We Played Grand Theft Auto V

On loving and hating and mostly feeling terrible about playing Rockstar’s latest ultraviolent blockbuster.

Kevin: Alright, you’re like 60% through Grand Theft Auto V. So you like it?

Nick: I do. Well, there’s a lot to like and a lot to dislike, and that’s just because there’s a lot of game. It’s unreasonably huge.

Kevin: How about this: is it better or worse than the old Grand Theft Auto games?

Nick: I think most of it is pretty easily better, but what’s worse basically comes down to writing. Like, for a lot of the humor, I’m either not a teenager anymore or it’s just far more immature than I recall. Probably a combination. And all the elements of sexism and racism seem more flagrant and mean-spirited in this one.

Kevin: Let’s talk about some specific examples there. The misogyny is probably the most obvious thing, in that there are basically no female characters in the game that serve any function than to be made fun of, or fucked, or killed, right?

Nick: Yes. I think there is one female character who isn’t a stereotype or a sex object, that I’ve seen.

Kevin: Which character?

Nick: It’s Maude, a bail bondswoman. You can meet her when you play as Trevor. She’s middle-aged, she hangs out on her laptop in front of her characters, and she emails you guys to hunt down. She and Trevor have this playful, warm banter that’s not sexualized or gendered. She has like three missions, retires from bail bonds, and she’s out of the game.

Kevin: Okay, so that’s one. For a game that you can play for a hundred hours or more, she’s in it for all of five to six minutes?

Nick: Probably two minutes of total dialogue for Maude.

Kevin: So misogyny is definitely problem one. Number two for me is the cynicism. Going back to whether this is the best GTA, it is if you take the original idea of what Rockstar was trying to do with GTA III: create an open world that’s a playground for crime but also a satire of the American Dream. GTA V is that idea expressed as best as possible. I just think that idea is super flawed, especially its cynical view of the world.

I bet if you looked back at the old games, it’s not that you and I are older, it’s that videogames have matured so much in the past twelve years that these flaws really stick out now.

Nick: That could be true. My problem is that there’s actually some pretty good writing in the game, but only when it deals with political issues. Like, the FBI and CIA analogues in the game instigate acts of terror to increase their funding, and that’s a solid bit of satire. But any time the game deals with the drama between actual people, it all falls apart.

Kevin: I partially agree with that. I mean, the game doesn’t take place in Los Angeles for a reason. It’s called Los Santos because it’s a dark mirror version of the world. The game doesn’t set out to be realistic, and it’s almost like Candide or George Saunders. Everyone in the world is stupid, and everything is very exaggerated. And if you ever see anything in this universe that seems remotely relatable or real, you start to realize how ridiculous it is.

Nick: Yeah, I just played a bit where that really struck home for me. I was playing as Michael, and he and his family felt relatable just for a moment. But then driving around in that world while holding onto that view of the character was impossible. I was mowing down pedestrians and getting chased by the cops, and it didn’t work at all.

Kevin: It seems like the cops get easier and easier to outrun in every game.

Nick: I actually love the cop evasion system in this game.

Kevin: Oh, how you can see them on the map?

Nick: Yeah, it’s like a macro version of Pac-Man in the city streets.

Kevin: Yeah, that’s the thing with this game. Mechanically, it’s one of the best games I’ve ever played.

Nick: Yes.

Kevin: When you strip everything thematic out of the game, it’s such an enjoyable experience. I can’t believe we haven’t mentioned the character switching yet. You can switch between three characters, and the way it works in the heist missions is so genius. You’re always at the point where the action is the most fun. You’re always varying things up between a little puzzle solving, a little shooting, a little driving, outrunning the cops, all within one mission. It’s a problem with most action games, where you get tired of doing the same thing over and over. In GTA V, within the span of a fifteen-minute mission you’ve done so many different things that it’s always fresh.

Nick: The heists are totally incredible. I love how the character switching works in the open world, too. If you’re ever lost or bored, you can just say, “Fuck this, I’m going to another character.” I got stranded in the ocean the other day and would have had to swim for like five minutes to get to a vehicle, which is the kind of problem lots of old GTA games ran into, but instead I just swapped away and let the AI handle the guy in the ocean.

Kevin: The three characters really do so much for the game. I’ve been thinking about it kind of like a magazine. It has short content, long content, funny content, serious content. You can open a magazine and always find something you’re in the mood for. That’s why we keep magazines in our bathroom. GTA is the only videogame that works no matter what you’re mood is: if you want to make progress, or if you want to be distracted, or if you want to drive around. It has everything for every mood.

Nick: Yeah, that’s a good way to think of it. And it’s all enabled by the sheer number of mechanics that are built into the game. I had this thought the other day: if you broke every single way you can play GTA into it’s own $0.99 iPhone game, how many games would come out? Obviously there’s driving and shooting, but there’s also a pretty nice tennis game…

Kevin: The tennis game is really good.

Nick: I know, right? And there’s skydiving, or even whole mechanics for tiny parts of missions like cutting a grate off a sewer pipe, and these could all have small games built around them. It makes the whole game feel stuffed full.

Kevin: I have to say though, I hate the voice acting. Especially Trevor. He resembles nothing in reality. He’s just a guy yelling. He’s never funny, nothing about him makes sense, and he’s not convincing in any way.

