The first time I fired up Grand Theft Auto V, as the install disc slowly unpicked the world held within and built it anew on the Xbox’s hard drive, I had an idea.
Talking to friends about the game, it struck me that the thing which has really stuck with people about GTA is that one story: you can hire a prostitute, kill her and take back the money you just paid for sex. For some people, it’ll never escape being another example of an Evil Violent Videogame.
And fair enough, y’know? That stuff is horrible, and the GTA games – all the way to their fifth instalment, based on the reviews I’d read – are violent and sexualised and a lot of other things besides. But the game I’d read about, watched trailers of, was also beautiful. It contained a city of crisp fidelity, fresh opportunities for exploration and experimentation, and a soundtrack that stretched, like the best record collections, from Britney Spears to NWA, Clams Casino to Simple Minds.
So, as the ‘percent loaded’ meter ticked up into the final digits, I started to wonder: what if I just engaged with the bits that interested me, and avoided the violence altogether?
It would mean stripping out a whole part of the game, but faced with such a richly detailed world – where each fragile pedestrian has their own fashion sense and voice, each of their cars’ radios playing just the right station as you tear them from it onto the asphalt – pacifism felt like the only sane option.
It quickly becomes obviously that GTA does not want you to eschew violence.
About three minutes into the opening mission, a bank heist gone wrong, you’re forced to put a bullet in the head of a guard, before he does the same to your friend. After seconds of careful consideration, I tried shooting shooting him in the leg. MISSION FAILED. Retry, pull the trigger, and move onto the next setpiece, which drops a few dozen heavily-armed police between you and progress, and places a fully-automated machine gun into your hands.
Clearly, a compromise would be necessary. This was all prologue, a decade before the game proper, I reasoned. Besides, when I’d killed those people, I was playing as Trevor, one of the game’s three controllable characters, a gleefully murderous psychopath filling the role of group id.
I was soon handed the chance for a fresh start, as a cutscene picked up with Michael nine years later – presumed dead after the bank robbery, now leading a peaceful but unfulfilling life in witness protection, with a wife, two kids and a therapist – before introducing the third and final character, Franklin. Franklin’s a young black man, a petty criminal who, unlike his partner Lamar, seems disinterested in the glamour of crime, and certainly not the kind of guy to go on a killing spree. This was my man.
And this was the plan: GTA V
features a stats screen which lists each character’s achievements and misdemeanours down to the most granular detail. It’s a series tradition, something I’ve occasionally wished for in real life. Looking at this screen, I could see that Trevor already had 22 dead cops to his name – but maybe Franklin could keep a clean sheet of 0s.
It took just a few minutes for my new plan hit a roadbump. A fleshy one.
In GTA, it’s not the guns or the petrol bombs or any of the other weapons you can wield that’s most deadly – it’s your car. Driving is much tighter than the Bambi-on-ice handling of GTA IV’s vehicles, but it’s still possible to lose control of a car, especially when you’re impatiently nosing your way through speed-limit-observing traffic.
Each character has their own special ability, reflecting what they’re best at. Mostly, these make it easier to kill people, but, as a skilled car thief, Franklin is able to slow time while driving. It’s pretty much a get-out-of-jail-free card for when your back tyres start to spin out and tug you off the road. But in the first mission, as Franklin and Lamar forcibly repossess two gleaming sports cars and race them across town, I did not know this yet.
So when, during a shortcut through a narrow studio lot, a man in a green rubber alien costume jumped out in front of the car, I plowed right through him. His ragdoll corpse bounced off the car’s roof, and crumpled to the ground.
I paused the game. There, in the stats screen, it read ‘Vehicular kills – 1’. There was no other choice.
Reader, I restarted the whole damn game.
Fast forward through the heist, the police shooting gallery, that first stolen car. This time, I cruised carefully through the movie lot, avoided the men dressed as aliens – there’s actually a trophy for not running them over, ‘We Come in Peace’ – and stepped out into the world for the first time.
I unfolded the paper map that comes in the game box, picked out a few potentially interesting locations, and drove in their general direction. Just taking in the scenery, which to my British eyes is slightly too bright and shiny, like being on holiday. Enjoying the way it all mingled with, say, the creaky bedsprings of Mirror Maru on the radio. Playing with the Instagram-styled camera function of the in-game mobile, snapping graffiti, people on the street going about their business, and selfies. Oh, the selfies.
I climbed ladders and clambered up suspension cables just to see how high up I could get, took a pic of the blown-out orange sunset, then toyed with the idea of jumping off. I shot targets in the Ammu-Nation gun range, earning meaningless medals until night turned into day. After getting my hands on a BMX for the first time, I spent one enjoyable hour just pedalling and bunny-hopping it around a reservoir, into Los Santo’s sewer systems, marvelling at the little details and watching Franklin’s stamina stat creep up.
