The first thing that occurred to me when I found out that I was going to get Grand Theft Auto V a few days before its release was that I should play it all in one sitting. I don’t know why. It’s not the way you’re supposed to play the game. It’s not the way you’re supposed to treat the game. It’s not really the way you should treat any big-quantity thing in your life.
But is there even a “right” way to treat GTA V, the fresh behemoth that Rockstar Games has today delivered into the world after a half-decade, quarter-billion-dollar gestation? Should we treat it formally, purely as a game, in terms of graphics and gameplay and multiplayer features? That’s a good place to start, but it ignores the fact that this series has, over the past 15 years, become a genuine cultural touchstone, a shorthand in American life for both the best and the worst that games have to offer. OK, so should we treat it as a cultural phenomenon with a uniquely loaded past? Well, it’s that too, but as any old gamer can tell you, the foremost thing about these games is that when you strip away the outrage and outrageousness, they are really, stupidly, surpassingly fun and totally in love with the possibilities of gaming. Should we treat it as an entertainment product? Sure, and it will probably make more than a billion dollars, but it’s far too weird, too risky, too funny, and too beautiful to be considered a Call of Duty-style cash cow. So how about talking about it as a work of popular art, done by a game studio of unparalleled ambition? That’s closer, but, I mean, this is still a thing in which you can switch between boobular camera angles during a virtual lap dance.
The point is: GTA V is huge and it resists categorization. So despite everything I just said, let me tell you how I treated Grand Theft Auto V when I picked it up last Wednesday from Rockstar headquarters — sanctum sanctorum — in an unmarked manila envelope, told not to lose it, and sent into the New York City public transit system, aware that for the first time in my life I held in my private possession in a public place a thing for which a ginned-up mob of nerds, primed to explode by a ubiquitous advertising campaign and a compliant internet, might actually assault me: with care. I felt, basically, like the nervous target of a Grand Theft Auto mission.
Anyways, I got it home; I got it out of the envelope. Then, against the plangent whimpers of a more primal part of my brain, I put the case away and opened a book. I needed to wait for a new day. You see, I had gotten this idea in my head, maybe foolish, that a game as massive and ambitious as GTA V needed a massive and ambitious response, a test of endurance, a personal investment. Somehow, picking an “angle” or “angles” felt insufficient, against the spirit of the thing: a game that recreates an American region mote by mote needs not deduction but induction.
The following time-stamped entries recount the notes I took during my season in San Andreas, rewritten, clarified, and expounded upon.
7:45 a.m.: I feel great. I have had eight uninterrupted hours of sleep, a strong cup of coffee, and a bowl of granola, fruit, and yogurt. My mind is fresh and my fingers are wiggling. Let the game begin.
10:00 a.m.: You can, in Grand Theft Auto V, take selfies. Your virtual smartphone (the “IFruit”) comes with a digital camera that can be flipped around, true to life, to include your character’s face. There is no way to do a duck face. I discovered this feature during the funniest mission early in the game, which involves the sabotage of the product launch of a Facebook-style startup by its Zuckerbergian founder. The mission has an appallingly violent and mean-spirited punch line that made me, and two of my coworkers, selflessly over at my apartment to “check on my progress,” scream with laughter.
Yes, those two hallmarks of the series, a preposterous degree of granularity* (it’s not enough that the characters have cell phones; the cell phones must have apps; the apps must have features; the features must have funny names) and an unbroken sarcasm toward its subject matter, return and are more pronounced than ever. Rockstar’s humor is often called satire, but that’s not right; satire suggests through humor a bad state of affairs that should be changed. The humor in Grand Theft Auto doesn’t have an obvious social mission and has never been particularly notable for its wit or bite; rather, its scale. Rockstar may not have a particularly brilliant take on anything, but they have a take on everything, and that’s sort of brilliant. Yoga instructors are lecherous charlatans; FBI (FIB, in the game) agents are cynical liars; housewives are superficial gold diggers; boys are fat weed-smoking gamers; girls are sluttish fameballs; country people are meth-addled idiots; Hollywood people are craven and greedy idiots; and so on, forever. This should be wearying. Instead it’s surreal and nearly joyful. San Andreas — Rockstar’s California — is not a realistic representation, not close. It is a funhouse, a place where cliché endlessly pinballs off cliché and yields something new. In its pastiche, and in its systems-level scope, GTA V resembles, at times, a high postmodern novel, and I think that the game’s name for Hollywood, Vinewood, must be a nod to Pynchon’s Vineland. (And what a nice coincidence that Pynchon’s new book, a satire of the tech industry, comes out today as well.)
