When real travel stops feeling revelatory, the digital road takes its place — for good or ill
by RYAN LEAS
You want to begin again. You’ll get it right this time. Buy the beautiful house, associate with interesting, beautiful people. Drive a new car. A fast one. Get rich, naturally. You want to cut everything away, leave behind all your old things, all your old acquaintances. Slip out quietly as night falls, or just as the sun’s rising. A clean slate, no past. Head someplace else, somewhere far away. You want to have control this time. Be your own architect. Press “Start” once more. A new life. A new career, in a new town. We’ve all thought of that right? It’s what we were promised, after all.
Ain’t the American Dream grand? Michael, one of three playable characters in “Grand Theft Auto V,” yells this periodically during firefights, typically when you’re rampaging against cops. In a nutshell, that context is all you need to understand the wicked smirk specific to the GTA franchise’s exaggerated vision of America. It’s always hard to pin down exactly what the ultra-successful series is. “GTA” is equal parts incisively clever and on the nose. It pushes boundaries with some of the most mature content in mainstream video games while channeling that content toward juvenile ends, tapping into latent teenage dreams of anarchy. The games acerbically critique American consumerism while also offering a world in which driving up on a sidewalk and running down civilians is cause for laughing out loud.
Throughout, one thing has been consistent. In its continual mining of classic American crime dramas, from “The Godfather” to “Scarface” to “Heat,” the GTA franchise automatically inherits that tradition’s outlaw take on undying American Dream tropes. The upward mobility, the rags to riches, all with a pistol in one hand and a bag of money in the other. Through its knowing recalibration of this traditional structure, “GTA” would like to position itself as subversive. And, no doubt, its vision of America has always been an amusingly satirical one, that proclamation of “Ain’t the American Dream grand?” delivered with a healthy amount of sarcasm. But it’s also fantasy fulfillment. As much as this newest iteration of “GTA” skewers American culture, it also captures how the GTA franchise as a whole plays into a more contemporary tradition — a new, digital American frontier in which to play out our inherited myth over and over. One that urges us to press “Start” once more, but on the pretense of what is, ultimately, a batch of false promises.
There has always seemed to be promise in the American landscape — its expansiveness seemed to suggest unlimited potential for self-reinvention. It’s big enough for you to keep diving deeper inward, and this has become woven into the stories we tell ourselves about American identity. This is, of course, all over the place, but just take a look at three iconic American artists. Fitzgerald gave us one of the holy texts of American Dream iconography with “The Great Gatsby,” one of the archetypal stories of a man fleeing to one coast to recreate himself in a new image, to start again as someone else. There was something more diffuse in the stories of Kerouac, a wanderlust that ping-ponged between those two dream-state destinations of New York and California. And, of course, there’s always Springsteen, perhaps the most iconic American artist to poeticize the lure and possibilities of the open highway.
But lately the idea of taking off and starting anew in another town feels a bit outmoded. We’ve inherited the failure — Gatsby winds up shot in a pool, Sal Paradise no longer really believes in Dean Moriarty, and the characters of “Born to Run” never make it past the city limits but instead wind up in the bar of “Glory Days.” That’s the symbolic stuff, but the act of traveling through America has changed, too. The prices of airfare dropped, allowing middle-class Americans to traverse their continent in a few hours, abstracting the distance. Road trips became something of a stereotype. For different reasons, the recent film adaptations of “On the Road” and “The Great Gatsby” were more or less conceptual failures, but what they had in common was that they felt heavily inert for stories that were supposed to be so dynamic. Their sense of wonder now scans as quaint, a forced premise covering up attempts at escape we inherently understand as failed experiments.
Digital culture has, as it does with most things, accelerated this process. These kinds of classic American tales of reinvention might not end with the characters finding what they’re looking for, but at least those characters were able to work off of an initial sense of wonder. There is very little mystery left in driving around America when you can search a million photos of the Grand Canyon online, or when you hew rigidly to the route laid out by the automated Google Maps voice as you roll through the desert. You can travel anywhere you want before you actually go there. Inevitably, this changes how it feels to arrive at a new place — leaving you with that nagging sense of having been there before, of having lived this moment before. Digital culture demystifies something that strains to remain legendary, demoting an enigmatic frontier to the banality of a default desktop photo.
The effect of digital culture isn’t just how it alters our old dreams, but also what it offers as an alternative. If physical space feels finite even when we couldn’t possibly see it all in person, the new worlds we create for ourselves feel truly limitless. The Internet, of course, is the main venue in question, with its countless portals to wherever we wish to go, with the way it fragments us from a single person into a Facebook self, a Twitter self, etc. What is perhaps less considered is how open-world video games have, for a not-inconsequential portion of a certain generation, supplanted that notion of discovering yourself somewhere in the American continent.
