Franklin Clinton is a gangster. A real two-bit thug.
And as he stood there in his baggy pants and hoodie, in the dusk, in a rain-slicked, graffiti-strewn driveway in a simulated parody of L.A. County’s Compton, all Franklin wanted to do was play with his dog.
“Go get it, Chop,” he called out through the speakers of my TV. A chunky Rottweiler scrambled to chase after a thrown ball, skidding on the wet pavement as he caught it.
Yes, the programmers actually thought of that.
I was on the couch. My housemate Marc and his girlfriend Kerri were sitting at the kitchen table. Neither are gamers, but both of them had their eyes on the screen. That’s the thing about Grand Theft Auto: love it or hate it, you can’t help but find it fascinating.
“Aren’t you gonna hijack a car?”
Well damn. Here I was, the model of a reformed gangsta, and all Kerri wanted me to do was steal a ride. (Weren’t we supposed to be the violent ones — the people who go out and buy games like this?) I ignored her.
Chop, ball held snugly in his teeth, ran back up the driveway.Franklin reached down to pet his panting companion on the head. “Good boy Chop.”
Grand Theft Auto V is a violent game. Its penchant for stoytelling makes the violence more in line with Quentin Tarantino than Michael Bay, but there’s no question that the series revels in the shock of seeing a guy’s head get bashed in with a chair. And then stepped on. And then run over with a truck.
But it’s also a game that excels at world-building. Hours earlier, I was driving my Audi through the streets of downtown Los Santos — an amazingly complete recreation of Los Angeles in pixels and polygons. I wasn’t controlling Franklin — he doesn’t own an Audi; not legally, anyway — but another character named Michael, a rich retiree who lives in the game’s equivalent of Hollywood Hills.
Marc, who had spent many winters visiting family in Los Angeles, was excited. “I can show you where my aunt lives.” He couldn’t believe a video game could be so detailed.
But now I was playing as Franklin, whose home is a good distance southwest in the slums. Marc didn’t recognize the neighbourhood. He’d never been to that part of L.A.
It’s that sense of place that makes the minutiae of a game like GTA so enjoyable. Standing on a street in the virtual ghetto and playing virtual fetch with a virtual dog isn’t just bearable, but kind of sublime.
It’s a way of sticking it to the game’s creators: Franklin’s not so bad; look at how much he loves his puppy.
It’s also an illusion. Like any good video game, GTA V takes every kind of achievement — no matter how abstract — and quantifies it, turning it into a manageable but reductive set of goals.
A game of fetch raises Chop’s “Happiness” by a few points — you actually see the bar go up. I don’t even know what “Happiness” is for, but I abhor empty progress bars. (Psychologists know that it’s this property that makes the medium so addictive.)
And Franklin? He’s not a nice guy. Not at all. Sure, he grew up in the ghetto with no family and no role models. He’s the product of crushing poverty and systemic racism. He’s even got a soft spot for animals. But he’s also a killer.
But all this introspection was boring my friends. Where was all the flash, the violence and the glitz they’d heard so much about it?
I walked Chop to his doggy house and then walked Franklin down the street to pay a visit to Lamar, his friend and partner-in-crime — literally. Soon the two were packed into a white van and racing down the streets of virtual L.A. on their way to a drug deal that was surely going to end up in a bloody gunfight.
You can’t really be the good guy in Grand Theft Auto V. But if you want to, you’ll find plenty of reprieves from the guns and the drugs. You’ll turn up the radio and cruise down the freeway. You’ll wake up your character before dawn and climb a mountain at sunrise. Or maybe, you’ll just grab your dog and throw a ball in the rain.
This story was first published in The Ryersonian, a weekly newspaper produced by the Ryerson School of Journalism, on September 25, 2013.