Painting a virtual canvas with Grand Theft Auto V

Historically the Grand Theft Auto series provided reliable visceral thrills. Leaping into a sports car and tearing out of the car park with the alarm blaring, the police on your tail, and expertly chosen sounds pumping from the stereo. The action, like the graphics, was deliberately cartoonish; gunfire crackled and the police helicopter bellowed humorous things as pedestrians made Tom & Jerry *splats* when you misjudged a turn and cartwheeled through a pedestrian precinct. Partly through style, and partly from the limitations of the hardware of the day (GTA3 2001, Vice City 2002, San Andreas 2004) the Grand Theft Auto series of my teens, experienced through the Playstation 2, was a comic-book world of cardboard houses and paper people. There were satirical, South Park-level jabs at American culture, and a wonderfully simulated period soundtrack, but the games were truly ‘sandboxes’; simulating a 3D city full of people which appears real, red lights stop traffic and people flee when you open fire; then the game gives you vehicles and weapons with which to cause chaos, and a police force that will obligingly increase the scale of the chaos. Missions were completed to give you structured chaos, increase your access to the simulated city and your arsenal, and to introduce you to ways of causing chaos you might not have thought of.

The neon-soaked Vice City was the key to the new direction
The free-roaming city was an engine to allow the chaos to feel organic, to let the game systems of pedestrians, traffic, the police as well as your gunshots, grenades, rockets and bombs interact in unexpected ways. Conversations about the game all revolved around this random chaos, when police helicopters collide with buildings, or a random driver side-swipes a waiting line of cops, giving you a way out. But as early as Vice City, the GTA games provided another, more cerebral pleasure. Sometimes you could dial the radio into something relaxing and cruise along the beachfront at sunset, or dress in an outrageous Hawaiian shirt and wander the streets. The flamboyant eighties setting and top-tier audio brought the city to life in a way no open-world game ever had before. San Andreas further expanded on the concept, with a recreation of the L.A. riots, and an entire state to explore, with countryside, small towns and stylised lived-in cities; the streets of the hippy district of San Fierro (the San Francisco clone) feel noticeably different from the mock-Vegas strip or the blighted farming towns. The sound design improved, civilians’ lines got funnier, and repeated less, and the radio station chatter became richer. As the locales and people became more fleshed out, going postal felt less satisfying, but just existing in them became a pleasure.
San Andreas was more nuanced and embellished
With the 2008 Grand Theft Auto IV, scrapping with the local constabulary became a difficult and actively discouraged activity, cars were sluggish and pranging them into a wall would result in an undrivable write-off (and possibly diving face-first through the windscreen), the city was reduced from the three metropolises and surrounding countryside. Living in the city was emphasised, and the blissful yoga sessions in the park and the bustle of faux-Times Square was impressive, but felt empty, and the false New York was drab and miserable. The latest incarnation, Grand Theft Auto V, makes another leap forward, and fills that emptiness with substance, and swaps the grey east coast grime for west coast glamour.
Grand Theft Auto V has living streets
L.A. Noire is one of the most stylish and original games in years
Between Grand Theft Auto IV and V Rockstar dabbled in three extremely successful projects. Wild West ‘em up Red Dead Redemption provided a rare cowboy game with impressive narrative and stunning scope and artfully evoked dusty towns and howling prairies of the dying West, and L.A. Noire provided smouldering style and simmering horror in the postwar west coast (pro-tip, when you finish the Vice casebook, stop playing). Max Payne 3 provided a directed action punch experience, and an engaging narrative, even if it did suffer from almost game-breaking ludonarrative dissonance. Out of a combination of all of these projects which rank in terms of the most excellent and ambitious games of the last five years, Rockstar last year realised GTA V.
Epic texture in Red Dead Redemption

