For the past year, there has been a theory that “box set TV” has overtaken movies as mass entertainment. The Wire, Homeland, and Breaking Bad are revealing more about our modern lives than Hollywood’s three-act confections. Grand Theft Auto V, however, hints at a future in which that role is taken by games – or at the very least actively sought by them. This series is not like the other amazing entertainment that the videogame industry offers. It cannot be ignored or pigeon-holed. Rockstar has been a force for good in the past decade. It has dominated public perceptions about video games.
GTA V takes place mostly in Los Santos. This is the city that mirrors Los Angeles. It tells the story of criminal maniacs who self-destruct on a bloody career path to hell. Michael, a middle-aged thug obsessed with movies, signed a witness protection agreement with the feds following a failed heist years ago. His old partner Trevor, a sociopath and meth-baker, arrives in town. The two then join forces with Franklin, a young black boy who wants to leave his gang-infested neighborhood. Although the goal is to get a few high-paying jobs in the future, there is still a deep rooted resentment between Trev, Michael, and a spark that rages through the chaos.
The three-character format frees the narrative from the need for one protagonist to be everywhere. This allows the characters to witness everything in the vast world. You can switch between characters at any moment while on a mission. Each character has their own projects, which adds variety and amusement. For example, switching to Trevor often involves some kind of bodily function or violent episode. Michael, however, has a dysfunctional family. All this is overlaid by a massive plot about corrupt billionaires and warring government agencies.
It’s a wild ride through literature and genre cinema that results in a joyride through genre cinema. There are corrupt secret agents, corrupt mafia bosses and psychopathic mafia bosses. Their stories weave and interconnect with the lives of our protagonists. It can be dizzying at times but it is also daftly captivating. The influence of multi-strand dramas like The Wire is evident.
On a mission
GTA veterans will be able to recognize the basic mechanics of the game. While there are a few main narrative missions gamers must complete to progress, there is also a wide range of side-quests and money-making opportunities. These include buying property, managing clubs, and even playing the stock exchange. This cleverly responds to in-game events and allows you to make more cash by buying the right shares at just the right time. The majority of story tasks revolve around the same theme: drive somewhere, shoot something and drive back. But, as with all feedback loops in video games, the fun is in the execution. GTA V maps pack is a master at execution.
It would ruin the joy of discovery to say more. But you can rest assured that there are incredible stunts, massive destruction, military-grade weaponry, as well as being required to jump from planes. Helicopters. These escapades combine the vastness of the environment and the superior physics engine. They include everything from jet-ski chases to rural bank-heists, to operating large industrial machinery. Mini-preparatory missions are required for larger heists (hiding getaway cars and picking novelty masks). These help to build tension and add to the impression that we’re acting in our own Heat film. Although some ideas are repackaged several times and given back to you, you are carried along by a rush of euphoric shock and action – mostly because everything seems so simple.
Rockstar North has created an amazing universe that serves not only as an entertaining, varied setting, but also as a pulverizing, nihilistic commentary on western society. The often funny commercials that air on TV and radio stations mock reality TV, celebrities magazines, social media platforms, plastic surgery, and pop psychology books. Games are also targeted: Righteous Slaughter 7’s advertisement promises “the realistic art and contemporary killing”.
It’s not just about extraneous details, but it also slides into the story. One of the most striking sights is Lifeinvader’s offices, which are a mix of Google, Apple, and Facebook. All the staff wear cargo shorts and whine about organic lactose free dairy products. They also treat their CEO with religious reverence. To keep their budgets topped off, we also get corrupt FBI agents and CIA officers (called FiB or IAA in the game). Everybody is in the know, everyone is dangerous and the game delights at putting us in the middle of it all as a willing participant.
Gunfights are, however, intense, visceral ballets that are fuelled by frequent visits to Ammu-Nation shops. GTA learned a lot from Red Dead Redemption about organic environments (the San Andreas countryside is alive with wildlife), but it also learned its game systems from Max Payne. Combat is extremely smooth with many decent functional aiming options, and a cover mechanism that works almost imperceptibly. This is the best compliment you can give this concept. Most set-piece encounters can be mastered by imagination more than actual skill. However, they can be quite challenging. Grand Theft Auto V doesn’t really care about mechanics or story. It is about spectacle and experiencing.
