Even this cartographer loves Grand Theft Auto 5

“It’s the touristic idyll of the Californian climate,” says Matthew Edney, a studied historian in the arena of cartographic academia. “It’s the southern Cali dream,” he tells me as he traces I-11 north. The line twists like al dente linguine across the screen, out of Los Santos and through the pastel green hills into the vineyards of Tongva Valley.

He calls it a sun palette, the palette of a landscape that’s never cloudy 

We’re looking at the map of Grand Theft Auto 5, the one from the BradyGames strategy guide that was leaked online last week. This is what Edney does—analyzes maps fastidiously. He’s currently fixated on the color scheme. He calls it a sun palette, the palette of a landscape that’s never cloudy, but sunny and bright like the balmy climate that halos Los Angeles, the sprawling and congested inspiration for Los Santos.

“This is a map that you’ve got to read with sunglasses on,” he says. “You’re out in the wild. A tourist, wearing sunglasses.” It reminds him of the song “The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades,” which is fitting. The GTA series is noted for its collections of cheeky pop music from the ‘80s. But the vibe of the landscape, laid-back and paradisiacal and refined, is a departure.

When most people look at a map, they see only the fastest route to Walgreens. But when scholars of cartography look at a map, they see shades of culture—gestaltist thumbprints that convey the flavor and ethos of society. They glean this information from many sources: the precision and logic of the lines; the whole of the map and the particulars; the relationships between natural phenomena. They notice little details, like how the rivers and roads lack casing, or thick bounding lines around the edges, a technique which fell out of style in the ‘70s, which helps in dating GTA 5’s map to 1980-90, speculatively speaking. They point out that there’s a sun casting a shadow from an impossible position, about forty-five degrees off to the north. They find it extremely amusing when a map with an ocean lacks a rose compass, a holdover from Medieval sea charts.

The map is “the kind of pretty, inviting brochure that’s given out at tourist bureaus or hotels to guests when they want to go up into the bat country” 

They’ll also tell you that GTA 5s locale looks like a fine spot for sunbathing. The map is “the kind of pretty, inviting brochure that’s given out at tourist bureaus or hotels to guests when they want to go up into the bat country,” says Edney. He even volunteers a tourism campaign slogan: Grand Theft Auto, where Crime is Tourism. Come and enjoy yourself blowing away complete innocents! Sarcasm, obviously, but it’s on the money. There is dissonance at play between the criminal underbelly and all the leisurely, stress-free activities. Marked on the map are locations where players can wile away their afternoons whacking tennis balls, cycling, swinging a nine iron, or hiking. This is the domain of hedge fund managers, not gang-bangers.

GTA 5 isn’t the only game in the series to homage the City of Angels. 2004’s San Andreas also painted the Californian sky a dusky tangerine with palm leaves swaying. However, this is the first time where the luster coming off the Santa Monica Mountains shines down over the profane in the valley—the noise of carjackings, strip clubs, and bongs gurgling lulled to a hum in the distance. The change is partly because of Moore’s Law of open-world videogames, which states that the size of big games will roughly double every two years. But the change also sets the stage for a broader, if predictable, post-bailout social critique. The new criminals are the big shots who can afford to get away from it all, taking long scenic drives up the coast, along Hwy. 5.

When I pull up the map of GTA 4 for comparison, the difference is striking. Edney tells me that it’s strictly for navigation, presenting New York as a gridded network of unbending lines almost topological in nature. “It’s a network diagram, an overview of a data set, showing how to get from A to B,” he says. “The other one doesn’t have that feel whatsoever, with all that extraneous prettiness, the blue of the water, the green hills. But here, nothing is important aside from the road network.”

That attitude is gleaned not only from the map, but in the hard-boiled stories that were told on it. As Edney puts it, “maps are made for a purpose, and that purpose shapes the vision, the perspective, and the art and aesthetic, and the cultural dynamics.” Niko was a rags-to-riches kind of criminal, a dirt poor émigré struggling to survive in America’s toughest city, willing to do whatever it took. He had a strict system of ethics that revolved around the pursuit of the mighty dollar. He and this map were made for each other.  

The depiction of Los Angeles rings true of hedonism run rampant. 

The depiction of Los Angeles rings true of hedonism run rampant. The layout of the megalopolis itself, isolated on the southern tip on the peninsula, seems not so much planned as hastily developed for profit, the districts of East Los Santos and Little Seoul and Del Perro spun in every direction. Due north of the disorder, which is contained only by the rising ocean and the surrounding belt of mountains, the uneven lines of the city trail off into curvy roads cutting through higher elevation. The Vinewood Sign beckons from the horizon. Bring your sunglasses.

* Matthew Edney is the Director of the University of Wisconsin’s The History of Cartography Project.