10 Questions/Observations About Grand Theft Auto V From A Non-Gamer

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When any cultural product takes in a billion dollars of business in the first three days of its release, as Grand Theft Auto V did, you kind of have to pay attention to it. For years now many have been touting the fact that blockbuster movies appear to be on the decline at the same time video game sales are reaching all-time highs. Comparing the two on an artistic level is still riddled with problems and philosophical gaps, but on a business level, and a popular culture level, it’s becoming impossible for culture watchers to ignore an industry that continues to increase its modern cultural force.

One of the hurdles for people like me, whose avenue into popular culture is primarily movies and television, is confronting a niche market that has become mainstream in the face of an era when being mainstream simply comes about as a result of having a strongly established and passionately received niche. Gaming culture seems to be this way. And it’s intimidating for a non-gamer to venture into a realm seemingly (stereotypically) dominated by digitally sophisticated and socially inept hoards of basement dwellers. Of course, this is absurd. The same way the label of “foodies” shouldn’t ruin all food, this “gamer” label should have no bearing on anyone’s ability to participate in and enjoy the hell out of some of the most fun entertainment products that humankind has ever manufactured.

All this is to say that I am such a “noob” that I don’t even know if the term “noob” is in use these days, and that I bought Grand Theft Auto V (a week later than most people, I suspect) and have been playing it obsessively. After spending significant time with the game, I have 10 questions that are possibly rhetorical enough to be timid observations that might be worth sharing.

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1) Have there ever been characters this memorable in video game history?

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I will restate: my experience with gaming is rather limited. I was essentially inactive between the days of Super Mario up until I was introduced to Grand Theft Auto III, which I did not discover for myself until San Andreas had already been released. I went through all the GTA material I could get my hands on. Aside from that, there’s been the occasional Rock Band and recent exposures to Red Dead Redemption and the Batman: Arkham City franchise. All this is to offer context for my general ignorance and lack of evaluative ability when it comes to gaming. That being said: has any other game offered anything quite like GTA V’s Trevor Philips?

The previous incarnations in the franchise served up plenty of characters that I’ve long since forgotten. I sort of remember good old Niko Bellic but pretty much only the fact that he was Eastern European. I can’t say whether he and everyone else was truly forgettable or whether I don’t engage with game material all that deeply.

This Trevor guy though, man! We’re introduced to him in such an impactful way, with his weird psychopathic and sexually ambiguous ways immediately coming to the fore. Knowing next to nothing about the game, I must admit (sheepishly) that I was completely taken aback when I was given the reins to have to control this madman, this insane methhead that I had just seen kick in a familiar character’s skull. And he does not let up one bit, continuing to flaunt his amusing redneck persona, surprising you at every turn with his often understated reaction to things which then turns into these bizarre out of the blue sexual threats to his comrades. He’s not at all pleasant, but he drives the characterization of the game entirely for me.

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2) Will any game require a long introductory scene in the future?

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The first thing that jumped out at me in Grand Theft Auto V was the fact that we’re immediately (well, not until after the eternity that was installing the Xbox game files—is this normal?) thrown into action. Previous games I’ve played have these long scenes setting up the location, characters, backstory, and general aesthetic where we just sit and watch with this idle controller in our hands for a significant amount of time. Expecting this, I wasn’t even holding my controller and all of a sudden I’m responsible for this bank heist that allows us to actually engage with the slight bit of backstory for these characters.

We get some obligatory (and deserved) Rockstar opening credits and before long we’re immersed in gameplay as though it hasn’t been five years since GTA IV. The brilliance of the story is that not only do they reveal more and more interesting backstory as you progress through the game, but they introduce the characters in seamless and realistic ways that are as compelling as they are fun. This may be a minor feature for other people but it left an enormously positive impression on me as I started out on this venture.

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3) Are the individual mission stories not fantastic?

