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I haven't played Grand Theft Auto V properly, in terms of ticking off story missions, for years now. When the game first came out, in the autumn of 2013, I tore through it eagerly, spending several hours a night in front of my (even-then) creaking, red-ring-defying original-model Xbox 360, engrossed in its cops-and-robbers narrative. After the credits rolled, I put it to one side, (to this day) never touching Online. But then came the current-gen ports, and I had to return, again, to Los Santos - albeit differently, this time.
Whether on PlayStation 4 or (more recently, cheers Game Pass) Xbox One, my time with Grand Theft Auto V in the years since that debut playthrough have almost exclusively been taken up with a fast car on an open highway, dusk behind me and the dawn ahead, and Non-Stop Pop blasting away on the radio. Is there a better way to virtually feel the wind in your hair than this game, a soft-top performance vehicle and Pet Shop Boys' 'West End Girls' rolling into Rihanna's 'Only Girl (In The World)'? Reader, I am not sure that there is.
But since lockdown took hold of us all, and movement anywhere outside of the home became severely restricted, Grand Theft Auto V has morphed into something else. When I've picked up the pad to play in the past few weeks, I've not even touched the radio dial. And I've not so much as looked for a sleek, sexy import to steal for some high-speed hijinks.
Instead, having only completed the bare minimum of story missions to open up the game world, I'm walking rather than riding (as Franklin), listening to people clustered on street corners and outside coffee chain outlets, and soaking in the heat, the buzz, of a city going about its business. It's a shame that so many of these cityfolk want to punch me in the face for simply standing near them, but I guess those are the breaks with playing an ultra-violent video game in a way that you're not 'supposed' to.
Nevertheless, my excursions with Franklin have served as substitutes for my own office-break leg-stretchers around London, E1. It was mid-March that I started working from home, on the south coast, in an unremarkable suburban corner of Brighton and Hove. The LADbible offices in London were my normal Monday-to-Friday location; and while I'd never say I miss the nation's capital (I lived there for the best part of a decade, and feel pretty done with it), there's something about being inside a city proper that I definitely can't get from an occasional, government-mandated walk to the local park and back.
When in the office proper, I'd often set out on a lunch break to walk the local streets - sometimes on a familiar loop taking in the local market and a few (relatively speaking) skyscrapers, at other times venturing to the unknown (much depended on how much time I actually had for a break - if you regularly manage to take an hour in your own working practice, I salute your commitment). In Grand Theft Auto V, my starting location tends to be Franklin's aunt's place in Strawberry - which isn't exactly the most bustling part of Los Santos.
So, I hop in the character's default motor and drive - radio off, the world outside my only soundtrack - to Legion Square, West or Downtown Vinewood, or Pillbox Hill, areas that will always be swarming with life, with chatter and that hum of a city and its people in perpetual motion. And I stroll. Leisurely. No hurry, only so often breaking into a jog with a hold of the A button. Not so much playing the game as simply seeing and hearing it play itself around me.
It's not creepy or anything to listen in on others' conversations in a video game, right? Good, good. As I'll do that, catching fleeting exchanges about medical appointments and new job contracts from passers-by chattering away into their iFruit phones. Sometimes I'll tap right on the d-pad when someone's stood beside me at a pedestrian crossing, or loitering on the subway platform. Hey, how are you? Alright? Well, that's me told, and so on. I'm paraphrasing, but you know how the smalltalk rolls in this game. Small.
For a treat, I'll deviate into the canals of Vespucci - this game's versions of the ones found in real-life Venice, which I've also walked around - or hang out around Puerto Del Sol, for a glimpse of how the has-it-all other half lives. Because if working around East London teaches you anything, it's that amazing affluence and shocking poverty are often only a few streets from one another. And this is certainly the case in Grand Theft Auto V's vision of Los Angeles - race around with sirens chasing you and you might never see it, but walk slower and the contrast between city centre neighbourhoods is striking. (For all that Rockstar got wrong in this game, that, they nailed.)
All the while, I'm getting something akin to the satisfaction of a good work-break walk. I can't feel the heat off the concrete in the game, but I know it's there. Franklin can't look down at his feet, awkwardly, as I direct him past a handful of homeless tents just around the corner from a new-build of luxury apartments; but I imagine him doing so well enough.
Where I live and work right now, a bus will rumble past from time to time, and the neighbours can certainly make a racket when they want to. But the sounds outside my window are a world away from those of E1, of the London where I so recently spent most of my weekday waking hours. Seagulls squawking and blackbirds singing while I'm hanging out in the back garden with a cuppa? I mean, it's nice for a while; but it's to GTAV that I'm turning when I need some of that urban rattle, rush and pulse. No distractions, just the city stripped of any accoutrements as it breathes, belches and wheezes.
For now, at least. I'll be back on Non-Stop Pop while at the wheel of an Infernus before long, I'm sure, laughing my virtual ass off as those incompetent cops fail to catch me again.
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