I hated Grand Theft Auto 5. “Hate” is a strong way to describe something I bought on its first available day, canceled other plans to enjoy, beat within a week or so, and spent about 60 hours in slack-jawed amazement by—but “hate” is the only way I can describe the feeling that washed over my body when, as the game reached its operatic climax, I found myself tattooing a dick onto a man’s chest as a punishment. Rockstar had made such quantum leaps away from “class clown” territory in recent games. Red Dead Redemption and particularly Max Payne 3 submerged the developers’ trademark humor into subversive riffs on genre tropes, as well as quieter, bleaker gallows humor. The punchlines were spoken at the same volume as everything else, and so I was free to ignore them, sniffing out various ferns and dark alleyways instead, and inevitably cracking that stillness by braining some goon in slow-motion. But the scrim of comedy fell heavily around Los Santos, putting air-quotes around a city that I felt was too alive, too aglow in its loping streets and strip malls, to be yanked into digs at reality TV or minutes-long riffs on hipsters.
Because, while I hated Grand Theft Auto 5, I loved Los Santos. I missed Los Santos when I shelved the original game at its conclusion—my attempt to kill all three idiot protagonists by starving them of attention. I missed that California sky, at once pale and electric, somehow bigger in its circumference than the oppressive gray expanse I find myself under. Does the earth begin lower in California? I’d wonder, and then I’d beeline for the horizon until the city was just a distant island behind me. I missed the pause that occasionally settled over me in Los Santos—when, for example, I’d find myself standing in the mountains, gazing at a shack I had never before seen. Who lived there? I’d poke around, trying to get a feel for it. I’d declare it home base for fifteen minutes, as I tried to shoot birds out of the sky.
And so when the opportunity presented itself, with the game’s present re-release, to fall back in love with the city, only this time in more vivid form, I took it—determined, more than anything, not to ruin it this time. Not to let the game ruin itself. After a week or so of experimentation, I think I’ve figured out the best way to play Grand Theft Auto 5. I’ll share the steps I took below.
First: start the game. You’re going to have to play the first mission, in Yankton, again; you’re going to have to play it a second time if you, like me, get halfway through it before thinking “Is there any way I can skip this?” and then exit out to the PS4 menu, only to be thwarted on re-entry. Then you’re gonna need to get through another mission in Los Santos—now as Franklin, with his dude Leroy screaming at you the whole time through your controller. Do this; endure this. At some point you’ll be done, and they’ll give you control of Franklin, and at this exact second, switch to Grand Theft Auto Online, and do not fucking look back.
The next steps are important, but you can probably slightly alter their order to recreate the effect. They will try to give you a tutorial for Grand Theft Auto Online, and you will skip this, because some day you will die in real life, and how much of your time on this earth should be spent in tutorials? Minimize that amount of time. Then switch to first-person mode, and go hot-rodding for slightly longer than you plan to. I mean just drive, you know? Drive. Drive your car off a cliff and watch. Swim to the surface; kill someone, then let the cops shoot you to death. Come back to life (of course), then punch someone square in the jaw in first-person mode. Note that this is good. Hop into whatever jobs are available—these are the self-contained races and shootouts in Grand Theft Auto Online, rather than the shared open world in which you’d been tooling around—and, hey, do a couple jobs. This is mostly to get some scratch, so you can get some guns, and maybe a fancy pair of boots (style negotiable).
Now: you see those tiny dots on your map? Those are human beings. Not Los Santos people but earth people. That is some guy or girl potentially with a headset on, potentially relaxing after work or after school, and you are about to ruin his or her day. When you perform a controlled slide in a totally fucked-up taxi cab into a gas station and shoot that person in the face, their panic is real, and their anger is real and their death is not real but the money you pick up from their corpse might be. And that gun you shot them with? Trevor didn’t toss that to you with a sarcastic barb before a mission. You earned that heat.
Now hit pause. Put your jacket on, head outdoors IRL, buy a six pack, and come back home. Text that friend you were supposed to hang out with this week anyway. Begin drinking those beers.
If you are like me, you have probably listened to FlyLo FM too much. Still, listen to it again. As you’re wheeling into oncoming traffic beneath a purple and orange sky, and someone commands that you “get high to this music” as an araabMUZIK symphony queues up—I mean, your character in the game has a bong, so I’m just saying if you already do also, seems like an okay time. But thereafter—and this won’t be the bong talking, I swear—listen to whatever’s on the radio, assuming it’s not a commercial. There is so much more than you remember, and this is partially because there is literally more than you remember; every station is made new and better by its additions. Take cops on a goose chase spiraling through underground tunnels to Queen’s “Radio Ga Ga,” and realize there are some Queen songs that still sorta move you. Dive out of an airplane listening to Donald Byrd. Pick radio stations based on feel, and don’t hate: Steve Miller Band in your monster truck. Electro while careening off ramps alongside a dozen other low-slung super cars. At some point, you’ll probably want to listen to Kendrick Lamar, so just go to that station that’s all Kendrick Lamar. That’s fine. But then hop into a hatchback playing “New Beat,” and feel differently about hatchbacks, for a minute.
Then take a dirtbike up a mountain somewhere, and try to find that hunting shack you found that one time, last year, but could never find again. Fail to find it this time, too. Look up and notice that the sun is setting, but that it looks better than it did a year ago.
Repeat as needed, until convinced that I am correct.
This is not to say that Grand Theft Auto Online is perfect. You’re going to need to ignore the fact that it’s a ghost town sometimes. That try as you might, only a man dressed as a cowboy named msjf1987 is willing to jump out of an airplane with you. You’re going to need to ignore how often the game thinks you’d rather be Franklin again, and you’re shuttled back into that parallel world, watching him saunter out of a clothing store eyeing some woman’s ass.
But what I mean is this: Grand Theft Auto 5 is, this year moreso than last year, one of the truly astonishing audio-visual experiences in a medium full of them—and that the sterner strictures of its online mode make for a sense of progress vastly different and more felt than the ones in the single-player mode. The only dick jokes you’ll hear are the ones murmured into a headset, and, if you’ve followed my walkthrough, you’ll deserve it, anyway. Los Santos, for its part, finally feels bigger than them.