(*An aside: I went on a date, months ago, with an artist’s assistant to a very well-compensated New York painter. Some weeks prior to our date, she told me, representatives of Rockstar had come into her boss’s gallery and made inquiries about several of the paintings inside, paintings that cost many thousands of dollars. Did they want to hang them in the headquarters, or in the boss’s office, she asked them? No, they said. They wanted to hang them in the game.)
11:10 a.m.: I have been playing for more than three hours. This is the point where, in a past life, I would have set aside GTA V for the day, having played long enough to feel like I’d celebrated a minor holiday while still maintaining my adult dignity. My two coworkers are still here, and I’ve given my editor, John, the controller while I take some notes. He runs Michael, one of the game’s three characters, around the Venice boardwalk, trying to nonviolently spook people. He’s giggling, and I feel weirdly jealous. I’ve been plowing through the game’s early missions, aware that peripheral monkeyshines will count against me much later, when I will presumably be exhausted. John can futz around freely, while I’ve had to ignore so, so much: tennis, yoga, customizing cars, customizing guns, investing in the stock market, trying to nonviolently spook people, and so on, forever. I think the feeling I’m feeling is something like FOMO (dread acronym: fear of missing out), which is weird because I never have that feeling in real life. So much of the pleasure of the Grand Theft Auto games comes from picking a point in the distance at random and driving your tank into it. What am I missing?
12:00 p.m.: Grand Theft Auto IV was about a thirtysomething Slav named Niko Bellic who moves to America after witnessing atrocities in the Balkans. Previous GTA protagonists had basically been ciphers. Rockstar gave Niko a tragic past and a wisecracking good nature in service of what was a pretty radical experiment at the time: making a video game action hero sufficiently sympathetic that you didn’t want to do inordinately bad things while controlling him. Though GTA IV offered all of the prostitute-murdering possibilities that made the series so controversial, they felt out of character, wrong.
The first four or five hours of the new game, though different in tone from GTA IV, seem to continue this project. Both of the two characters you control early in the game — Michael, a bored and rich ex-crook run to fat, and Franklin, an ambitious if naïve car thief who can’t stand his gangbanger friends — basically feel like non-evil people who became criminals to better their circumstances. Neither one makes you want to sprint to Ammu-Nation and buy a rocket launcher. The early missions are, for this series, shockingly nonviolent. Michael gets in petty conflicts with his ungrateful family; Franklin does petty car insurance fraud. It’s all very Rockstar-does-AMC. Then, four or five hours into the game, we meet the third playable character, Trevor.
This is probably the best time to talk about Trevor. Trevor is going to be controversial. There are going to be a lot of Reddit threads about Trevor. There are going to be a lot of image macros about Trevor. There are going to be a lot of upset parents about Trevor. We are introduced to Trevor in flagrante derelicto with a quasi-willing methamphetamine addict, whose intruding, quasi-jealous boyfriend Trevor proceeds to murder, brutally. This murder precipitates the second act of the game, an hours-long rampage of more murder, which is played for laughs, often effectively. The best way to think about Trevor is as the incarnated spirit of Grand Theft Auto pre-2008, when it was less narratively ambitious and more in love with its own nastiness. By the time Trevor, in a sequence that will inspire a thousand tortured thought pieces, tortures an FBI-requisitioned drug dealer and then lectures him on the ineffectiveness of torture as interrogation technique, it is clear that Rockstar is using the character as a way to lard the game with all of the chaotic impulses that some gamers grumpily accused them of leaving behind in GTA IV.
