With each sequel, Grand Theft Auto's imaginary cities grow ever more complex. In little over a decade we've gone from GTA III's blocky, low-polygon Liberty City to the sprawling, intricate metropolis of Los Santos in GTA V. The latter is the most lavish open-world city ever seen in a game: a dizzying, hand-crafted parody of Los Angeles that's packed with the kind of micro-detail only Rockstar's infinite budget will allow. Detail that many, if not most, players will have missed.
You're always moving in GTA, whether you're speeding through the streets in a sports car, sprinting between cover in a shootout, or buzzing the skyline in a helicopter. It moves past you in a blur: cars, people, signs, buildings. But if you stop and study your surroundings, and the faces of the people around you, you'll discover a whole new world of absurd, granular detail representing the toil of hundreds of artists. They may only be window dressing, and the unfortunate victims of countless hit-and-runs, but the citizens of Los Santos have a remarkable amount of personality.
Walk the sands of Vespucci Beach and you'll see muscle-heads flexing in front of unimpressed sunbathers. Downtown you'll pass homeless people rooting through the trash, their weary eyes and sallow, ragged faces painting a vivid picture of a hard life on the streets. Hooded figures lurk on the shadowy corners of South Los Santos, drinking liquor from brown bags and giving passing patrol cars the finger. Tourists waddle down Vinewood Boulevard, cameras slung around their necks. Starlets bray into phones about auditions. Dock workers mill around cargo ships, unloading containers and scribbling in clipboards. The sheer variety of life pulsing around you is staggering.
Los Santos is also an unflattering snapshot of contemporary city life. Assault someone on the street and passers by won't rush to help: they'll pull out their phones and snap photos. Everywhere you go people are entranced by glowing rectangles, tapping out text messages, taking selfies, and posting inane crap on social media. They sip coffee from cardboard cups, casually dropping them at their feet when they're finished, adding to the detritus that already litters the sidewalks. Frustrated drivers scream abuse and honk their horns at innocent pedestrians. It's a funhouse mirror reflecting the very worst of modern urban living. A sprawled-out, disconnected mass of total pricks.
On Motherboard: The Race to Mod 'GTA V'
The people of Los Santos were never designed to be seen up close, but using the PC version of GTA V's built-in Rockstar Editor, it's possible to examine them in detail. In doing so you realize just how many walks of life, ethnicities, body shapes, and personalities they've managed to represent. And their faces tell stories. When you see a vagrant shuffling down the street while playing the game, you don't pay them much attention. But zoom in with the editor and you see a surprising amount of texture in their face and a haunted look in their bloodshot eyes. Knowing how much time, money, and effort goes into the smallest details in a big-budget, multi-platform game like GTA, seeing this kind of thing makes you think about what a vast artistic achievement Los Santos really is. Some artist probably spent a week modeling and texturing this random NPC who most players will only briefly glimpse at.
Los Santos is a funhouse mirror reflecting the very worst of modern urban living. A sprawled-out, disconnected mass of total pricks.
It's even more impressive when you realize that the character models rarely repeat. I spent hours wandering crowded streets to take these portraits, and I hardly ever saw the same person twice. If I did, they had different clothes or hair. You can even interact with them by pressing right on the D-pad, and the reactions are often hilarious. I walked up to a downtown yuppie while playing as Franklin and said, "Yo, what's up?" He threw his coffee in the air, screamed, and ran away. I approached a group of gangbangers in South Los Santos as Trevor and insulted them, making them pull out their guns and start shooting at me. Every single NPC has a response to these interactions, which is yet another layer of insane detail Rockstar has squeezed into the game.
The Grand Theft Auto series has been criticized for the lack of diversity in its main characters, but the denizens of Los Santos are probably among the most diverse, widely represented group of people in any game. It does veer a little too sharply into stereotype sometimes, but GTA has never been socially conscious, nor will it ever be. It is, after all, a game primarily about stealing cars and murdering people. Compared to the crass caricatures of the older games, Grand Theft Auto V seems almost progressive.
Rockstar has resources and money most developers can only dream of, which is why its worlds are infinitely more convincing and believable than other games. You might wonder what the point of all this intricate detail is, but then you see the relatively sterile, lifeless city of a game like Ubisoft's Watch Dogs and you realize how important it is to selling an urban setting. Even if you aren't consciously aware of the complexity of your surroundings in a GTA game, your brain is. All these tiny, seemingly insignificant details coalesce to create the illusion of a living city. That's why other open-world games seem so empty after playing Grand Theft Auto V. They feel like static film sets in comparison.
But they still have a long way to go. As busy and varied as Los Santos is, it's still only a vague approximation of a real city. To accurately recreate the dense, overpopulated urban landscapes of cities like LA and New York would require processing power way beyond what's possible on today's consoles and gaming PCs. Procedural generation may be a solution, generating pedestrians randomly rather than making them by hand as GTA's artists do. But then they wouldn't have as much personality as the people of Los Santos. Games may never fully capture the rich, wonderful medley of life that fills our cities, but if anyone's going to come close, it'll probably be Rockstar.
Say hi to Andy on Twitter and visit his website obsessed with beautiful game worlds, Other Places.