Unfortunately, Rockstar too quickly revert to type. First, it’s by introducing the requisite cast of assholes to act as mission givers. You feel bad for working for them, you’re disempowered with every plot point they railroad you into, and your actions are rendered meaningless by every dangled mission reward that’s yanked away from you by a post-completion cutscene. Second, it’s by dunking the plot headfirst towards attempted social commentary with the series’ now standard scattergun approach. Aren’t people who believe in things all deserving of ridicule? And aren’t all institutions fundamentally corrupt? All that crime you were enjoying? Maybe it’s bad! Take my wife, please! Poop joke, dick joke, murder a guy, lol.
In the resulting soup, it becomes hard and then impossible to enjoy the game’s hedonistic thrills. Is its embrace of and comment upon real issues a request to be taken seriously, and if so, am I meant to view Michael and Franklin as sympathetic characters, cautionary tales, or as figures of derision? Is that multiplicity and my uncertainty part of the point? And if it’s a serious attempt to say anything at all, what does it mean that the game goes out of its way to make its characters seem cool – depicting Michael’s life for example as empty and meaningless but then making sure you know he has a prodigious penis?
The supposed satire of GTAV is so broadreaching and messy that you can convince yourself it’s about almost anything. I can spin a story about how Trevor is the personified id of every chaotic Grand Theft Auto killing spree, but for every suggestion that you’re meant to hate him, there’s a scene in which the game clearly believes he’s funny. I can layer a theme of twisted masculinity upon the three characters and the broader world of Los Santos, but the results of that warped masculinity are celebrated and rewarded as often as they’re condemned. And if masculinity is the target, why is so much effort taken to make sure you sympathise and empathise with its leads while women are solely subjects of derision, often precisely because of their femininity?
The best way to excuse all this sophomoric slop is to stand at a step removed and say: it doesn’t mean anything. It’s just a dumb game, designed to be dumb, so have fun. But not every person has the luxury of doing that and the game actively fights it. On some level, it seems like it doesn’t want you to have fun.
The only other way I can resolve the thematic swamp is through that same thing which redeems GTAV as an enterprise in its entirety: the city itself, Los Santos. If GTAIV’s Liberty City was defined by the rage of its inhabitants – a city in which, if you simply stood still on a pavement, eventually someone would come up and start hitting you – then Los Santos is defined by the feverish madness of its populace. This is not an uncommon vision of real world Los Angeles, a land of, as BLDGBLOG put it, “freeways and plate tectonics, Philip K. Dick and gang warfare, bikinis and Jurassic technology; city of tar pits and the porn industry, Joshua trees and desert gardens, Scientology and cinema – and so on. Mike Davis. The Italian Job. Anonymity and desert apocalypse.” Through this lens, GTAV’s treatment of human beings in its story, and the implicit and explicit endorsements it makes of certain ideas, is still despicable, but maybe I can sort of see what they were trying to do in a way that explains why all the stuff contradicts all the other stuff.
But now we come down to the reason why GTAV is great and why I love it and why I think you might find something to love within it, even if the criticisms above resonate with you. Los Santos is the most gorgeous, expensive, robust world ever to be built inside a videogame. From the fabric on the pillows in Franklin’s Aunt’s home to the way grass fades to sand and back again in the wilderness north of the city to the seemingly infinite variations of pedestrians who linger on Vespucci beach to the way rain-slick roads look under streetlight to the way Michael’s mansion seems perfectly natural in its setting but the drive to it always seems brief and fun. Los Santos is real, and seems like it was crafted by that same system of happy accidents that gives birth to real cities, and that it wasn’t, but was instead designed and deliberately constructed by videogame creators, seems impossible and magical and worthy of all the praise I can muster.
This is also why the plot’s maintenance of the world’s integrity is so important, because the world is why you want to play and stay in GTAV. I like shooting in it, but it seems too real to wantonly destroy for kicks and to do so might eventually peel back the facade and lay bare the limits of the simulation beneath.
So instead I prefer travelling in it. Climbing in the back of a cargo train and circumnavigating the sprawling play area, or hopping in the back of a cab and watching the city streets stream past the window, or simply walking in the new first-person mode, looking into the eyes of the city’s residents or staring up at the skyscrapers or off towards some distant, climbable mountain. If I go for a drive, I like hitting ramps, or taking bicycles and motorcycles off-road and tumbling down mountains. And I like re-experiencing these journeys through the made-for-PC Replay Editor, which lets you change camera angles, filters, game speed and other details on the way towards directing your own short films. It is clunky to use and fundamentally unchanged since GTAIV’s equivalent, aside from a new Director’s Mode which lets you place down characters, take control of animals, and control the world in more profound ways. A fountain of creativity will spill from this and across YouTube, and even if you never unlock an inner Sturges, there’s fun to be had in fiddling with recordings of your antics.
All of this is supported by the game’s commitment to a certain level of simulation. It’s not just that the cars wobble and characters tumble with physics. It’s the traffic accidents that happen even without your involvement, and the fire brigade and paramedics who arrive to treat the injured. It’s that people in real cities have mobile phones, and so you have a mobile phone with its own Instagram-equivalent and access to the game’s own internet and fictional websites. It’s that you can sit down in front of the TV and watch long, scripted, made-for-purpose TV shows, and then see adverts and figurines and fans of those TV shows out and about within Los Santos. If a game like SimCity lays out the infrastructure of a city at the municipal level, Grand Theft Auto V is a game concerned with depicting that same infrastructure at the human level. Crime is one way to use the city, but it offers many others, to its credit.
If I was to summarise my feelings towards GTAV in singleplayer, I would say that the game’s city and world have integrity, but the rest of the game – its missions, story and characters – do not. There is fun to be found in those latter elements regardless, but I wish – as I always do with Grand Theft Auto games – that it would allow you to enjoy that fun more. Instead the major heists, around which the story is told, feel distantly spread across a saltwater ocean while you thirst for something more than drive to the place, do the bad thing, lose the cops.
On page three, hope and loathing in GTA Online, and the conclusion.