Falling Back In Love With Grand Theft Auto 5

Here’s how I lost my job and came to love a game about stealing.

Grand Theft Auto games used to stress me out. It wasn’t the missions – although god awful controls could turn the best of set pieces into Groundhog Day nightmares of restarting. Rather, I used to get stressed by the amount of things to do. I knew most of it wasn’t necessary, but opening a map and seeing dozens of icons related to missions, shops, and activities felt like going on a vacation in which someone is constantly demanding you do the next thing. Then the next thing. Then the next.

And Grand Theft Auto hasn’t really changed. Probably because there hasn’t been a new Grand Theft Auto game in, what, nine years? Yeah, that seems right. Grand Theft Auto 5 came out nine years ago. I recognize GTA Online is still evolving, but just to be clear: the Grand Theft Auto game that came directly before GTA 5 was first released on the Nintendo DS. That’s how old it is.


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That said, I’ve played every Grand Theft Auto game. I haven’t necessarily beaten them all, but I’ve played them all. I’m sorry Liberty City Stories; I just didn’t care enough.

I’m also the type of idiot who tends to purchase the same games over and over again, so I’ve somehow found myself owning GTA 5 on PS3, PS4, PS5, and Steam. Why? Because I’m a fucking fool. That’s why. Steam sales are a harsh mistress, and game companies adding the most minor of upgrades will make my idiot ass drop money again and again.

Which isn’t always good because I recently lost my job when the show I wrote for ended its run. Which is largely okay. I’m essentially an overgrown child who lives alone and eats ramen for half my meals, so I may not be healthy, but I also don’t have an expensive life. Me losing a job is a massive bummer, but it’s a massive bummer to one person and not an entire family relying on me. My kid’s college fund exists in The Sims. At least, it would if I ever had kids in The Sims.

However, suddenly being out of work gave me some time. And while I have literally hundreds of games I should be playing, I’ve decided to do the wise thing and go back to a game I already completed – again – nine years ago. Grand Theft Auto 5.

And, strangely, I now like it more. I appreciate it more.

Now, I don’t love everything in Grand Theft Auto. The jokes are constantly shotgunned and just as many miss as those that hit (although, to be fair, that can also be said of anything I’ve done). While a lot of the social commentary works, it can take a hard steer into sexism, racism, and homophobia. Then again, it’s unfortunately in the DNA of the series. Grand Theft Auto’s first big controversy was that you could kill sex workers. I don’t know why you would, but you could.

But while Grand Theft Auto 5 has remained largely the same (minus some of the transphobia in newer versions), open world games haven’t. For every Elden Ring and Breath of the Wild that feels like vast, unexplored countries, there’s a Far Cry or Assassin’s Creed in which I’m apparently the only person in one thousand square miles who can do a job. I may have been stressed before, but at least GTA 5’s map doesn’t have more icons than roads.

Nine years later, Grand Theft Auto 5 feels more relaxed somehow. I don’t feel like a piece of shit when I ignore some icons on the map – largely because most of the icons on the map areā€¦ fun? Playing tennis is actually pretty good. Sitting back in a movie theater and watching a parody of a black and white French film is weirdly cool. Hell, I’ve gone on the roller coaster in Vespucci Beach multiple times this playthrough just because it doesn’t matter.

Most of the shit in Grand Theft Auto doesn’t matter.

Now that I’ve got more time to myself, I don’t need to power my way through missions. I can just drive around the city listening to music. And unlike most open world games, Los Santos is relatively normal.

Hell, if anything, Los Santos feels more quaint than edgy in 2022. The cellphones are clearly early ’10s tech. The jokes about aging hippies demanding we legalize marijuana are goofy considering you can now walk into a store in the real Los Angeles and pick up some weed mints. Jokes about teens posting everything on Lifeinvader, a Facebook analogue, are kind of silly now that Facebook is cliche as leaning toward the elderly and many of us carefully curate the portions of our lives we do post.

If anything, Grand Theft Auto 5 (and 4 and Chinatown Wars) feel the way Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas felt back in the day: a throwback to a different, slightly stupider time. Scratch that. A different time in which everything was just as stupid, but in other ways. Grand Theft Auto 5, with all its social commentary and radio station bits, is retro rather than a mirror.

Things like references to TMZ (in a fictionalized form) feel so distant and less pressing now. Yeah, TMZ still exists, but when’s the last time you or anyone you know thought of it as the bottom of the cultural barrel? Oh, baby, our barrel got deeper and that bottom is endless. Of course, the game still has things to say about capitalism and fame – but those aren’t particularly time-sensitive topics.

Grand Theft Auto 5 used to truly stress me out. I hated feeling like I had to do everything or I was missing out on something. I disliked seeing three different capital letters on the map and getting in my head about which was the proper one to do first. But now these things are easy for me. Perhaps games feel like less of a job when you don’t have a solid job or perhaps I realized that a golf minigame isn’t as nearly as bad as having to climb dozens of identical towers so I could get hints on a map.

It’s weird to think of Grand Theft Auto 5 as a simpler time. And not all of it has aged perfectly (or was that fantastic to begin with). But I’m connecting with it more this time. Hell, even the story about a guy who feels like a bum because he’s not doing the thing he was made to do hits a little harder. Although I’ve never robbed a bank or killed anyone. And I don’t own a mansion. I am named Michael, though, so that part tracks. So basically just one of the character’s names and the feeling like a bum part hit that catharsis sweet spot.

I don’t think that Grand Theft Auto 5 is a much better game now than it was in 2013. Sure, it runs better. The textures on clothing are cleaner. It’s got more quality of life features, but just as often as not the controls still ruin great missions. But in a video game market in which ‘open world’ just means I get to choose which enemy base I conquer first, spending fake money to go on a fake roller coaster and watch the fake people enjoy the fake ocean is kind of nice.

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