At the 20th anniversary screening of classic Tom Sizemore flick Heat, Al Pacino revealed that his character moved and spoke in that way because detective Vincent Hanna “chips cocaine” habitually. Perhaps pressured over the edge by the demands of the job, the once idealistic Serpico-type resorts to the Bolivian marching powder to fuel his crime-fighting. So that’s why his eyeballs appeared so determined to burst free from his skull. It’s an enlightening bit of movie trivia that sheds new light on one of Pacino’s – if not cinema’s – most memorable performances.
Why every character in GTA 5 also acts like that is anyone’s guess. From the central trio to their families, friends, nemeses, employers, government handlers and unrelated bystanders, everyone in Los Santos acts like they are a) absolutely wired and b) overcome with sheer hatred for humanity.
It’s most obvious in Trevor, of course, who introduces himself by stomping a man’s head into the dirt until he’s dead, and later commits acts of interactive torture, sexually motivated kidnapping and murder in the most flippant terms – all while bellowing at passing traffic. It’s satire of the archetypal GTA player’s actions throughout the series: a one-dimensional hellraiser. And yet he’s also got hours of dialogue, a character arc, and is as central to GTA 5’s story as anyone or anything else.
While Michael and Franklin appear marginally less affected by the Pacino school of acting and/or the effects of copious cocaine ingestion, Michael in particular is still prone to fits of middle-aged howling, and neither of them place a particularly high value on human life. So there you are, walking around as these three guys who all seem to think they’re in Heat, in a city full of people all trying to shout louder than each other about how terrible the world is.
And that rubs off on the player over time. This is one of the great longform games, after all, a place you can sink hours and hours into, leave it a year or two, then do the whole thing again. It’s a masterpiece, in those terms, and I’m on my fourth playthrough now. But there’s a grubbiness you feel from playing it – like watching Cannibal Holocaust or eating a Family Bargain Bucket in a motorway services – that no shower can get off.
And it’s not the killing that causes it, I don’t think. Nor is it the moral bankruptcy of its three player-characters, who do all show vulnerability and humanity over time, in their way. It’s the fact that the entire universe is written with the same tone of voice. Every radio DJ’s link, every NPC chirp, every magazine cover and ad billboard, they’re all saying the same thing: modern life, America, and everyone in it... it all sucks.
This is a GTA tradition, of course. Since Rockstar took stewardship of DMA Design’s controversial top-down carjacking game and reimagined it in a 3D open world in 2001, Grand Theft Auto 3 and its progeny have been something akin to walk-in wardrobes of social satire. How original and edgy it felt to occupy a whole city that pointed out modern society’s many vices and flaws, especially to those of us who were in our impressionable teens at the time. Looking back, it really was a smart way to leverage that new city sandbox technology. Rockstar recognised, better than anyone else at the time and for years after, that it wasn’t just about pissing about in nicked cars and running from the cops. It was a way of building a bespoke, twisted vision of the world, through a little multimedia microcosm of radio, advertising, and word-on-the-street chatter.
GTA 4 pulled this feat off most successfully. Here was a game where you could watch Ricky Gervais stand up sets at the Split Sides comedy club, or sit in your safehouse and watch eerie parodies of noughties culture – scaremongering news coverage, vacuous MTV-style reality shows, poker tournaments – on the TV. These little touches really added to the feeling that Liberty City was a city, full of people and with its own culture. The satire was thematically similar to GTA 3’s, taking aim at America’s conservative news media, corrupt politicians, vacuous celebrities and our misplaced worship thereof, but it seemed to have a bit more to say about it all, and a few more ways to say it.
By the time GTA 5 rolled around, we’d heard the joke before. Isn’t modern life rubbish? That social media, eh? Waste of time. And where do these celebrities get off?? The thing was, all the satire found itself attached to one of the greatest games for decades, so one could hardly ignore the thing for the sake of the writing. And it isn’t bad writing by videogame standards either, it’s just so hateful and played-out that it becomes tiresome over the course of one playthrough, let alone several. (Nice problem for a game to have, by the way, that not all its elements hold up on the fourth playthrough.)
So when I think of GTA 6, between you and me, there really is just one thing I’d ask Rockstar for. I just want to enjoy being in that virtual place this time, like I enjoy strolling about from Solitude to Markarth in Skyrim, or riding The Witcher 3’s dirt tracks just for the scenery’s sake. For as many hours as I’ve spent in Los Santos, I’ve always felt held at arm’s length from it, an unwelcome interloper with nowhere to go to find even a moment’s wholesome respite or sincerity in a conurbation of cynicism.
Honestly, that’s the one item on my GTA 6 wishlist. Because everything else is a given, isn’t it? I know that mechanically it’ll all fit together like a NASA cyborg, and that shooting, driving, parkouring, flying planes under bridges and throwing tennis balls at dogs will all feel supremely polished. They always do. I know the geography of the place will be fantastically varied. It always is.
But it’s time Grand Theft Auto stops mimicking Michael Mann movies and finds a new tone of voice. No more gonzo-style shaky camerawork in the cutscenes. Enough of the conflicted career criminals dealing with their life choices. Maybe even throw in a few conversations that aren’t conducted at a full shout. Perhaps the radio stations aren’t constantly mocking every single fiber of modern civilization in between songs.
The confines of the franchise dictate a few things about its main characters – they’re going to commit crimes, for example. But that leaves plenty of room for stories not yet told in the series – a Bonnie and Clyde or Dog Day Afternoon love story. Or a criminal fish out of water tale in that grand cinematic tradition of Nothing To Lose (for my money, Tim Robbins’ best work), Falling Down, or Breaking Bad. It’s enjoyable enough working your way up from rags to ill-gotten riches, but given the hours we’ve all put into the series by now, surely doing it all again won’t have the same impact.
So please don’t be an edgelord, GTA 6. We’ve all heard swearing and seen videogame violence by now. You don’t have to be an open world CBeebies, just aim higher with your storytelling than 90s movie pastiche and shock value. Find some sincerity in your characters, and finally move the franchise out of that awkward teenage social satire phase it’s occupied for too long.