I Fought The Law, And The Law Won: Driving Lawfully And Meaningful Choice In Grand Theft Auto

Rockstar and Take-Two like to market the GTA series as offering huge freedom of choice within a large urban simulation. But that premise breaks down almost immediately if you try to exercise that freedom by playing outside of GTA V’s expectations, which it turns out are actually quite narrow.

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To illustrate this, I started playing GTA V using a very simple personal rule that I’ve experimented with before: I just chose to drive lawfully. Now, I don’t actually drive in real-life, so if I’m honest, my understanding of “driving lawfully” in the real world is pretty basic. And GTA V’s environment doesn’t actually have all the necessary signage to indicate things like speed limits, special turns and so on, or any way for the player to indicate before turning, so there’s only so far you could go to “drive lawfully” in any case. So to make this simple, for the purposes of this exercise, and this post, “driving lawfully” means three things: obeying traffic lights, sticking to marked lanes, and not hitting other vehicles, pedestrians or objects.

What immediately becomes obvious when you try to drive lawfully is that GTA V’s city simulation just does not have a functioning traffic system. Lane markings are difficult to read, and AI drivers tend to treat them only as suggestions in any case. Traffic lights, though, are the major problem. Traffic lights change far too slowly for the pace of the rest of the simulation. AI drivers ignore traffic signals often. When they follow the signals, they do so in ways that are awkward or imprecise. And if you’re trying to follow the signals, the AI drivers will bump up against you, or yell at you if you try to wait for a green light. The actual missions are even worse about accounting for traffic: NPCs will yell at you to keep moving while you’re waiting for a light to change, and you’ll just straight-up fail many missions if you wait for the lights. In the mission where Franklin first meets Michael, while repossessing an SUV, the player has no clear reason not to wait for lights to change. But if you do wait for the lights, you’ll always end up taking too long and failing the mission.

The end result is that GTA V excludes lawful driving from its possibility space, for most practical gameplay purposes. Narrowing the possibility space in this way undercuts the reputation the GTA series has for allowing player freedom.

In fact, shrinking the possibility space to exclude lawful play makes the player’s unlawful play meaningless. The best way I can explain this is by first giving you an explanation I use in my classes that illustrates how possibility spaces impact on player choice.

See, one of Rockstar’s other games, Red Dead Redemption, lets you shoot horses. But the thing about games is, they have significant variation in what they’ll let you do, even within a genre with established conventions. So generally the way players work out what they can do in a given game is, they try things. Some games might not let you shoot horses, for example. And until you shoot a horse in Red Dead Redemption, you don’t know for sure that you can do so in that game. Now, here’s where this gets interesting: to make any meaningful choice, the player needs to know what options are available. A choice with only one known option is no choice at all. What this means, in the case of Red Dead Redemption, is that because the player must shoot a horse to know that shooting horses is an option, the choice not to shoot horses can only be meaningful after the player first shoots a horse. It’s only once the player knows they can shoot horses that they can make any kind of meaningful choice about whether or not to do so. This leads to the delightful zen koan-like paradox that one must shoot the horse to not shoot the horse.

To bring this back to GTA V, what this means is that because driving lawfully isn’t really a practical or functional option, the player has no real, meaningful choice but to drive unlawfully. Rockstar and Take-Two market the GTA series on the freedom to choose to break rules like traffic laws, but GTA V has no functional way of not doing this, and so this choice becomes no choice at all.

The truth is, while the marketing of the GTA series can lead players to think they’re breaking the rules by driving unlawfully, in fact they’re simply playing by a different but still rigid and confining set of rules. Breaking the laws of the real world is, paradoxically, obediently following the laws of GTA V. In GTA V, the freedom to break the rules is no freedom at all. You have a choice, but only if you choose to do exactly what Rockstar expects you to do.

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