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Courtesy of Rockstar Games

Poison Tree

A letter to Niko Bellic about Grand Theft Auto V

Dear Niko,

Last week, the latest installment of the Grand Theft Auto series was released. It made a billion dollars — the GDP of Mongolia — in 72 hours. I’d love to know how that makes you, the protagonist of the last full Grand Theft Auto game, feel. Threatened? Possibly a little relieved? To be honest, I’m not sure how it makes me feel. Last night I finished GTA V after playing it at least eight hours a day for four days straight, and this morning my sciatica is radioactive and my eyes feel as though they’ve had sea salt thrown into them.

When GTA IV came out in 2008, I was in a bad place, as you know. I was on the run from my country, my relationships, my work, and my responsibilities. I chose to live in a series of cities well-suited to making large sums of my money disappear into various nocturnal rat holes. Like you, Niko, I did things I’m not proud of and treated several people in ways I regret. During that time, which I’ve written about elsewhere, GTA IV was both salve and irritant. I became convinced the game had something to tell me about my compulsions and self-destructiveness. Correction: It told me something about those things. You and I spent dozens of hours together while I hiked back from a netherland of personal desperation. Niko, I can honestly say I loved — and love — you. I loved you, I think, because I knew who you were: the charming but scarily hair-trigger cousin of every translator I ever had while traveling in the former Soviet Union.

Goddamnit, I tried to treat you right. I hope you know that. While playing GTA IV, I wasn’t enacting any cops-and-robber fantasies. Instead, I played the game in ways that honored the version of you that your creators clearly intended. When you were with me, you didn’t go on nutcase rampages (at least in the games whose progress I saved). You didn’t randomly assassinate cops or plow over pedestrians if you could help it. The game claimed you were tortured and ambivalent, and, in my game, you were. That has to mean something.

A lot of things have changed for me since you and I met. I’m much happier, for one thing. I’m almost 40, incredibly. I’ve been with someone I adore for four and a half years. My relationship to video games, too, has shifted. Over the last few days, whenever I wasn’t playing GTA V, I was driving back and forth from a motion-capture soundstage in Los Angeles, where we were shooting scenes in a video game I’m writing. Several days of Sensurround enclosure by video games — I assure you, Niko, that this only sounds like fun.

These days, I appreciate games a lot more and play them a lot less. I also pay attention to different things. When I worked my way through the earlier Grand Theft Autos, I marveled at the freedom they allowed and the astonishing vastidity of their worlds. When I played GTA V, I mostly wondered how the traffic flowed so convincingly. The more technically mindful of video games I’ve become, the more conscious I am of their innumerable moving parts, the more miraculous and impressive they seem — and the more impossible it feels to vanish inside one.

Almost everyone I know who loves video games — myself included — is broken in some fundamental way. With their ceaseless activity and risk-reward compulsion loops, games also soothe broken people. This is not a criticism. Fanatical readers tend to be broken people. The type of person who goes to see four movies a week alone is a broken person. Any medium that allows someone to spend monastic amounts of time by him- or herself, wandering the gloaming of imagination and reality, is doomed to be adored by lost, lonely people. But let’s be honest: Spending the weekend in bed reading the collected works of Joan Didion is doing different things to your mind than spending the weekend on the couch racing cars around Los Santos. Again, not a criticism. The human mind contains enough room for both types of experience. Unfortunately, the mental activity generated by playing games is not much valued by non-gamers; in fact, play is hardly ever valued within American culture, unless it involves a $13 million signing bonus. Solitary play can feel especially shameful, and we gamers have internalized that vaguely masturbatory shame, even those of us who’ve decided that solitary play can be profoundly meaningful. Niko, I’ve thought about this a lot, and internalized residual shame is the best explanation I have to account for the cesspool of negativity that sits stagnating at the center of video-game culture, which right now seems worse than it’s ever been.

I don’t think playing video games makes people more violent. You of all people should know that. I do, however, believe playing video games turns people into bigger assholes than they would otherwise feel comfortable being. Games are founded upon competition and confrontation. It’s probably no coincidence, then, that a large and extremely vocal part of the video-game audience responds to arguments with which it disagrees by lashing out. One reviewer of GTA V, Carolyn Petit of GameSpot, said the game was “politically muddled and profoundly misogynistic,” which is very much a defensible position. Petit also made it clear she loved GTA V. Twenty thousand irate comments piled up beneath her review, many of them violent and hateful. Is this reasonable behavior? Sure, if you’ve come to regard anything that stands in perceived opposition to you as in dire need of eradication. What is that if not video-game logic in its purest, most distilled form?

