One of the best things about a video game where you can do anything is the option of doing nothing. Which is to say for me, the most entertaining moments of Grand Theft Auto V weren't the elaborate set pieces (though the bank heist was certainly nice), or the thrill of driving expensive cars at dangerous speeds, or the ability to cause general mayhem and watch madness unfold. Nor was it the soundtrack, which was certainly excellent. Instead, I gravitated toward the calmer moments, the eyes of the storm in a game that was all hurricane.
One of those was golf. Over the six months I sunk into GTA V, I spent hours playing as Michael De Santa at the Los Santos Golf Club, taking a perverse pleasure in the fact that an entire virtual world swirled around me. As Michael, I'd killed hundreds (if not thousands) of virtual humans—some who deserved it, some who happened to be standing on the road as I was flying down the highway evading the fuzz—and was simultaneously under the employ of the Feds, a shady studio head, and a Mexican cartel.
But on the golf course, all of that melted away. There was no mechanic where I could accidentally trip up the next part of the story, or trigger someone into shooting me. There was only golf. The pleasure I took in knocking back nine holes on the course was immense. I eventually got so good that I even beat Castro Lagano, the golf-obsessed philanderer who needs a ride to the country club and is at least good enough to play on the GTA equivalent to the National Tour.
Another was driving around peacefully. No speeding, no driving in the other lane, no knocking trashcans or signs over for kicks. I covered the entirety of GTA's map, drinking in Los Santos, its virtual facsimile of Los Angeles. The streets, the mountains, the deserts, the beaches, the weird hippie encampments on the outskirts, all offered rich landscapes to be explored. And explore I did, until I knew Los Santos well enough to drive around it without a map.
Related: VICE's documentary on the American obsession with Pinball:
The similarities between Los Santos and Los Angeles are well-documented—the GTA fansite GTAist offers perhaps the most definitive proof of this, in which a fan recreates 22 stills from the game, showing the painstaking detail the team at Rockstar Games put into rendering the virtual world. One of the highlights of any GTA is the vivid setting they take place in, but in previous games the host cities were smaller; more like Epcot replicas than the real thing. Even GTA IV, which rendered a New York full of shadows and grays, failed to recreate the part of Brooklyn I lived in, eschewing the hipster milieu of Brooklyn and Greenpoint and instead focusing on the drab industrial wasteland it had once been. (Though it's worth mentioning that some elements of Williamsburg were folded into BOABO, the game's version of BK's tech-y, hip DUMBO neighborhood.)
When, six months ago, I moved from New York to Los Angeles, it was already like I knew the place. On one of my first days in the city, I drove from Venice to Santa Monica, and then to Beverly Hills, continuing upwards into the Hollywood Hills. I'd seen all of it before—the place in Venice (Vespucci in GTA V) where Michael vented to his mindless therapist; the Santa Monica (Del Perro) pier where Trevor snipes the crooked federal agent Steve Haines; Rodeo Drive (Portola Drive) where, as the gold-hearted gang-banger Franklin, I'd gone to buy myself some new clothes. I took in the Hollywood sign, rendered in the game as the Vinewood sign. It's sensations of familiarity that make a strange place feel more like home—even if I was seeing this stuff for the first time, I'd already been there virtually, and with few real friends to my name in the city, it was as close to a welcome as I was likely to get.
The game doesn't stop at replicating Los Angeles geographically—it also renders the vapidity and general ridiculousness that people associate with the city. When he reviewed the game after beating it in a single, 38-hour session, BuzzFeed's Joe Bernstein wrote of Los Santos, "It is a funhouse, a place where cliché endlessly pinballs off cliché and yields something new. In its pastiche, and in its systems-level scope, GTA V resembles, at times, a high postmodern novel."
Which is to say, Los Santos people tend to do all of the things our worst perceptions of Los Angeles people do. Talk radio hosts scream about nonsense, ad infinitum. Michael's wife cheats on him with her yoga teacher. Franklin works out constantly at Muscle Beach. Trevor hangs out with a weed activist and hallucinates that aliens are attacking him (OK, the last part of that isn't quite realistic). Everyone is an asshole to you when you're driving, which in my experience, is a fairly accurate representation of how LA streets work.
Recently, it was announced that Rockstar was done expanding on GTA V, capping off a run that saw the game earn current-gen releases for PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One, as well as retrofitted for online gameplay with special, online-only heists. For those hoping that the game would never end and instead continue expanding until the sun exploded and the oceans boiled, this is a disappointment. But for me, not so much, as I've gotten all I need out of the game. And now, I live in it.
Follow Drew on Twitter.