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.

Grand Theft Auto 5
Michael de Santa

Image courtesy Rockstar Games

This post originally appeared on Gamasutra.

I wanted to do something nice for Michael. He'd been rejected in turn by each member of his family, as it seems he is every day. Even with medication and therapy, he can't seem to deal with his anger or find a sense of purpose, and his doctor is hiking up the treatment rate again.

I'm controlling this guy Michael, standing on an L.A. sidewalk at sunny midday. I pull out his phone and I go through his contacts and I dial every single one.

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The only one who answers is accidental pal Franklin, a young car thief trying to go legit. The bewilderment in Franklin's voice is palpable—why is Michael calling? We just saw each other, man.

Michael is standing on a sidewalk, graying hair, dorky polo and cargo shorts, peering down at his phone as cars whizz past on some bleak L.A. highway. The sky takes on a late-day tinge, and if I don't press anything he will stand there forever, looking sad, waiting for someone to call.

With all the talk about "open world," "mayhem," and "power fantasy," it's easy to forget how confining the Grand Theft Auto series now feels: All of that endless vista, and you with your eyes too-often glued to the mini-map. Orbiting missions and objectives that dot your map like bites to be scratched. You have to shoot. For a game defined by its attitude to freedom and openness, it gives you very little liberty to escape its structure. You can go for a drive, or play tennis, or do yoga, but you're delaying the inevitable.

To make progress, you eventually submit to going to a place, and you drive there, and pull up, and you're in it, and only after a long pause do you realize nothing begins until your car touches, precisely, the indicator halo in the middle of the sidewalk.

I feel for the characters in this game: They're living lives on rails, and they can't seem to get out, nor reconcile how to be happy and secure given the directions they've chosen. As Franklin, I drove for miles and miles away from the neighborhood where I've been taking over my cousin's tow truck shifts to keep him and his awful girlfriend afloat while they struggle with crack addiction. I drove what felt like forever, and I rode my bike the wrong way down a train tunnel and emerged on a railway bridge at dawn.

I had Franklin take out his phone to snap the view. It was the first time I'd used the phone in the game, and I noticed I could click the right stick to make Franklin turn the camera around on himself. The character model's position, expression—phone at arm's length, slightly angled, the selfie-expression open, bewildered, positive—was perfect. Innocent, even. I don't belong to Rockstar Social Club, the social network membership required for me to be able to save photos, but I took it anyway, pretending Franklin could show his unhinged friend Lamar back home, the one who claims his "Apache blood" forces him to escalate dangerous gangland conflicts.

Then the train came. It struck my parked bike, and then me. I saw Franklin's stunned and mangled body. Then I saw him dazedly exit some small-town hospital, as if the adventure had all been a dream. There really wasn't anything else for me to do but drive back. Find another mission. Probably kill some more faceless gangsters, in a game where the best compliment you can give to its third-person shooting is that it's practically automated.

This game gives me everything, and yet I can't stop feeling sad. Trapped.

The "mayhem" thing, the freedom thing. I remember when that was an actual feature of Grand Theft Auto. I've always said Vice City was my favorite game in the series, drenched in the mad, manic excesses of 1980s Miami. You killed every gyrating bunny in a dance club because you could—not just because there was a freshness to the gesture, a newness, a transgressive excitement, but because the garish world felt so silly, so impermanent. You never even dirtied your awful polyester. I'm sure I died again and again and didn't mind. It wasn't a real world, not really. It was a story of a set of values in a certain time, just like San Andreas, a hyper-textured early ’90s hip-hop video, where you could also drive weary and wary through the fires of the L.A. race riots. That was a thing.

Punching out a stranger for cash is something I could do in pointy-collared Tommy Vercetti's blocky world, or even in C.J.s, as a way of asserting control, of taking ownership of whatever bleak expectations people had of me. It's important to me to tell you that, in Vice City, I chased down a prostitute in the rain and beat her to get my money back. I mean, I think I did that a lot—hired and beat a lot of prostitutes—just the one in the rain is the one I remember, cackling madly because Foreigner's "Waiting for a Girl Like You" was on my car radio. These were the times GTA felt illicit, rebellious, guilty, challenging.

I had to confide about the prostitutes, because I'm one of the people who said I thought it would have been better if Grand Theft Auto V let you play as a woman, and that I thought the game was misogynistic. I still feel that way, but it's not because I'm offended, or because I'm sensitive, or because I want to intervene upon anyone's vision, or because I regret the things I did in older games. It's because I want new monsters. It's because I want to be shocked again.

When Vice City came out, we had a young man doing heists and punching upward against expectations, misconceptions, and the traditional boundaries of "permissible" game content. It's more than a decade later, and we have all grown up, and we're given an old man shuffling around his expensive pool in a dorky polo, doing the same heists. We have yet more characters who cannot get out.

I remember old Grand Theft Auto: You're driving around, and you see a car you've never seen before, and it looks expensive, and you want it. And when you fight for it and you shake the cops and you bring down the helicopter and you repair and repaint the car, and you finally, wincing every tiny turn, drive that fucker to your garage because you worked for it? You felt the needle move.

In GTA V, you shoot down a police helicopter within the first couple of hours, with no consequences. I feel gluttonous and bored. I start the game with a gorgeous car because I am a car "repossessor." And if I see another car I want, I pull over and I get it. When my fender gets too banged up, I pull over and I get another car. Nobody ever even really stops me. Neither GTA IV or GTA V have ever given me, personally, a Wanted Star for stealing a car.

I throw some poor guy into the street and I take the car. Some poor lady. I always like to know what they were listening to on the radio when I drive off, unpunished.

Am I coming up in the world, or am I just throwing terrified people into the road?

The thing that feels the most "correct" in GTA V is to drive within the lines, to stop at red lights, to try to do the right thing. To try to call people for Michael to hang out with. To make sure he goes to his doctors' appointments.

Where do I go from here? Edge concluded its GTA V review with the quote "Beat that." Do I have to? What constitutes "more" when you have enough? What constitutes transgression when you're some mean, over-the-hill bully?

GTA V is that character—the $800 million man who doesn't know what to do next. Who used to be a rebel, who pulled the same damn tricks until they stopped working, and then kept doing it.

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?

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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