Digital Angeles

I beat Grand Theft Auto V a couple of weeks ago. It took a while. I push pencils full time, for myself and for a living, and I found one hour windows to play once a week. Twice if I really wanted to fuck up my deadlines. The game takes place in Los Santos, a satirized & compressed but otherwise stunningly accurate rendition of Los Angeles.

The game came out in mid-September, exactly one month after moving to Los Angeles.

I mean, I was born and raised in "Los Angeles" but any true Angeleno knows that LA is less of a city and more of a bunch of spread out disparate parts. LA County, my turf south of Greater LA, is where I spent most of my life thus far. It's a world of difference from the big city out-of-towners imagine when I tell them that I'm from LA: everything has a parking lot, everything is built flat and long, everyone lives an elliptical life disconnected from the center. It may as well be Reno, or Odessa, or Camden. Los Angeles, from Santa Monica to Highland Park, is the sun. Everything else, from the Valley to the South Bay, is its own planet in orbit. Life never really has to leave it, or even care much for the sun other than know it is there.

I have loved LA since I was a teenager, the way kids in the 70s loved space. I looked at it from a distance and felt an urge to explore and touch a bigger universe. You can tell by that metaphor that I'm one of those people, the ones that define the value of their life by its proximity to something that feels culturally important. I might toss around the phrase "center of the world" if I were brave enough. After college, I knew that was the goal. I began interning in LA, then working in LA, then driving there every day. It was a pain of a commute, a slow depressing trudge for over an hour every early morning, but it brought mere here to a studio apartment in the middle of it all.

By the time I got to live here, I was already well versed in the city's ways. I knew the landmarks, some history, a lot of the spots. I knew that you're better off taking Fountain over Sunset. So, when GTA V came out and I was tasked with exploring a digital Los Angeles, I was prepared to see a lot of my newfound life in the big city.

I wasn't even completely settled into my new digs. My studio apartment was a little undone, I was figuring out routines and purchasing all the necessary goods I didn't realize I'd need like extra sponges or coasters. It's a strange experience to get used to a new life in both the real world and the digital one. I would see dead-on familiar sights in the video game and drive past its real life counterpart later in the day. I would learn a little bit more about how to get through Downtown while learning how to zoom through it in the game.

Los Santos isn't a 1:1 recreation of Los Angeles, but sometimes it gets obsessively close. I would pass some innocuous building in Los Santos and stop to look at it because it was vaguely familiar in shape or color. I would run my mental rolodex and try and place it. These weren't important buildings in the game, just set dressing as far as the design was concerned, but every so often I would see something specifically "in character" for Los Angeles. A perfect strip mall, cool yet clinical corporate park art installations, the view of the sky from the Getty Center's food court. A string of deja vu ran through my experiences in the game as I learned the city and someone's intricate, violent joke about the city.

The most fun I had in GTA V was in the first 20 minutes. This is a game that features motorcycle jumping onto trains, robbing banks by way of rapelling and driving a biplane into the cargo bay of a bigger plane. Those are all tremendously fun too, but they don't produce the sheer delight of walking around a GTA city for the first time. As Franklin, I explored his South Central/Compton/Watts mash up known as South Los Santos. Everything is so perfectly normal and exactly inconspicuous, yet it triggers all kinds of sensory overload. You notice how the sidewalks are cracked in just the right way, how parking lots are the right length and how you've seen a thousand liquor stores with the same yellow paint. You're supposed to hijack a car and go speeding through the city, but for the first 20 minutes I just wanted to walk slowly, wait for red lights, stare at citizens.

Even real life doesn't produce that kind of giddy observation.

I've long been concerned about my relationship with video game escapism. I realize now that it's just an extension of everyone else's fear of technology encroaching on our lives. Some people worry about our level of intimate bonding and interconnection because of Twitter and text messages. I worry about my lack of imagination because video games have built so many worlds for me to dip into. That fear -- or more accurately, that idle wondering -- is reinforced by my ability to explore Los Santos and Los Angeles at the same time. The time I spent absorbed in the recreation could certainly have been spent being part of the world.

But these games are famously long, and eventually the initial hunger of curiosity subsides. Games are different once summer vacation stops being part of your life. Between a full time job and a part time supplemental job, games are a thing I do once a week or less. Usually as a stress reliever, an antidote to a rough day at work or to forget about some rising tide. Escapism.

An interesting thing happens at the end of the game. They let you choose one of three obvious endings. Two of them irrepairably change the post-game landscape by depriving you of a central character. They're better for their more complicated story and the character development it represents. The last option is pure video game fluff -- you basically band together with your bros and kill every single one of your enemies in quick succession, because this is a video game after all, and you need a heavy handed, over the top, action packed happy ending that ties everything into neat knots. But the interesting thing is that it gives you a choice of how to define the story and, as a result, your overall experience with the game. If you pick the happy, neat, video game ending, Grand Theft Auto is an amusement you play to get the most enjoyment out of. If you choose any of the other, game-hampering but story-enhancing endings, maybe Grand Theft Auto is something else.

For me, I chose the latter. I think as a part-time gamer, I knew I wasn't going to see 100% of the game for a long, long time. But I'm also the type of person that looks at LA and sees a goal. I'm attracted to romanticized bigger meanings. People like me want our games to be a little more than timesinks and mean something the way television drama and movie epics mean something. Less play, more art. 

In my ending, I make Franklin, one of three main characters, begrudgingly fulfill a hit on one of the other main characters. The target I choose is Trevor, the gleeful Joker-like psychopath that is both grotesque and humorous. He represents the video game id -- his is the character that does the most outrageous, immoral stuff in the game, the outlet for all the video game violence absurdity. Getting into a shoot out and killing 30 gun-toting Hipsters doesn't make sense in any story context, except when it's with this character who drinks gasoline and blows up entire farms. It just felt like he had to go. In the world that I was attached to, the Los Santos that I had spent months immersing myself in, he didn't fit in at all. He was a violent cartoon character, even in a story that explored the extremes of American culture.

Trevor dies in a gruesome fire, yelling about being surrounded by Judas. You get an achivement notification ("To Live And Die in Los Santos") and your remaining two characters go their separate ways. A Yeasayer song comes on. The credits roll. The game reboots with one less playable character.

I haven't played the game since. Theoretically I could reboot an old save, only an hour back, and play my way into the good ending so I could unlock and see all the game has to offer. But it was a strong ending, a cap that fits. I'll probably dive into the online multiplayer when a big update comes out, but for now, that cap is holding.

On Saturday I went out into the city alone. I don't normally do that, my social anxiety forbids me from having solo adventures. I'm perfectly content alone at a coffee shop, or alone in my apartment. But I could never go to a show or a concert or even exploring by myself. But on Saturday, I thought I ought to take advantage of these things in front of me, even if my go-to friends were out of reach. I had breakfast. I went to a pop-up shop & art exhibit. I built a cardboard speaker, talked life with a barista for a long time, walked down the street in a big coat. These are small things, yes, but small things I've always wanted to patch up the holes in my life.

Sometimes my outlets stop working and I have to flip a breaker switch, and parking will always require advanced planning. Otherwise, though, it's great out here. I'm 4 months in and it's great out here.