My wife has just finished GTA 5 again. The third playthrough, I think, and it seems an awfully long time since, crouched in front of the old PS3, she turned to me while fumbling through the wintry farming country of the prologue and said, "Oh, God. Is there going to be a lot of shooting?'
Reader, there has been a lot of shooting, and to see her at it now I actually get a little bit frightened. She taught herself the game's gunplay not by paying attention to the tutorial tooltips with their tiny text, but by rattling off in a car at night towards a lonely stretch of highway, where she'd rob gas stations, again and again, until she could get in and out like a pro.
And finishing the game? That doesn't really apply here. Once the campaign's done, and everyone's still alive and rich, my wife simply segues from the part of the game she likes to the part of the game she loves. I've written before about how weird GTA 5's endgame is, with its UFO-hunting, zombie-slaying, and ghost-witnessing. But this time it's all a bit different. Something extra weird has happened to my wife's save - or at least that's what we're thinking at the moment. The game is starting to stumble in strange, interesting ways. Is this annoying? Amazingly it isn't. Amazingly, it's brilliant.
Sarah's currently engrossed in a sort of quest-line that revolves around Franklin, who's been asked to do a series of dangerous stunts for a friend. She climbs huge cranes downtown and leaps from the summit onto a moving flatbed truck below. She gets into a chopper and freefalls for what feels like hours, before popping the 'chute and glancing through a series of mid-air rings.
The game breaking down around her was subtle at first. She'd arrive to go skydiving and the cops would suddenly be chasing her, and then, just as suddenly, they wouldn't anymore. Or she'd be base-jumping and the guy who usually sat at the top of the crane waiting for her wouldn't be there, or when she landed on the flatbed - a perfect landing right out of the midnight blue - she'd be told that she'd failed, and she'd be kicked back to the curb. If there was a general theme to all of this, it is one of disembodiment - it is as if, after hours and hours of fun, GTA 5 was occasionally - very occasionally - finding it harder to spot Sarah within the game.
Last night, though, things stepped up a notch. She went to meet her buddy with the chopper, so that she could skydive over a huge basin in the middle of the map. She approached the chopper and got in. The blades started to turn and then - nothing.
The chopper stayed on the ground. She waited. I waited beside her. "Have you paused it?" I asked helpfully. "The blades are turning," she said. "The pilot just doesn't want to take off."
She exited the chopper and got back in. Nothing. She exited, drove away, returned and got back in. Nothing. She reloaded. Nothing. No change. The guy did not want to take off in his chopper.
Eventually, she did what anyone would do in GTA 5. She fired her gun. The sound of a hollow pop came from within the chopper. Then the blades sped up and the chopper lifted into the sky.
"That did it!" she said. But her joy was short lived. "He's not taking me to the dive spot," she said. "Where are we going?"
The chopper started to drift crazily across the sky, headed towards some distant mountains. From inside, the pilot said. "You get away from me!" or words to that effect. "What the hell's going on?" asked my wife. Or words to that effect.
In the end, we worked it out - or at least I think we did. The chopper pilot had heard the gunfire and he was trying to run away from my wife, who had clearly started shooting at him. Amazingly, he tried to do this in a chopper, even though my wife was also in the chopper. Eventually she jumped out, and the chopper spiralled towards the ground and exploded.
And the weird thing is that this was all fascinating. It was fascinating to see the gears of the game spinning, and it was fascinating to pick through the simulation and try to work out how the simulation itself was reacting to the game's moderately fragmenting world.
GTA 5 is the best game ever, by this point. It's the best game ever to my wife who plays it all the time, and I'm starting to come around to that view too, either though I've never picked up the pad myself. What's so dazzling, I think, is the sheer expanse of the canvas that the game plays out on, the range of its simulated parts and the craziness that can emerge as they come together in ways planned and unplanned. In scope, the whole thing reminds me of a painting by the "beautiful Spanish exile" Remedios Varo, that Thomas Pynchon mentions in The Crying of Lot 49. It's a painting in which prisoners in a tower embroider a tapestry "which spilled out the slit windows and into a void, seeking hopelessly to fill the void: for all the other buildings and creatures, all the waves, ships and forests of the earth, and this tapestry was the world."
Oedipa Maas, the book's protagonist, stands in front of the painting and starts to cry. "No one had noticed [her tears]", writes Pynchon. "She wore dark green bubble shades. For a moment she'd wondered if the seal around her sockets were tight enough to allow the tears simply to go on and fill up the entire lens space and never dry." I have often thought my wife is a little like Oedipa Maas, and now I wonder if GTA 5 is a bit like that tapestry.