Here’s a little secret about Los Angeles, haters: the traffic isn’t that bad.
The worst thing about driving in LA is trying to stay focused on the road amidst the most beautiful and complex scenery ever created by the dual forces of nature and technology. It’s a sprawling network of neighborhoods and mountains and asphalt that inspires feelings of awe, and delightful regret that no one person can ever truly understand the depth of its character.
That’s how I felt when I moved here three years ago, anyway, and it’s the near-exact emulation of this emotion that makes Grand Theft Auto V the greatest video game that has ever existed. The action unfolds in a fictional city called Los Santos, and it isn’t an exact replica of LA — that’s a simulation too banal to sell to 18–35-year-old men. It’s more of a Late Night Cheeseburger Dorito: satisfying because it’s delicious, but transcendentally entertaining because it tastes exactly like a cheeseburger you’d eat late at night.
But we don’t eat our games in 2013. We control caricatures in a universe limited only by a developer’s budget—Rockstar Games allocated around a quarter-billion dollars for GTA V, which makes it the most expensive game ever produced. That’s wild, but what’s truly bonkers is that around half of that went to marketing, leaving the programmers with a mere fraction of a typical Hollywood budget to build a high-functioning alternate reality: an abridged city that contains enough recognizable buildings, neighborhoods, and freeways to make it feel unmistakably Angeleno.
Smokin’ and rollin'
“The light here! It looks like...butter!”
- David Lynch on Los Angeles
I will never forget the first time I smoked weed with Franklin Clinton. He’s the most relatable character in Los Santos: a working-class hustler trying to get out of his aunt’s house in the ghetto with a simple set of morals, clear-headed except when he sits in front of the TV and smokes a blunt. As someone whose medical marijuana is never very far away from his Xbox controller, I couldn’t resist the urge to spark up after pressing left on the D-pad, commanding Franklin through the same motions. We puffed together, we wondered about the strength of the herb together, we had the same slow realization that we were actually pretty stoned together, and later we both enjoyed a buttery sunset together — although I saw mine through a picture window behind an LED screen, and Franklin saw his in the full glory of his actual hometown.
The more time I spent driving through Los Santos, the more enamored I became of the light rendering in GTA V. It’s a simulation as supple as a well-oiled baseball glove: rays of sun rake yawningly across the horizon of a Vinewood Hills infinity pool, glint blindingly off of reflective skyscrapers, and disappear flatly into the curves of matte-black muscle cars, doing more to transport you into the game’s atmosphere than any other piece of programming. Driving toward a sunsetty Redondo Beach last week my girlfriend cocked her head quizzically and asked, “Are we here, or are we in the game?”
Of all the colorful and intricately programmed characters in Los Santos, there is one that rises above to establish himself as the most emotionally complete —- a stunning feat for a snot-rocketing speed freak with “Cut Here” tattooed above a dotted line on his neck.
So I fell in love with a meth-cooking murderer
If you’ve ever seen Wet Hot American Summer, you’ll no doubt remember the muse for Trevor Philips’ character sketch: Gene, a perpetually stained, war-ravaged summer camp cook played masterfully by Christopher Meloni of Law and Order: SVU fame. The anarcho-libertarian Philips mediates the most indelible scenes of the game: he’s always waking up in varying degrees of undress in locales like a shit-stained pig stall, the Vanilla Unicorn strip club, or on a Catalina-esque beach surrounded by dead bodies screaming “It wasn’t me!” In a hugely entertaining opening scene that plays out like a cross between Sons of Anarchy and Breaking Bad, Trevor establishes tyranny over the meth trade in Sandy Shores (which is a thinly veiled Palm Desert) by mowing down the Lost Motorcycle Club’s trailer park, then moving on to torch a rival producers’ lab — a ramshackle house populated by scores of inbred brothers.