What complicates Trevor is that he is by far the most interesting character in the game, and clearly the character that Rockstar North had the most fun creating. He gets to do most of the flying in the game, which is a highlight, and he gets the one-liners, and he has the most interesting appearance, and the best voice-acting performance, and the funniest subplots, and the most compelling character arc. We’re clearly supposed to have the most “fun” playing as Trevor. That’s a point that will probably be ignored when people make the “but Trevor is just one of three playable characters in this multifaceted universe” argument, but it’s an important one.
1:58 p.m.: This is my first bathroom break.
3:49 p.m.: I have just played an incredible mission involving rappelling, tag-team sniping, and a skyscraper. I hooted and hollered — in the very real sense of making the sounds “hoo—ey!” and “hoooh boy!” — as I repeatedly sort of popped in and out of my seat like a jockey in a saddle. As you have probably read, Grand Theft Auto V is built around a half dozen of these set piece missions, and two or three of them are among the best levels in modern gaming. They are that good.
Among the many, many reasons these sections are so good is that while each one requires extensive preparation — case a bank, steal disguises, etc. — many of them deliberately do not mention one crucial and crowd-pleasing aspect of their perpetration until the act itself. I know that is vague, but if I told you, you would be mad at me. There is a moment in the game, about two-thirds of the way through, that seems designed to answer the following question: “Can we make people to whom screaming ‘Fuck yeah’ is anathema involuntarily scream ‘Fuck yeah’?” The answer, my friends, is f… indeed.
4:15 p.m.: I have now been playing Grand Theft Auto V for eight and a half hours — a full workday. This milestone coincides with a mission in which I need to direct Trevor to operate some heavy machinery at an industrial port; he’s impersonating a longshoreman in order to spy on some secret government MacGuffin. For the first time today I’m feeling a little enervated, and the fact that I am doing virtual work is not helping. I think this is the kind of task that, if I was playing the game in a normal way, would not bother me. In the context of the marathon, though, it feels long. As I play, I’m trying to work out a theory of real-life banality versus GTA banality, and having a little trouble. Activities in the game that in real life should be completely banal — a yoga mini-game with Michael’s wife, a bike ride with Michael’s son, playing fetch with Franklin’s dog — are entertaining. And yet operating a magnetic crane, which is not something I have ever done or will ever do, feels like a chore. Perhaps there is a valley of GTA-boring between the quotidian and the violent/absurd/cartoonish?
5:37 p.m.: The dock mission leads into the theft of a mini submersible, and my boredom lifts. The reason: I’ve started to notice the beauty of the game, which is considerable. The sub theft takes place at night. Whitecapped black waves break over the top of the yellow sub as the port lights glow on row after row of metal latticework. The game abounds with moments like this. Special mention must go to the sunset, which looks like it’s made out of grapefruit sorbet. It’s weirdly…melancholy? Much later in the game, in one of GTA V’s bravura character switches, you wake up as Trevor, in a sundress, clutching a bottle of gin, on top of a mountain, with the sun barely risen in the background. Nothing about this should have worked, and yet I found myself mildly verklempt. The sincerity with which Rockstar approached aesthetics in this game is such a strange counterpoint to the game’s abiding cynicism, and it’s kind of touching.
8:39 p.m.: Two coworkers, Rachel and Katie, came over about two hours ago for pizza and beer, and because I think they are a little worried about me. I have had three slices of above-average Neapolitan pizza and three Shiner Bocks and am now feeling as well as could be expected.
They found the most recent heist to be extraordinarily violent (I found it well-structured and invigorating) and we started to wonder if we would let our hypothetical children play the game and how old they would have to be. Rachel and Katie both said they wouldn’t; I said something vague about R-rated movies, to which Rachel and Katie both raised logical objections, to which I grumbled backtrackingly. I said that I played Grand Theft Auto the first when I was a kid and I turned out OK, in the general sense, and that I wouldn’t want to deprive my children of good cultural memories. They had the sensitivity not to dispute my use of the term “cultural memories” or the contention that I turned out OK, in the general sense.
