So, about a week or so back I finally got my first Xbox 360. Not only did it come with a few other games I was eager to finally try, it arrived with a game I never expected to play: Grand Theft Auto V. It’s not that I am utterly opposed to crime games, but Rockstar’s seminal franchise just always had me ill at ease. The particular “satire” approach to the world and the overly grim and depressing world of the modern entries has turned me off in a big way. You can tell me the racism, sexism, and just generally bitter, hateful attitude of the game world is meant to be a parody of our modern world, but all it does is wear away at me.
In response to the game’s unpleasant attitude, I decided to try and be a model citizen for as long as I could, until it broke the game. This lasted about an hour, which I think says something about how Rockstar designed the game.
Obviously the opening mission’s heist tutorial can’t be played passively, but as soon as you inhabit the game’s real main protagonist Franklin (those of you who know the game’s ending understand why I say that), I just behaved as much like a sane guy as I could. I walked around Los Santos calmly; the worst weapon I carried was a pocket knife for protection; and I didn’t steal any cars. I even obeyed the vast majority of the street lights. A few times they’d change too fast for me to cross the lane, but I could hardly stop in the middle of a four-way intersection.
When I walked the street, I’d check my phone; I’d see my texts; I tried calling people up; I watched a bit of an episode of Impotent Rage at home on the TV, and even browsed the web for a bit. I got ordained as a minister, and I bought myself a new jacket and got a nice closely shaved beard. My first night on the town in Los Santos was so calm and casual that it almost felt more like a simulator than a crime game.
Somehow, that’s still the most fun I’ve had with the game. I felt like I was actually inhabiting Franklin’s personae. His interest isn’t to get into crime, just to make ends meet and rise above his current standings. He may be cocky. He may be willing to pull the trigger of a gun, but he makes it very clear he wants to be an honest man.
So even when his best friend Lamar (who I assume Franklin hangs around with as some sort of penance for crimes in a past life) gets him stuck in a shootout with a gang while trying to repossess a bicycle, I kept him as clean a conscience as possible. I didn’t make kill shots, in fact I aimed for the legs every time.
While the game doesn’t just let enemies be injured (even repeatedly shooting someone in the foot “kills” them), it was the closest I could get to disarming my foes without killing them. So as you can tell, for the most part, the game can still be played as if you weren’t making killshots, but it won’t respect your choice. Interestingly though, outside of the main story, you don’t have to break a single law. How violent you get is up to you, and I actually really like this. What’s both problematic and deeply telling is when the mission design contradicts this.
There’s a friend of Franklin’s, Tania, who has a deadbeat boyfriend who keeps missing out on work. You help her out by going with her to tow cars for the police, and get a little cash for taking the time to help. Except I failed the first tow truck mission for obeying traffic laws. The police were upset that I was following the law and taking my time to get the car. It’s just a junker, but apparently getting it towed within ten minutes was not fast enough for the police department.
I also experienced similar behaviors from the game’s traffic AI. They never seem to be used to you actually following traffic laws. In fact, by obeying stop signs and traffic lights, most of the nearby cars would try to drive AROUND me just to perform their normal routines. Most passersby don’t even know how to address other than “What the **** is your problem?” or “Oh, Hello!” (specifically these two).
This also led to one broken aspect to the game that left me greatly disappointed. When you’re just starting out, the game really lacks anything to do. I wanted to take on a second job, or just do auto-generated repossession work for Franklin’s current job. I wanted to interact with the people in Franklin’s life on my own terms (even if more than a few of them were just stereotypes).
I wanted to be like Franklin while playing him. I wanted my actions to match his, but GTA V really doesn’t let you just do that. Instead of being a self-made man, the best chance at income for me was to stop random crimes with vicious street justice, which felt more like Batman than Franklin.
After a while of doing this, I tried to stick with the Batman style of play. Irony being, this style of play is much more boring since very few randomly generated crimes seem to happen (and when they do, you are often driving at high speeds past them). It’s stupidly easy to steal cars as well, and once you go full criminal, there’s a lot less majesty and realism to the world. Instead it feels like you’re in a more underwhelming version of Just Cause 2.
Despite being built for crazy mayhem, my favorite moments in GTA V thus far have all been just pushing the game to its limits in less than violent ways. Driving my cars for big air on off-road tracks. Navigating into the mountains in a sports car. Behaving like a normal person above all else though, just feels great. It’s weird. It shouldn’t make sense, but playing in a virtual world as a virtual person with their own needs and wants is so refreshing that being a crazed gunman with a high speed car is almost banal by comparison.
It’s not that I’ve been playing too many action games, or that I’m just not the type of gamer to play in the sandbox genre. There’s just something missing in GTA V, and while the Heist missions certainly are fun, I can’t help but feel that there could be a lot more life to the world. Despite getting the chance to visit Los Santos, I never really felt like anyone could live there. For one of the largest worlds in gaming, it’s surprisingly devoid of what makes a city feel real.