Nick: Right. My read on Trevor is that he’s basically the player’s manifestation.

Kevin: Yeah, that’s basically what Tom Bissel and a bunch of other critics have argued. Franklin is the one we play as when we want to get something done, like the story missions. Michael is us when we’re bored, and Trevor is who we actually resemble the most.

Nick: He feels reverse-engineered to me. Like, what sort of person would actually do the things the players of previous GTA games did? That results in Trevor.

Kevin: It’s weird because at first, playing as him is offputting because he’s so nihilistic and chaotic, but eventually you come to like his story missions the most because they’re the most ridiculous.

Nick: Right, and on another level, everything you do as Trevor feels in character. No matter how much mayhem you cause, it feels like you’re roleplaying as Trevor, which is not the case with Michael and Franklin.

Kevin: He might be the smartest thing about the game.

Nick: So, have you played the torture scene?

Kevin: I did. You know, it’s not surprising that it’s really divisive, but it seems like most critics have come down saying it’s disgusting and ineffective. But I felt the opposite, I think it’s the best part of the game so far.

Nick: Oh yeah. So, everyone goes nuts for the famous “thank you kindly” scene in Bioshock, where it’s like, “Oh my god, you’ve been controlled the whole time.” And I think this is a much less clumsy version of that. The developers are like, “We know all of you motherfuckers are against torture, but we’re going to make you do it and watch it because that’s what the whole game actually is.” They’re saying, “If you’re horrified by this, why aren’t you horrified by the rest of the game?” They use their narrative skills to make you feel your actions more viscerally during that scene, but the things you do at that point aren’t any worse than everything else you do.

Kevin: What I think is interesting is when you compare GTA V to the other two big action games this year, Bioshock Infinite and The Last of Us. At first, it seemed like it might be the year of the self-conscious blockbuster. At the end of Bioshock, it tries to say something smart about the violent way you acted throughout the game. (Though problematically, it doesn’t give you any choice except being violent). The Last of Us does this a little bit better because it encourages you to avoid violence by limiting your resources and making its violence pretty horrifying. Then there’s this great turn in the Winter chapter where the enemies are talking about this madman who murdered all these people, and he’s actually talking about your character, Joel.

Nick: Right, and The Last of Us doesn’t pretend you’re playing as a moral character, either.

Kevin: Yep. So there are two huge games that are trying to explore the concept of violence in action games. Then here comes GTA V, maybe the biggest action game ever, and all it does is glorify violence.

Nick: You don’t think the torture scene is a nod to that idea?

Kevin: Maybe, but that’s the one thing in the game that says anything intelligent about violence. I can’t come up with a single other example.

Nick: Yeah, and another reading of the torture scene is that it’s just a big middle finger to all their critics. They’re saying, “We know everyone’s going to freak about about the violence in this game, and we don’t give a fuck. We’re going to put the most violent scene possible in there, and make you play it.”

Kevin: The game just feels spiteful, in a way. Like, remember the “Hot Coffee” thing in GTA: San Andreas? Rockstar faced a huge lawsuit for having nudity on the disc, and even though you couldn’t see it without hacking the game, they lost because the game hadn’t been rated for nudity. So what do they do for GTA V? They put in a lap-dancing minigame where you have to touch this person as much as possible without being caught by the bouncer.

Nick: Yeah, you touch her to make her like you. So gross.

Kevin: And you really can’t avoid the strip club because half the time you switch to a character, he’s in there.

Nick: At one point Trevor takes over the strip club, so yeah, you’re gonna be in there.

Kevin: And it’s also just so weird. Like, they made these awkward 3D-rendered boobs, and they’re literally trying to rub them in your face. It’s so spiteful and juvenile.

Nick: The subtitle of the game should just be GTA V: Deal with It.

Kevin: It really should.

Nick: Because it’s completely unapologetic. It’s like when some white dude online gets called out, and then he just digs deeper into his bullshit position. And of course, he often gets away with it because, y’know, privilege.

Kevin: It’s exactly like that, except embodied in a $250 million videogame that made one billion dollars in the first 48 hours.

Nick: I know, god. But as we’re saying this, it’s still a game I really like playing. It’s one of the most dissonant experiences I’ve had.

Kevin: Yeah, maybe ever.

Nick: And I recognize all this stuff as it’s happening, but then I just want to go to the ocean. The ocean in this game is fucking unbelievable. So much of the game is really ugly, but its ocean is a piece of digital artwork. It feels like the ocean. And someone at Rockstar made that. They had the creative capacity to capture the sublime beauty of the ocean while making all of the other bullshit.

Kevin: That’s the weird thing about the game. If you just look at it, everything about it is beautiful. Not just the ocean, but also the city, the traffic, the weather. It’s all totally believable. But the game never feels right unless you’re trying to break all of these things.

Nick: It’s like they built this perfect model town in their basement and then invited you to come stomp all over it.

Kevin: Totally. Did you ever play SimCity 2000, where you’d just load up the really nice cities and hit the disaster button over and over again?

Nick: Of course, the monsters and tornadoes and shit.

Kevin: GTA V is just like that, only you are the disaster.