We agreed that the game overall was a work of great skill and wondered if the reward of playing such a skillful thing mitigated the effect of the violence. I imagined a graph on three axes: age, skill, and objectionable content, which must meet at or above a certain plotted line of acceptableness, and wondered if this meant that a young person should be able to play a game with almost no skill and almost no objectionable content, just because it satisfied the graph, and the answer was no, because we have to have standards, as parents of imaginary children.
I handed the controller to Katie, who expressed a wish to drive. In short: She had trouble. This made me consider the fact that while adjective phrases like “very good” and “much tighter” will be used to describe the driving in Grand Theft Auto V and will be true in a recognizable way to people like me, in fact we have accumulated an extremely strange skill set that we can display only under very specific circumstances, and that driving in games with two penis-looking mushroom joysticks with the tips of our thumbs is actually a very weird thing to be good at. So the driving in Grand Theft Auto V is excellent, but also, maybe you should feel a little weird about being so good at it.
Then Katie got stuck on the L.A. Coliseum, and Rachel and I laughed, because what a noob.
10:57 p.m.: I see Lamar, Franklin’s hood friend, for the first time in about 12 hours. It feels strangely meaningful, like the return of a character in a novel after an absence of several hundred pages.
11:34 p.m.: John, my editor, has returned with another coworker, Emily. The four of them watch with great fanfare as I attempt to fly one plane into the open back of another plane, and for a brief moment I feel heroic. Katie and Rachel leave.
My mind is definitely starting to do some weird, protest-type stuff. I realized that I had started to wander without an objective, and then yelled aloud, “I am wandering!” I think but am not sure that this is what happens when dogs surprise themselves with a noise they themselves make.
12:20 a.m.: Because John is not playing, he notices more clearly the dirty work that the PlayStation 3 has to do to express Rockstar’s ambitious world. The screen frequently shimmers with pixelation. Objects at the periphery of the screen, particularly at high speeds, tend to pop in and can sometimes be seen drawing themselves. John says that he thinks these things do not bother console gamers right now, but that they will be the hallmarks of the visual restrictions of this console generation — the pinnacle of which we are now playing — in much the same way that we associate giant ugly polygons with the first PlayStation and the N64. Because John has brought me a Red Bull and because he has a good point, I do not call him a party pooper, but I do make a mental note about John re: positive v. negative vibes in a video game marathon situation.
1:30 a.m.: Emily and John, troopers, left about 30 minutes ago. I drank the Red Bull at that point, but now it is wearing off and I’m sliding into a low. I fear mostly not knowing when the end will come, more than the act of staying awake itself. I expressed this sentiment earlier to John and he said, wouldn’t it be worse knowing and having a really bad answer, like, you’ve got two more days to go? That’s a good question.
2:00 a.m.: I am not sure whether it is a sign of my increased maturity or my attempt to beat the game before having a heart attack, but this is the first time I have entered the game’s strip club, and I am only in the Vanilla Unicorn because the plot demands it. The big news here is that Rockstar has decided to show virtual nipples, which is a sign of something, surely. Perhaps advances in areola-rendering technology. I don’t know. Virtual nipples are already more convincing than virtual eyes. I don’t know. I seriously do not want to write another word about virtual nipples.
The status of women is the most troubling aspect of Grand Theft Auto V, and probably of the series in general. People have complained that none of the game’s three playable characters is a woman, to which the writer of these games, Dan Houser, responded, “The concept of being masculine was so key to this story.” Houser’s implication is well-taken, but only in a limited sense. The prerogative of any writer is to tell a story while exploring his or her chosen themes, and if he or she feels that three male characters are the best way to tell a story that explores the theme of masculinity, that’s his or her choice. The issue to me is not the lack of playable female characters, but the lack of playable female characters in the context of GTA’s moral universe. Female characters, like almost every character in GTA V, are, with two relatively thin exceptions, pretty hateful people. We’ve got Michael’s bitchy trophy wife; Franklin’s bitchy, blathering, New Agey aunt; a bitchy fiancé straight from Apatowland; the usual panoply of strippers and prostitutes; and so on, forever. The counterargument: Everyone in this game is hateful, men and women. The counter-counterargument: As hateful/bad/awful as the three main characters are, we have the chance to see them all develop, and ultimately, to sympathize with them. The female characters in GTA V never have a chance to be more than flat.