I review books too. Do you know that? No reader has ever told me he hopes I get cancer in response to a negative book review, which I’ve had happen with games. I’ve never met a literary critic who distrusts publishers as much as game critics distrust game developers. I’ve never met a smart reader who sneers at books as reflexively as many smart gamers reflexively sneer at games. Many people involved in this medium hate so much of it and one another. We’re living with the emotional consequences of all this suspicion and rage. The games we’re playing are the fruit of a poison tree.

Rockstar, the developer of Grand Theft Auto, understands all this. It always has. By all evidence, it, too, hates gamers and gamer culture, even as that culture, and those gamers, have set the company afloat upon an endless river of dinero. The GTA games are flaming cataracts of contempt. The vision they peddle of men, women, minorities, American culture, and video games is apocalyptic, vicious, and often highly unpleasant. I’ve never really minded that, if only because watching talented people sweep out the dark corners of their imaginations is far more interesting than watching the handle of a moral puritan’s butter churn pump up and down. A lot of game critics are currently wringing their hands over GTA V‘s portrayal of women and its employment of various racial stereotypes. I confess that when it came time to take the paparazzo photo of a starlet’s genitals, when I’d heard my 500th N-word, when I played the touch-a-stripper mini game, I, too, was feeling more than a little wearied by the familiarly “outrageous” elements of the game. But we’ve been doing, seeing, and hearing this stuff (and worse) in GTA games for more than a decade. Niko, wouldn’t you agree that the GTA games want and actively seek out the contempt of high-minded game critics? I’m not sure what anyone was expecting: GTA is basically the most elaborate asshole simulation system ever devised, a game based on hurting people and doing whatever you like. At the same time, though, I understand the basic sense of fatigue with which people are approaching it. Once upon a time, playing a GTA game was like sitting next to your offensive Republican uncle at Christmas dinner. He was definitely a dick but also smart and interesting, and his heart was fundamentally in the right place. These days Uncle GTA is a billionaire with an unchanged shtick, and he seems a hell of a lot more mean-spirited than before.

GTA V presents the player with a huge, open world — a kind of thalidomide Los Angeles — in which you drive, shoot, run, kill, fly, swim, and checkpoint. But you know what the game is like. I mean, you lived it. You don’t need me to tell you what the game is like. You do maybe need me to make a case as to how fundamentally weird this franchise is. GTA V is both the dictionary definition of a mainstream video game and an uncompromising experiment in player patience. The Call of Duty games have become money-printing machines by identifying precisely the exact shape, sound, and feel of a compulsive, fun core loop of gameplay, which they provide with relentless professionalism. Call of Duty is fine-tuned and timed so that it’s never not that fun core loop. The GTA games, conversely, despite their mayhem, can be highly tedious, with nothing in particular happening over long periods of time. One mission in GTA V involves driving your family to therapy. In another, you mop a floor. What other game allows you to screw up while mopping? What other game even has mopping? There is no game franchise — and certainly no franchise of its commercial ambition — that’s willing to be this mundane this often. In GTA, the fun core loops of gameplay aren’t laid at the gamer’s feet. You have to find and create them yourself. There’s much to admire about that, and you’ll be glad to know, Niko, that making your way around the world of GTA V is as anarchic and enjoyable as ever.

The story of GTA V involves three characters, among whom you can swap throughout the game: Michael, an aging stick-up heister from the American Midwest; Trevor, an oddly compelling meth-cooking psychopath; and Franklin, an ambitious repo man slowly working his way up in the world. In other words, GTA V has tried to mash Heat, Breaking Bad, and Boyz n the Hood into a single story, which works about as well as you’d think. Michael and Franklin — the sensitive, reluctant, but ultimately ruthless criminals — are the embodiment of every GTA game’s narrative ambition: real characters, struggling with real problems. Trevor — the funny but ultimately terrifying lunatic — is the embodiment of what the game actually is: an experience uncomfortably pinned between grand narrative ambition and open-world incontinent madness.

