The notion that “box set” TV has replaced movies as the most favored form of mass, culturally significant entertainment has been circulating for about a year. Shows like Breaking Bad, The Wire, and Homeland are currently the ones that reflect our contemporary world, rather than Hollywood’s simplistic three-act stories. However, Grand Theft Auto V indicates a future in which games might take on that role, or at least actively pursue it. Unlike the broad array of fantastic entertainment produced by the video game industry, this series cannot be conveniently categorized or ignored by non-gamers.
For the past decade, Rockstar has used a sledgehammer to alter public perceptions of what video games are or may be, and now they’ve done so with merciless power. GTA V is mostly set in the glitzy yet superficial city of Los Santos, a twisted reflection of Los Angeles, and tells the story of criminal maniacs destroying themselves on a blood-soaked path to perdition. Michael is the middle-aged thug who loves movies and took a witness protection deal with the feds after a failed heist many years ago.
When his former partner Trevor, a sociopath who bakes meth in the desert, appears in town, the two team up with a young African American kid named Franklin, who wants to escape his gang-infested neighborhood. Their goal is to undertake some final high-paying jobs, but there’s a simmering resentment between Trev and Michael that goes back a long way, a fizzing fuse that stretches through all the carnage.
The idea that “box set” TV has replaced movies as the preferred form of culturally significant mass entertainment has been circulating for the past year. However, Grand Theft Auto V suggests that games may be vying for this role. Unlike most games, which can be safely ignored by non-players, this series produced by Rockstar is not easily pigeonholed. Set primarily in a satirical version of Los Angeles, the game follows three main characters with intertwined stories.
Michael, a middle-aged criminal who loves movies; Trevor, a sociopathic meth cooker in the desert; and Franklin, a young black man looking to escape his gang-ridden neighborhood. Players can switch between these characters at any time, giving them a more diverse perspective of the game’s vast world. The game is filled with various criminal organizations, corrupt government agencies, and wealthy billionaires. Despite the dizzying amount of information, the game is compelling and draws inspiration from multi-strand dramas such as The Wire.
On a mission
Gamers familiar with the GTA series will recognize the familiar gameplay mechanics at the core of the game. There is a central narrative to follow, but beyond that lies an expansive array of side missions, random encounters, and opportunities to make money, such as purchasing real estate, managing nightclubs, and investing in the stock market, which reacts to in-game events. Most of the story missions involve variations of the same theme: drive somewhere, shoot something, drive back, but the beauty of the game lies in the execution.
Without revealing too much, the game boasts insane stunts, massive destruction, military-grade weaponry, and the need to jump out of planes and helicopters. With the combination of the game’s massive open-world environment and its excellent physics engine, players can engage in a wide range of activities, from rural bank heists to jet ski chases to operating heavy industrial machinery. The larger heists require pre-planning missions, such as hiding getaway cars and selecting masks, adding to the tension and the feeling of being in one’s version of Michael Mann’s “Heat.” Although some ideas are repeated throughout the game, players are propelled forward by a rush of euphoric action and shock due to the fact that the game’s world is so immersive and behaves as though everything in it makes sense.
Rockstar North has crafted a stunning world that serves as both a diverse, thrilling backdrop and a biting satire of western society. The game’s numerous radio and TV stations feature clever and often humorous commercials that poke fun at everything from reality TV to pop psychology books. The game’s narrative also takes aim at various aspects of modern life, including social media, plastic surgery, and celebrity culture. Even video games themselves are not immune to the game’s satire, with an ad for “Righteous Slaughter 7” promising “the realistic art of contemporary killing.”
The game’s world is populated by corrupt government agents, drug dealers, and other dangerous characters, all looking out for themselves. The player is thrust into the middle of this world as a willing participant, tasked with completing narrative missions and engaging in a variety of side quests and activities to make money, such as buying property, managing clubs, and playing the stock market.
The combat in the game is smooth and intuitive, with a variety of aiming options and a seamless cover system that makes it easy for players to engage in furious gunfights. While some of the set-piece encounters are not particularly challenging, they are always spectacular and visually stunning. Ultimately, Grand Theft Auto V is a game about spectacle and experience, offering players a thrilling, immersive world to explore and enjoy.
