The Unbearable Sadness of Grand Theft Auto V

The art of play.
Sept. 23 2013 12:38 PM

The Tragedy of Grand Theft Auto V

The story of a rebel game that forgot how to be transgressive.

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I know that's not what Rockstar wants. I read all the Dan Houser interviews that are parceled out so rarely, always about vision and never about execution. Always about games and Hollywood, as if there's a competition, and about how interactivity offers us the potential to tell better stories than we did before. In that regard, GTA V is profoundly disappointing: One of the earliest jokes in the game involves a dog doing another dog in the butt. The game is constantly grating you with frat humor whenever you're trying to Have a Moment with it.

Always prescient, the game aims to lampoon the modern obsession with smart devices, social networks—none-too-subtle "LifeInvader" subs for Facebook, and "Bleater" for Twitter—and Internet politics, but is mostly heavy-handed about it— any elderly pundit at a middle-American local paper can skewer Twitter as an outlet for narcissists' boring snippets. "Information isn't about imparting knowledge anymore," gloats Bleater obtusely. "The Internet changed all that."

This is watching your sharp, witty father start telling old fart jokes as his mind slows down. And as much as the Internet is habituated to defending GTA as "satire," what is it satirizing, if everything is either sad or awful? Where is the "satire" when the awful parts no longer seem edgy or provocative, just attempts at catch-all "offense" that aren't honed enough to even connect?

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Here's a series that has been creating real, meaningful friction with conventional entertainment for as long as I can remember, and rather than push the envelope by creating new kinds of monsters, it's reciting the same old gangland fantasies, like a college boy who can't stop staring at the Godfather II poster on his wall, talking about how he's gonna be a big Hollywood director in between bong rips. You call the trading index BAWSAQ? Oh, bro, you're so funny, you're gonna be huge.

Everything it seems you'd want to compare GTA to, including The Sopranos and Breaking Bad, includes interesting and antagonistic women. GTA is not brave. Anna Gunn gets death threats for her incredible performance as Skyler White, a primary antagonist to Breaking Bad's Walter. You can't avert your eyes from their scenes in this last season. That is brave.

Whenever cinema and dialogue start happening on GTA V, I check Twitter. What am I doing this mission? I don't know, chasing the yellow dot, as always. Killing the red ones.

All a video game had to do to be seen as brave, edgy, risk-taking again would be to give it a shot: Try to write a monstrous woman, a frustrated woman, a hungry, opportunistic woman, and treat her frailties with nuance. This isn't something even TV and cinema regularly knock out of the park.

Instead, we have another GTA. It is so big, and so beautiful, and it's fundamentally just another GTA. It's good. I like it. It's fun to mess around in. It's like an SUV through a glass storefront, declaring that you cannot ignore video games.

We can't help but acknowledge what Rockstar has wrought: No one has ever seen a game world this size, this lifelike. If you squint a little, it almost looks completely real, creepy-real. It approximates the absurdist fantasies futurists have always had about video games; it is like what a movie about the future thinks video games are. Can you do this? Yes. Can you do this? Yes. Yes. Yes.

Sometimes it's too smart for video games, and too cool: The impeccably curated music selections for the game's radio stations, or the way the game's light behaves—warm, slow haloes flickering across a low-riding luxury car. It understands cool-hunting, power-hunger.

And it's so ruthlessly researched that you have to be dazzled, as if in the presence of a mothership of a mind much more observant, much more well-traveled, possessed of much more social wisdom than you, some chump holding the controller.

And still: so confined, so trapped, so tragic. A shame.

I drive my shiny car around Los Santos and I kind of wish I had a turn signal. Stranded in traffic, I honk the horn over and over again, and nobody moves. I am triangulated by some missions, none of which I really want to do, stuck in the city's web of repetition. I want to do something nice for Michael. I want to get him out of this sad, sad cycle. It seems to be what he really wants. I can hear it in every note of his pained, excellent voice performance.

My son and daughter have ditched me at the beach. I ride the roller coaster all by myself, a slow, cotton candy sunset-tinged arc across a never-ending beach vista. Walking along the beach, I press the wrong button by accident and swing my hairy fist impotently at the sunset, at nothing.

It's dark, maybe. But it's not brave. It's not that funny. It's not a power fantasy; it's not your escape. It's just sad.

Leigh Alexander is editor-at-large at Gamasutra.

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