Errant Signal – GTAV

the most striking thing about grand theft auto 5 is how much playing it feels like visiting a real place most games sculpt their environments as a space for gameplay first and then try to dress themselves up like a real place afterwards but Grand Theft Auto 5 is committed to its universe in a way that few other games are where assassin’s creed or watchdogs litter their world with spires to climb and chests waiting to be unlocked lo Santos and the Greater San Andreas area don’t feel like they exist for you the player they exist as a place where people live and work and play simply walking around you get a sense of income brackets and the zoning laws and the history of each city block and mile of highway it’s where the games desire to mock the real world works best a lovingly recreated TCL Chinese Theatre or the Hollywood sign or a stereotypical sketch of small-town dive bars or beachfront condos do wonders to sell the sense of place by tapping into iconography without being outright parody it is frankly an embarrassment of riches when it comes to being at a high-fidelity world the fact that I can pull off the highway walk into a mini-mart then peer into the managers room to see a scheduling chart at this level of fidelity is nothing short of astounding and while the Environmental Design does most of the heavy lifting the prop up the illusion of San Andreas there are a bunch of other touches that reinforce it the GPS cuts out while you drive through tunnels for example there are some radio stations that fall out of range when you drive from the country to the city or vice versa gubernatorial missed gasps remains entirely untaxed there are workers taking smoke breaks behind stores tourists dotting the beach and pier and bikers hiking the trails near sandy shores the game’s so steadfast about the space itself being physical and lived in that you can’t easily quit travel like in Grand Theft Auto 4 you have to hail or call a taxi and if you want to skip the actual physical drive to where you want to go you need to pay extra it’s such a beautifully realized place and it clearly wants you to experience it that way instead of just a video game map or a collection of levels it’s why my favorite things to do in the game or just people watch or take pictures on my phone or sit in the car in the rain and listen to the radio and above all just generally be there in San Andreas but it’s a fragile illusion you know how a 3d model can look great in screen shots and a horrible in motion Grand Theft Auto 5 looks gorgeous in motion but terrible when interacted with in pretty much any way yeah they’re recreated the look the feel of the way cities are built and run but not the systems it’s a wonderful miniature model of the county an animated model even but as soon as you try to touch it the illusion shatters for example I spent a moment after escaping the police admiring a sunrise over the mountains a coyote crawled across the landscape as the Sun lazily hugged the horizon looking behind me I could see lo Santos nestled in the shadow of the valley it still looked like nighttime in the city for a brief moment the game echoed Proteus it had me admiring the really simple beauty of nature and as I sat there soaking in this gorgeous sight this sense of appreciation for the natural order this happened welcome to grand theft auto 5 where beautiful rainy nights in the city give way to Trevor pooping behind a dumpster where attempts to enjoy some music on the beach can quickly escalate to a brawl hey you’re a real prick you know that what where beautiful sunsets have to be punctuated with joke billboards we’re the amazing amount of TV and film and radio content to consume is littered with lazily written lowest common denominator sexist racist junk stupid bitch we go to comic convention you’ll sign autograph and we sell some more action figures it feels at times like rock star is amassed an army of some of the most talented writers animators and programmers from around the world and have them toil passionately day after day to create something that is at first beautiful until you pull out and realize it’s basically a dick but it isn’t once a stunning recreation of modern Americana and a collection of poop and sex jokes that remove any gravitas the game might have otherwise had but it doesn’t feel conflicted it feels intentional and that is I think the problem that eats away at the heart of grand theft auto 5 it feels like it’s horrified of having genuine or sincere moments despite being clearly capable of making them and it’s not just dumb environmental jokes or NPCs prone to combat it takes the same calloused approach to its characters and its story it tries to bury any earnestness with gratuitous offence Grand Theft Auto 4 took its protagonists way too seriously except when it wanted to be an outrageous and offensive satire grand theft auto 5 tries to fix this by turning down the goofiness about one notch in the drama about four or five notches instead of a man traumatized by war crimes who also commits hilarious acts of violence we instead focus on the interpersonal drama of three unstable criminals as they do horrible things to the city the people around them and to each other this helps unify the tone and the game no longer feels like it’s bouncing back and forth between Spaceballs and Scarface but that unified tone does lean decidedly comedic and as a result the cynicism come nil ISM that is calcified the heart of the game’s humor eats its way into the narrative as well look at the torture scene it is perhaps the closest the game comes to a whole scene of actual snark less commentary the game effectively uses its mechanics and narrative to frame the government is capable of some truly evil stuff as it forces Trevor to hurt a man like really hurt him in order to get information about which