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I’m sure there’s terminology I’m getting wrong all over the place here, but hopefully you’ll get what I’m trying to say. The next part of Grand Theft Auto V that jumped out at me was that on top of the usual parodic look at current events and the general contemporary cultural climate in which it operates, the game actually creates missions around these references and makes them surprising and always engaging. I’m thinking primarily of the Jay Norris mission. The character is some kind of Steve Jobs-Mark Zuckerberg knockoff (probably more Zuckerberg since his company is called “LifeInvader”), and your mission is to rig a demo phone that explodes in his hand, assassinating him.

This is one of the most talked about missions of the game, and rightly so. It’s shocking when it happens, and fulfills the game’s twisted history of providing potential satisfaction of people’s dark wishes. You’re confronted with this head-on.

Then there are other great moments in missions like a Fast & Furious-style highway chase with people jumping from one car to the other, breaking into secure buildings by scuba diving, hijacking military helicopters, and probably too many others to remember, let alone list. It’s taken me far longer to get bored with taking up the next mission in this game than in the previous versions.

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4) Was I the only one really invested in the game’s overarching narrative?

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Despite forgetting most of what went on before and during the credit sequence, where we actually witness and experience what happened between Trevor and Michael, I have found their friendship strangely engrossing. I don’t recall investing in the relationships between video game characters in quite this way before. Granted, much of this is due to simply how mesmerizing and amazing the performance of Trevor is. I just want to watch this dude all the time, even as he shocks and repulses me at every turn. And yet his strained friendship with Michael is actually interesting, a story I may be invested in were I not invested in the outcome with my own hands.

It’s almost as important as the realism of the gameplay—the realism of the trajectories of these characters’ lives. I suppose it’s possible that giving us the ability to control more than one character allows us to spend more time and learn and sympathize more with a greater number of individuals. But the progression of these three men’s stories, the unraveling of Michael’s secrets, Trevor’s growth as a person capable of caring for someone else, and Franklin’s continuous failure to do the right thing and live on the straight and narrow all keep the primary missions at the forefront of our interest rather than a chore to get through to keep the game moving along.

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5) Does the traffic seem to flow more like actual traffic? Does the driving feel more like actual driving?

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Perhaps this is incredibly obvious to the more seasoned gaming veterans, but do indulge me. Speaking of the realism I tried to describe in the previous point, one of the things you do most in these games is drive around, and in subtle ways they seem to be improving the simple experience of driving a little bit with each instalment.

In this one it’s the variance in the vehicles that is even more vast, and more importantly, the traffic that you have to contend with actually seems to correspond with the flow of a city, complete with cars that respond to the traffic lights that have seemed simply superfluous in the past, and consequences if you don’t factor other vehicles into your movement far more than you’ve had to in the past. Others can speak and have spoken on this topic at greater length and depth than I can, but I’m glad I wasn’t the only one to notice this.

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6) What is its morality?

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I’m not sure Grand Theft Auto V, or any games from the series, seek to make specific comments on moral questions, but there are certain aspects from each that puts us in the position to make moral considerations, and the implications of this, whether intentional or not, are large and fascinating, and impossible to replicate anywhere outside the gaming medium. Games have a way of putting us in the shoes of another character in a visual and tactile way; as novels can put us in the literal mind of somebody else, games allow us to see through someone’s else and act with their hands in a more real way than any other medium.

The moral questions of the franchise are storied and controversial and often talked about in ignorant ways, reduced to the act of “killing hookers,” which I don’t think the vast majority of players have actually ever done. But there is the moral conundrum of being a gangster, where we’re controlling acts of murder, that makes the actions more immediate than the vicariousness of Goodfellas or similar movies.

GTA V takes this even further, with a torture scene that is gruesome and challenging from a purely moral standpoint. This is surely intentional. It’s also more than depiction, but to reduce the work to endorsement would be a disservice. It’s hard to say to what extent the game judges the actions of its characters, or whether judgment from a narrative perspective would be a strength or a weakness. It’s seemingly in our hands. At the same time, our control only goes so far. With the torture scene in this game, they’ve served up one of the most compelling and troublesome instances yet.

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7) What are its politics?

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Similar to its morality, I’m not sure if Grand Theft Auto can be argued as particularly thoughtful or biting political satire, but functions wonderfully as humor that exposes some of the absurdities of political discourse through exaggerated expression. This isn’t The Daily Show brand of satire, but it could be on par with South Park.