You almost want to reach through the TV and hug the script-writers for simultaneously decimating baseless notions of hipsterdom
Like the best characters in contemporary television, Trevor’s never-ending campaign of shock and awe is complemented by a constantly evolving moral compass and a genuine desire for the betterment of the world around him, even if it means burning it all to the ground. As a result, he emerges as the most reliable narrator in all of GTA V. He might find a human eyelid or two in his rancid lunchtime stew, but he’s also the one who discovers drywall packed into a brick of false cocaine, protecting the crew from a bad deal. He’ll tear Floyd’s love life apart spiritually and physically on Tuesday, but on Wednesday he’ll act as an effective marriage counselor for Michael De Santa on a long drive through the mountains.
These commutes to far-flung mission locations can take up to 10 minutes — an eternity in game time. They’d become an exercise in drudgery if it weren’t for the achingly beautiful coastal scenery whizzing by, coupled with Rockstar’s use of these moments to bring us deeper into the emotional arc of the characters — a kind of built-in cutscene scripted as a conversation between passengers. As Michael and Trevor make their way from southern Los Santos all the way to north Blaine County, an analytical Michael admits that he’s “been wondering about some of [Trevor’s] lifestyle choices lately … the weird music, the niche drugs,” and a wardrobe that’s “the opposite of fashion… Trevor!” he posits like a shrink on the edge of a massive revelation, “You’re… a hipster!” It’s an amazingly well-scripted exchange: “I am not a fucking hipster!” is the predictable reply, “I eat hipsters for lunch!” When Michael remarks that “hipsters hate being called hipsters,” you almost want to reach through the TV and hug the script-writers for simultaneously decimating baseless notions of hipsterdom, and for the equally irritating New York Times linkbait of what the concept may or may not mean. As the revealing journey to East Paleto concludes, Michael gives Trevor the credit he deserves: “You’re what a hipster aspires to be. You’re the proto-hipster.” It’s one of the few conversations in which Trevor doesn’t get the last word.
Look who's talking V
Bad sound design can ruin a good script in any medium, and games have historically gotten everything — from voice acting to interaction programming to compression levels — dismally wrong. But GTA V represents a leap forward in vocalization akin to the impact that M*A*S*H had on television writing. Instead of existing in a one-dimensional plane, as almost no real speech does, characters react to the events around them; a tightly woven programming architecture finds people talking over one another and reacting to the people around them in real-time. If Michael De Santa smashes into a tree while his son is explaining the art of trolling, Jimmy will pause his story to tell dad that he’s a fucking maniac, and resume the conversation after they’re back on the road.
I wondered: had a video game just made me feel productive?
I often found myself testing the boundaries of interaction programming, which became kind of a mini-game in itself. After a botched robbery attempt on an armored vehicle, I remembered it had been a while since Michael had checked in with his omnipresent therapist Dr. Friedlander — so I gave him a call as I was running from the cops, my character using one arm to hold the phone up to his ear and the other elbow to smash the window of a parked hatchback. After a successful carjacking, he pressed the phone to his shoulder with the side of his face, freeing both hands to grab the wheel at 10 and 2 o’clock — soon I had evaded the cops, finished my session, and met my contact at the film lot on time. As we discussed my role as an associate producer in our new project, I wondered: had a video game just made me feel productive?
Michael’s frenzied contribution to the Vinewood economy is part of a larger arc that sees the central character trying to regain the trust of his estranged family; he’s on a mission to prove to them that he’s more than just a clever thug. It’s a smooth meta-move for Rockstar as well: while critics berate its macho hyperviolence with the knee-jerk moral certitude of Tipper Gore on Mortal Kombat, anyone who’s invested a few days in the game will learn that Grand Theft Auto is about far more than just, you know, grand theft auto.
It’s not like boosting whips isn’t just as important as it was in the first GTA. But Michael is the kind of man that owns a book called Dadnaissance, and his renewed obligations to his ex-stripper wife Amanda (license plate: AM4ND4) and their millennial spawn Jimmy and Tracey form a series of missions that are as psychotic as they are entertaining.