This is important as it allows us to accept the game’s faults. Driving is a lot. There are no shortcuts. Every mission requires driving on the roads to reach the trigger point. Yes, you may think, “Ugh! Not another car ride!” Rockstar North also has a somewhat irritating narrative trope I’ll call “the Exposition Expedition”: There are many long journeys that seem to be there for the lead characters to chat about their back-story or engage in lengthy, expletive-drenched discussions on pop culture – something Tarantino probably is responsible for.
The system’s rules are not always clear, and the designers may not be able to explain them. You will not be able to complete some missions if you don’t follow a particular prompt. Others may provide no prompts and fail you if your actions aren’t in the required sweet spot. You may also find yourself confused by the game’s habit of giving you mission instructions simultaneously via on-screen dialogue and an onscreen text prompt. I had a good experience with it. Others may have better experiences.
Once again, women are relegated back to supporting roles of unfaithful wives and hookers, as well as weirdos. One female character is a successful one, but she’s just trying to get her boss screwed. GTA is an interactive gangster movie. The genre has a long history investigating straight male machismo at all costs. However, it would have been amazing to see Rockstar challenge that convention. While it’s okay to mock the misogyny and violence of violent men, how about trying to do the opposite? Rockstar North’s all-male writing staff seems too enslaved to Tarantino or Brett Easton Ellis to even consider this.
But… the genius of GTA V lies in its seductive force. Amazing visuals – they are just amazing. This is pushing the limits of the ageing hardware. We see the dense downtown, with its high-rise skyscrapers, and back alleys that are littered with garbage. Out in the country we find rolling grasslands and desert stretches as well as coyotes and the shadows of eagles overhead.
You are pulled in by the world. It invites you to explore, and then rewards you. Every inch of the landscape is thoughtfully designed with curious gamers in mind. This is an odd compliment, but surely all videogame landscapes are created in this manner. Open worlds are often made from architectural filler, which is boring landscapes and cardboard boxes tenements. San Andreas is full of contrasts and incredible detail. There is always something new to discover, or a breathtaking view from the hills towards the capitalist spires. Designers talk about rewarding exploration but often hide easy Easter eggs in boring backwaters. Grand Theft Auto V, like Skyrim and Fallout 3, is a form virtual tourism. It features beautiful modernist architecture hidden in the Vinewood hills as well as raging rivers that run through mountain wilderness parks.
The system’s emergent moments are also where the talent lies. You can drive to a violent heist while Don Johnson’s Heartbeat is playing on the radio. You can fly a crop-dusting aircraft up Mount Chiliad just as the sun sets, sending rainbows through your cockpit screen. Or you could chase a police car and send your vehicle off the bridge onto the roof of a liquor store. It’s all fun and games, it’s all about the player.
Complicity and culpability
It works, no matter how familiar the GTA setup may seem. You can blast your way through impossible encounters with private armies and speeding through the city streets of a new car. Some will loathe the sheer amorality and the constant seething darkness of this narrative.[Spoiler]An interactive torture scene will make many people scream. It forces the player to inflict cruelty on a defenseless victim.[spoiler ends]. GTA is about complicity, culpability and responsibility – what are they willing to do in this world of GTA? What are they responsible to? Michael visits a shrink several times during the game complaining that someone is controlling him. Rockstar is interested in interrogating the relationship between player & game, or at least laughing at the psychopolitics.
GTA V will be hated by some. Others, like me, will enjoy it while acknowledging its limitations and shortcomings as a narrative adventure. Last of Us reveals more about humanity than GTA V’s 70 missions. Five stars for such an unsettling proposition. It will confuse and anger some people. Rockstar is a world that can be explored for hours. It’s fun. It’s beautiful, it’s full of ideas, and the Grand Theft Auto Online add-on will make it a compelling multiplayer experience. Participants can combine their efforts and wage huge turf wars.
GTA V is also a parody of modern life. It’s our bubbling cesspit for celebrity fixation and political apathy, as well as morose self-obsession. Half of what I expected was that it would end with the Houser brothers as Papa Lazarou, League of Gentlemen, staring at the camera and whispering seductively “you all live now in Los Santos”. They don’t have to. This is their misanthropic masterpiece.