Today, I sat in a shiny new vehicle and bobbed my head to an ’80s-era funk station emceed by the bass-playing man-god known as Bootsy Collins. Sunlight drove away the clouds and I absorbed the beauty of the city, both natural and man-made. At that moment, at that precise place and time, all was well in the world — despite the gritty undercurrent of crime that I knew lurked beneath the attractive surface. I gently applied the gas, turned a corner, and coasted down an avenue.
You should know something: I don’t own a car. Or have a driver’s license, which is typical for a New Yorker spoiled by that city’s glorious public transportation. I’m not even certain if Bootsy Collins hosts radio shows.
But I do know this: The wonderment that filled me during the limited time I’d spent exploring Grand Theft Auto V‘s world is one that I won’t likely experience again this console generation. This isn’t the first time I’ve felt that way.
The Grand Theft Auto name is one associated with firefights, explosions, f-bombs, and corrupting the underage American populace, but the series, at least to me, is all about the world experience. Shootouts with pigs and punks are no doubt entertaining, but they serve as the killer dessert after a five course meal cheffed by the internationally renowned cook, Chef Rockstar Games.
It began with Grand Theft Auto III, the tentpole open-world classic. Like millions of other PlayStation 2 gamers, I was enthralled by the living, breathing metropolis that was Liberty City. It was modeled after New York City, my hometown, and felt very much like an urban environment in which gangsters worked and played. I was floored that people walked the streets, motored to and fro in a variety of different cars, and reacted to my character in a semi-realistic fashion. When I performed especially heinous actions, the police pursued me with intensity levels that directly matched how much blood and wanton destruction were on my digital hands.
Even better, the “anything goes” design structure gave intrepid problem-solvers the opportunity to complete missions with a little creativity. Developer Rockstar Games has continually refined its world-building technique over the years to the point where Grand Theft Auto III‘s impact was somewhat lost over time — which is expected as hardware improvements enable more fully realized visions. Still, Grand Theft Auto III was the first instance of massive world building that attempted to replicate true-to-life environments — and it was outstanding.
Nearly everything that I adored about Grand Theft Auto III was dosed in neon and had its volume turned up way past 10 upon Vice City‘s release. The ’80s theme — from the Dayglo-like shirts to the throwback radio stations that delivered the best soundtrack of all Grand Theft Auto games — hooked itself into the nostalgia-prone parts of my brain and wouldn’t let go.
Being chased by the fuzz while Hall & Oates’ “Out of Time” blared from the in-car speakers was a rare occurrence when a beloved something from my past (’80s music) converged with a beloved something from the then-present (PlayStation 2) to create a game world so fresh, so endearing that I remember the smile-inducing aesthetic wonders more so than the oft-frustrating mission design. I would sometimes thieve a car, drive a distance, pull over to the side of the road, and mind-meld with Flash FM. Vice City‘s sound design was as vital to its success as Grand Theft Auto III‘s game design.
And that brings us back to Grand Theft Auto V, which is the ultimate refinement of Rockstar Game’s open-world crime dramas. Grand Theft Auto V‘s Los Santos — a fictionalized version of Los Angeles – is a sprawling monstrosity with enough citizens, shops, houses, and vehicles to feel very much like a city was crammed into your PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360. Load times for a city of Los Santos’ size are relatively thin, which creates a unified urban area and the illusion that Los Santos isn’t a video game location, but an alternate universe L.A. in which heinous activities occur in beautifully rendered locales. Even the slums are picturesque.
There’s just so much to do within Rockstar Games’ world. You can play tennis, perform yoga stretches, and even blow smokes while watching cartoons. I frequently noticed myself smiling at the most mundane activities, which makes perfect sense when you ponder the idea.
The video game industry is one that’s flooded with explosions, guns, guns, explosions, and more explosions, so something as simple as getting a haircut, changing outfits, playing tennis, and going for leisurely strolls is quite impressive.
As is enjoying funky tunes during a summer drive.