This isn’t a “Rockstar problem.” The company’s last huge game, Red Dead Redemption, featured a few wonderfully shaded female characters. But it is a problem in GTA V.
3:31 a.m.: Is it just me, guys, or is it kind of crazy that they spent $250 million on the fifth ever of anything? Crazy in both directions, dudes! First, it’s only the fifth-ever Grand Theft Auto, and they’re already up to $250 million. What is Grand Theft Auto X going to cost? Second, like, how much did they spend on the fifth Nightmare on Elm Street? Not $250 million, brother.
To quote a great bluesman, “My mind is rambling.”
I am having some trouble staying awake, but at the same time I have achieved and sustained a “Neo-discovers-the-Matrix” state of driving that is at once highly aware and completely peaceful. Extreme maneuvers at high speeds have become easy for me, and because I am probably twitching somewhere and I feel that it is acceptable to mix metaphors, I will tell you that I feel like an NFL running back in his second year when “things slow down” and “you start to see the holes before they open.” Dear god I’m alone.
5:30 a.m.: Shooooooooooting
10:03 a.m.: I open my eyes. I’m on the couch and there is a fleece blanket wrapped around my shoulders. The controller is on my lap and the game is paused. My mouth tastes like despair feels. My fingers hurt. I remember “making a deal” with myself around 6 that I could sleep as long as I didn’t leave the couch. I get texts from John and Charlie that are both some variation of “are you alive” and I feel a little disappointed in myself for not having further pushed my limits.
2:00 p.m.: I have to leave my apartment for a doctor’s appointment that I could not reschedule. It feels weird, sort of like getting off a boat after a day on the water. On the way down into the C train there is a banner advertisement for Grand Theft Auto V and I feel wise and a little sad, all “you don’t know what you don’t know.” On the train, an old man sits down too close to me, but I don’t feel the typical pangs of personal-space anxiety. I’m not sure if that is because I am extremely tired or because I could, if I wished, nonviolently spook him.
3:30 p.m.: My doctor didn’t ask any questions about my crazy eyes, and I sure as shit did not tell her.
9:50 p.m.: I beat the game. The credits lasted for over half an hour and I sat there watching them and not really holding my jaw shut, both because the number of people who contributed to GTA V is staggering, and because I can’t, really. It is weird how little I feel when the end comes — for me, I mean, not for the game, which is huge and wonderful. But I’m legitimately too brain-fried to think thoughts about it, other than Good. Done. I’m going to bed.
Saturday, September 14, 2013
12:00 p.m.: After 13 hours of sleep, it’s easier to appreciate the scope of what Rockstar has done. I played Grand Theft Auto V for over 30 hours and achieved a completion percentage of 57%. The thought of sitting down to try to track down the missing 43% makes me shudder, and not because it wouldn’t be fun.
The thing about this game, I’ve realized, is that people are going to see what they want to see in it, because this game quite willingly offers it up to them. Game-culture torchbearers will see the return to ultraviolence that they want; dads looking for 30 minutes of mirth after putting the kids to bed will find just that; culture warriors looking for a game to pillory will have plenty to work with; games-are-art drumbeaters will find what they need; and the vast majority of people who play this game, people who are looking to be entertained for hours and hours, will certainly not be disappointed. How about me? I found a daring, contradictory, ambitious, huge, flawed, funny, beautiful, sometimes retrograde, and always compelling video game, unafraid to engage with the culture at large. That’s more than I can say for any of its peers. And that’s how I’ll treat it.