There’s still plenty to be said for the experience of driving across America, but increasingly, it’s the virtual worlds that trigger our imagination. We no longer have to be concerned about arriving at the opposite coast and realizing that we still have ourselves to deal with when we arrive. Now we can acutely craft how we present to others with our various profiles, or disappear entirely into characters in some sprawling digitized world. Mostly, these kinds of games still operate in a fantasy/sci-fi vein, offering the player a world entirely dissociated from our own. We require different things out of video games than other art — we seek an active performativity, and games like “Skyrim” or “World of Warcraft” deliver.
There’s something else to the GTA franchise, though, something that hits on multiple levels. It’s an open, virtual world that we’ve created, but a vivid reflection of the real one, which complicates things severely. Digital culture contributed to the downfall of our myths, but it can build them up in even more extreme forms. When the aura of the American frontier fades, all it takes is a sunset rendered in graphics, all the colors punched up to their more delirious selves, and suddenly we have new places again.
When “Grand Theft Auto III” — the first entry in the franchise to take the world to full 3D as we now know it — was released in 2001, its creators at Rockstar Games expected another cult hit, but not a major hit. It wound up being the highest-selling game of that year. When “Grand Theft Auto V” was released this past September, it made over a billion dollars in three days, which isn’t just a record for video games but for all forms of entertainment, period. As a recent Grantland article pointed out, with more than 29 million copies sold, the reimagined Los Angeles of “GTA V” — dubbed Los Santos — has a player base milling around in it that’s more than triple the population of real-life Los Angeles. Has there ever been another game that received as much hype before its release alongside such a massive succession of considered essays on the experience of playing it?
People still wring their hands over the game’s teenage dreams of rebellion, or over its rabid political incorrectness. With a cultural footprint like that, though, we have to be dealing with something beyond leftover adolescent wish fulfillment. Something bigger, more endemic.
For those of us raised on the teleology of level-based side-scrollers, open-world games are revelatory.
As a genre, they allow us to disappear into something. Live a different life. It’s effective because the worlds are so sprawling and intricate as to feel like true alternate existences. That’s long been half the fun of the GTA franchise. You don’t have to do anything. Each iteration deepens its world, and drives that point home. “GTA V” has, as expected, taken everything to the next level, including this. It added far more atmospheric stuff to occupy your time — the “Strangers & Freaks” encounters playing on cartoon versions of California full of drug burnouts and the fame-obsessed, bounty-hunting gigs, arms-smuggling.
As you drive through Los Santos, lots of what happens to you seems unrelated to the game’s main point. Someone will get mugged, and you have the option to help them. You’ll stumble across armored vehicles you can rob for a few thousand dollars. You might witness someone stick up a clothing store, and you can either let them run away or gun them down. This is all outside the main storyline, which itself is somewhat amorphous. Where past “GTA” entries had players encounter a spectrum of different criminals, they still operated on a basic structure, point A to point B. There’s less direct momentum to “GTA V.” Between its three characters and the fact that you spend the bulk of the game actually working for yourself or the government, it feels more like you’re wading into these lives rather than racing alongside them.
Coupling the largest and most complex world of any of the GTA games with this even wider-open nature of gameplay, “GTA V” is the most immersive of the series and the one that best represents the moment where the new escapism of open-world gaming dovetails with an inherited American mythology. Playing any game entails some level of physical and psychological immersion. You don’t think “I need to press R1 to take cover, then L2 to aim, then R2 to fire at this thug before he takes away enough of my health meter that I lose and have to start the mission over.” You think “I need to kill him before he kills me.” “GTA V” welcomes that immersion, letting you move through its world with a new level of grace, whether it’s the smoothness of its weapon wheel and aiming system, or the responsiveness of its driving mechanics. You are inhabiting a new skin and a new place, but the game hardly lets you see the seams as you traverse this new existence.
The other reason the experience feels so natural is that, for a time, “GTA V” seems to promise that it will never end. Surely the massiveness of its world, the variety of its activities, would guarantee that there would be unlimited potential. The setting of the game makes “GTA V” feel theoretically limitless even if that’s demonstrably untrue physically. Playing “GTA V” is a radical and twisted form of virtual self-reinvention, taking place in a world that is itself a twisted reinvention of our real one.
The Internet and digital culture are simply facts of our lives and times, and many of us spend much of our days navigating the digital and cyber landscapes far more than any literal landscape. What goes on there, what identities we create out there — whether in the play realm of video games or the social and professional realms of the Internet — is very much legitimate. We know the frontier of “GTA V” is a constructed one, but the fact that it is created purely to lose yourself in — as opposed to the actual American landscape, which will exist with or without your cares — makes it feel like a more appropriate method of escape and performative reinvention. The artificiality of it all is part of the deal. It’s what makes the escapism legible to us in the 21stcentury. “GTA V” succeeded in delivering a world that hit all these pleasure centers and intellectual concerns alike. So, why, ultimately, does it still feel unsatisfying?