The game’s flaws can be forgiven due to its important feature – the ability to function as a satire on western society. Rockstar North’s universe is diverse and exciting, with reality TV, celebrity magazines, social media, plastic surgery, pop psychology books, and more being satirized through commercials on the game’s radio and TV stations. The narrative slides into the satire, with corrupt FBI and CIA agents, called FiB and IAA in the game, trading drugs and manufacturing terrorist threats. However, the game is not without flaws. Players must do a lot of driving, with no shortcuts, which can sometimes become tedious. Additionally, the game has a narrative trope called “the exposition expedition” that includes long journeys just for lead characters to chat about backstory or engage in expletive-drenched conversations on pop culture and psychology.
Some missions can be confusing, with unclear rules of the system, and the game has a habit of providing mission instructions via in-game dialogue and an on-screen text prompt simultaneously, making it easy to miss plot details. One area where the game falls short is in its portrayal of women, who are relegated to supporting roles as unfaithful wives, hookers, and weirdos. The one successful female character is suspected of wanting to sleep with her boss, indicating that the game’s all-male writing team is too focused on Tarantino and Brett Easton Ellis’s work to provide a real challenge to the convention of investigating straight male machismo.
The brilliance of GTA V lies in the captivating power of its world-building. The visuals are truly remarkable and appear to be pushing the boundaries of the aging hardware. The game boasts a dense and lively downtown area with towering skyscrapers and gritty back alleys, as well as sprawling grasslands and desolate desert stretches inhabited by roaming coyotes and soaring eagles. The world immerses you and invites exploration, with every inch of the landscape crafted thoughtfully with the curious gamer in mind. This is an uncommon compliment, as most video game landscapes are made up of bland, monotonous filler.
However, San Andreas is full of contrasts and extraordinary detail, offering new and interesting nooks and breathtaking views around every corner. Designers often talk about rewarding players for exploring, but often do so with superficial Easter eggs hidden in mundane places. In the case of Grand Theft Auto V, it’s like virtual tourism, similar to Fallout and Skyrim before it.
What makes the game even more remarkable are the unexpected, emergent moments that the system produces. Imagine driving to a violent heist while listening to Don Johnson’s Heartbeat on the radio, with an empty freeway stretched out before you. Or picture flying a crop-dusting plane up the side of Mount Chiliad, reaching the peak just as the red sun sets, sending a rainbow of lens flare through your cockpit screen. And who wouldn’t enjoy clipping a police car during a chase, spinning off the overpass and landing on the roof of a liquor store? These moments are all unique, all about the player, and most importantly, all fun.
Complicity and culpability
Despite the familiar set-up of GTA, the game continues to captivate players. From blasting your way out of impossible situations with private armies to speeding through the city in a brand new car, the sheer immorality and darkness of the game’s narrative will undoubtedly repulse some players. There is even an interactive torture scene that forces players to commit acts of cruelty on a helpless victim. But ultimately, GTA is all about the player’s complicity and culpability – how much responsibility are they willing to take for their actions in this world?
Throughout the game, the character Michael sees a therapist and expresses his belief that someone else is controlling him. Rockstar wants to explore the relationship between player and game, or at least poke fun at the psychological implications of it all. Some players will undoubtedly hate GTA V, while others will enjoy it while acknowledging its complexity and narrative shortcomings. The Last of Us manages to say more about humanity in five minutes than GTA V does in its 70-plus missions. Despite its problematic aspects, this game is worth exploring for hours on end. It is fun, beautifully designed, full of ideas, and the upcoming free add-on, Grand Theft Auto Online, promises an engaging multiplayer experience where players can join forces or engage in massive turf wars.
At the same time, GTA V is also a monstrous parody of modern life – a reflection of our obsession with celebrity, political apathy, and self-obsession. I half expected the Houser brothers to appear dressed as Papa Lazarou from League of Gentlemen, gazing seductively into the camera and whispering, “you all live in Los Santos now”. But they don’t need to, of course. This misanthropic masterpiece speaks for itself.