There is something existentially dreadful about watching a parody of American Idol where the contestants have to not only out-sing but out-fight one another—when you’re supposed to be playing a video game.
I speak, of course, of Grand Theft Auto V. What other game would even have a bunch of joke TV channels? And that's part of the problem. Like a faded beauty decking herself out in baubles, bangles, and beads, Grand Theft Auto has been on a decadelong spree of piling on "features," hoping you won't notice how much it's aged. Looking back, it’s amazing how little evolution the series has experienced. Kidnap someone playing Grand Theft Auto III in 2001, bring him in a time machine to the present day to play GTA V, and the only actual gameplay differences he'll notice are that now you can fly helicopters and ride motorcycles, and you won't die when you touch a body of water. That’s pretty much it. And those changes were made in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, the very next game after III.
The rest of the changes, and there are a lot of them, are all peripheral. In V, for instance, you can play fetch with your dog, get in shape by playing tennis, get mauled by a mountain lion, pilot a submarine, screw with apps on your phone (like you don't have enough apps to keep track of in your real life), and even get an R-rated lap dance at the strip club, pressing buttons to get your hands off the girl when the bouncer's looking. These are all good for a laugh with your buddies, but if Los Santos (the Grand Theft Auto series' second stab at making a video game version of Greater Los Angeles) has so much to see and do, why does every play session devolve into seeing how many bystanders and cops you can kill before you're arrested or killed, just like it did 10 years ago? If this is such an incredible sandbox, why do we build the same castle over and over again?
Like George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire books—the ones on which HBO's Game of Thrones is based—Grand Theft Auto is great at world-building, but not so great at making you care about what goes on in that world. Just as Martin makes sure we know the color and material of even the most minor characters' doublets, as though we know what doublets are anyway, the folks who spent five years on GTA V want us to see how they've laid every brick, wardrobed every pedestrian, and rendered every fender-bender tenderly. Martin's continent of Westeros, and the worlds the Grand Theft Auto developers assemble, are wonderful in the way snow globes are wonderful—as intricate, self-contained spectacles. But also like snow globes, they're totally inconsequential and get boring fast. And the ironic culprit behind the lack of consequence has taken up residence in Westeros and Los Santos alike: too much consequence, too fast.
Amid his many narrative quirks, Martin is known for killing off major characters—that is, characters the reader thought were major—early in his books, because, hey, people die randomly in real life, don't they? As he explains, “when my characters are in danger, I want you to be afraid to turn the page, [so] you need to show right from the beginning that you're playing for keeps." His belief that fiction should play by the same rules as reality is admirable, but as anyone who's read the books or seen the show knows, he's turned it into something of a fetish. The character turnover is so high that you hardly get to know anybody, and as the Teddy Bears sang, you can't love, love, love people without knowing, knowing, knowing them.
But at least Martin has a philosophy behind his bloodbaths. GTA V ups the body count whenever it doesn't know what else to do, which is all the time. Compare the game with last year's first-person shooter Far Cry 3, which attempted to show how circumstances could turn a spoiled rich kid into a cold-blooded killer. Your character’s transformation wasn’t earned as completely as it should have been, but Far Cry 3 was a rare game that reminded you that killing people is no joke. GTA V, like a horror movie that shows the monster in the first scene, wastes no time in getting to the murder. The game has barely told you how to move your character when you're killing your first cops and laughing when your nervous wheelman is shot in the head. It’s not all killing sprees, of course; it’s also mundane tasks like towing cars and using a crane to rearrange shipping containers. The banality of the missions that serve as the game’s narrative tent poles are the closest thing to undeniable proof that the folks behind GTA V spent 90 percent of the last five years laying out Los Santos, and 10 percent thinking about what the player would do there. As in past games, the missions are essentially radio plays, as you listen to your co-workers—I mean, fellow street thugs—deliver exposition as y’all do your chores. After which you’ll save your game, shoot some strangers, and kill as many cops as possible, because, as I said, that’s how every session of GTA ends anyway.