The Architecture of Grand Theft Auto V

Los Santos

2 October 2013

The first thing I noticed about Los Santos was the lack of traffic.

It seems like a big city, but the wide streets and freeways have just the right amount of cars to let you burn along, foot hard down, with only the odd scrape of a bumper. It sure helps getting across town, because Los Santos, like most American cities, makes you spend a hell of a lot of time in your car.

Los Santos is the fictional city of Grand Theft Auto V, but then you knew that, because this billion dollar video game is an impossible-to-avoid scion of pop culture. The game is usually billed as an ultraviolent crime simulator, but most of the time you are in a car, driving to or from a more-or-less ordinary event (playing golf, arguing with your wife, robbing a jewellery store, shopping) surrounded by a vast city and landscape. The city is the thing: it's why GTA exists. All the massive design effort in the game is poured into making a simulacrum of a city-region that rings true and provides the most convincing setting for the lives of its characters.

This particular city portrait takes Los Angeles as its model, and that's significant, because games in general have privileged a Gotham-like archetype in the past. If you think of many of the biggest games around (the Arkham series of Batman games; Assassin’s Creed etc.), they depend on getting up high and looking down; flying even. But LA is a low-rise city, and suburban sprawl is not known for pulse-racing urban excitement.

The world of GTA V is in fact an island (around 9km in length) comprised of two territories. Blaine County is in the north, with its depressed beachside communities, spectacular mountain ranges, a mini-desert, and Grapeseed, a farming area dominated by polytunnels and tractors. Los Santos County itself consists of the city of Los Santos, the Vinewood Hills (no prizes for guessing its analogue version) and a hinterland of scenic mountains and beachside highways.

The city is broadly a series of intersecting grids, with low rises on the south side (a scaled-down Compton), a small peak of skyscrapers for downtown, plus the Vinewood Hills, with luxury houses with tennis courts and swimming pools. A ring of freeways divides up the city, and this overpowering infrastructure has a convincing effect: you can be in the CBD of Downtown and never know that just a block away is Little Seoul – the La Puerta Highway is as much a boundary as it would be in real life.

Perhaps the most truly unrealistic aspect of the city is this off-kilter relationship between infrastructure and the size of the place. Los Santos claims a population of 13,000,000 (on the GTA wiki), but my guesstimate would be more like 70,000 could fit into the blocks that make up the city. For a place about the size of Crawley, there’s an international airport, a large cargo dock, miles of 8-lane freeway, and 11-stop subway system, passenger and freight railways, two stadiums, a race track, a theatre, a prison, a film studio and three hospitals, not to mention a statistically implausible number of strip clubs and tattoo parlours.

This is all at the heart of the conflict within the game. The taxes the municipality would have to levy to maintain all this infrastructure would be cripplingly high for the average Los Santos resident, severely impairing their disposable income to such a degree that the city of freedom would soon feel like a soviet. LA/Los Santos is the city of narcissism, of the individual, of unsustainable consumption and the encouragement of unsustainable consumption.

LA is a monument to what the architectural critic Reyner Banham – writing in his 1971 book Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies – called “doing your thing”. What the game proves, though, is that when it comes to the need to create excitement in a city, doing your thing isn’t enough. If you want to cause havoc, that’s best done in public places – the game is overloaded with them. The plot of the game does play up the introspection and anxiety at the heart of late capitalism (mainly through one of its lead characters Michael and his family, his shrink, his wife’s vile yoga teacher), but that’s not where the fun lies.

For me, the experience of Los Santos will be remembered as one of normality, banality and filled with the low-level irritation of urban life. How it is that one of the biggest entertainment brands in the world persuades you to spend time driving across town to buy a boiler suit from a corner shop (“Mission Complete” it grandly tells you after your shopping is done – you get a bonus for buying all three possible colours of boiler suit) will be the subject of PhDs in the future. In Los Santos, you need to keep an eye on your work/life balance.

In urban terms, Los Santos is an inaccurate evocation of the city of the individual, but the game itself is indeed a work of supreme individual indulgence. Playing the game gives you a whole city that revolves entirely around you. In that regard GTA V, if not the city it takes place in, satisfies our narcissism like few other experiences.