One of the main motivations for making my computer 4K capable was to play Grand Theft Auto V. Sure, it had gotten great reviews on the consoles, of course it did, but I had other motivations. Escapism is a necessity for your sanity, and indulging in violence when there are no consequences is a fun way to unwind. There are other games that allow us to project and enact violent desires and fantasies, but the GTA games add another enticing layer, its fiction closely mimics actual reality, and violent crimes committed in the name of theft are fun, and more than anything, suspending reality allows crime to pay, and pay very well.
All of the GTA games are superb, but my excitement at the prospect of playing GTA V reminded me of playing the best of the series, and, in my opinion, the best game ever, Grand Theft Auto Vice City, and that made me consider its legacy. The combination of its branding, the promise of its premise and the specific cultural nostalgia that constructed and informed Vice City’s narrative are what first drew you in. But what makes it the best? It firmly established the GTA brand as a cultural phenomenon, to the point, that even now, over ten years on, there’s something appealing about departing to Vice City. Recalling driving down Washington Beach in a Lambo, with the sun setting as ‘More Than This’ by Roxy Music plays on the radio still stirs the emotions.
Why? It fulfils a materialistic dream, many of which are based upon on idealising cultural references which we aspire, but mostly fail, to emulate. This means the success of the GTA series has transcended the references they use and used. Now the franchise has become absorbed into mainstream culture and is idealised because it provides one of the few accessible guaranteed routes we have to hedonistic escapism. Vice City’s ability to offer vicariousness means it now sits alongside the references and cogs of aspiration we find synonymous with the glamour of 80’s escapism it embodied so successfully; the Miami Viceness of its aesthetic, the 80’s kitsch style and garish excess, the music of era – when pop music was at its height, you know, it was total cheese, but it was a cheese with flavour, hand made with care and skill, like a rich Brie – the use of clichéd movie references everyone knows, or the tantalizing sleaziness of drug dealer chic. Better yet Vice City only arrived at this lofty status because it didn’t take its ability to imbue our individual cultural nostalgias seriously.
Now that it’s 2015 most sensible folk don’t take the argument that playing GTA and other games of its ilk encourages violent behaviour seriously, but we should, because the opposite is true. Gaming, particularly games that require us to commit murderous or violent acts, helps to stop us from tipping over the edge. To paraphrase Rust Cohle from True Detective ‘we’ve evolved too well, we’ve become self-aware’. Our nature is inclined towards the natural selection model, yet we expend a significant amount of energy repressing and or overriding our innate impulses and urges. These urges and impulses are mostly banal, say ‘I want a Twix right now’ and are easy to repress or the consequences are diminished if we submit to them. However, we still need to find outlets that can satiate the urges that civilization’s ethical constructs are incapable of quenching.
That’s why each new edition of the GTA series comes with fewer limitations on what you can do. Even better it perpetually encourages you to indulge in something, or try it. At the start you’re overwhelmed with choice; explore the vast terrain, watch a preposterous surrealistic movie of Freudian analysis in French and Spanish, play darts, tennis, search for nuclear waste, talk to odd characters, run over wildlife in a sports car, jump off skyscrapers, drive recklessly on purpose, take a hit on the bong whilst sitting on the sofa, watch cartoons fused with sexual innuendo, shoot a hipster in the face because he/she took a selfie, play the stock market, pick up a prostitute, go for a therapy session, as well as committing petty robberies and doing good deeds.
Rockstar isn’t motivated by any altruistic attempt to make the world safer, but as it needs to keep adding these innovations to stop the format from going stale, it does so in a roundabout way. The best of the new additions was not only controlling one protagonist, but three, and being able to switch between them and intertwining their fortunes into altering the story mode’s ending. During certain heists you can choose when to switch between characters, in others you need to at the right times if you want to be successful. Providing multiple options of how the heists are carried out was another superb feature, as is giving each character a bespoke special ability.
