Not pictured: Theft, automobiles.
Over the past week there were several times that I stopped whatever it was I was doing – hiking up a virtual mountain, doing yoga, losing at golf, hunting elk, losing at tennis, diving for sunken treasure, chatting with my psychiatrist, losing at triathlons – to marvel at the fact that all of these pleasant, law abiding pastimes were present in a game called Grand Theft Auto. In a way, I think the series has kind of outgrown its name.
It made sense for the earlier games in the series because back then the only way you could interact with your environment was by fucking it up – and that was great fun! But in Grand Theft Auto V, developer Rockstar North has created a world so big, so beautiful, so detailed, and so immersive that I spent a creepy amount of time just living inside it – stopping at red lights, watching the sun set on the beach, taking mostly-nude self shots on the ingame smartphone camera…
Sometime around my second straight day of playing I spent about an hour just riding the subway around the city, in complete awe of the fact that they’d perfectly recreated the LA Metro experience right on down to seemingly getting the same guy to voice the cheerful public service announcements. (“Please do not urinate on other Metro passengers. Thank you for riding with us!”)
Don’t get me wrong – stealing cars and killing people is still a huge part of the game, and this game does it better than any of its predecessors. But the game itself is so huge now that not stealing cars and killing people is also a huge part of the game.
While playing the intense, crime-driven story missions I felt exactly like I was the star of a Michael Mann movie; when the mission ended and I spent an hour strolling down the beach watching the sunset it was like Gus Van Sant had unexpectedly stepped in as director.
Of course, they’ll never change the name. At this point people associate the name Grand Theft Auto more with free-roaming open world gaming than they do with motor vehicle theft. And that’s lucky, because I have no idea what else they could call a game like Grand Theft Auto V.
Doing Stuff V? Unstructured Activity V? A Bunch Of Things V?
A Work Of Art V?
Three times the male power fantasy, all for the price of one!
There are three playable characters in Grand Theft Auto V – Franklin, a likeable street hood, Michael, a bored ex-bank robber, and Trevor, a psychopathic meth dealer – who you can switch between at any time. Each character has their own business to attend to, and all three work together on a number of high profile heists.
From a storytelling perspective, this kind of advancement is Important. Being able to jump between characters is a really fun gameplay device, but it’s incredible for the plot. Being able to walk a mile in each character’s shoes – or rather, steal a car and drive it a mile before flipping it over and crawling out of the burning wreckage in each character’s shoes – makes it possible to understand and empathize with each one, which is really saying something given the fact that all three characters do a lot of really horrible stuff a lot of the time.
The characters are so strong and the world is so immersive that I found myself changing my style of play based on what I thought each character would do – all with no encouragement from the game itself. While playing as Franklin, for example, I never hijacked cars or killed random people because he was such a decent guy in all his cutscenes that those didn’t seem like the sorts of things he would do.
Playing as Franklin, I once drove up to the weather station behind the game’s equivalent of the Hollywood sign to go exploring. There I bumped into a security guard who yelled, “Hey! You’re not authorized to be up here. Leave immediately or I’ll call the police!” And without even thinking twice I turned around, got back into my car, and drove away.
To reiterate: I deferred to the authority of a power tripping rent-a-cop, while carrying a rocket launcher and a heavy machine gun in my inventory, in a video game that is explicitly about committing crimes.
This part is not fun.
There’s a mission you may have heard about in Grand Theft Auto V where, playing as the certifiably insane Trevor, you graphically torture an innocent man for trivial information at the behest of corrupt government agents. The scene is fully interactive – you get to choose your torture implements and then use them, executing button commands to electrocute the victim or forcibly extract a tooth.
There’s no way to skip it, and it’s absolutely horrible in just about every way. I played it with the sound off and my eyes closed.
This segment of the game has been pretty widely condemned in the gaming press. I really, really wish that they hadn’t put it in the game, but at the same time I respect that they did.
Following the torture sequence, Trevor disobeys the order to kill the detainee and instead drives him to the airport so he can escape. Along the way, Trevor launches into a remarkably articulate monologue about the ineffectiveness of torture – that the act is little more than an excuse for unbalanced people to get their jollies.
The developer didn’t just put this segment in the game to be controversial – they put it in as political commentary, which is as effective as it is gruesome and disturbing. Video games are beginning to tackle social and political issues the way movies and TV do – this, also, is Important, even if it’s unpleasant.
They should have sent a poet.
Do you know that old saying about the three blind men in the room with an elephant? I don’t either, but as I understand it has something to do with the fact that each blind guy touches a different part of the elephant, and thus each one has a different impression of what the elephant is.
The blind guy who touches its trunk thinks of the elephant as something entirely different from the guy who touches its ear, and both of them probably have a much higher opinion of elephants than the poor bastard who gets too close to its butt.
Grand Theft Auto V is that elephant – it’s so big that everybody experiences it differently. For some people it’s about heists, for others it’s about street racing, or playing the stock market, or climbing mountains, or robbing convenience stores, or sitting on your character’s in-game couch watching in-game TV and smoking in-game marijuana, or cruising the Interstate and listening to 90s hip hop and a right wing talk show hosted by Danny McBride on the car radio.
For some people, it’s a crass, profane murder and torture simulator. Those people aren’t strictly wrong; they’re just focusing on the elephant’s butt.
Truman Capps isn’t proud that he completed 75% of the game’s missions and activities in one week. Well, maybe a little proud.