Existing in the world of Grand Theft Auto V is a sublime joy. Take a walk down its sunny boulevards and you’ll see gym bunnies taking a walk, cyclists running other people off the path, a businessman talking angrily on his cellphone, and the local lifeguards rushing to their vehicles; or cruise the streets in an open-top convertible, and when you stop at a red light, pedestrians will whip out their camera phones and snap a picture of your ride. The early games let you escape into a fantasy of fast cars and high-calibre weaponry, the latest incarnation, it feels more like a holiday to the sunshine state. The world of Grand Theft Auto five has an unprecedented richness about it. The picturesque environs bleed character; the graffiti-strewn homeless town under the freeway feels lived-in, like the environment was built and the cardboard and burning barrels were added later. The grass growing out of the concrete in the desert airstrip feels real and characterful and gives the sense of a deeply engaging world. So many of the game’s challenges are only created to enhance this world. Do yoga at the top of a mountain for no reason, or perform a series of errands for an erudite but ineffectual pot legalisation campaigner. The game offers no structure, just texture, in a clearly stylised, but twistedly accurate depiction of modern southern California.

The story campaigns have suffered throughout this change. GTA III and Vice City had sub-Ellroy gangster plots on par with game stories of the time, San Andreas had a self-serious campaign with just enough GTA nonsense to make it bearable (a mission where you have to burn a marijuana crop before the feds arrive, getting progressively more stoned as you do, is a particular highlight), GTA IV’s po-faced sub-sub-sub-Scorsese gangster nonsense was completely perfunctory, and GTA V’s three-pronged hot-swap story is interesting and often successful, but mired in childish and wildly misjudged jokes (an extended uncomfortable torture sequence completed with a totally unfunny slapstick gag is the nadir). The world of Grand Theft Auto V tells more story than any narrative could. Just driving down a street in GTAV’s version of California makes a series of satirical gut-punches better than the ham-fisted scripting.

It’s a story only a videogame can tell. Paintings achieve meaning through composition, moving video achieves meaning through juxtaposition of images (look up the Kuleshov effect for evidence of this), video games imbue themselves with meaning through mechanics, and by handing the choice of texture to the audience completely changes the nature of the art. Grand Theft Auto V is unsuccessful as a chaos generator, or as a narrative, but is completely dominant as a means of experiencing a twisted recreation of southern California; building in bricks and mortar what would take film hours and a novel thousands of words to approach. As narrative games take a battering from holier-than-thou critics, perhaps the plotless moving painting provided by Grand Theft Auto points the way to important, emotionally resonant videogames as an accurate depiction of life in our time.

Written under duress by Steven.


Anonymous said...

For all it's deep flaws (crippling really) in the interview mechanics I much preferred LA Noire, and even Max Payne 3 to GTA V. It's beautiful but as the hours past it's beguiling, the worlds simply not big enough and yet, there's too much empty space. These little details are the marzipan flowers on a cake whom structural integrity is questionable. Yeah the GPS doesn't work in tunnels, but there's only like two. Yeah, there's a variety of NPCs, but they just go in circles. All too quickly my sense of wonder faded, and the digital stitching came into view. It's just not fun anymore. Online player interaction could revive that free flowing dynamic and unexpected carnage but it's a grind that takes itself far too seriously. The writing has become a parody of itself "blah blah capitalism blah" and the narrative has little to no structure or sense of progression. GTA V's world isn't a work of art, it's a neatly detailed frame waiting for something of substance, something a little compelling. That's what LA Noire and MP3 delivered for me. I dunno, maybe I'm just too old, maybe my imagination has grown dim.

steven said...

Both L.A. Noire and Max Payne 3 are very directed experiences, the richness comes from within the world. The police procedure, the seedy bars, the stylish clubs of L.A. Noire are unmatched, but in the free-roam the world was completely empty. It's taken me a long time to see the cracks in GTA V. The Online is compromised because of the additional demands on console power (I'm on the Xbox 360) so the streets are deserted; plus without a couple of friends, it's a lonely experience of running round alternately avoiding and getting cold-bloodedly shot by other players.

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