I find myself inside a garage on Supply Street that houses ten vehicles. I don a pair of steel-refined sunglasses with a warm tint on the lenses and climb inside a Gallavanter Baller, a hefty Range Rover-esque sport utility vehicle that I sto—borrowed, from an unwitting Los Santos citizen. I drive down maybe a block to the nearby mod shop and hand in the Baller for an easy nine grand. I pull up my iFruit smartphone to see it's Thursday morning with a clear, sunny sky. I have a variety of options ahead of me: I can "borrow" another vehicle. I can wear a Jason Voorhees-like hockey mask to rob the liquor store about less than a mile away from the mod shop. There are street races. There are jobs that the more seedy Los Santos community members need done. There are other people with whom I can engage in old-fashioned deathmatch. I phone my mechanic, who delivers a dark blue Bollokan Prairie compact at the drop of a hat. I’ve decided today is beach day.
Grand Theft Auto Online has entered into its tenth month. Since its turbulent launch last October and despite the continued absence of cooperative heists, Rockstar has impressively provided the multiplayer mode with consistent, hefty, free downloadable packs. Hop into a lobby, and it is entirely possible to find a populated map of players, whether engaging in PvP chaos, police chases, or dueling with helicopters and fighter jets. I find myself engaged with the public a moderate amount. A lot of my time is spent in a private lobby with friends, and, sometimes, alone. What began as a mere effort to catch up in rank and earn more cash has transformed into a type of Second Life experience. In addition to the intensity that comes with the action, there is also the serenity that comes from merely taking in the sights.
I grew up in New Jersey—a ferry or a train away from Manhattan. By definition and cliché, I am a surly east coaster. I don’t get out west very often, the last visit being a few years ago for San Diego Comic-Con. Though I spent a lot of my time in the metropolitan area of downtown San Diego, the attitudes, atmosphere, and even climate left an impact on me. I can’t help but feel Rockstar Games has, in a way, captured that same atmosphere with Grand Theft Auto 5, just as they did for New York and New Jersey with 2008's Grand Theft Auto 4, and even improved on it.
There is a weird satisfaction hopping in a 9F Cabrio convertible and flooring it down West Vinewood (and freaking out the pedestrians at 90 M.P.H.), or casually cruising west with the Pacific Ocean in view. Even a casual stroll to an Ammu-Nation, tasks that may come across as boring, especially to GTA players, exemplify Rockstar’s mastery of immersion. With a different environment than my own to take in, not to mention the sheer appeal of the game’s visual presentation, more often than not, it is as if I live in Los Santos. It’s no surprise that immersion can provide a sense of escapism, to which video games are often accredited. GTA 5 possesses a degree of passion, I feel, into the creation of its landscapes—how each type of area: the mountains, the desert, the beachfront, or the dense metropolis, both stands apart as smaller worlds and integrate seamlessly into one. Said passion is especially evidenced by the game’s “Snapmatic” feature, which allows players to take screenshots (and “selfies”) via the player character’s in-game smartphone and upload them to Rockstar’s Social Club network for others to see, Instagram-like filters and borders and all. This perhaps makes the anticipation for the PC and new console versions all the more enticing: if Grand Theft Auto 5 can look great now, imagine what newer hardware can provide, especially when sharing gaming experiences to the masses is at a high point.
Every visit to Los Santos feels like taking a trip, and sometimes I think I need a reality check, because though I am buying into Rockstar’s idea of an ongoing, engaging criminal life, I feel as if even mundane activities like driving on a stretch of Olympic Freeway, or on the trail to Mount Chiliad, or sitting in a boat off Del Perro Pier are encouraged by Rockstar, as if they wanted to make the world’s largest interactive postcard. In a game full of crude humor and violence, I am continuously fascinated by the visual awe of Grand Theft Auto 5, and the consistent sense of immersion from its development team, especially on nine-year-old hardware. For as many bullets I will fire and as many cars I will steal and probably wreck, the virtual world and liveliness I can just as easily find outside my own door makes mundane feel compelling.