Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Some stray thoughts about GTA V

With every iteration, Rockstar's worlds become more real.  This is no exception.  It's not the big stuff--I haven't had time to see the big stuff--but the little things, like how the underside of a freeway overpass, or a alleyway closed off with a chain-link fence, feel a little unsafe.  At one point I saw a white building across a wide, slightly unkempt plaza, and immediately knew it was a government building.  On closer inspection, it was a county courthouse.  It's a tiny thing but a remarkable achievement, capturing a place so well on so many levels that it bypasses the need for exposition or explanation feels like a direct extension of the actual world.

It's stuff like that which makes playing Grand Theft Auto such a joy.  I'm weird like this, but I invariably think the first few hours of a new GTA game are the best.  That's because the game usually has you doing small stuff: go to the store, buy some things, climb over a fence to steal a bike.  There aren't huge shootouts, there aren't explosions, there aren't over-the-top antics; I spend of my early time on foot walking down city streets, getting lost, getting hassled by bums.  This has the counterintuitive effect of making the game seem enormous.  It's a sensation that's difficult to describe: fiddling with tiny details in one corner of a world that goes on practically forever.  Games feel small when you hit their edges, which are usually hidden just out of view.  Here, there isn't an edge to be found.  GTA isn't the only series that starts you off, say, walking to your friend's house, but it's the only one where, instead of walking to his house and watching television, I could, if I wanted, keep walking, for hours and hours, eventually out of the city, past beaches and forests and small towns and national parks, watching the people and topography change, until eventually I ended up somewhere every bit as real as where I started, but totally different.

Unfortunately, a lot of people find these relatively sedate opening chapters boring.  They want to get right to the good part, which, for most, it seems, isn't appreciating the incredible world-in-a-bottle that Rockstar has made, but shooting lots of police officers, stealing their cars, and smashing them into other cars.  Frustratingly, Rockstar has listened to these people this time around.  So the game's prologue is a bank heist, resulting in a shootout with dozens of police.  The third mission also results in a ridiculous shootout.  As always with the current-gen GTAs, mass murder strains uneasily against Rockstar's narrative aspirations; for instance, the latter shootout is precipitated, absurdly, by the player's ill-advised attempt to repossess a motorbike.  After being cornered by the owners, the player's buddy draws a pistol and a major battle erupts.  The player's character quite reasonably shouts that "It's only a bike!" and "I'd rather have gotten beaten up than gotten into a gunfight!" but I don't expect these tossed-off appeals to common decency and common sense to prevent similar slaughters from recurring dozens of times over the course of the game. I find it frustrating: is the world so dull that, after simulating it in intricate detail, we only want to shoot it up?

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