Grand Theft Auto V's American Nightmare Playground: Look! It Moves! by Adi Tantimedh

Adi Tantimedh writes: Warning: mild spoilers

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A friend asked me what I thought the best new Fall TV show was.

I said "Grand Theft Auto V."

Yes, it's a videogame that lets players indulge all their destructive, psychopathic impulses in blowing shit up and wrecking mayhem with no consequence, even their misogynist impulses with hookers and strippers should they so choose, but the actual story of the game itself offers a lot more than that. It's the equivalent of taking part in an interactive version of a cable crime show that might have been produced by HBO or FX.

I've probably laughed more at GTA V more than any movie, TV show or book this year.

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To me, dipping into the game feels like putting on the latest part of a huge 50-episode season of a TV show. It's novelistic in that sense, and offers an almost-Pynchonesque, feat of world-building that can encompass anything and everything in American culture. Like many TV series, it can have serious plotlines involving the planning and execution of heists on the one hand, then farcical and absurd comedy subplots involving celebrity culture, show business, narcissism and social media as part of the tapestry of social, political and moral corruption at the heart of capitalist America.

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The three main characters of the game offer a different perspective of the world of crime and Los Santos: Michael, the aging stick-up man suffering from mid-life crisis and depression reluctantly drawn back to robbery that he secretly relishes might suggest a representation of the makers of the game as they've gotten older. Franklin, the young street hood hoping for bigger and better things than the ghetto represents the key archetype of the genre's protagonists over the years, and then there's Trevor.

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Trevor the psychotic, omnisexual, rage-filled maniac who will murder anyone at the drop of a hat. Trevor the meth-addict who goes on a murderous rampage if someone makes fun of his Canadian accent.

Trevor is the avatar for every nasty, psychopathic impulse the game and the player has ever committed or wants to commit. He gives context to all the insane mayhem that you want to create in a game like this, whether it's punching a street full of yuppies after a bad drug trip or stealing an attack helicopter to blow up a religious cult compound in the mountains just for the hell of it. And then he's used in a sequence that makes the player active in the torture of an innocent man and then comments on the complicity of committing torture. This is one of the points where the satire isn't just a cheap, glib joke but attempts to say something more ambitious and uncomfortable.

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Crime stories have always been about living the vicarious fantasy of criminal life and a videogame like GTA V takes that further by making it interactive so that you feel like you are actually doing it as these characters. You witness things as they do as they become not just instigators of crime and chaos, but also bewildered witnesses to the insanity and desperation of people chasing their own chunk of the American dream. Even Trevor is surprised and fascinated by the dotty old British tourist couple who ask him to help them procure memorabilia from various celebrities. The mission where he chooses to help them steal a famous golfer's club by picking him and his armed bodyguards off with a sniper rifle, then hiding from the cops in a pond until they went away had me laughing hysterically. This was a rare marriage of black comedy writing and game play choices to create a seamless whole. The game's merciless, despairing satire of Hollywood's boulevard of broken dreams feels like a millennial update of The Day of the Locust. Los Santos is a place where everyone is on the make, trying to fulfill their dreams of wealth, celebrity and power with varying success, and those that already have wealth and power are irredeemably corrupt. The three protagonists are only after wealth so they can be left alone, and are seeking solace and allies they can trust, and you see what might happen if trust is betrayed and gives way to greed and survival. Even crazy, wounded, Trevor is ultimately driven by a yearning for people to love who wouldn't betray him.

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If anything, the Grand Theft Auto games owe the biggest debt to Michael Mann and Miami Vice. It was Miami Vice, after all, that established the romantic macho fantasy of driving down the street with a pop song providing commentary and mood on the way to a score or a shootout, and GTA and similar games like the Saints Row series have adopted and used variations of ever since. The general tone of pop giitz and hyperreal social commentary has been part of the GTA series since Grand Theft Auto 3, and Grand Theft Auto: Vice City drew overtly from Miami Vice by setting itself in 80s Miami and using 80s pop songs in its soundtrack.

