You are Wrong about Grand Theft Auto V

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  • A few days before my flight to Los Angeles, I was sitting in my office working on the poster for Geek Flea VI. It was early evening and I was vaguely aware of the room darkening apace with the sky. Without warning and for no apparent reason, my heart starting pounding and my mind started racing around a singular thought:

    “Do not go to Los Angeles.”

    ———

    This was the second time this year that I cancelled a trip to Los Angeles. This trip was ostensibly to make up for the first – check out IndieCade, grab a sandwich at Cole’s and hang out with my friends in the area.

    Do not go to Los Angeles.

    I have a great love for Los Angeles, one that grows every time I visit. I love the vibe. Not that bullshit that goes on, where everyone you meet has this smiling hope that you are a movie producer. Nor that lazy Southern California version of Island Time – though I admit, lounging on a porch, soaking in warm sun, cool breezes and the perfume of flowers with a drink in hand does have a certain appeal.

    What I have in mind is more along the lines of what Tim Powers describes in The Bible Repairman:

    Anybody can fall in love with San Francisco or New Orleans in ten minutes, but Los Angeles is more circumspect. There are lots of odd, secluded spots down in the canyons or up on the hilltops between the freeways – domed temples from the 1920s that still host some furtive sort of worship, eccentric gardens that stretch implausible distances, nearly inaccessibly old apartment buildings whose tenants seem to be covertly united in some secret cause.

    I’ve seen hints of those things. I want to see more.

    “Do not go to Los Angeles.”

    ———

    A review copy of Grand Theft Auto V had been floating around my house since release but I had neither the time nor the inclination to play it. I watched the trailers and it just didn’t look like fun to me – it looked like work. Everything else – the debate over torture and misogyny and childishness and whatever – I didn’t pay attention to any of that because I knew I wasn’t going to bother playing the game.

    This is ironic. I got into writing about videogames at the New York Daily News back in 2008, largely in an attempt (failed) to get an early review copy of Grand Theft Auto IV.

    And yet, here was a digital reimagination of Los Angeles, sitting on my coffee table, static, unplayed. Waiting.

    The voice in my head never said anything about Los Santos…

    ———

    If you love Los Angeles, there is a magic to GTA V. It is a kind of déjà vu, when you are driving around and suddenly, you think, “I have been here before.”

    For me, it happened almost immediately – the curve of the game’s Del Perro Freeway into the Great Ocean Highway is exactly like the curve of the Santa Monica Freeway into the Pacific Coast Highway. I drove that way in real life, with an ex-girlfriend, and did so again, at the first opportunity, in-game. I drove north, in hopes that the game had a corollary for Big Sur. It does, though it isn’t anything as impressive as the real thing. It was enough, though.

    After my long drive up the coast, I settled in to unlocking the three main characters. I had heard a lot about how customizable they were, through clothes and haircuts, so I wanted to put that to the test – namely, by making them look as close to me as possible.

    Michael – bald, bearded and in a plaid shirt – is my digital doppelganger.

    ———

    I came to the requisite GTA V controversies late. There were dozens of articles about the game’s misogyny, about its torture scene (which I did find distasteful and out of place), about its general immaturity. I’ve not read any of them.

    Once I finally played the game, I couldn’t help but wonder what the gaming press expected. I mean, this is a Grand Theft Auto game – an expectation of a transcendent gaming experience is delusional. GTA IV was childish at its core and made untold millions of dollars. That Red Dead Redemption was such a powerful game felt like a fluke, because it was so mature. Rockstar is built on stupidity. Moreover, it is a kind of stupidity that can fill a money bin with loot. To mess with that formula would be insane.

    Let me come at this from a different way. I like Gwar. They are funny and stupid and crude. I rarely think to put on a Gwar album, but I don’t begrudge their brand of stupidity. I love the fact that they have had nearly a 30-year career of dressing in monster costumes and spraying crowds with blood. When I do throw on Scumdogs of the Universe for a listen, I don’t sit there lamenting that it isn’t Beethoven. I don’t listen to Gwar for a glimpse of the sublime.

    ———

    In one mission, I don’t remember which, Michael and Franklin are in a car talking. Michael mentions how they have to be careful about the FIB and goes on to elaborate about how said acronym could make their lives difficult. I had no idea what he was talking about.

    Sometime later, I remembered that FIB was the Grand Theft Auto universe’s ha-ha funny version of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Because, like, they are liars. Get it?

    If that anecdote made you roll your eyes, you know exactly how I feel.

    GTA V constantly undercuts its admittedly interesting main story with stupidity. There is a place for stupidity, for sure, but when I am having a moment – be it a revel of criminality or a simple night drive – I wish the game would shut up for a minute to let me enjoy it. Inevitably, though, some DJ cuts into the impeccably curated soundtrack with something idiotic to say, or a billboard for the BAWSAQ stock exchange comes into view (Get it? Like NASDAQ, except with a scrotum. Guffaw!).

    If Grand Theft Auto V would step back and let it be the game it is, instead of constantly trying to be the game it thinks it is supposed to be, we’d all be better off.

    ———

    “Do not go to Los Angeles.”

    When I had my flash of premonition, no hard data came with it. I saw no plane crash or other catastrophe, though I suspect I sound like an advertisement for Time-Life’s Mysteries of the Unknown series whenever I mention it.

    I have never had such a strong, irrational feeling, though. Most people I spoke to that night agreed that it was better to cancel the trip than take the risk, no matter how nebulous. I could watch the news the whole week, waiting for the report of a plane crash, but there is no telling what the premonition meant. Perhaps, if I had gone, I’d have been hit by a bus, or ate bad sushi. Maybe it would have simply been a boring trip. Who knows? There is no way to measure it.

    And yet…

    At the bar on October 2, my friend Shawn asked me if I’d been watching the news to see if anything happened to my plane. I hadn’t – it hadn’t even crossed my mind. I did a quick Google news search for Los Angeles.

    Police had been in a high-speed chase pursuing a suspect from the Valley, through Culver City and, via Route 10, into Downtown. If I had flown to Los Angeles, I’d have been in my car service on my way to my rented apartment in Echo Park at the exact same time. Would we have crossed paths with the chase? Would I be the victim of a tragic accident? There’s no way to know.

    But I can tell you this – I haven’t checked the news in Los Angeles since.

    ———

    The Burnt Offering is a semi-regular column in which Stu Horvath thinks too much. Follow him on Twitter @StuHorvath.

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