Idling In Los Santos

Published in The New Yorker [2013]

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At four thousand eighty-three square miles, Los Angeles County is more small planet than metropolis. Its geography encompasses majestic shoreline and hard-bitten desert, forested mountainsides and fathomless cement flatlands, eight-lane freeways and desolate dirt highways frequented primarily by lizards and tumbleweeds. Movie stars, migrant workers, and criminals have an equal stake in the cosmology of Los Angeles, whose current population is 9.8 million. For all of these reasons, the developers of Grand Theft Auto V—the latest iteration of the popular “open world” video-game series—chose L.A. County as the basis for the fictional setting of Los Santos. Within twenty-four hours of its release, last Tuesday, G.T.A. V had grossed over eight hundred million dollars, which translates to about thirteen million copies sold. Those numbers suggest that by this weekend there will be more people living in the imaginary state of Los Santos than in the real city on which it was modelled.

The British and Scottish designers at Rockstar, the company behind Grand Theft Auto, have made immersive environments a trademark. Still, the team’s expansive and iconographic depictions of Miami and New York City don’t compare to Los Santos. With forty-nine square miles of interactive territory, the map of G.T.A. V is bigger than all of Rockstar’s previous open-world environments combined. Los Santos—which has been made an island, if only to dispel any notion of unreachable territory—is also the largest interactive environment ever built for a video game. More crucially, the island is as detailed as it is deep. It’s not just that the dark-cedar utility poles look right—the chipped divots in the utility poles look right.

Similar to the way that Rockstar approached New York and Miami, the G.T.A. V team conducted more than a hundred days of research in Los Angeles, taking thousands of photographs and hours of digital video—all of which was later transmogrified into the computer-generated realism of Los Santos. That exhaustive field work is unique in that it wasn’t conducted to document a living space. Rather, it was collected to create an extremely realistic version of a Los Angeles that doesn’t actually exist. The map of Los Santos is familiar but its contents are condensed. The landmarks are exact but the placement is screwy. The neighborhoods are recognizable but their names are counterfeit: Hollywood is “Vinewood,” Venice is “Vespucci,” and so on.

Los Santos is intended as a sunbaked modern-day Middle Earth in which you, the participant, are allowed to do and see anything you want. Though the debate over G.T.A.’s unapologetic celebration of sex and violence rages anew, the carnage in Los Santos now feels far less fantastical than its total freedom of movement. In Los Angeles, it can take half a day just to get from one side of town to the other. In Los Santos, you can drive to the beach in seconds, then free dive on a whim, spending an hour exploring the ocean floor, rendered with opulent detail equal to that of the terrestrial city. Afterward, you might hijack a helicopter that will carry you into a regal cluster of mountains just north of the metropolis. The team at Rockstar imported parts of Yosemite National Park to fill out their idealized map of Southern California.

That sort of geographic plastic surgery seems at odds with the franchise’s obsession with verisimilitude. Los Santos is not a real city; it is the Los Angeles of cop dramas and heist flicks and music videos, a love letter to the synthetic Los Angeles of the imagination. It overlaps with the real place only in ways that are occasional, incidental, and unplanned.

From Ed Ruscha to Roman Polanski, artists who create enduring images of Los Angeles do so with its light. More than any other aspect, it is the city’s essence. “Even with smog there’s something about that light that’s not harsh, but bright and smooth,” wrote the director David Lynch, whose L.A. films exist in a world of enhanced but uncertain realism. “It fills me with the feeling that all possibilities are available. I don’t know why. It’s different from the light in other places. The light in Philadelphia, even in the summer, is not nearly as bright. It was the light that brought everybody to L.A. to make films in the early days. It’s still a beautiful place.”

For a century, people working in Hollywood have brazenly manipulated the geography of Los Angeles for their own private purposes, but they’ve never been able to fully disguise its light. It permeates the real city as much as it enhances the imaginary one. It’s the light that transforms the anonymous sprawl of L.A. into something instantly recognizable and distinct. It even sneaks into non-cinematographic sitcoms like “The Office” and “Seinfeld.” Though those shows were filmed on sets, the intermittent scenes in which characters are shown walking outside reveal instantly that they’re not in Pennsylvania or in New York, but in California. And, while you could state the facts of classic crime films like “Heat” or “Chinatown,” it is the light of the city—mystical as it is reliable—that makes those stories linger in the memory as emblems of Los Angeles.

In August, Aaron Garbut, the art director in charge of the look of Los Santos, gave an interview in which he appeared more excited about the advancements in the lighting technology of G.T.A. V than he did about any of its action sequences. “The buildings, the people, the cars, the architecture, even the smog, it all centers around the sunshine,” he said. “There’s poverty, violence, and a real underside to the city, but it’s the sun that gets you first.” A lifelong resident of Edinburgh, Garbut perceived that the key to making Los Santos convincing was that light.

Garbut and his team have worked hard to insure that the players of G.T.A. V encounter nothing dull. The repetitive, nondescript swathes of city so integral to Los Angeles have simply been deleted. Characters move without pause from San Pedro to Koreatown to Venice to the mountains and the desert. And yet there are still fleeting moments in the game in which you drive your character’s car up some unspectacular street. The surface of the concrete shows several layers of scarring and the midday sun hits it in a way that intensifies every inch of its battered epidermis. For all of Rockstar’s expertise in making Hollywood fantasy feel like reality, there is nothing in the entire game as authentic, or as seductive, as the light on that pavement. ◆