The Enduring Thrills of Grand Theft Auto V

The Enduring Thrills of Grand Theft Auto V
Josh Wise Updated on by

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“You do some jobs for a fool, develop a little uneasy relationship. And then they ask you to do something above and beyond. You fall out, fools get capped, then you start all over again with some other fool.” So says Lamar Davis, a career criminal living in Los Santos. He is being driven across town by his best friend, Franklin Clinton, who retorts, “That ain’t my life, dummy.” But, sure enough, Franklin’s next few weeks are crowded with fools, jobs, and uneasy relationships. When he is asked to do something above and beyond, it is to gun a motorbike into the mouth of a sewer, bearing a duffel bag of stolen diamonds on his back, in order to evade the police. It’s a sublime image, with its Wildean blend of twinkling ambition and bottomless gutters.

The game, of course, is Grand Theft Auto V, which was first released on September 17, 2013, and proceeded to keep releasing, on various platforms, over the ensuing decade. Now it has arrived on PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X/S, bearing newly shining gifts. The resolution has been increased to 4K, and its textures have been refined, as though the city council had approved a steam-powered clean. Rest assured, however, the place is still richly roiled in filth. PlayStation players, meanwhile, can look forward to getting their hands even dirtier; courtesy of the controller’s haptic feedback, the streets unspool with gratifying grit and splashiness. The whole thing runs at sixty frames per second, and it’s denser in population, traffic, and vegetation. Plus, the sun, which ceaselessly blesses every kerb and cracked mind, is now garlanded with ray tracing.

Franklin is one of three playable characters. We also have Michael De Santa, a retired thief, whom we find in a charcoal suit, sporting an open white shirt. Any resemblance to other thieves, living or dead, or ushered through the numbing blue nights of a similar city by Michael Mann, is entirely intentional. And then there is Trevor Philips, who is less a character than a collection of feral rages; he has a dark wisp of hair on his head, like smoke peeling away from the site of a recently snuffed fire. The previous entry, Grand Theft Auto IV, only had one protagonist, a Serbian immigrant by the name of Niko Bellic. But even then you could sense Rockstar’s urge to ramify. We got two additional episodes, The Ballad of Gay Tony and The Lost and Damned, both of which featured heroes whose journeys—cleaving to Lamar’s outline—overlapped, looping through the same boroughs of betrayal and violence.

Grand Theft Auto V

With Grand Theft Auto V, the writers, Dan Houser, Rupert Humphries, and Michael Unsworth, attempt deeper entanglements. Michael and Trevor have history. The prologue, set nine years before, shows the pair robbing a bank in a snowbound town, and the latter mowing down cops with a machine gun. When we see Michael lounging by the pool, with a cigar and a glass of brown booze, and flooding his ears with Phil Collins, we glean that Trevor is one part of his old life that he is happy to have tranquilised. The song, incidentally, is “I Don’t Care Anymore,” which, considering that Michael’s hours are glazed with ennui, we have some trouble believing. Just then, Franklin—whom he met the day before, in the midst of an auto theft that was anything but grand—looms over him and questions his outward contentment: “Ain’t you a bit young for the pipe, slippers, and starin’ at a f***in’ sunset?” Before long, the three men are together, pulling off heists. The past howls, the future opens its jaws, and they may all be lost and damned, but, in the wildness of the present, they don’t care anymore.

Do we? It’s worth noting that, before I started playing it again, I looked back on my time with Grand Theft Auto V with a sour mash of bitterness and faint nostalgia—a nine-year-old prologue to now, strewn with explosions, in which cash was liberated plentifully from bank vaults but the currency of human life was cheapened. My memories of it included, naturally, the heists—six in total, culminating in the soft clink of gold bullion, during a sneak raid on the Union Depository, entitled “The Big Score.” A lack of connection to the main characters, and being palmed off with the idea that a lack of connection could just be the point. The interactive tugging of a tooth from someone’s mouth, with a pair of pliers, followed by an exegesis on the morality of torture that appeared to have been dashed off by a teenager with a swelling sense of self. And that landscape, all smiles and smog, thronged with lotus eaters and distempered with Californian light.

So it was that, after a handful of hours, one character—a creep called Lester, interred in a mausoleum of computer screens, from whence he hatches plans for robberies—asks, “So you’re back in the game?” And I couldn’t help but feel the pull of that nasty past. I suspect I will not be alone in this temptation. The combined efforts of its tritagonists, over the course of their six carefully plotted swindles, total just over $136,000,000. Not bad. But no match for the $815,000,000 secured by Rockstar Games on September 18, 2013, twenty-four hours after Grand Theft Auto V went on sale. Now, that’s a Big Score. As of December, 2021, the game has sold in excess of a hundred and sixty million copies; and I don’t doubt that, in its freshened form, it will lure many of those buyers back, making Michaels of them all.