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It feels as if technology and graphics have finally caught up to enable Rockstar to make GTA V feel even more like a Michael Mann production than ever. That the increasingly elaborate and epic heist and shootout set-pieces of the game are frequently accompanied by original music composed by Tangerine Dream, the go-to composers of many of Mann's 80s movies, only reinforces the Mann influence. The crassly corrupt Federal agents and venture capitalists also feels like a genre convention cemented in the 80s by Miami Vice. The heists, with their attention to recruitment of gangs and gathering of plans and resources recall Mann's Thief and Heat. And all in all, the template of gritty amorality and crime in a Pop-infused, sundrenched paradise city was established by Miami Vice all those years ago, an influence that is still felt in crime shows and movies being made now. And of course, videogames like this one. Franchises and fictional worlds become popular when their audiences want to live in those worlds, and GTA V lets the players feel like they're running around in a world spawned by Miami Vice.

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The uncanny thing about the game is how much moving around in the game actually feels like Los Angeles, albeit a savage, Swiftian satire version of Los Angeles. The atmosphere of Los Santos, the overheard conversations on the streets, the tiny details of the architecture and layout of the streets are almost disturbingly close to places I've been to in real life. The nasty and grotesque parts of the real LA are already a few small steps away from becoming the hellish version presented in GTA V. Los Santos feels like a more accurate recreation of Los Angeles than Liberty City in GTA IV was of New York City.

Outside the main plotlines, there are dozens of moments that feel like you're actively creating your own unique short stories throughout the game: Michael speeding to rescue his son from angry internet trolls while Stevie Nicks sings on the car radio… LA punk bands blaring on Trevor's jeep while he drives through the salt flats of the desert as an aggressive driver rams him from behind only to crash and burn while Trevor merely shrugs… Michael punching out his daughter's stalker and a random car running the guy over in a typical Los Santos father-daughter bonding moment… Trevor waking up drunk and in a dress on top of a mountain… Franklin having a mystical conversation with a dog on a hillside as if that's the most normal thing in the world… Michael, disgusted at what a shyster his psychiatrist turned out to be, ending his final therapy session by firing an RPG at the fleeing shrink…

The satire may be hilarious and farcical, but the drama can become nuanced, even melancholic like a Michael Mann movie or a Richard Stark novel.

In another of the game's many random encounters you might choose to interact with or ignore, Franklin came across a wrecked car with a dead man and an injured woman. This was the aftermath of a heist gone wrong and the woman was the driver, stabbed by the dead man who tried to double-cross her during their escape. Franklin had to get her to help in time as she tells him her story. She's a good getaway driver, professional, trustworthy, and maybe they could work together on a job later on. Unfortunately, he wasn't fast enough, and she bled out in his car.

"Sorry, girl. I tried."

The story of GTA V is a combination of Nathaniel West's Day of the Locust, Richard Stark, Michael Mann movies and Chris Morris-levels of black-hearted satire. At least one reviewer thought the game story was so sprawling and scattershot that she didn't know what it was about. To me, it seemed to be about Everything, or more specifically, America in the 21st Century. It throws everything and the kitchen sink in to create not just a comprehensive Swiftian satirical version of Los Angeles, but also a despairing look at the broken and lost promises of the American Dream. Its piss-takes on social media's exploitation of private information and the likes of American Idol are filled with utter contempt.

With GTA V, unlike Nero fiddling on the hill watching Rome burning, you are not watching safely from a distance. You are there in the thick of the flames, trapped with everyone else, dancing amidst the chaos, amusing yourself to death in a decaying world.

I should not driveat lookitmoves@gmail.com

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Look! It Moves! © Adisakdi Tantimedh

About Rich Johnston

Founder of Bleeding Cool. The longest-serving digital news reporter in the world, since 1992. Author of The Flying Friar, Holed Up, The Avengefuls, Doctor Who: Room With A Deja Vu, The Many Murders Of Miss Cranbourne, Chase Variant. Lives in South-West London, works from Blacks on Dean Street, shops at Piranha Comics. Father of two. Political cartoonist.

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