When I first started playing “GTA V,” I tried to space it out. A few missions a night, mess around a bit, keep it to maybe 90 minutes of gaming a day. Eventually, this system broke, and I played through more than half of the game in the course of one weekend. Clearly, I was hooked, and I did love the game, but I kept waiting for something to click that never did. Even now, three months on from its release, I’m not entirely sure how to describe my experience with “GTA V.” Something about it feels a little hollow.
In the course of playing a game, you inevitably come upon its borders. You can’t go to this section yet. You don’t yet have the special ability needed to defeat this boss. You can’t replay that level until you finish the game. Open-world games seem to promise that won’t ever happen. They’re supposed to give you a self-sustaining, fully-functioning space unto itself that you can enter and reenter at will with the feeling that the systems within it keep moving along without your presence. Maybe “GTA V” tried to be too much. And somewhere along the line I started to lose faith in Los Santos.
Paradoxically, “GTA V” is so massive, intricate and immersive that when the curtain gets pulled back just a little bit you suddenly become aware of how tightly cornered in you really are. Some of it is symbolic. You’re playing in what you understand to be a fictional, bloody funhouse reflection of our real-life cities, but every now and then the real world encroaches. A Shark? song called “California Girls” comes on the radio, but you live in San Andreas; a Bob Seger song called “Hollywood Nights” is playing, but you’re driving through Vinewood. There are little gestures to suggest the continuity and interconnectedness of the GTA franchise’s world even across the PS2′s “3D Universe” and the PS3′s “HD Universe” — people mention Vice City; they allude to your “GTA IV” protagonist as a Russian “making waves” in Liberty City; radio personalities like Fernando and Lazlow are ever-present. But while Vice City stands in for Miami, you get real references to Mexico’s nearby border or Chinese gangsters. The variance makes the world feel connected to our real one, not independent.
I remember the first time a “GTA” game shocked me. Early in “GTA III,” you are tasked with assassinating a Triad member in Chinatown who works a little street stand in a pedestrian mall. When you walk up, he gets spooked and starts to run. I shot at him a few times, grazed him in the leg, ran out of ammo and had to chase him down to beat him with a baseball bat — all of which was a lot more comical than it reads, given the cartoonish look of the older “GTA” games. The Triad member ran down the pedestrian mall and out onto the highway, where a taxi cab suddenly hit him, knocking him over but not killing him. It was a bizarre, startling moment — a realization that this world was functioning outside my actions. I could have caught up with the Triad and fought him on the sidewalk, and that car could’ve still passed by. Anything could happen. This was what was so appealing about “GTA’s” anarchic spirit.
“GTA V” is elaborate and more cinematic than any other installment in the franchise. There’s an ambient score that will play during chases and missions, undoing the intense and strange (but realistic) silence that would occur when you had to abandon a car in the middle of a chase and lost the radio, or when you were in a shootout inside a warehouse. The missions themselves are now more expansive and flashier — an early one features you pulling someone’s house off a cliff, but it isn’t long before you graduate to multi-part heist missions. All of these things are great. They just also happen to move in the direction of reinforcing the invisible rules of this world.
In “GTA IV,” if a truck happened to pull out suddenly and crash into you in the middle of a chase, half the time that was a scripted event for the mission. It’d happen the same way if you failed and tried again. Sure, there is still plenty of chance for random madness like a cab hitting that Triad, but more and more the GTA world shows its hand. All the spontaneous moments in “GTA V” — the muggings, the armored trucks, the strangers needing a ride — at first seem truly random. Like they could happen anywhere at any point, like this is a fully functioning world. Of course, that’d be wildly complex to achieve. In reality, there are four or five set incidents in each category, and they’ll eerily play out again if you happen to not finish them right — like, for example, if you’re supposed to give someone a ride but crash and blow up your car. Roll past again a little while later, and there they are, asking once more for your help.
These technical edges are the ones that make the escape of open-world games feel like an insidious one. At first the game seems like a new, endless digital frontier full of its own unique events. Those little slips of repetition make you think about all the rest of it, too. You jump out of a plane with Franklin, and as wildly impressive as it is to see the game’s map laid out before you and know that as you descend all of these distant lights will form into buildings with windows and doors and people outside, just like they would in real life, you can also look out at the expanse of the blue sky, and feel a flatness, a feeling as if you are in some big invisible box.
