Still Playing: GTAV – forget the killing sprees and find beauty in a digital rambling holiday

GTAV camp dignity

The search for letter fragments brings Michael to ‘Camp Dignity’, one of many Los Santos delights you might have missed.

Collectibles may not ruin games, but they don’t exactly help. They’re the tedious make-work at the heart of modern game design that substitutes padding for content, the taunting fraction lurking in some number-ish recess of the pause screen showing you how little you’ve actually achieved. Very few are as tedious as GTAIV’s pigeons. They distort progress – thought you were only 30 per cent of the way through the story? Tough luck sir, the remaining 70 per cent is killing 200 pigeons – and hold players in contempt, asking them to exterminate a city-full of grey, stub-legged sky-rats for no reason and scant reward. In a Saints Row game, you might get away with arguing that this was parody; with GTAIV’s dour tone, it just felt like sadism – or worse, as if Rockstar didn’t care.

With Grand Theft Auto V, everything was bigger, with more ground to explore, more protagonists to control, and, ominously, several additional sets of arbitrary things to find. The risks were obvious – could this lead to six hundred pigeons to kill? Eight hundred? Two thousand, spread out over an entire state? Collecting all of this tat sounds like at least three of the twelve labours of obsessive nerd Hercules.

In practice however, it’s a little different. The Rockstar Social Club includes a helpful map showing which items you’ve found and, crucially, which ones you haven’t. While GTAIV’s pigeon-eradicating was like an anxiety dream, GTAV’s letter and spaceship part-hunting, planned out on a laptop or tablet, is manageable and even engrossing, the map taming San Andreas’ colossal scale. The end result is a digital rambling holiday that’s unique, beautiful and weirdly relaxing.

A slower pace allows you to appreciate the scenery – Los Santos’ sunshine makes exploration feel like a virtual holiday.

Nominally, GTAV is played at a hundred miles an hour, both literally and figuratively speaking. Exploring the world to find collectibles slows it right down, and playing a high-octane crime thriller at walking pace is initially as disorientating as walking onto a stationary escalator. It rapidly becomes transformative – Grand Theft Auto III & IV trained you to see the world as a carjacker, compulsively eyeing up vehicles for their implied value. Here, you begin see through the eyes of a burglar, scanning buildings for ladders and fences for gaps to aid your exploration. It’s still a criminal’s world, but a less violent, more gentlemanly one.

And that world, so detailed and consistent when you’re rampaging across it as the first type of criminal, holds together admirably when you’re seeing it up close as the second. There’s the occasional sense of a platform being pushed to the absolute limit – hills are detail-free green inclines, and forests are mannered lawns rather than untracked wilderness – but in other places it shines. The Los Santos hills at night recall the LA of Raymond Chandler or David Lynch, pristine white concrete giving way to pockets of urban weirdness.

Those collectibles are a guidebook for that hidden weirdness, luring you towards areas you won’t have glimpsed even if you’ve completed the story, and letting you experience little stories of your own. It’s psychogeography for psychopaths; the search for a discarded letter taking bearded crime billionaire Michael into a shanty-town called ‘Camp Dignity’, hidden behind a railway embankment and draped in anti-capitalist slogans, his trigger-finger twitching as he creeps past the suspicious glares of the residents back to his bullet-proof sedan. Across the county, Franklin retrieves a spaceship fragment from the bottom of a reservoir and emerges into a deserted modernist housing block straight out of JG Ballard and as eerily sterile and empty as the aftermath of a neutron bomb test. Meanwhile, Trevor goes on a cross-dressing cross-country stroll through the badlands, swims out to a desolate island full of hippies, and chins a shark.

GTAV’s sights invite the player to stop and take a picture. And selfies are always better if you’re wearing your best dress.

There are whole worlds hidden away. The tunnel system that flashes past in an early heist is a fully-modelled labyrinth that’s linked up to the (similarly under-explored) subway system, populated with workmen, a partially constructed station, and intriguing little Ewok villages of scaffolding to explore. Elsewhere, there are cluttered markets, decaying industrial works slumping into the desert, rusting dry-docks straight out of The Wire, frightening housing projects echoing with bass music; the hunt for hidden items takes you through all of them, on a tour of an America in decline.

Not all of the fun to be gleaned from GTAV comes from shooting, stealing, and setting fire to things. Admittedly, at least 90 per cent of the enjoyment comes from shooting, stealing, and setting fire to things – but in a game as broad and as deep as this, 10 per cent of the fun is still a substantial reward. Forget killing sprees – get the map up on your laptop, get Trevor kitted out in his best dress and some sensible boots, ditch the guns, grab some Kendal mint cake and go on a rambling spree.