The Grand Theft Auto “Thing”

The gold and bubbly crust of my video gaming experience has always been that of the completionist.  Not the full pizza, mind you–just that delicious hunk of leftovers that some sightless fools talk themselves into throwing away.  However, for many the role of completionist is the head, the tail, the whole damn thing.  My dabbling in this realm of “it ain’t over til the last cheevo dings” allows me some sympathy for others who take it far more seriously.  For some of them it is a matter of mixing mental business with pleasure: a cocktail of twitch reflex and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.  There are those who are more of the frugal bunch: unwilling to part with their $60 investment until they’ve drained it utterly and entirely, like some sort of miserly Otaku vampire.  For others, it’s just having the sort of brain that gets locked helplessly in the Skinner Box techniques of modern gaming.

I explain all of that to help you appreciate that while I find it a fun sort of puzzle to achieve 100% completion on many of my video games, I am far from the sort that has to.  So why have I decided to gain 100% completion on the largest game yet made?

This one.

This one.

The simple answer is that I really have no idea.  The Grand Theft Auto series has always been vertigo-inducing in scope.  Hell–Rockstar Games in general have a reputation for not being satisfied until their settings can support entire economies.  And if those economies had a main export, it would be penis jokes.

And when you’re playing a game that massive, you have a lot of time to think.  Not just because there are literal miles between you and your next objective, but because you are going out of your way to experience everything that this world has to offer.  And between that garbage disposal-style input, and the usual avalanche of controversy that comes with any given GTA release, I got to thinking.  Not just in terms of a review or a “Let’s Play A Bad Guy” article, but on an even larger scale.

I got to thinking about the whole Grand Theft Auto “thing”.

No, not this "thing", but I like where your head's at.

No, not this “thing”, but I like where your head’s at.

It started with the half-hearted abortion that was VGX 2013.  Seriously: that thing was a rotting goat carcass soaking in a fly-buzzed pool of its own sick.  One particularly obnoxious swarm of said flies happened to be a pack of rappers who had appeared on the soundtrack to Grand Theft Auto 5.  When asked to expound on the features of the game, the pine tree-smelling team began to list off their favorites: a laundry list of acts that sounded like it had been dreamed up by a town of concerned mothers, including “You can kill hookers.”  As imbecilic as these gentlemen were (and they were), what can I say?  They weren’t wrong.  Garbage in, garbage out, as they say, and despite the magnificent scope of Rockstar’s latest pet project, a spectacular city does not a spectacular cultural experience make.

I think the immense size of GTA 5 is almost part of its downfall.  Not that it isn’t impressive.  But there’s got to be something beyond out-sizing other games.  I can remember an era where the graphics were the be all and end all of video games.  That visual beauty was the main measuring stick we used when defining the power of a game or system.  Now that graphics have come to a natural plateau, it feels like the “big world” is the latest way of measuring AAA games.  There’s nothing really all that innovative about it–it’s just goddamn big.

This is not to suggest that GTA 5 isn’t fun.  I possess as much self-loathing as the next guy, but even I am not willing to put myself through entire days worth of waterboarding for a few extra points on my Xbox Live scorecard.  The game is definitely fun.  But the game is the usual life of crime gorefest that we’ve come to expect since the film Scarface.  And just like Scarface, too many apologists take a look at its bullets and sucking chest wounds and see something different.  They tilt their faces to get a better look–they stroke their goatees.  They nod their heads knowingly and pronounce the whole thing “satire”.


Grand Theft Auto 5 is a lot of things, but satire is not one of them.   It’s blood-flavored popcorn, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  Every last one of us has a favorite action flick, and a plausible story is not the priority for those films.  The priority is firing a pump action shotgun with pinpoint accuracy while spinning in a wide 180 in a Mercedes Benz that is also on fire.  We love that shit.  And when you own up to it, we even have chance to respect you.  So it’s a shame that the word “satire” had to get bandied about, but I’m afraid the fine people at Rockstar aren’t really making social commentary beyond the usual “people in LA sure are weird” variety.  But that’s not what GTA is about.

Grand Theft Auto 5 is about violence.  It’s just as mindlessly violent as you’d expect.  But that’s where something intriguing does shamble out of the wood work.  GTA 5 is just as barbaric, sexually explicit and juvenile as that lady at your church warned you it would be.  However, it is also nothing like that.  Oh, don’t get me wrong: I’ve blown some people away.  Motored over some pedestrians.  Fired rocket-propelled grenades at policemen.  I’ve even tossed cash on strippers.  But for every minute of senseless, depraved, violent acts I’ve taken part in, there have been five minutes of throwing darts, jogging on the beach, and doing yoga.

That’s right, lady in the pillbox hat at my neighborhood United  Methodist church: at any given moment, GTA‘s preferred method of murder is sheer boredom.

That rocket actually fires copies of James Joyce's "Ulysses"

That rocket actually fires copies of James Joyce’s “Ulysses”

A terrific example of this came during the planning process of one of the game’s main heists.  These heists are exquisite jewels in the crown of GTA 5–impressive, multi-tiered events that take all of your choices and decisions into account with their success or failure.  It was during such an epic heist as this that I found myself mopping the floors.

"Up against the wall, motherfucker."

“Up against the wall, motherfucker.”

As a cover for planting explosive devices in a high security office building, I dressed as a janitor and mopped the floors.  Okay, that sort of makes sense.  So was there a cut scene of me washing and scrubbing before we got to the good bits?  Hell no!  There was a full-on gaming mechanic for mopping.  And if I didn’t do it, I’d be berated by my partners, telling me I had to make sure there were no questions about my role as a janitor.

This is also a fairly sound argument, one that I’m sure is echoed by some of my readers.  The problem is that I mop exactly two hallways.  Not enough to convince anyone that you’re a good janitor, but just enough to make me mutter, “Am I seriously mopping hallways in a video game?”  I plant the explosives and mop the floors in the time it takes to recite the spoken word breakdown in a Boys II Men song.  Any security with half a brain would say to guy next to him: “Uh, did that janitor just clock in and out in five minutes?”

So the cost for making the game realistic actually makes it even less realistic.  And this is part of the overlying problem that I have with those hollering for Grand Theft Auto 5 to top every Game of the Year list in existence.  And while it belongs on top ten lists, GTA 5 will not turn your water into wine.  It won’t heal lepers.  And it won’t do other things that Jesus did if you’ll allow me to continue my metaphor.

So if concerned mothers and church leaders have any reason to snatch that controller out of little Skyler’s hands, it’s so he doesn’t wile his precious free time away doing digital yoga or virtually smoking pixelated weed.   To me, this Grand Theft Auto “thing” seems to be the ability to get violently up in arms while defending or decrying what ends up being a reasonably fun, solid B+/A- game with only minimal cultural value.  It’s just odd to see this battle continue, year after year.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have more UFO parts to find.


One thought on “The Grand Theft Auto “Thing”

  1. Pingback: The Conquistadork’s 5 Favorite Video Games Of 2013 | Notes From The Conquistadork

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