I often find myself defending Grand Theft Auto V- despite it’s heavy-handed misogyny and restrictive narrative structure – as a grand wandering simulator. As the appeal of the “gangster” shtick slowly devolves into movie-inspired tropes, it’s the vastness of Los Santos, in both environmental variety and technical details, that makes it feel sentient.
Much of the critique of the GTA series as a whole revolves around it being an absurdist male power fantasy. As the years have gone by, however, I have heartily enjoyed the peaceful exploration of the meticulously crafted digitized cities Rockstar presents in stark contrast to the stories that are utilized to give the game world purpose. It’s been nearly seven months since the game came out. And after blazing through a typical tale of criminal male empowerment for 40 or so hours, I’ve spent all of my time in the game observing the smaller technical details of Los Santos.
In a third person open world game, there seems to be an increasing divide between how a player interacts with the game environment and how he or she plays through the confines of typical mission progression. The genre can’t seem to escape the trappings of minimap objective markers that initiate linear shoot-out setpieces or basic fetch quests in order to tell an overarching story. The introductory missions of every GTA game excite me the most- it’s here where my imagination runs wild with the unique possibilities of how to be immersed in the new environment. Slowly getting adjusted to the evolution of the Euphoria engine, the introduction to Franklin’s dog Chop, and a return to arcade-inspired driving controls felt both comforting and novel. The more responsive character movement, the shifting of weight from one foot to the other when walking, and the quicker turning radius is what I noticed immediately, especially after having spent so much time with GTA IV. Although movement is still slightly sluggish, the improvements allow for easier navigation when exploring.
And oh, it’s the places you’ll go in GTA! And it’s the little bits that mirror reality in unexpected ways that continue to surprise me. Pedestrians take shelter and cover their heads when it rains, the character you’re controlling looks in the rear view mirror as you press the button to look behind you in traffic, puddles are left over after a storm and campfire dance parties litter the beach at night. It’s the attention to detail that is absolutely astounding to me, and also slightly bewildering. Why do I take comfort in a videogame emulating reality in unexpected ways? The shattering of glass from stolen car windows left on the street, the heavy kickback of a pistol, enemies dragging one another into cover or writhing in pain when shot but not killed. I revel in the fact that the game attempts to recreate the most mundane aspects of city life along with the nasty realism of gun violence, but it’s not with the intention of playing the character roles Houser and Humphries have written.
This is precisely the reason Grand Theft Auto still entrances me. My version of Trevor is wearing a polka dot dress and has a lumberjack beard. We go hunting for animals occasionally, and spend most of our time flying in a Luxor mesmerized by the glimmering neon city lights reflected on the water. The importance of grand heists and sociopathic behavior seems utterly muted, and there’s a sweeping sense of isolation in my own interactions with both the character and the environment. Slowly ambling in the Chilliad Moutain State wilderness, pacing back and forth between the trees, feels completely serene. Each player’s interaction with Los Santos is inherently different- whether her or she plays a psychopathic serial killer with an affinity for assault rifles, or a reclusive mountain biker looking for a new trail away from the skyscrapers. The linear narrative presents completely different characterizations for these men I’m moonlighting as. But it’s of no bother to me in my peaceful wanderings of the Los Santos urban sprawl. Between intermittent sessions of tennis and psychological appointments, there’s a strange disconnect between my interaction and that which has been prescribed.
As the series continues to evolve, it’d be nice to see more complexity in both mission design structure and written character motivations. If anything, the creation of Los Santos is a stunning achievement and the willingness to explore and appreciate the quieter moments of the digitized world can be absolutely blissful. Although I’ve been clamoring for a new female protagonist in an “Episodes from Los Santos” chapter, perhaps we’ll save that for another discussion. I’m off to meander by Nowhere Road, among the wolves and the orange hues of dusk.