Cultural Divide: why a first person perspective still doesn’t make Grand Theft Auto V immersive


For me Grand Theft Auto V‘s first-person mode is great.  But it’s not immersive.

I’ve historically liked the Grand Theft Auto games.  Strangely though, while the internet hailed them as brilliant social commentaries and parodies on Western culture, that definition never quite gelled with me.  The faux advertisements and radio shows were funny, perhaps topical at times, I never felt as though the game was taking the piss but more so just breaking free of the shackles of the overly serious tone that is pervasive throughout the crime genre in pop-culture.

I never felt truly immersed in the worlds Rockstar Games either, with the characters serving simply as plot devices more than people I was supposed to empathise with, even if the game mustered up some level of sympathy for these mostly pathetic human beings.  The commentary was subtle, and from my experience missed by many down here, but for me it didn’t detract from the experience because I was happy being taken along for a ride with these people, rather than sitting in the driver’s seat.  And I was mostly okay with that – I never much wanted to be a gangster anyway.

Because of that the changes to the approach of the games left me wanting.  Last year, I didn’t much care for what Grand Theft Auto V brought to the table, and after a solid five hours or so the idea of spending anymore time with the morally bankrupt characters the game follows was not one I was willing to entertain.  Being able to separate myself from the characters was a godsend, because I felt no compulsion to see how their story ended, and so I put the controller down, filed the disc away and never looked back (at least until I plonked the money down the the shiny new Playstation 4 version).   It wasn’t the violence, the mass slaughter, the drugs or the sex that had my running for the hills, it was the lack of humanity and humility shown by the characters that at times had my stomach churning and physically shuddering at how they were written.

It was a similar situation with its predecessor, Grand Theft Auto IV, which because it took a realistic and gritty take on the American Dream, had a story that was simply lost in translation for people like me that didn’t grow up with such a notion.  There was still parody and humour present, but it was so outward looking, attempting to be a greater social commentary, that it was impossible to view it just as a crass and cleverly devised world willing to make fun of itself that I had taken it to be in the past.  It is a social commentary first and foremost and revels in its ‘cleverness’ more than it had in the past.  Sure, there are films that are heavily centered around flaws in western culture, but unlike most of those films, both GTA IV‘s and GTA V‘s characters fail to resonate on a personal level, instead having them carry the weight of the games’ greater themes.  And that left me entirely disconnected from what was going on  onscreen in both cases.

It may be surprising to know, particularly to those that follow the political rhetoric spewed by our respective leaders, but Australia and the United States don’t have that much in common.  Sure, like most of the world, we are a net importer of American entertainment, with most of the films, television and music people listen to originating in the ‘land of the free’.  But  economically, politically, socially, and most importantly, culturally, we don’t share most of the same values as nations.  It is nice in many ways, because watching shows that either parody or seriously tackle the many social and political issues that country has, its nice to be able to sit back and appreciate how Australia differs as a nation.  Sure we have our problems, but compared to the broader institutional and social problems Americans often complain about, life is a cakewalk down under.

But it has its downsides too across the whole pop culture spectrum.  I enjoy HBO’s Veep as a sitcom rather than a reverent look at the US political system that it is, because I quite simply don’t understand how the American political system works (or perhaps doesn’t work).  It  probably takes away from the experience to some extent, but without familiarity with the subject matter, its cleverer parts are lost on me.  It’s the reason similar shows like Australian-developed Hollowmen and Utopia, and the UK’s Thick of It and Yes, Minister and its follow-up Yes, Prime Minister, may not resonate with American audiences.  There is a cultural divide that, at times, is hard to overcome.

Which is why Grand Theft Auto V‘s first-person mode, for me at least, isn’t providing a more immersive experience.  That’s not to take anything away from the developer’s achievements, like many others I bought into the game for a second time, with the prospect of playing the game in first-person getting me unjustifiably excited for a game that last year I couldn’t pull myself through.  And so far it’s worked – I am enjoying the game significantly more than last year’s version, to the point where I’m pretty sure i’ll get through to the end.  Simply put, while Los Santos may still the despicable place it was on the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 last year, not having to look at the characters for hours at a time takes me far enough away from them that I can ignore the story beats and enjoy the game from a mechanical point of view.

The new perspective is mechanically brilliant, and Rockstar obviously wants you to feel like you’re in the game, but immersion this is not.  The city of Los Santos is still a foreign place, and even though i’m looking through the eyes of the character, whether i’m killing innocents, being serviced by a sex worker, or engaging in gang warfare, there is a fundamental disconnect that will always be a barrier to putting myself into the character’s shoes.  The way the characters speak, from the incessant “homeys” to the obligatory n-word is jarring enough, and hearing people speak in a way i’m just not personally familiar makes the game’s world and its characters foreign.

It may in some ways be an indications of my naivety, but the fact is that unlike those of you living in the US, I live in a country that has no semblance of a gun culture.  I’ve never seen a gun not being carried by a police officer, never held a gun, and sure as hell never shot a gun, and so imagery of virtual citizens being shot by virtual guns may be shocking, but I automatically distance myself from it because it’s not one I know.  In a lot of ways, what made Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare‘s emotional story beats  so poignant was that global conflict is the one situation in which I can somewhat justify the existence of guns, which made it easy to understand and empathise the motivation of characters and the situations they found themselves in, even if I had no personal touchstones to compare it to.  In an almost uncanny valley-esque twist, the familiar settings of a developed western city make its differences from what I’ve experienced living in Australia’s big capital cities a real liability for its attempts to immerse and, in many cases, shock. And as long as the game takes place in America, that will always be the case.  It is incredibly clichéd , but it is the perfect case of “it’s not you it’s me”.  Sorry Rockstar.

Los Santos may as well be a fairy tale, because while the game may create a wholly consistent and believable world in the context of how the United States is or is not, its foreignness will always prevent me from fully understanding the gravitas of mass shootings or drive-by shootings. And seeing how horrible the world Rockstar Games has created is, I’m not sure i’m losing out.

GTA V First person Screenshot