Gay Tony may be the most mature game Rockstar has ever made. And not because the game is full of sex, profanity and violence. No, I'm talking about the other kind of maturity. Not the kind that'll get you slapped with an M rating from the ESRB and banned in Germany, but the kind that comes from age and wisdom.
The game, the second expansion for Grand Theft Auto IV, feels this particular kind of mature thanks to a relationship -- one that may be the richest and most complex in videogames. A rare emotional depth blossoms from the odd pairing of the game's titular club owner Anthony Prince and Dominican thug Luis Fernando Lopez. From minute one we know that their relationship is about more than business. Luis does more than provide muscle for Prince's floundering nightclub Maisonette. He and Tony are friends, partners.
There's no hanky-panky happening, even though every jerk in Liberty City likes to infer as much. Luis is profoundly heterosexual. At first, tales of his prowess come secondhand. Dude has a reputation. But just in case the player (or anybody else in Liberty City) doubts Luis' manhood, we see the man pick up and hook up with a club-goer in Maisonette. Luis makes some Hot Coffee right there in the club; then, fairly suavely, gets back down to the business of security. But you gotta wonder: Is Luis (and, behind the scenes, Rockstar) putting on a show -- maybe overcompensating a little?
Luis' closest friends (if you can call them that) know the real score when it comes to Gay Tony. "He's like a father to me," Northwood corner boys Henrique and Armando taunt in unison, finishing a sentence that we assume Luis has said hundreds of times. Luis' pops skipped out when he was young, leaving his mama to raise three kids on her own. Of course, she frowns upon Luis' dangerous way of life even though he throws her dough every chance he can get.
For those keeping score at home, this is quite a bit of personal backstory for a game that, on the surface, is about gunfights, helicopter battles and automotive killing sprees. That's what I love about the way that Rockstar tells story in Grand Theft Auto IV. There's the overt story -- tales of crime and revenge cribbed straight from DVD. Then there's the atmosphere. And in The Ballad of Gay Tony, the air is profoundly thick with subtext.
The idea of the inept boss is a running theme in Grand Theft Auto games. Nico Bellic spilled plenty of blood for undeserving madmen in the original game. Johnny Klebitz was forced to watch returning gang leader Billy Grey raze the motorcycle club Klebitz had toiled to prop up in The Lost and Damned. But in both of those games, those shabby leaders didn't earn the love that Gay Tony inspired in Luis. When Gay Tony takes too many drugs, Luis picks the man up, dusts him off, and dowses him in cold water. Luis is quick to cold-cock Tony's lover (Lopez thinks his father figure can do better). More interesting is that these caring acts cast doubt on Luis' motivation. Maybe he does have a thing going with Tony.
That's a lot of sexual ambiguity for gamers -- many of whom are too thick-headed to understand that using the word "gay" as a synonym for lame is a dick move. And Rockstar doesn't take the Afterschool Special route with The Ballad of Gay Tony. Characters -- mostly jerks, mind you -- spew homophobic slurs almost as often as they drop the F-bomb. There are no speeches about tolerance or acceptance. Rockstar doesn't take an overt stand. And yet the game leads by example.
Late in the game, amped-up fitness nut Brucie Kibbutz from Grand Theft Auto IV (rendered even more likable when we learn that he suffers continual emasculation at the hands of his brother Mori) makes a pass at Luis, and we see the game's stealthy message of tolerance seep through. Luis doesn't kill Kibbutz or even punch him for the come-on. He simply rejects him and plays it off, allowing Brucie to save face. It's an uncomfortable moment and, as is the way in Grand Theft Auto IV, it's played for a laugh or two. But something is being said here. What, exactly, is up for the player to decide.
There's really only one moment when The Ballad of Gay Tony really preaches. And that's when audacious billionaire playboy Yusef Amir gets a little too familiar. Yusef, overeager to seem down, uses the word "nigger" and it makes Luis cringe. "Shut the f*** up," Luis says. "That's not cool."
What is cool is that the game gets its true message across without a single smackdown. The good guys, or in this case the self-aware murdering thug and his drug-addled homosexual father figure, win. The episode ends on a "Casablanca" note -- a classy capper for a game that represents, to most, the worst impulses of videogames. The end of The Ballad of Gay Tony may not be the beginning of a beautiful friendship between Luis Fernando Lopez and Anthony Prince. But the fact that a videogame has the balls to admit that two men, one gay, can have a beautiful friendship together? That's special.
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