I don’t know if you’re aware of this, Niko, but the job of a video-game writer often boils down to figuring out ways to fictionally justify the fictionally unjustifiable. Please understand that I’ve come to accept that a “good story,” at least in the traditional sense of that phrase, is impossible within the frame most games give themselves. In open-world games, especially, story is a result of design — a way to get the player out and about and interacting with the world. Rockstar has never been very successful at accounting for why its open-world antiheroes are doing whatever they happen to be doing, but making dramatic plausibility the measure of an open-world video game is a sure path to bewilderment. Even so, many aspects of GTA V‘s story seem perilously undercooked. The manner in which Michael and Franklin first meet, for instance, makes considerably less than no sense, and Trevor’s intentions toward Michael seem to change from scene to scene. My friend Mitch flew down from San Francisco to play through the game with me, and when we hit the 30-hour mark, Mitch turned to me and asked a very simple question: “What the hell is this game about?” I didn’t know. I still don’t know. The game has more themes, motifs, characters, and events than it knows what to do with, but what GTA V mainly seems to be about is one damn thing after another.

Rockstar tried to play your story relatively straight, Niko, just as it did with John Marston, the hero of Red Dead Redemption, which increasingly seems like Rockstar’s best game to date. I suspect the creative leads at Rockstar came to realize that a game designed around speed, theft, and murder doesn’t lend itself so well to seriousness. One of the reasons Red Dead feels so comparatively meditative, I think, is that you ride around on a horse. So it wouldn’t surprise me if you looked upon certain parts of GTA V as a tonal betrayal of your legacy, such as when Franklin discovers he can communicate telepathically with a dog, or the running gag in which Trevor is compelled into a homicidal rage whenever people notice his Canadian accent, or the recurring encounters with a smooth-talking marijuana-legalization enthusiast, or the mission that commences with this on-scene text: NEUTRALIZE 20 HIPSTERS.

GTA is a game that demands you do meaningless, inexplicably stupid things to progress. I found meaning in your story, Niko, but that was in spite of the game that surrounded it. By my lights, the most effective part of GTA V was its indelibly disturbing interactive torture sequence, which nearly made me physically ill. Now, I’m an anti-torture absolutist, so it’s nice to see a video game use torture in a way that underscores the victim’s pitiful helplessness, plainly acknowledges the barbarity of any human being willing to torture, and results in information that is strongly insinuated to be completely worthless.

I’m a little worried this sounds ambivalent, Niko. Look, I have a full Xbox Live friends list, 100 people strong, and last night 25 percent of them were playing GTA V — something I’ve never seen before. The texts and messages started flying: So, what do you think? How far are you? Very few of my friends had good words to say about GTA V, even as the game’s Metacritic score holds firm at a mind-boggling 97. Then I got a text message from a game-dev friend who happens to be one of the smartest, most aesthetically sophisticated people I’ve ever met in games. He wasn’t enjoying the game, and he seemed puzzled by that. We texted for a while. Then he sent this: “I guess I’m mourning the admittance that I’m no longer the target audience of my own work.”

One of GTA V‘s characters admits at the end of the game, “I’m getting too old for this nonsense.” And you know what? I felt the same thing numerous times while playing GTA V, even though I continue to admire the hell out of much of what it accomplishes. So if I sound ambivalent, Niko, I think it’s because I’m part of a generation of gamers who just realized we’re no longer the intended audience of modern gaming’s most iconic franchise. Three steps past that realization, of course, is anticipation of one’s private, desperate hurtle into galactic heat death. I’m left wondering when I, or any of us, express a wish for GTA to grow up, what are we actually saying? What would it even mean for something like GTA to “grow up”? Our most satirically daring, adult-themed game is also our most defiantly puerile game. Maybe the biggest sin of the GTA games is the cheerful, spiteful way they rub our faces in what video games make us willing to do, in what video games are.

Playing GTA used to feel like sneaking out behind school for a quick, illicit smoke. The smoke still tastes good, Niko; the nicotine still nicely javelins into your system. But when you look up, you have to wonder what you’re actually doing here. Everyone is so young, way younger than you, with the notable exception of the guy handing out the cigarettes, and he’s smiling like he just made a billion dollars.

Your friend always,

Tom

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Tom Bissell is the author of Chasing the Sea, God Lives in St. Petersburg, The Father of All Things, Extra Lives, and Magic Hours. His book The Disaster Artist, cowritten with Greg Sestero, will be published October 1.

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