Grand Theft Auto V, on the other hand, suggests a future in which games take on – or deliberately seek – that position. This series, unlike the huge swath of marvellous entertainment produced by the video game industry, cannot be comfortably pigeon-holed or disregarded by non-players.
GTA V is a sweeping narrative of criminal maniacs self-destructing on a blood-splattered career trajectory to hell, set largely in the glitzily superficial city of Los Santos, a distorted copy of Los Angeles. After a failed theft many years ago, Michael, a middle-aged thug enamored with movies, struck a witness protection deal with the feds. When his old partner, Trevor, a sociopath who bakes meth in the desert, shows up in town, the two team up with Franklin, a young black youth who is determined to get out of his gang-infested neighborhood.
The story is emancipated by this three-character model, which eliminates the inconvenient obligation for one protagonist to go everywhere, observing everything in this huge realm. Switching between the characters can be done at any time while off mission, and each has their own pet project to get involved with, which adds variety and a few amusing surprises; switching to Trevor usually involves some bodily function or strange violent episode, while Michael has to deal with his dysfunctional family. And on top of it all, there’s a massive scheme involving rival government agencies and crooked billionaires.
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GTA veterans will recognize how the game functions underneath it all. There is a core set of story tasks that must be completed in order to proceed, but there is also a large array of dynamic interactions, side-quests, and money-making activities, ranging from buying real estate to operating clubs and trading stocks. The majority of the plot chores are variants on a single theme—drive someplace, shoot something, then drive back—but, as with all video game feedback loops, the fun is in the execution. And GTA V does not let you down.
There will be outrageous stunts, tremendous destruction, military-grade weaponry, and the requirement to jump off of planes. Helicopters, too. These adventures hurl everything at you, from rural bank robberies to jet-ski chases to running massive industrial machines, thanks to the outstanding physics engine and the sheer vastness of the world. The bigger heists necessitate mini-preparatory missions, which help to create tension and give the impression that we’re all in our own version of Michael Mann’s flick Heat.
Indeed, Rockstar North has created an amazing universe that serves as a pulverizing, nihilistic satire on western culture as well as an intriguing, diversified backdrop. Reality TV, celebrity magazines, social networking, plastic surgery, and pop psychology books are all mocked by the game’s numerous radio and television stations. Even games take a hit: Righteous Slaughter 7’s advertisement promises “the realistic art of contemporary murdering.”
Rockstar North has also developed a slightly grating narrative trope I’ll refer to as “the exposition expedition”: there are a lot of long journeys that seem to exist solely to allow the protagonists to talk about backstory or have meandering expletive-drenched conversations about pop culture and psychology – something we can probably thank Quentin Tarantino for.
The game also has a habit of giving mission instructions via in-game dialogue and an on-screen text prompt at the same time, which means you might miss plot details at the very least, and at the worst, you might be left wondering what the hell you’re supposed to do next because you paid attention to the wrong thing. That was my experience; others may be better at logical multitasking than I am.
The skill is also found in the system’s emergent moments. Driving to a violent heist with Don Johnson’s Heartbeat playing on the radio and the freeway clear ahead of you; flying a crop-dusting plane up the contour of Mount Chiliad, arriving at the peak just as the red sun sets, sending rainbows of lens flare through your cockpit screen; clipping a police car during a chase, sending your own vehicle spinning off the overpass onto the roof of a liquor store; It’s all in good fun, and it’s all about you, the gamer.
Then there’s the fact that GTA V is a vile parody of modern life, a boiling cauldron of celebrity obsession, political apathy, and bleak self-obsession. The Houser brothers, dressed as Papa Lazarou from the League of Gentlemen, whispered passionately into the camera, “You all reside in Los Santos now.” They don’t have to, of course. This misanthropic masterpiece tells it all for them.