I haven’t got to that torture bit yet, nor have I encountered a massive amount of misogyny in Grand Theft Auto V at this point. I won’t talk about that sort of thing anyway, because disgust/outrage often goes hand in hand with serious criticism of games at the minute, and I’ve proven time and time again that I’m not interested in - nor capable of - serious criticism at this stage in my life. That isn’t to say that I don’t appreciate examining a cultural product within its cultural context. As games become more aligned with mainstream entertainment they will clearly have to answer for their more childish, offensive, violent and sexist preoccupations. These topics need to be discussed, and the people who make games, especially the games aspiring to be - or simply finding themselves - as broadly enjoyed as more established forms of entertainment, need to accept their responsibility and act accordingly. At the same time, however, I think it is far too easy to single out these transgressions, write fifteen hundred words lambasting them, leave it at that and wait for the cheque and/or peer group congratulation ceremony. It’s completely valid, certainly, but it’s also numbingly obvious, and I think that there are already too many people repeating the same core concerns and ideas. They are important concerns, to be sure, but I’m a cynic and so find it terribly hard to believe that every one of these voices comes from an entirely altruistic place. Thus, I will leave this type of discourse to the individuals more suited to or happy to enter into it. They are already doing a good job of it as it is, me joining them isn’t going to speed up the changes that need to occur within the medium.
That out of the way, let us again explore my go-to topics of choice; the missus, video game mechanics and brewed under licence European lager.
To people who aren’t very familiar with video games the GTA series is still a miraculous and, dare I say, exciting entity to witness. To this end, the trappings of a GTA manage to transcend the “I don’t understand/ I don’t care” boundary that normally divides my living room. This is largely because the games are set in post-industrial cities; places that are far more recognisable - certainly relatable - than the landscapes of most of their contemporaries. My girlfriend and I live in North London and spend the vast majority of our lives within the confines of the Greater London sprawl. We live and breathe in a very much living and breathing city. It has often been said that playing a GTA is as close to this experience as video games have thus far managed to achieve. It is the interplay of relatable setting and attention to detail that still perpetuates this image of the series, and what duped my lady friend into sitting on the sofa with me while I played GTA V last weekend.
Neither of us has been to Los Angeles, the city upon which the game’s Los Santos is based, but having lived in another sizeable metropolis - albeit a slightly more attractive one in parts - we can both appreciate that it looks, acts and exists as a pretty accurate representation of the modern city. “So you really can do anything you want, then?” she asked, referencing the bevy of coverage the game received around its launch in the free tube papers. Well, I thought, not strictly speaking. At that particular moment I was hooking my tow truck onto the bumper of an abandoned car, preparing for a lengthy and uninteresting drive back to the impound lot. I suppose I was, at that moment, quite literally doing anything I wanted, albeit within the confines of a tow truck driver’s working day. “Do you have to do this at all, Leigh, could you just drop the car and do something else?” This time she sounded genuinely excited at the prospect of childishly dumping the automobile in the middle of the road, you know, just because we could. “Yes, we could do that, we most certainly could do that my love, but what would be the point? I’ve got Franklin’s crack addicted quasi-relative in the cab with me and I’d quite like to find out what she has to say.
Do I really though, do I really care what she has to say? This character, Tonya, is a broad, damaged, horrible stereotype - as are all the characters in the game, protagonists included - offering up blowjobs and bemoaning her useless crackhead boyfriend. I’m not offended by her, nor incensed by the lack of subtlety in her writing, well a bit, but not massively; I’m just not really that interested full stop. So why do I tow the car across town and then agree do it again straight away? The answer to that is pretty much the same as the answer to the more overarching question; why am I choosing to participate in most of what GTA V has to offer? All these boring activities - whether lawful or otherwise - are still compelling to me because they are grounded within this fantastic sense of place. Driving across the city or the wider map isn’t that dissimilar to ‘the wife’ and I walking around Kensal Green Cemetery looking for the Weeping Angels from Dr Who, or critiquing people’s curtains from the side of the canal. Call me a fantasist but it really isn’t that different.
After a while my better half began to see what ‘being able to do anything’ actually boils down to. Just as Los Santos is a more concise Los Angeles, so too are the game’s interactions a more concise collection of the ones we have available to us in real life. We can walk, drive, cycle, swim (she can’t), run, climb and otherwise cavort all over the State of San Andreas. We could antagonise an officer of the law or rob a shop, get a silly haircut or jump off a bridge. We can’t talk to strangers in the street; a design limitation? No, of course not, no one does that in real life anyway so why ruin the facsimile? We can call up our friends, most of who are usually otherwise engaged at the time; right on point. We can’t get a wide variety of law abiding jobs in LS, but why would we need to when the tow truck one is a pretty accurate representation of most jobs, generally speaking? GTA V, more so than any of the previous games in the series, has a little slice of almost all of the mundanities available to the modern urban dweller. While these slices - unlike the stereotypes that run through them all - aren’t very broad, they are - unlike the stereotypes that run through them all - very representative. GTA V is a little life simulator where you can happily try out a super-specific and limited instance of almost anything you do in your actual, boring life. That, I feel, is its greatest success. Yes, it is vacuous and filled with horrible, horrible people, but so is the real world; I live in London, I already know that.
