GTA Online [official site] wants you to commit crimes - to kill your fellow players, beat them in illegal street races, and team up with them in heists in order to make money. But is it possible to make money without committing crimes?
Spoilers: no. But I tried, and it was the most fun I've had in the game's online modes thus far.
I've struggled with GTA Online for a bunch of reasons. One is that its racing and golfing and team deathmatch and other modes are less fun than games which are dedicated solely to those purposes. One is that its co-operative heists are complex and hours-long and so require friends to play with, which I don't always have available. One is that the free roam mode, in which you are encouraged to create havoc with other players, feels like it is pointlessly destructive - unless, again, you have friends with whom you can orchestrate more interesting tomfoolery.
What I do like is the open world. Los Santos is my favourite thing about Grand Theft Auto V whether in single- or multiplayer, and playing it in Online does add dynamism in the form of other players. I wanted to come up with a set of rules that would let me experience that open world, but which would give more structure to my time there than simply wandering aimlessly.
Rule #1: Start with nothing.
I created a new character. No shirt, no shoes, no money. I named him "NPC", in respect of my goal of living in Los Santos without criming in Los Santos. As soon as I spawned, I dropped my starting pistol on the ground and left it behind. I was now unarmed and penniless in a town of violent lunatics.
In singleplayer GTAV, you can perform certain legal jobs in exchange for money. I mean, you might need to steal a taxi first, but you can for example pick up fares and drive them around town to make a living.
In GTA Online, it seems that isn't the case. Or at least stealing a taxi to find out would break my second rule immediately. As stated above:
Rule #2: No crime.
This is tricky. I asked the other players in the server for advice, by typing into the chat. "Is there any way to make money in GTA Online with committing crimes?"
"Races" was the responses, from three or four people. I've seen at least 80% of Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift in non-consecutive chunks on BBC2 and I don't think the kind of racing that tends to come up in GTAV is legal. So that's out.
Then an idea occurs. Infamously, when pedestrians in GTA get killed, they drop money. I can't kill the pedestrians myself - a definite misdemeanour - but in walking around the city I've already seen a couple fall foul of other players. The players, most of them millionaires, tend not to bother picking up the money that gets dropped. Is it a crime to pick up the loose change dropped by the recently deceased? Yep.
More of a crime than street racing? ...Probably.
I check the minimap anyway to see the positions of players nearby, and there's a white blip two blocks over from where I'm currently standing. I start to run in that direction and, as I move up a pedestrianised shopping street, all of the NPCs in the area start screaming and running towards me.
I'm suddenly excited. They're running because crime is happening. Where there's crime, there's maybe some spilled money. I run in the direction of whatever has everyone so scared. I'm a lot like Batman, I think, if Batman were a mostly naked homeless man instead of Bruce Wayne.
Rounding a corner, there's a large intersection where a single pedestrian is sprinting across the street at some traffic lights. There is a player-driven car racing towards him. It looks like it is going to hit him, I am willing it to hit him, it hits him. I sprint over to his fallen body. Like Batman.
I pick up the dropped dollars. This is definitely a crime, but it feels less like a crime within the world of GTAV. The money is just floating there. It makes a 'blip' sound when I pick it up. I didn't kill this... person. This sounds worse in the re-telling than it seemed at the time. I run away again, $27 in my pocket, and head back to that pedestrianised shopping street. I'm pretty sure I saw a clothes store back there.
If I can buy an item of clothing, then maybe this whole experiment can be successful. Maybe this will work. I scroll through their different items: shirts, hoodies, trousers. Everything costs hundreds of dollars. I can't afford any of it. The cheapest item I can find is a plain white tshirt and it's $45. I need to find more crime scenes.
I head back out into the open world and sprint off towards another set of players. They're all far away and moving much faster than I am because they're all in cars while I'm forced to remain on foot. This is clearly demonstrated to me when a player-driven car rounds a corner in the distance and starts to drive towards me. I am momentarily excited at the thought that they might commit a crime and I might be able to hoover up some more money.
The moment passes as soon as I realise that the player might commit that crime against me. They are heading straight for me as I bolt towards a low wall at the edge of the pavement, thinking that I could climb up there and be safe, but the car moves too fast. It looks like it is going to hit me, I am willing it not to hit me, it hits me. I am killed instantly. A moment later, I step out of the hospital and my $27 is gone. I'm penniless again - though in some ways, I realise, a step closer to becoming like the NPCs I'm named after. I hope one of them robbed my body as it lay on the sidewalk.
This happens twice more. I sneak around, stalking players, hiding behind the police that are chasing them, and hoover up whatever is dropped. At one point I get into a car with another player, hopeful that I might find a revenue stream I hadn't previously considered, only for them to aggro the cops the very next moment. "I'm not party to this," I type unconvincingly in the chat.
When our car crashes into another and kills the driver, I leap out. The cops stand around, yelling at me to surrender, but I ignore them and run. Despite my best efforts, I have become a criminal. (Like Batman).
Over a further two hours of trying, it becomes clear that this isn't going to work. The most I ever get at once is around $50, but I'm always killed - with bullets or vehicles - before I can buy anything. I always end up broke again. Even if I did manage to buy that tshirt, getting a car that I can track and insure this way is functionally impossible.
So why is this the most fun I've had in the game.
I'm reminded of Watch_Dogs. GTAV is a better game than Ubisoft's own crack at an urban crim sim, but its multiplayer was surprisingly interesting. In different modes, it challenges you to hack or stalk other players, blending in to the environment sometimes by hiding and sometimes by acting like its NPCs. It created ambiguity, connected you with its environment, and pushed players together in competitive ways more interesting than who can fire first or drive fastest.
In a way, I have been re-creating that experience in GTA Online. I am marked on the minimap at all times, so players know when I am near if they're paying attention, but I can still hide. I can still try to blend in. I can still surf that ambiguity between friend and foe, by attempting to get close to them but having no method of attacking them.
I will not get rich like this, but I will die trying and have fun doing it.
This post was made possible by the RPS Supporter Program. It was originally published in April. Thanks for your funding!