This is, of course, always the way such games eventually fail to maintain their worlds. In those earlier 3D “GTA” iterations, you’d die just by going in water. In later ones, you’d go as far as you could and the world would just stop. In a non-level-based game, the designers don’t have the luxury of having the space end with the wall of a house you can’t break through. They have to camouflage their limits out in the depths of a sea that hopefully few players are willing to take the time to seek out.
What’s uncomfortable about these parts is how they make you realize that digital frontiers, whether games or the Internet, are seemingly limitless experiences that are actually very controlled by other people. Somebody had to write the code that delineates what part of the ocean you swim in and what part is actually off limits to you. The game programmers decide on other borders as well: what characters you can play as when you first turn on the game, which buildings have interiors you can enter and which don’t, the order in which the missions become available.
In any of these cases, you’re operating in a space allotted for you. The person creating these open-world spaces is still constructing an experience as much as the people who put you in a level system in “Super Mario World.” These spaces are all finite in reality, but we can’t see the end. They seem limitless, and we seem free, but how much of that comes from the distractions and directions written into the game is another issue. How many police chases can you get in around Los Santos before you realize its limits, the same circuit you always find yourself taking? Traveling through a real landscape, you have the roads people have built and the stories you’ve read, but it’s still the world. It’s just there. In a digital landscape, the roads are everything, even if they look more like scenery.
One of the other classic elements of the “GTA” games is the codes. When you’ve exhausted the world on its own terms, you can put in cheats — flying cars, moon gravity, invincibility. You can begin again. A new you that happens to be able to jump 20 feet in the air. But these are still the world on its own terms. Someone had to program these codes. That’s where the dissatisfaction seems to come in. As large and multifaceted as these worlds are, we want more. We want true malleability. These games have the potential to be our new frontiers, but right now it’s too easy to find the bones. The artificiality is what makes the experience legible, but it’s also what makes the limitations frustrating when they’re exposed. You feel like there shouldn’t be any limits, but you have no control over that. These worlds still have walls.
I’ve decided on an important thing. I want to be immortal. I want to do things I couldn’t do if I were able to die.
I’m Trevor, which in my game world means I’ve taken a scuzzy Wild West meth dealer and given him a denim jacket echoing “Drive” and a small-time cult leader beard. The patterns are familiar now. I put in the code for invincibility and the code for explosive bullets. I’m very aware of the buttons I’m pressing — I know the order and the names I need in order to create the result I want. I walk into a busy intersection, take aim, and a passing car explodes with a single shot from my combat pistol.
Setting off explosions in downtown Los Santos is a quick way to attract police attention, and I’ve attained a three-star wanted level in about a minute. I stand in the intersection blowing up cop cars for a while. Blood’s spurting off of me constantly, but I’m unharmed. Eventually, I decide to leave town. I put in the code to conjure a sports bike, and ride up mountainsides and off cliffs, knowing that I will be fine even as my motorcycle explodes.
I arrive at a military base and steal a fighter jet. I’m flying away, when a little beep warns me that the military base is sending some anti-aircraft missiles my way. I figure I’m out of range, but I’m wrong. The jet explodes midair, and I crash in its blackened husk on a mountaintop.
The police choppers have found me again up here. I begin running downhill. I pause. Reenter the code for the bike. Ride the rest of the way down.
The invincibility cheat has worn off, but I don’t bother to reenter it this time. I begin riding down the highway. There’s an eerie silence without gunshots, or without the cinematic score accompanying a chase. I pass dusty strip malls, and mini-marts with a two-decade old glimmer, and hodgepodge trailer communities. There’s just the low hum of my motorcycle, the occasional bark of a dog, the rickety whir of ATVs or rusted-out VW-esque buses as they drive by me. The American Dream is grand.
I pull up to a mini-mart, one called 24/7. Its sign is green and red and orange. I walk in, my jacket decorated with a dozen bloodstains, a gun still in my hand. The shopowner begins to warn me that cops frequent his store, and maybe to call him on his bluff or maybe because I’m ready for a final stand, I shoot him. I take cover just inside the doorway to the back room, awaiting the arrival of the cops.
Not long after they arrive, the firefight has escalated, a constant whine of sirens echoing from outside the mini-mart’s doors. I move out into the store, crouching against a small set of shelves. Soda bottles and snacks periodically get blown off shelves as the cops try to get me. I’ve crept towards four stars, and I know time’s up. SWAT members will start swarming the place, and I can’t hold the position forever. I stand up, and I move toward the door, an automatic shotgun in hand. And even as I knowingly walk to my death, to a last stand amongst the All-American detritus of this desert town, I have a familiar feeling that had been long lost. In that moment, I do feel limitless.