Grand Theft Auto V

But why? Why should Rockstar North’s frozen playground, a delinquent and womanless zone, prove so difficult to resist? In part, it has to do with the writing. Not so much that of the dialogue—as rimmed in black-humoured cynicism as you remember—but of the narrative, which is mapped with Lester-like precision. We are enveloped in a fug of double-crosses, mobland politics, and intelligence-agency chicanery, but the whole thing moves with an easy-breathing pace, as if in accordance with the Clean Air Act. No sooner is each character dropped into the game than they are rolled into Michael’s; we may not grasp their true needs, beyond a craving for ill-gotten money, but we know exactly why they might need each other.

Compare something like The Last of Us: Part II, a blockbuster of equivalent heft and cinematic yearning, in which characters seemed to disappear without trace. (That the developer, Naughty Dog, managed to waste one of our finest actors, in Jeffrey Wright, remains as much a mystery as it does a crime.) Its writers, Neil Druckmann and Halley Gross, faltered under the weight of only two protagonists, locked in a linear trek, and even now I struggle to get a hold on Abby—who did a lot of heavy lifting, with a cluttered and sketchy plot—let alone the supporting cast, whose personalities seemed to disperse, like spores, into the corners of the story. The emotional terrain of Naughty Dog’s game may have been marked by a striving for earnest darkness, but the fact is that if you want to steal something, be it our sympathy or just our breath, then you need a clear plan.

Both games, despite the comical clash of their tone, have been charged with the same criticism. That being the widening fissure between the themes of the day and the deeds meted out by our thumbs, at the behest of our appetite for carnage—or, in my case at least, for tennis. Day two of my return trip to Los Santos saw Michael hitting not banks, nor the faces of fellow-crooks, but a backhand return on a serve that I could have sworn landed outside the service box. The question, as Michael punches the air in frustrated triumph, with a pond of sweat dimming through his polo shirt, is: Would he really be doing this, with a mound of debt owed to a doyen of the Mexican-American drug trade, and, by implication, Should I? In other words, is Rockstar, in giving us boundless freedom while trying to tell a tale, guilty of a double fault?

Grand Theft Auto V

I suppose the answer, on some fundamental level of design, is yes. But, in the case of Grand Theft Auto V, I would argue that it ought to be: not always. In fact, Rockstar is alive, more than any other studio, to the potential of that contradiction for throwing up random images of startling power. What better pursuit than tennis, with its moneyed lawns and its lung-busting strain, for the restless Michael—a washed-up crook marooned in the coastal middle-class, an animal in a bright-white cage?

Likewise, the sight of Trevor curling through the firmament in a stunt plane is one that leaps out of any logical basis. Having just discovered that Michael may not be, as he had been led to believe all these years, dead, one would think that the last thing on Trevor’s murderous mind would be attaining a gold rating in an aerial time trial. But there he was: a crazed Reaper moving between Heaven and Earth, scything the clouds with a tilt of his wings. To wrinkle one’s nose at the notion of gravitas in Grand Theft Auto is not an unreasonable response; it’s just one that rests on the presumption that the gravitas will be curated by Rockstar—rather than by your own whims, and glimpsed with the right kind of eyes.

We talk of cinematic developers, and, when it comes to feeding off films—particularly twentieth-century American crime movies, lit by the twin crackle of talk and gunfire—Rockstar leads the pack. Where it is in a company all its own, though, is in its wielding of those elements that cannot so easily be directed. It fashions its worlds like celluloid: wide, thin, combustible, and imbued with the freedom and allure of images. This, more than anything else, is why, after nine years, I’m back in the game. If I don’t entirely care what happens to our heroes, that doesn’t mean I don’t eagerly relish seeing them over and over—Michael by that pool, Franklin screaming through those tunnels, Trevor furiously emptying his clip at the cops. My scorn for the juvenilia of its excesses hasn’t abated, but nor, after all this while, have those pictures dulled. What nagged at me, between then and now, was the feeling of pointlessness in the story of Grand Theft Auto V. Playing it these last few days has reminded me of the meaning in its present moments. “Well, a sense of overriding futility is a vital part of the process. Embrace it.” Such is the advice of Michael’s therapist, and I can only echo his reply: Whatever you say, Doc.