The strange and hilarious radio call-in shows as well as some of the amusing statements made by characters on screen make a target of every kind of liberal, conservative, Republic, Democrat, Libertarian and everything on the spectrum. No one escapes unscathed. This would make it seem as though the target of the game’s roasting is not necessarily a type of political animal, but all who engage in hyperbolic or stereotypical political discourse. But like Trey Parker and Matt Stone, while this is satisfying on some level, there’s a certain element of nihilistic attitude that becomes grating after some time. So every political stripe is ridiculous. Where does that leave us?

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8) Could we have done without the marijuana-induced alien rampage?

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Though it may seem at times like this is as perfect a game as we can expect to date, and though it may seem as though I have come to that conclusion, there are several things I found less than enjoyable and had to plod through. I’m sure others’ experiences have been similar, perhaps in areas that I found incredibly fun and interesting. The entire storyline involving the marijuana advocate is sort of funny, but becomes tiresome quickly. A lot of this is a result of the bizarre and tangential alien shooting extravaganza sequence after Michael takes a hit of some wacky tobacky.

Then again, for every alien rampage, there’s several rampages involving Trevor that are often hilariously sparked by someone making fun of him for his status as a foreigner after they somehow detect a Canadian accent or disposition on him. The idea of a dude going into an uncontrollable rage for being called Canadian is enough to make you laugh while you shoot fleeing hipsters. The running gag of people referring to Trevor as a hipster is equally strange and funny.

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9) Can all games transition this smoothly now, please?

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Consoles are dramatically improving all the time, but any time a game can achieve the smoothness that GTA V has must mark a certain level of accomplishment. I’m aware of the first-world-problemness of shrieking “it takes too long to load!!!” any time your gaming console requires a second or two before it gives you hours of gameplay to enjoy, but here we are. Maybe this entire generation of games are doing this, but going from gameplay to ten seconds of black to cut scene to ten seconds of black back to gameplay has to be the bane of every gamer’s existence.

For the amount of leisure (or work) time you have to invest in these games, you want to make the most of every minute, and delays are undesirable. In Grand Theft Auto V, every scene seems to end with the camera (or whatever game people call the equivalent of a film camera perspective) circling around behind your character, announcing your moment to take over control again. It’s a design aspect that makes the experience immersive and makes the story flow much more continually and engagingly.

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10) Are other games this good?!

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One would hope that the most expensive game ever produced would subsequently be one of the best ever produced, but one would also be forgiven for their skepticism if it’s based on the relation between budget and quality of blockbuster movies. I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but John Carter sucked. The likelihood of a flop is unclear to me when it comes to games. What I do know is that Grand Theft Auto V came through with a vengeance. Of course, it led me to wonder how many other fantastic gaming experiences I’ve missed out on that would appall gamers as much as it appalls me when I learn how many people have never watched Six Feet Under.

If you’re like me, generally unfamiliar with games but wanting to get a little more familiarized with a part of our culture that’s coming to dominate the entertainment landscape more and more, this seems like the franchise to begin with. The beauty of most games is that they’ve found a way to teach you how to play them as they go along. That’s a special design trait very much appreciated by folks like me.

If you’re unlike me and are as immersed in game culture as I am in film geekdom, I am grateful for your patience, and perhaps this uninformed perspective was somehow the slightest bit enlightening. I am eager to learn from your experience and expertise when it comes to carefully selecting the next gaming experience I eventually undertake.

What Grand Theft Auto V left me with was a feeling that games are evolving so quickly and so promisingly that it would seem as though they could completely overtake the cinemascape in my lifetime, especially if they’re made with the artistic quality of Rockstar’s latest world-changer.

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  • Chad

    I also cannot believe the amount of people who haven’t watched Six Feet Under. It’s my favourite show, and the best one I’ve ever watched.

  • Eric Harris

    If you’re looking for a great story that’s a bit more complex and emotional, I highly recommend Bioshock Infinite. I’m also a big film geek and Infinite has one of the best and most thought-provoking stories I’ve experienced in any medium.