Virtual World Jet Lag – Los Santos style

Last week Grand Theft Auto V was released. That of course is something everyone probably spotted. In amongst all the hype, the outrage and the $1 billion dollars in takings there are some interesting nuggets that may have been missed.
GTA V is a giant virtual world simulator. Whilst GTA V Online is not yet live it is a single player experience, it does have a very large and detailed environment. The attention to detail is almost so good as to not be impressive as you tend not to notice it. The environment is very big from a sprawling city, to a desert and a mountain range and lakes that you can explore on foot or on a variety of vehicles on land sea and water ( or even in a cable car or a blimp) act as a backdrop to a set of mission and story arcs. The place is bustling with activity, people and cars everywhere. It is a pity that it could not just have a mode or version of this world that removed a the swearing and the violence just a little. The reason I say this is that just exploring, being in the place would make a great experience in its own right. Heading off to the lake to watch the sunset, flying and landing planes on the runway. The games or darts, golf and tennis that are just sitting in there as a side task all make it a fine example of game technology and design in action. As it is it obviously deserves its 18 rating which in context all makes sense. You can’t though drive down the road or listen to the radio or even play the iFruit Iphone companion app without a torrent of abusive language.
Chop on Ifruit the companion app.
Me as a gamer and an adult I find this all more than acceptable, however as a parent I would be worried because I know many people will end up letting much younger kids play this without fully appreciating whats going on. Tone and intent is everything in a narrative and the cartoon violence of stealing cars and having shootouts is pretty normal and I would say acceptable. However there are part of GTA V that enter other territory. A scene with the psychotic Trevor extracting information which has to be played through made me wince. I am not sure what is coming next as that is only 1/4 way through.
There is something that felt different though. In GTA V you swap between 3 characters. This stops them seeming like they are your character and turns them more into toys or puppets that you are playing with. The 3rd person view helps re-enforce that as you can clearly see which character you are. Character swaps happen in other games such as Call of Duty but in 1st person if becomes less obvious you are not you. So playing GTA V, customising the characters with hair, clothes and tattoos becomes more of a dress up doll experience than a “hey look at me” experience. I am not sure if this makes it easier to cope with the excesses of some of the characters in that you are almost in god mode rather than sinking into the character. That may just be me but it is definitely a different feel. It is more like looking into an aquarium than being in a swimming pool.
That said is is a very absorbing experience, exploring or following the story. It has always been fun to just drive around in a car listening to the really good soundtracks playing via the various radio stations. The news reports that interrupt the music also match nicely with the activities you have been up to. Again so we done you almost don’t notice.
The in game web experience is also very neat. Facebook and twitter are copied and mocked but if you bother reading the details you will see, just as with the radio news there is a consistency with the in game social media interactions. There is also a working stock market, investing in the right things before a mission that alters the share price is a clever way to get cash.
GTA V has also reached out to the actual web, lifehacker (the Facebook clone) exists for real. Before the game was released could stalk (i.e. like) various business pages such as the barber shops. That then linked in game to a discount or a freebie.
I already mentioned the iFruit app but it too affects the game. If you train up the tamagotchi style dog Chop his action will alter in the game. If you buy custom car parts they will appear. This feature obviously had some trouble at launch, it was not scaled to cope with the day 1 blitz but it seems to be fine now.
I entitled this virtual world jet lag because I have certainly experienced a form of jet lag, or tiredness as you might like to call it. Late nights playing and exploring Los Santos have been needed in order to understand the game and it’s development. However it does feel like I have visited somewhere, in the same way exploring Second Life and alike does. The experience and memories are rich enough to make it feel like a journey has happened. It is large free roaming worlds that have this impact more so than the frenetic close in shooters. They leave you dazed and adrenalin pumped, you remember the small experiences, taking a flag or an unusual frag. GTA V and alike provide so many memorable inputs and ones that are linked to discovery and learning that they are really a place. It is something everyone should try and experience to feel the difference between this and other styles of game. I hope this Los Santos model world can be used for some other experiences too though for those who are not gamers but who might change their minds about the art of game creation and the technical expertise of its creators.

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