A succession of stolen cars and motorbikes carried me from the Vinewood sign, up in the hills, to the ferris wheel at the tip of Del Perro pier. There were a couple of near misses, but no one ended up dead except me, plowing the occasional motorbike into a wall and sending Franklin’s body flying through the air.
But it couldn’t last. I kept coming up against locked content – no planes, no skydiving, no golf, no tennis. Whether those last two are a canny commentary on Franklin’s place in the world (tennis remains closed off to him throughout the game), a pure accident, or kind of racist, I couldn’t tell you.
It became clear that the way to access this stuff was by playing the missions. I’d managed to resist them for two or three hours, knowing that way lay the kind of murder and mayhem I’d vowed to avoid, but I really really wanted a game of golf.
The first time, it was them or me. Lamar pulled the trigger first, but blowing away an alleyway of Mexican gang members was necessary self-defence, Franklin reluctant as me as “we massacred those motherfuckers”. But self-defence is an excuse which wears pretty thin as you progress in the game, swapping pistol for sticky bomb, moving from escaping ambushes to assassinating people for cash.
Another compromise, then. I started to treat the missions as a sort of fever dreams; which some of them, if you bump into the legalise weed campaigner, actually are. It was just criminals, cops, selected targets I was murdering. Only killing people in the open world – the innocent pedestrians of Los Santos’ streets – would count, I told myself.The missions oscillate between inventive, impressive and faintly boring, but they progress the story – Michael and Franklin met, started to bond – and the range of options – I could switch between the two at will. This character jumping is the game’s biggest idea, a way of both enlivening missions and speeding up travel across the vast world.
Switching pulls the camera up into the clouds, before diving back to find the new character in medias res, sneaking a cigarette on a cliffside or stumbling out of the stripclub. It’s a small trick which really helps build the feeling that these characters have a life outside of you controlling them, and builds each up as a distinct personality in a way that the scripted story never really manages.
My style of play would change slightly as I jumped from Michael to Franklin and back. Michael’s a lot more eager with his fists, so I’d have him expressing himself pugilistically every time something went wrong. I felt like Michael’s interest in music would have all but dried up, so he’d rarely switch the station in cars, but Franklin is an omnivorous listener, flitting between old-school hip hop and experimental dance. I allowed myself to shape Franklin’s look a little, giving him a beard and afro, but otherwise the character’s clothes didn’t stray too far from how they were dressed at the start of the game. Looking back, I’ve realised I’ve never taken a selfie as Michael.
All of this only helped to build up the idea that Franklin was a chill guy who couldn’t possibly kill someone (except, of course in missions). Until he, I, we finally did slip up.
I’d smashed into his car on a roadtrip out of town with Franklin’s dog Chop, as I tried to stop myself veering off the road into a ravine. As the driver got out to take it up with me personally, I clipped him. It was hardly a hit, really. He went down so easily, and didn’t get back up.
There he was, splayed there in the middle of the road, undeniable evidence of a crime the game didn’t really care about – there was no star rating, no police chase. It honestly shook me for a couple of seconds, as I worked out it had been too long since the last autosave to go back.
Me and my dog just got back in the car, and kept on rolling through the night, with the Pet Shop Boys blasting on the stereo.
This was weeks ago – in real time and game time, I suppose – and since then I’ve tasted a lot more of GTA’s world. I got my hands on Trevor again, who encourages roleplaying in a whole different way. He’s the kind of guy to shoot off a few rounds into the sky or tarmac just to see what happens, who picks his tunes and his clothes like Quentin Tarantino, for maximum effect when the violence starts.
Soon after that, the game’s initially-wonky Online mode started to stabilise. Once I’d introduced my ’00s pop star of an avatar to the world, all bets were off. She’ll shoot friends in the back of the head just to trigger a one-on-one deathmatch, just to irritate them. Pedestrians are just well-animated obstacles between the bonnet of her car and winning a race.
Still, in singleplayer, every time I clipped someone with my car, or threw them out of theirs, I’d slow down, depress the right thumbstick to glance in the rearview mirror and check they were okay, breathe a sigh of relief as they dusted themselves off.
I don’t do that anymore. As the compromises stacked up, they became more and more indistinguishable from the full-blooded approach I’d started out vowing to avoid, and eventually I gave up altogether.
It’s a classic crime narrative. It’s pretty much exactly Niko’s story in GTA IV
it’s the plot of the first Godfather
. It had played out in my hands, completely separate from the story the game was trying to tell me. My 10-hour downfall, told by this ugly, beautiful world Rockstar have built.