As Chris Tapsell pointed out a while back, every GTA game is love wrapped in satire. The series seems edgy because the satire is very broad, and often fairly misdirected. But the series sells – and the individual games stick around for so long – because after thirty hours of playing, you’re responding purely to the love. Love of the genre, certainly. Love of the excess, sure. But love of the characters too and, more than anything, love of place.
I expected love of place to be firmly in the foreground for the GTA 6 trailer, which leaked earlier tonight, causing Rockstar to just go ahead and publish the thing itself. I expected this because Rockstar’s first trailers tend to be vibe affairs. These games take so long to make you’re often getting glimpses of the team working on new hardware for the first time and that’s always interesting, but also, Rockstar just likes place. It likes to capture the essence of a location – New York, LA, the south-west in the days of stagecoaches and whatnot – in a few key frames suffused with the kind of billowing bloomy light that you don’t often see outside of Turner. And then it moves in close for the details that will sell the place: the oil wells scandalously close to the LA beach (they’re there in real life), the exhausted realtor hammering in a sign, the people living under the bridge.
In these trailers you get a bit of plot – Michael talks about why he tried to settle down and then you see him kicking in a bank door with his crew, or Nico muses on his violent past and hopes for something different. But it’s still mainly vibes. Look at the light flooding through Grand Central at various times of day or offering different illuminations to the Chrysler Building. Look at Venice Beach in the morning with joggers checking each other out and the smog gathering.
All of which is to say, GTA 6’s trailer feels a bit different. It’s a subtle thing, and I detected it in the first few seconds. Pink and orange cocktail skies: surely this is Miami drawn in vibes? But then we get chainlink fencing and razor wire: a prison, and someone’s hoping to get back out? We see a hero’s face very early on. She gets a hero line. This is characters first, characters and a bit of plot?
Hmm. Plot might be too strong a word for it, but we’ll come back to that. And while we spot this character again and again – is she up on the roof? Is that her in the car? – we also get a lot of more vibey stuff. It’s beautiful. Here’s Miami’s seafront and the sea has a gloriously pearly sheen. Here’s the nightlife, art deco edged in neon strips, people in the streets, bodies spilling out of bars. If you’re looking for signs of the game’s breadth, they’re everywhere. Planes and yachts and speedboats and will I be able to do anything with that container ship? But also social media and stick-ups and a fishtailing 1970s car churning up the earth. If you’re looking for signs of the satirical side of Rockstar too, you’ll be happy. Crocodiles – or alligators? – breaking into convenience stores. Police bodycam footage. Billboards with cleverly stupid things written on them. Someone twerking on top of a car.
But we knew that Rockstar could do Florida Man. If anything, the worry was that Rockstar might be a little too comfortable down here with the new money and the endless capacity for improbable crimes, often involving the deadlier elements of the local wildlife. So what’s surprising – what stuck out to me – is that this trailer continues to foreground that hero, the woman who got out of prison, who clearly found love, and who clearly decided that freedom lay on the other end of a crime spree. Plot? Not plot, then, but character and theme.
This is what’s interesting: in amongst the violence and excess and jokes and possibilities for stealing this kind of vehicle and doing that with it, in amongst the “will TikTok be in the game?” and “can I ride a flamingo?” there are moments that are clearly character moments – a moment of mud-splattered kicking back, possibly after a successful score, something distinctly tender happening as two people talk in a motel room. It’s telling you: people are at the centre of this. Two people. They’re what this game is about from the off.
The trailer’s short, and it’s very quickly edited, and I’ve only seen it twice, and I was also in bed almost asleep when it leaked, so I may have gotten a lot of this wrong. But the approach seems spot-on to me. You get the wackiness, the japes, and you get the endless supply of different vehicles and different kinds of land to race around in: the streets, the edge-lands, the swamps. This is Florida, where a former president now lives and where he once stored nuclear secrets in – what was it? A spare bathroom? Yes, all of that. But there’s romance here, too, and the giddiness of a story driven by unstable passion. It’s satire, in other words, but that’s just a wrapper for the love.
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