This sense of GTA V being a tiny world on the Xbox that my girlfriend not only understood, but actually quite liked, came to a lovely head when we pulled off the highway in the mountains. I’d been driving around for no real reason other than to enjoy the views and the selection of radio stations. “There are different radio stations? Oh wow, that’s pretty interesting. And the music is real music, from the real radio? Do other games do that? No, no, they probably don’t.” After a while it was time for a smoke, but instead of pausing the game as I normally do, I left everything running while we had a beer and a cigarette out of my living room window. “This music is fantastic!” she enthused about the dance station, “this game is pretty good, I like it.” I was shocked.
I had yet to show her any of the ‘proper’ game though, and when I did her interest quickly disappeared. You might not have noticed yet, but in the couple of hours we were sitting together up to this point I didn’t elect to use violence once. I get nothing out of rampant violence in video games any more, whether that be because of fatigue or my accelerating maturity. Driving through the mountains or getting fake tattoos done is more my thing today; it’s still escapism after all, it just says a lot about how my personality and interests have changed over the last handful of years. I’m small ‘c’ conservatism all the way these days, apparently.
After going to a big blue letter on the map I found myself playing as the retired thief Michael, a man in his mid-forties who enjoys drinking and smoking and is subsequently my favourite protagonist in the game thus far. Having infiltrated (woken up in) a morgue so I could identify a corpse I had no weapons at my disposal; I was armed only with my cunning. I knocked a worker out in a ‘necessary’ though non-lethal fashion as to remain undetected, and then called my contact to relay my findings. The dead man I had come to find was actually a dead woman on the slab; something had clearly transpired. This building intrigue mattered for nought though, as instead of continuing along my sneaky-sneaky nobody dies today path, I was accosted by two armed guards - while I was still on the phone I might add - and was forced to open fire on them with a swiftly scooped up pistol. It seems I’d misinterpreted the situation completely; I was expecting a bit of the player agency that I’d been enjoying during my time out of missions. The game clearly didn’t want that to be so. Cover blown, I ended up shooting EVERY LAST INDIVIDUAL in the hospital I had woken up in, which turned out to be at least fifteen, probably closer to twenty five, guys.
Most of GTA V thus far has turned out this way. A car chase ends in a gunfight, a meth lab tour ends in a gunfight, a drug deal - gunfight, a motorbike repossession - gunfight, a gun shipment robbery - gunfight (that one makes more sense); the game seems intent on making almost every situation devolve into a gunfight. And not a small scale one, mind, these skirmishes are always sizeable and result in a body count that would whet the appetite of many a human interest story-obsessed journalist. I find this problematic. The default control scheme employs very liberal auto-aim which makes these encounters a trifle to succeed at. Furthermore, all but one of the instances mentioned has taken place indoors, with my enemies being funnelled towards me by corridors and small rooms. There is almost no skill associated with any of these scenarios; they simply exist as something else to do. These mass-killings are as meaningful as a game of darts of a jog on the beach.
This misgiving could entirely be a comment on my current place in life and nothing more, though I really don’t think that to be the case. The early GTA games - especially the 2D ones I’d argue - entirely revolved around the giddy freedom to ‘do anything’. This anything quickly defined itself as wanton violence, but even that - given the unprecedented scale of it at the time - was enough anything for most people. The series itself has proven that video games now offer a much broader range of experiences, however perfunctory they often prove to be, than they did a decade ago. I’d expect that this variety would have permeated the ‘proper game’ aspects of a GTA just as it has the ‘fluffy nonsense’ bits that surround it. That hasn’t happened yet during my time with V. Instead, I now find myself enjoying the mundane over the visceral, the civilised over the controversial and the downright normal-boring over the exciting-boring. It all goes a long way to making me feel a bit lost.
Rockstar has always excelled at building worlds first and foremost, with everything else outside of that core strength being satisfying to different degrees. I hate to draw the comparison between the GTA series and Red Dead Redemption, but it’s the laziest way of making my point. RDR was the first time Rockstar not only successfully created a satisfying world, but also a satisfying game that was deserving enough to take place within it. RDR, for the most part, was pensive, tense, measured and atmospheric. It implemented its violence - which was still everywhere - to much more dramatic effect than GTA V does; it had weight and consequence while V’s just feels obligatory and pervasive.
I used to enjoy the channelled anarchy of the GTA series; its power to cast you as the antihero - just without all the consequences. Now, I’d rather it just replicate my workday commute, take me on a little holiday or allow me to get tattoos - just without all the consequences. Maybe I’ve matured to the point where the violence isn’t interesting any more. Maybe my capacity for imagination has contracted to such an extent that travel, fucking travel, now represents the outer limit of my relationship with escapism and excitement. Or maybe I’m just sad because for all its pointless-yet-compelling mimicking of the horrible, boring lives we all lead, Grand Theft Auto V ultimately devolves into something much less interesting. My girlfriend sees this almost instantly, though she doesn’t say anything. She just stands up and leaves the room.