It’s not like boosting whips isn’t just as important as it was in the first GTA
Like a prolific instigator of niche porn titles, Amanda has a penchant for fucking her instructors — first her tennis coach, and later a ponytailed, toe shoe-wearing Latin yogi called Fabian. To prove his alpha male domination in all things physical, Michael can challenge his not-so-doting wife in an athletic mini-game that’s just as complex as Top Spin or a controller-bending yoga session that requires all the dexterity of a Wii Fit game.
Tracey’s misguided quest for fame finds her at the beck and call of yet another ponytailed douchebag, a Seacrestian talent show host called Lazlow. After a blackmail mission fails to keep the star-making predator away from his daughter, Michael turns to the tattoo parlor to create a more indelible impression — Rockstar raises the bar in the “fulfilling disgusting ambitions of teenage males” game by allowing the player to tattoo a giant cock and balls on an enemy’s back.
Rockstar raises the bar in the “fulfilling disgusting ambitions of teenage males” game
And then there’s Jimmy: any father and son struggle in an attempt to understand one another, but when dad’s a high-level thief and junior’s an Xbox-addicted wigger with a neck tattoo that reads “Entitled,” the struggle is exponentially stranger. Michael tries to gain bonding points by giving Jimmy a ride to buy weed from a dealer who works at Burger Stop, but he also brings out a “special milkshake” that he shares with his dad, in a kind-of-cute attempt at togetherness. But there’s something far weirder than THC in the shake — Michael gets too wasted to drive home and ends up getting abducted and probed by hallucinated aliens. He escapes by skydiving out of their vessel, descending through an acid-warped sky over Los Santos and eventually waking up in his undies on a random Vinewood lawn. It’s a psychedelic ride more accurate than anything in Enter The Void and, as an immersive experience, far more expressive than anything that could be felt in a simple film.
One of the most important artistic advantages of creating a painstakingly detailed universe from scratch is the writers’ ability to make cultural observations about the modern condition that wouldn’t be possible in a less-developed landscape. There are scores of moments that articulate my own fascination with the private lives of humans in ways I never could by simply writing words on a page. My favorite is the email that Michael gets after reconnecting with his social media-obsessed daughter (pictured above).
The stupid spelling, the extraneous punctuation, the teenage aversion to formal communication… they’re all details of Tracey’s personality we could have surmised, but Rockstar uses the moment to showcase another subtly amazing act in the human history of Los Santos.
I could go on and on: the satirical-yet-better-than-real-life radio stations hosted by Gilles Peterson, Flying Lotus, and Lee “Scratch” Perry complete with ads hawking celebrity-branded headphones and medical cocaine. The iFruit app (on your real-world device) that allows you to train Franklin’s pit bull and customize your cars, and which spawned a clutch of spyware fakes in the Google Play store. There’s the BAWSAQ stock market that you can invest in through a real-world web browser, the slowly creeping pause music reminiscent of Daft Punk’s Tron: Legacy score. It’s a never-ending playground of unparalleled construction that demands answers to philosophical inquiries we’ve never before needed to entertain.
Because I’m the owner of a first-gen Xbox 360 with a failure-prone disc drive, I installed the game on a USB-enabled microSD card. If you haven’t seen one before, it’s a laughably small piece of silicon: if all of Los Santos fits onto a chip smaller than my pinky nail in 2013, what, exactly, are the chances that we aren’t living in a period piece programmed by Rockstar Mars in 3013? GTA V has given me the greatest proof yet that those odds are infinitely slim — I am not a scientist, but as a gamer I can see that what I just finished playing transcends traditional definitions of a game. At its core, this is an experiential Turing test that knocks on all the right doors of a Matrix-flavored singularity.
If that makes me a technocratic solipsist, so be it. I’m just glad Rockstar’s budget has gone up enough in 1,000 years to create a sunset as beautiful as the one I see every day out my window — even if it’s probably just an exquisitely rendered simulation.