My heart is still pounding as my red-haired, submachine gun-wielding female proxy takes cover behind a dumpster and waits for the heat to blow over. We—my character and her three “business associates”—have just stolen a prison bus in preparation for our prison break heist. A tense minute passes while the police skirt around my location until, suddenly and comprehensively, the police give up the search. The team stows the bus at the drop off and we’re all deposited outside a rural Blaine County store, fifteen grand richer.
It takes a few seconds for Grand Theft Auto Online to give control back to the player after missions. I take a few steps toward my expensive sports car, bought with entirely illegal funds. The crack of an assault rifle pours through my headphones, followed shortly thereafter by the unmistakable sound of my death. As the screen fades to black, I watch two other members of my heist crew get mowed down by our traitorous fourth member.
Grand Theft Auto Online’s heists are a series of complex, multi-person preparatory missions before a finale that offers big cash rewards, a semblance of narrative, and the opportunity to feel like a big-time criminal. But GTA Online fails to capture the essence of what makes a good heist—and it’s not big guns, fast cars, and lots of money.
The elaborate casino heist in Ocean’s Eleven, for example, is about more than money: it’s about love. Danny Ocean assembles a team of trusted and skilled personnel with the promise of riches, but the money is secondary for him. He wants to win back his ex-wife, which establishes him and his team as protagonists deserving of the viewer’s sympathy. This career thief, who was released from prison only moments into the film, is the “good guy”—because he commits these crimes in the name of love.
Likewise, the protagonists of Fast Five revere the virtue of loyalty. Dominic Toretto espouses this in a single quotation: “Money will come and go. We all know that. The most important thing in life will always be the people in this room. Right here, right now. Salute, mi familia.” This intense loyalty to one another is what distinguishes this group of illegal street racers, hijackers, thieves, hackers, con artists, and disgraced law enforcement officers from a simple gang of thugs.
These heists involve money but they are not about money. They’re about love, loyalty, family, and securing a future. But even without a purpose, a heist can still be good—can still elicit sympathetic feelings from the audience—when the thieves, who are ostensibly bad people, demonstrate admirable traits. Inside Man contains purely financially motivated thieves pitted against a detective with humanizing and sympathetic troubles of his own. Despite this, the thieves retain the position of protagonists through a few key factors: a strict no-killing policy, stealing only from a former Nazi supporter, and giving one stolen diamond to the detective so he can finally propose to his girlfriend.
So long as something sympathetic or admirable is motivating the characters (or being performed by them), the would-be criminals are perceived as heroes and the heist becomes something laudable. Even ostensibly bad people are championed when they demonstrate strong moral fibre and traits worth upholding.
But this ideal heist scenario is absent from Grand Theft Auto Online. Even with forced cutscenes showing the players celebrating post-heist, those key traits and motivations are missing. There is nothing admirable about characters who commit murder and theft on a massive scale, then turn around and shoot each other in the back, all in the name of making the quickest and biggest buck.
And while betrayal is not mandated and can be avoided by heisting with friends, the default outcome still seems to be one of violence and theft. My hands shake with tension just as much during heists as they do in the moments immediately following them, as I race to my vehicle in a bid to escape before the bullets begin to fly. Having a drink, playing a round of darts, going for a leisurely drive—all of these actions that Grand Theft Auto Online offers for players are incomprehensible post-heist. It is, simply, too dangerous.
And so in the end, Grand Theft Auto Online’s heists are not a triumph of good over evil, a Robin Hood-styled righting of imbalances, or a display of intellect, skill, and master planning. They’re not about loyalty or love or anything worth celebrating. They are the opening scenes of The Dark Knight—or the entirety of Reservoir Dogs—where virtues are nonexistent, nobody wins, and everybody dies.