If you have no idea what GTA V is, skip to the end for a brief overview
Five minutes into the final (completely optional) triathlon mission in Grand Theft Auto V, everything started to make sense. I had been making my character swim across the biggest lake in the state, repeatedly pressing the X button on my control pad in order to make sure he kept up with the rest of his fellow triathlon competitors. I was only halfway across the lake, and there was still the cycling and running events to come. And all you do in all of those events is tap X and point in the direction you want to go. It suddenly became clear what was really happening: I was being trolled, by the game designers. What they were saying to me was that if I wanted to completely finish this game, I had to be shown how sad and pathetic I was by completing this horrible ordeal. The game had indeed become an obsession for me, and I needed to complete it in order to get my life back. So I held on, and accepted my fate. The longer it went on, the more determined I was to win, for I never wanted to have to do it again. Neither my X button nor my onset of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome in my thumb could have taken that. Just over 25 minutes later, I narrowly overtook a competitor to take first prize. But at what cost? It didn’t matter, once it confirmed I had completed that part of the game, I went straight to doing the next thing on the list I needed for 100% completion. The game designers knew this, and that’s why they trolled me.
The GTA series gets a lot of news coverage due to its supposed effect on the degradation of society. You can steal cars, rob convenience stores, pick up prostitutes, and kill innocent people in countless ways. If you want. All that bad stuff is optional, you don’t have to do any of it. This is what the game designers would argue when such moral criticism arises, while also pointing to the fact that the universe they have created is an obvious satire of the world we live in. The first point isn’t convincing: if they didn’t want you to kill innocent people, they wouldn’t have made them so easy to run over with a car (complete with that squishy sound). The second point is very true: it is an epic satire. the game, based in the quasi-Los Angeles city of Los Santos, we use a social network called Life Invader while the budget smartphone is not a Droid, but a Drone. Wherever you go in the game, there are people taking photos on smartphones and playing on iPads. You help the CIA rescue a rendition victim from the FBI, only to help torture him in the next mission. There is a gun shop called Ammu-Nation every few blocks, that allows serial mass-murderers like you buy guns 24 hours a day. When the police arrest you, they take your ammo, but not your guns. Because this may be a fictional city in America, but it is still America.
The main thing about GTA, as hinted at previously, is that you don’t actually have to do anything the game designers tell you to do: you can do whatever you want. From around the third mission, you can say goodbye to the story and indulge your nihilism as much as you want. Kill people, pick up prostitutes, kill her afterwards to regain the money you just paid for the service. Eventually the police will come after you, and you won’t always evade them. You will end up in hospital or jail, which are very expensive. You will end up robbing people just to fund your next hospital visit, drifting from petty crime to petty crime, each funding the next. A pitiful existence, no doubt, and it is similar to what would happen if you chose this path in real life. The only way to make real money is to get a real job, ie the actual game story. Completing missions and eventually robbing banks will get you millions. Only through structured work effort and careful planning can one climb the rungs of society and escape petty criminality in the GTA world. And again, this only brings the player to a certain level: completing all missions brings a basic payout of $20m. This is not even enough to afford the deed to the biggest cinema in Los Santos, should you wish to purchase it. Crime only brings you so far, which leads us to the in-game stock market, where the real money is made. Using money gained through crime to fund a stock portfolio is the only way to get to the pinnacle of success in GTA V, which is possibly the greatest piece of satire in the entire game. There are two paths: one leads to jail or hospital, and the other leads to Wall Street. I’m pretty sure this is the life lesson taught to more than one of the games writers by their parents.
In the game, you control three different characters and can change between the three of them at will. Franklin is a black car thief in his early 20’s, struggling to balance his ambition with his roots in LA gang culture. Michael is in his mid-40s, a retired bank robber living a life of luxury with his wife and two teenagers. Trevor is a white-trash, deranged psychopath who knew Michael many years before. In the main story, each has a character arc and are used to tell different parts of the story, and interconnect at various times. This is useful as a literary device to tell a grand story, however the three characters are really there to appeal to a different type of player. Franklin is there for the teenagers/kids who play the game, Michael is there for older gamers like me who accept that they are too old for this stuff, while Trevor is the id, a personification of successive Daily Mail hate campaigns and is there for all those “nihilists” who shouldn’t be playing GTA at all.
So as in a TV show with many characters, every player will have a favourite and want to spend more time with him. Obviously mine is Michael, the retiree who is currently going through a midlife crisis. He seeks self-actualisation, so he does yoga, he sees a therapist, he attempts to join a Scientology-esque cult (but becomes pissed off and kills everyone when they ask for too much money). His wife leaves him at the end of Act 1 of the storyline, and the rest is about him picking up the pieces of his settled life, while killing people and robbing banks in the process. In all of this, the player is in control of Michael, attempting to get him through this midlife crisis of his, adrift in the sea of chaos that is the GTA universe of prostitutes and car theft. Of course, he gets his family back in the course of the narrative, but the self-actualisation process continues unabated.
In a movie about midlife crisis, it would end with him either dead, or looking out into the distance. In the game, you can conceivably play on with Michael in the GTA universe for as long as electricity and the PS3 system allows and you will still hear him question his current standing forever while robbing convenience stores and killing people, possibly with constantly updated dialogue via the internet. But of course, this is the game designers trolling me again, for they are really talking to me, about the virtues of being a 30 year old man seeking self-actualisation in the form of nihilistic video games where laws can be broken and civilised society is an abstraction. Video games are changing: GTA V entertains, it engages, it even has some emotive moments. However with people of my generation and above, there will always be this nagging doubt about how something is just not quite right about spending time indulging in this type of entertainment, unironically. GTA V is a parody of modern life, but it also satirises and parodies those who actually appreciate it, which is not something many TV shows, movies or even books could ever hope to accomplish. Based on this, games could yet be more than just mere nihilism.
If you don’t know what GTA is:
Everyone reading this has at some point played a video game. What differentiates the GTA series from others is that rather than pushing players towards completing a detailed story, the game developers create an entire world for players to explore, and it is the players choice whether he or she completes the prepared storyline or just goes around exploring what is possible in this dense world. What is interesting, and controversial about this world however is that it is not some faraway planet or fictional past civilisation: the series bases its world on modern life, and in the case of GTA V the setting is Los Santos, which is Los Angeles by any other name. In Los Santos, the player steals cars, kills people, picks up prostitutes, robs convenience stores and then tries to escape the police attention gleaned from performing these acts. This isn’t easy, the police are smart and forceful, and often the player can end up getting killed (requiring an expensive trip to the hospital) or getting arrested.