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A reader offers a philosophical look back at GTA V and its first trailer, and looks forward to the imminent new next gen versions.
I think it all started with the trailer.
Set to The Chain Gang of 1974’s ‘Sleepwalking’, the official trailer for Grand Theft Auto V was one of those moments where a few ostensibly disparate elements coalesce into something far greater than the sum of its parts. The song was heavily edited to fit the story moments the trailer wanted to highlight, the real tune a more slow-burning, droning affair than the soaring anthem it was turned into for the advertisement.
That trailer provided covert insight into the emotions Rockstar wanted you to feel when you played the game for yourself. It’s in the falsetto vocalisations set to Michael confronting Trevor about ‘torturing him’ for past mistakes. It’s when that same falsetto builds to a long, dreamy ‘ahh’ when you see your first explosion, serving as the overture for the action that’s about to come.
And it’s in the sinewy, delay-soaked guitar line that comes in to bolster the vocals when you see Michael back in the game, kicking down a security door as a masked bank robber, Trevor welcoming him ‘back in the game’. The trailer then cuts to the Grand Theft Auto V logo splashed on top of a gorgeous, birds-eye view of a too-real facsimile of Los Angeles.
The trailer rolls on with Lamar, arguably the best central character in the game, assuring Franklin that whatever illegal activities they are no doubt engaging in are ‘legit business’. Trevor tells Michael that a crime they had just committed was his job, his score, so ‘get your own’, while Michael’s wife Amanda bitterly informs him that he’s ‘alone’ and a ‘pathetic psychopath’.
When we finally get to the chorus of the song, with the melancholic, disembodied line of ‘Maybe we’re just sleepwalkin’’, the trailer cuts to some of the more outrageous criminal activities you’ll be engaged in, like Michael assaulting a bank in a full suit of armour and armed with a minigun, another character skydiving, and finally a fighter jet bombing a bridge littered with cars, presumably with people inside them.
It is pure magic.
I have probably watched this trailer a hundred times or more, and I find myself doing so again lately, its autumn release on PlayStation 4 and the promise of the game being unshackled from eight-year-old hardware stoking my desire to return to the world of Los Santos. We all played Grand Theft Auto V a year ago, and we all played it our way. Some of us veered away from the story missions as soon as our Cerberus of protagonists became unlocked, hunting aliens and ghosts, sniffing out stunt jumps, and figuring out how the heck to conquer the army base.
Some of us made a beeline through the story first, soaking in the unflinchingly satirical and cynically-constructed narrative of three ugly American criminals who feel like they deserve something more out of life and will hurt as many people as necessary to achieve their goals, including striking back at a host of even more despicable people like private military contractors and a Mark Zuckerberg caricature. It’s a comedy of errors, follies, and foibles, like watching a group of uncouth malcontents who don’t understand that, truly, we are laughing at them, not with them.
But even so, we sure do love playing as them, don’t we? We love killing innocents and destroying property without any real consequence to ourselves, except perhaps sleep deprivation. We love testing the boundaries of the sprawling polygonal world Michael, Franklin, and Trevor inhabit, stretching that metaphorical rubber band with our fingers to see what will happen first: it snapping in two or it snapping back and stinging our hands.
There’s a proverbial line, which is either fine or thin and red, depending on how you conceptualise it for yourself, between desiring to commit acts of violence and destruction and actually carrying out those acts in a real world marked by consequence and karma. One of the most unsolvable conundrums posed by the Grand Theft Auto games is a twist on the chicken or the egg question as only Rockstar could pervert it: did Grand Theft Auto fulfil a need or did it create one?
Did I always want to commit virtual murder on a wide scale or did Grand Theft Auto just make me think I did? It’s how you parse this question that shows where you stand on the argument that games are or aren’t art, that they are either entertainment or persuasive, misanthropic virtual narcotics.
I don’t know the answer to this question, and I suspect that I never will. I can’t imagine my gaming life without Grand Theft Auto, yet I would never let my ten-year-old nephew within a hundred yards of the game until he turns 18. The fact that Grand Theft Auto V allows me to contemplate how close I really am to the virtual murderers I control from the comfort of my couch is what truly excites me about re-playing the game on more powerful hardware. How will I feel when Los Santos looks even more like the real Los Angeles I grew up in? Or when Michael and Franklin look even closer to real people?
More than anything else, I can’t wait to play Grand Theft Auto V again because it’s the biggest commercial success in recent memory, yet unlike the other AAA games it shares shelf space with, it presents more questions than answers. Grand Theft Auto V doesn’t wrap itself around you, terrified that you’ll miss the next set piece or quit because it’s too hard. It does what it wants to do. Nothing more and nothing less.
It’s unapologetic about forcing you to deal with it on your own terms. For me, it all goes back to that trailer. It had to be that song set to those story beats, working together to express the complex emotions the game made me feel. Grand Theft Auto V is tragic, uncomfortable, melancholic, cynical, and unbearably bleak. It showcases, celebrates, and revels in the pyrrhic triumphs of its leads, who are all living for the present with an aversion to the future.
Its characters lead a life that my college-educated, privileged, middle-class self can barely fathom or understand on any sort of cognitive level. Yet, I sit down for hours to inhabit them, to make them do the things I could never do. If I’ll never fully understand why I love Grand Theft Auto V, there’s at least one thing I know: Trevor sure as hell wouldn’t waste his time playing a game about me.
By Reader David
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