Present in the moment

Grand Theft Auto V. Rockstar North

Earlier this week, game critic and blogger John Brindle produced a glorious diatribe of tweets about a moment of impermanent beauty in Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto V. He narrates how a randomised mission interrupted his own exploration of the world to create this moment of narrative weight caught up in, but separate from, the game’s authored narrative. From this single anecdote, he produces a theory that there is a less talked about side to the GTA legacy “which is about immanence, impermanence, and interrelation.

It is the four-door sedan sailing in slow motion over a railway track again a full moon while classical opera music croons to its climax. Or the player getting utterly lost on the run from a botched mission and ending up on a hill somewhere watching the sunrise in total silence. It is about a kind of transient (always quickly destroyed) beauty arising from profane elements and protagonists who can’t quite understand.”

Daniel Joseph wrote up his own quick thoughts in response to Brindle’s tweet-essay. While Joseph is primarily concerned with discussing the conservative rhetoric at the heart of GTA V, he draws from Brindle to make the observation that many critics make this strange split between the awful narrative and the beautiful world (a split I myself am guilty of in my review for Overland.

It’s a split that Brindle’s tweet-essay explicitly denounces in its capturing of an impermanent beauty where a moment of authored narrative collides with the spontaneity of the systemic world (and, truly, what better medium to capture an impermanent beauty than in the equally impermanent form of tweets?).

I think Brindle captures just what can be pleasurable about playing a game like GTA V. Despite the awful narrative (and, truly, it is an awful and utterly uneventful narrative), there is a real sense of presence for the player in moving the bodies of these three men through this world. Just being a part of it, just participating in the system the game drops you in can be a rewarding feeling. Just being present as the autonomous world and authored narrative collide in different ways.

It has echoes with another important essay written this week: Mattie Brice’s polemic “Death of the Player”, where she calls for increased attention to non-player-centric modes of game design and critique, where we don’t assume the player is the single most important element of the game. This goes against the dominant way of thinking about videogames: they are interactive; what’s special about them is the player can do things; surely we should focus on this as what’s special about videogames.

But what’s so special about Brindle’s moment of impermanent beauty in GTA V is less what he chose to do and more what he got caught up in, that moment he was swept around on the freeway to save Michael’s wife. To be sure, GTA V is still designed in a very player-centric way (Rockstar makes a big deal about how big this world is and all the things the player can do in it), but so often its beauties are incidental to the player’s actions; the player’s presence can be just as powerful and meaningful as the player’s actions.

Brice looks at Anna Anthropy’s recent game Encyclopedia Fuck Me and the Case of the Vanishing Entree to discuss her ideas, but I think another one of Anthropy’s games best highlights how fleetingly meaningful it can be to just place the player in a moment. Dys4ia is presented to the player as a quick succession of self-contained games, each a few seconds long, to tell a personal story about hormone replacement therapy.

Each game has the player engage with traditional game mechanics (move down a corridor, fit a block into a hole, hit a target) About halfway through the game, one minigame places the player in a doctor’s waiting room. You can move your little character around, but there is nothing to do but wait for your number to be called so you can move on to the next game.

Anna Anthropy.‘s Dys4ia.

It’s an incredibly powerful moment. You are trying to find what you are meant to do, but you are powerless. There is nothing for you to do except exist in that waiting room until the game lets you move on. It powerfully conveys this sense of helplessness and anxiety in the middle of this long process: not by making the player perform certain action, but by forcing them to be present in a situation where they can do very little.

In Dys4ia, this is a very deliberately and masterfully designed moment. In GTA V, Brindle’s moment is, arguably, more incidental. Both demonstrate, however, a kind of fleeting and ephemeral beauty. They highlight the performative, presence-focused meanings videogames are capable of—not just through the choices they offer players, but through the situations they place players in the middle of.