man Michael should shoot watch hey hey hey now huh now you ready to talk I’m ready to talk this is the day I got kidnapped six weeks ago afraid of oh they’re all brute they just keep going now if you like yeah the government won’t really tell us why they want this man dead other than some hand waving stuff about terrorism and the information we get is extraordinarily vague after multiple types of torture all we get is that he’s a left-handed bearded Azerbaijani who smokes but that’s deemed enough to force Michael to take a life extra judicially and afterwards you find out that the man was likely a philanthropist not a terrorist the game feels like it’s punching up at a valid target that is unfortunately an increasingly apparent part of the American landscape but then Trevor drives the tortured man to the airport and all that stuff about torture stops being subtext and starts becoming literal text as Trevor rants about government oversight and the value of torturous cultural catharsis rather than a meaningful information gathering tool the media and the government would have us believe that torture is some necessary thing we needed to get information to assert ourselves did we get any information out of you tortures for the torturer or the guy given the order to the torture you torture for the good times we should all admit that it’s useless as a means of getting information meanwhile the tortured man we felt empathy Forrest turned into a joke as we laugh about how much he’s being ignored and hurt by everyone from the IAA to the FIB to Trevor you have no family that shit is over I do turn employee work I love them very much no that’s your old life that’s over now you’re off the grid you’re one of the invisible people that wacky Trevor just left them at the airport that’s our Trevor everything has to end in a joke or a one-liner or issue some reassuring winking nod to the audience that whatever is happening on-screen doesn’t really matter not to take it too seriously the game only has a few relationships it even begins to treat with anything approaching a serious tone and that’s the three protagonists sometimes Lamarr and sometimes Lester and Michael and his family but even then there has to be a catch a gag or riff something to make sure that the game isn’t actually engendering empathy I don’t know if I love you and I’m pretty sure I hate you a little bit but I’m just so fucking upset that we can’t even see each other and you’re just drunk lame dad you know what it might just be the nicest thing anybody’s ever said to me so will you buy me a car what and none of this has helped by the game’s open world nature the open world approach to storytelling is anathema to pacing plot cohesion and to a degree player empathy with characters the game has a love of cinematic language but not of cinematic structure its pick whatever mission you want design is decidedly ludecke the game loves to borrow iconography and cinematography from film it’s why one of the face buttons on the controller usually reserved for important functions is used for a borderline unplayable cinematic camera that could be toggled on at any time Grand Theft Auto likes slow motion it likes to play with framing and depth of field and field of view it seems keenly aware of camera placement and diegetic music and prefers to tell its story through those methods than any of its mechanics but what it doesn’t particularly care about is pacing character arcs or narrative structure there’s not a singular story in Grand Theft Auto 5 there are just a series of threads that come in and out of focus are we setting up the criminal heist today or are we fixing Michael’s family or are we doing something for the FIB or are we dealing with Michael and Trevor’s past or hanging out with Lamarr the players ability to choose a mission means the game tends to jump between all of those and more and arrives each of them of any singular importance they’re all important when they happen but none of them are so important that they have to take precedence over helping random strangers or going on a shooting rampage ultimately the narrative is much like the buildings and the TV shows and the radio stations and everything else in the game a way of pushing a collection of themes and motifs they get hammered home mission after mission murder after murder until you decide to stop playing or until the content runs out and what are those themes why does it undercut its characters its story and its meticulously crafted world in the name of yuk yuk jokes well the game has vague ambitions of poking at the American dream the American view of capitalism is immoral good and even the greater whole of Americana itself but it never really aims for that it never commits it tackles those subjects and fits and spurts with one-off jokes and throwaway lines but the bulk of its comedic energies are spent on cultural detritus fame or shame completely original television something you’ve never seen before we’ve got Desperados performing we’ve got has been judging them and yeah you could make the argument that cultural detritus is the embodiment of modern Americana but the game never tries to make that strong of a statement it’s just more comfortable parodying disc jockeys and commercials and reality TV than in tackling big heady issues especially issues that might require it to take a real political stance look if gta5 is satire it isn’t good satire occasionally it finds a worthy target and hits all the right notes to paint an amusing Mad Magazine style parody nothing profound but something that picks on someone that needs to be taken down a couple pegs by pointing out some obvious problems the life invader mission for example does a wonderful job of poking at the shallow youth-obsessed IPO driven tech culture where empty speeches and the right clothing matter more than a meaningful