Single-player games are solipsistic affairs, and there is none more solipsistic than Grand Theft Auto.
Video games often present themselves as escapist fantasies. The escapism is enabled by immersiveness. Grand Theft Auto is a masterclass in immersion. It puts you in a lovingly-crafted, ridiculously detailed parody of Southern California and lets you run amok, with total freedom to partake in one of any number of bespoke activities – tennis, golf, dirt bike races, hiking, paragliding – and of course, the old staples: reckless driving and criminal violence. The interesting thing about such games is in what people do when given such freedom and the assurance that their behavior will invite no repercussions – a total solipsist power fantasy.
There is a plot, of course – there always is, and it’s usually a crime caper with a liberal dose of satire that decry various aspects of the American Dream. Players are obliged to role-play as three different protagonists – the miserable retired bank robber Michael, the dissatisfied gangbanger Franklin, and the honest-to-god psychopath Trevor. The plot is an excuse to play a range of terrific scripted missions that make the player feel like they’re in the middle of a blockbuster movie, especially with the inclusion of first person in the next-gen console and PC versions of the game. The plot itself isn’t terribly riveting, the characters themselves are rough-hewn archetypes with poorly-sketched out motivations, and the satire’s laid on a little too thick, which takes away from the ability to feel sympathetic to the characters. It’s the classic video game conundrum: characters do quests because that’s what the player wants to do as a function of playing the game, and not because it makes sense for the character to want to do them in the context of his established personality. As a result of these factors, I was unable to identify with them as characters. This is not a function of the fact that they are hardened criminals – Niko Bellic of GTA IV was a more sympathetic character than anyone in this game – it’s a function of the prioritization of spectacle and satire over character building. Story is not this game’s best suit, which is a shame, because Rockstar games have been known for having compelling and evocative narratives before. GTA V’s story is too smart-alecky satirical and cavalier to be much good.
But it’s a far bigger world than just the travails of three criminals. GTA V is an open-world extravaganza, beautiful, with a sense of scale and place. Never before has an open world been so completely realized. As the player, you spend time between missions dicking around, completing challenges, and generally doing whatever you want, and the world has a lot of activities in which to engage, of which violence is only one. GTA V is so supremely accomplished in this respect that the open-world dicking and the story mode seem like two different games at times. The former can be slow, contemplative and meditative, the latter is usually fast, violent, and cinematic. Of course, completing the story will reward the player with the money needed to partake in the activities of the open world, but even then, cash is not a particularly important commodity in terms of general game mechanics.
What may be more interesting, in my view, however, is the fact that GTA V’s immersive, expansive but fundamentally empty world liberates the player into a state of anarchic freedom, unconstrained by social mores and laws. GTA V provides the opportunity to indulge in one’s baser instincts. The fact that your avatars are criminals helps disassociate agency from responsibility, as it feels like roleplaying. Indeed, I was most violent in this game when playing Trevor – he was like a kind of Mr Hyde alter-ego that served as a conduit for the expression of primal violence. Feeling like Trevor didn’t give two hoots about what society thought of him, I painted his car bright pink and gave him full-body tattoos and a giant shaggy beard. Trevor wouldn’t give a shit, I thought. Does that say anything about me? I don’t really know. As Michael, I mostly drove recklessly and generally moped around. As Franklin, I was the adrenaline-head that participated in triathlons, paragliding, hiking and dirt racing. I felt more guilty mowing people down as Franklin than I did playing Trevor. At some point, one gets unsure how much of the violence one commits in the game is a function of role-playing a character, or just the kind of dangerous boredom that leads a child to use a magnifying glass to idly burn a colony of ants.
Although the game world is physically beautiful, the soul of Los Santos is distressingly shallow. Perhaps it’s like LA in a sense, that deliberate superficiality and the over-emphasis on appearances. Perhaps it’s the satire that exists in all corners, from the social media company LifeInvader that dispatches teams to map the insides of people’s homes, or the pathetic celebrities on Vinewood Avenue, or the sarcastic radio ads and the sophomoric innuendo-laden references scattered everywhere, or the game’s blithely cavalier attitude towards the deadly violence visited upon the city by its three protagonists. There is a sense of detachment, of alienation from the world of Los Santos, despite its graphical fidelity and detailed layouts. The city feels like a parody of a parody, a flat, plastic place that you drive around, like a lego set. It doesn’t quite feel “lived in” in a sense. Los Santos, in other words, has no memorable landmarks; it just feels like the most painstakingly crafted ode to generica that ever was made.
Did I have fun playing this game? Definitely. It’s a game that needs to be played for its technical accomplishments, its smooth first person mechanics, its engaging immersiveness, and of course the feeling of being radically free in a solipsistic open-world. But do I wish Los Santos had the character to match its beauty, perhaps injected through better narratives and more well-drawn and sympathetic characters? Yes, I do. Satire of the American way is a fun topic to dwell on, but I think this game might lay it on a bit too thick, especially because LA is just too easy to satirize, so this is really a double whammy of satire – as I mentioned, a parody of a parody. But it’s hard to knock a game with such vision and brilliance in most respects. And the soundtrack is amazing too.
I give this game: 4 out of 5 bongs