Both Michael and Franklin are stock characters, clichés of clichés. Trevor, on the other hand, is a culmination of multiple facets of human excess and degradation; he’s a tragically self-loathing, myopic, ruthless, sociopathic lunatic and even better whilst playing as him you feel less guilty for doing the things he might.
GTA V does have its own specific moral compass, even if it’s shaded towards a disingenuously selective populist form anti-capitalism usually assumed by hypocrites, a position that benefits the game’s dialogue and plot. Ultimately you get to murder those who exploit others, but only after they’ve exploited you, so their deaths feel justified. These characters are based upon the famous people who run behemoth corporations, such as Apple, Windows or Facebook. You know who they are; they’re insincerely and sickeningly earnest, pathetically entangling their self-worth in the success of their company’s products and piously justifying it with the belief that they’re making people’s lives better, but underneath it all they’re just ruthless, heartless bastards. And you know this because the story mode in GTA V forces you to become one of them to ram home that point.
I have few gripes with GTA V. Playing it was such a blast, that I might start playing the story mode again. But it does have flaws, the controls aren’t ideal, but it’s difficult to think of a way they could be. Shooting and controlling the camera will always be easier with a mouse and keyboard, while driving will always be easier with a controller. Perfecting the controls for a game that’s fluctuates between playing on foot or in a vehicle, two different gaming formats, is difficult enough. One that requires shooting and driving, often at the same time, is extremely difficult. Trying to steer your car and shoot a moving target at the same time using a controller is just too slow and cumbersome. I’ve resorted to a compromise of holding down the accelerator trigger on my controller but using the mouse to aim, which meant I couldn’t steer the car.
Any other issues I have are minor and likely to be vanquished by the inevitable technological progresses of the near future. The AI of the game’s population can still result in comically weird spasms. I still can’t figure out the infuriatingly nebulous motorway network around the airport – surely it can’t be like that around LAX? My biggest irritation ironically infuses the game’s appeal – the police are annoyingly persistent and the public are quick to grass on you if you rile them up. I’d imagine this was introduced to make the game more realistic and challenging, but cleverly it also into impinges on the sense of implied freedom and escape that gaming in this world should give you, and in turn it fuels your desire to rampage and kill at the sheer injustice of it. And it’s not just the police either – a biker gang taking some shots at me sufficiently irritated me into a killing spree. When a redneck told me to fuck off I snapped. Though I confess this was due, in part, to me still not having gotten over the ending to Easy Rider, as my handiwork in the video below shows:
The best thing about GTA is how it wields sarcasm, either through character dialogue, the character traits themselves, who they’re based upon, or the conversations and whacky social commentaries found on the radio stations. The GTA series is incessant in taking aim at contemporary forms of materialism and capitalism, ideological freedoms we’ve become so beholden to and reliant upon. Playing it makes us realise, as all good fiction and entertainment should, that its extremes come too close to the reality of what is quite frankly a very bizarre and violent world in which we live. Take these gobshites who created that ungodly mess in Paris last Friday. I strongly suspect they were a humourless bunch who had no joy in their lives. All they had was an ideology that prevented them from doing what they wanted to and made them resent others who are free to indulge in hedonistic acts. They’re a perfect example that it’s more gratifying and effective to purge and channel any pent up hatred, irritation or disillusionment through an artistic or a creative endeavour that we’d consider entertainment, particularly the kind that we can manipulate into visually depicting versions of our own whims and fantasies.
So I have a solution – I think Rockstar should create a GTA game where you control a character and or various members of a terrorist cell that attempts to commit atrocities and create a world that eschews literature, free speech, and multiple forms of progressive modernity and hedonism. The subject should still be subject to sarcasm and belittlement, say GTA meets Four Lions (the Chris Morris film), and once you succeed in creating a caliphate the game would reveal how bleak and depressing that world would be to live in with no mission to distract you.
GTA V is one hell of a technical achievement and the GTV series is already widely popular, but neither of these things are its greatest achievement. That the world would be a safer more adjusted place if everyone embraced their impulses and played GTA V, is.