product hi oh hi chillin on the beanbag Marcus will be right out oh um I’m gonna take a normal chair I have a terrible back really the brief was for a relaxed creative individual the kind that preferred a beanbag over a real chair but if you’re so bound to social restraints no no I’m not restrained at all I’ll I’ll take a seat Oh see hmm you’re relaxed already let the creative juices flow but parodies like those are the exception most of the time the game just takes the thing that exists like a beer commercial then throws a lot of sexist and racist jokes at it then dresses it up by pretending that it’s satirizing modern American consumer culture but by doing so it isn’t deconstructing America’s problems with race sex money in class it’s just bringing those problems into its own world and then amplifying them a millionfold does this add lamb poo and a stereotype about who drinks these beers or beer companies that happen to a loose sense of American values or the perception of American values themselves or actual American values the sapphires target is so fuzzy that the point is lost and all we’re left with is haha they shot some Mexicans and jiggles and boobs and I want to be clear it’s not just that there are jokes I get that Grand Theft Auto is supposed to be a comedy series I like comedy games I like Saints Row and tales from the borderlands and the Stanley parable it’s the application of these jokes the lazy undirected contempt for anything and everyone that doesn’t add up to any cultural criticism but a middle finger to anyone who may be watching that I get irritated with more than the need to just make the jokes it’s the vulgarity the ugliness of the jokes that spawn from every corner of the game world that shatters the illusion of San Andreas by way of their artifice like remember how laslo was the straight man in Grand Theft Auto 3 in a city full of goofy weirdos Liberty City is great for phone free everything Liberty City was a church in hell pastor in three houses when the telephone was invented higher you’re the liar liar liar pants on fire what are you are you are you three years old now Lazlo has been turned into a caricature of a douchebag and there is no straight man if I got a lot of stuff going on right now dude besides you trying to kill me now I got multiple sexual harassment lawsuit plus I’m an addict all right and I’ve relapsed I can’t stop jacking dude I Jack it in traffic or if there is it’s the three protagonists whose views are the only ones that are allowed to exist with minimal snarking and anger there’s probably something wrong when the only people your cultural criticism take seriously are three murderous narcissistic men the whole game is cd-r and more cynical than it’s ever been and that’s saying something and that results in some uncomfortable racial humor and a lot of really lazy gay jokes I think I’ll stick to basketball and making people feel uncomfortable when I talk to their daughter deep in the closet his friends call him mothballs but nowhere is the game’s newfound cruelty more apparent than its treatment of women so you’ll let me on the show if I blow you yeah how about you suck my cock huh have a nice rack fine would need stunt kids to show at an a-list celebrity is too bashful or has pancake nipples she’s got to come Mike lawyer fancy top I recommend like grand theft auto has always had trouble with the ladies but at least didn’t say grand theft auto 4 characters like Michelle or Kate had bits of sincere relationship building the dating minigame wasn’t perfect but it at least simulated something that approximated real human relationships in some form but now in place of a dating minigame there’s a strip club where you can convince topless women dancing for your pleasure to take you home and sleep with you if you grope them enough while the bouncer isn’t looking look I hated watchdogs the whole thing was terrible and plastic and disposable but just assumed you loved it because it offered the same general gameplay as an assassin’s creed or a Grand Theft Auto it didn’t care what it was about because it was a white guy in a trench coat shooting stuff you kids loved white guys in trench coats shooting stuff and in being an ugly crass disposable product I hated loathed watchdogs in contrast I adored Saints Row 4 it wore its influences and flaws on its sleeve it tried to get you to love the things it loved but I don’t hate grand theft auto 5 and I certainly don’t adore it I pity it unlike watchdogs it doesn’t feel plastic and hollow and workmen like at all but unlike Saints Row 4 it feels afraid of opening up and exposing itself to you it clearly cares about San Andreas is a fictional place and it cares about its protagonists even if it doesn’t want to openly admit it if they didn’t care they wouldn’t spend so much time on using details like safe houses and phones and clothing options to help define who these characters are and it cares about film and music with its nods to cinematic storytelling and a carefully curated soundtrack and with so much love and effort and attention to detail boiling below the surface of cynicism even the game’s defiant devil-may-care nihilism rings hollow it’s what’s so frustrating and yet so captivating about the game it feels like it’s a video game version of Gregory House or John bender a game so afraid of being hurt that it would rather push everyone away by pretending it made a joke and I can’t figure out why a team of developers talented and well organized enough to make a world this vibrant this authentic only end up using it to give players bog-standard drive and shoot mechanics wrapped in bitter humor that tells you none of it really matters I think we have seen quite enough kaito – yeah wah I’ll swing by and sign the contracts all right just ignore the bodies you

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