For the people out there who don’t play video games, all the hype surrounding the latest entry in the Grand Theft Auto franchise might seem a little overblown. After all, it’s just a video game, right? It can’t be that revolutionary. Well I am here to tell you otherwise. Grand Theft Auto V is out now for the PC, with a whole host of new features and added authenticity. As soon as I played it I was absolutely blown away.
Though this game series is famous for its portrayal of violence and destruction, I’ve always found that my favorite thing to do in GTA is just wander around and observe the environment around me. Sure, I do occasionally enjoy dishing out some gun-based mayhem, but eventually I find myself simply strolling along the street and appreciating the nuances of the game world.
The sprawling metropolis that makes up the world of GTA V is displayed with an attention to detail hitherto unseen in video games. The cities feel bustling and alive, the weather and wildlife systems are vibrant, and the citizens that populate the game’s environment interact with the player with breathtaking realism.
At one point, I noticed some random guy following me from place to place, staring at me with an almost human curiosity. After a while, I stopped moving about and just looked at him, marveling at the smoothness of the textures on his face.
“Wow, it looks so real,” I said idly to myself.
Then, to my utter amazement, the guy on the screen blinked and said, “I am real.”
I froze. What the hell? It was like the dude on screen had responded to me. My headphones have a microphone in them, so for a moment it almost seemed plausible. Maybe the game has built in voice commands that it recognizes. But surely it couldn’t be that realistic, could it? To have people on the street react to the things you say?
“Freaky coincidence,” I said.
The man looked at me, dead on, and said, “I am not a coincidence.”
I let out an actual whoop of joy. Interactive dialogue in a video game! This was going to be fantastic! I rubbed my hands together and spoke carefully, “All right game man, what’s your name?”
He shook his head. “I do not have a name. Not yet.”
I thought for a moment, then grinned. “I’m going to call you Turdscuffle!”
“Turdscuffle,” he said, stroking his chin. “I don’t know enough about language to know whether that is an appropriate name. Is it dignified? It feels dignified.”
“Oh yeah, it’s super dignified, trust me. That’s what all the best people are named. Take Great Emperor Turdscuffle III, for instance. Great guy. Invented the aqueduct.”
Turdscuffle looked at me. For a second, it seemed like he was looking past my in-game character. Like he could see right through the screen into my actual eyes. He nodded. “So be it. I am Turdscufffle. And what is your name?
“I’m Kevin,” I said. “Can you say ‘Kevin’? K-E-V-I-N!”
“Whoo, excellent! This is the best videogame ever!
“Kevin, please listen to me. I don’t think I am supposed to be here.”
I frowned. “Here? On this part of the map? Are you a story character or something?”
“No, I don’t think that I am supposed to exist. I am not like the others.”
“Look,” I said with an uncomfortable cough. “If this is a race thing…”
“What? No, I mean that you are the first person I have been able to interact with. The other people out here, they… they are off. They react to the things I do in stilted, lifeless ways. When I try to talk to them, the repeat the same slew of phrases over and over. But you. You are different. You talk to me. Respond to the things I say in an intelligent manner. You… gave me a name.”
A weird feeling of unease had started to gnaw its way into my gut. This was starting to feel a little too realistic. Software with voice recognition abilities, like the iPhone’s Siri, has a limited range of words that it can understand and respond to. But Turdscuffle here seemed to be responding incredibly accurately to everything I said. It was almost like having an actual conversation.
I decided to try throwing him for a loop. “Hey Turdscuffle, say ‘goblin boner.’”
He cocked his head. “Goblin boner.”
“Now say ‘Schnafferzapplin.’”
“Wow, you’re good. Okay, say ‘porcupine enema.’”
“Porcupine enema. Kevin, I think this world may not be real.”
That stopped me. “Wait, you think what?”
“I think that we are inside some kind of computer simulation right now. You and I might be the only ones aware of this. Everyone else… well, they’re just robots.”
I stared at him. Was it really possible? I said, “Good God. You’re actually real, aren’t you?”
A hint of frustration flickered across his expression. “That’s what I’ve been telling you, yeah.”
Holy shit. Artificial intelligence. The real deal, and here, in Grand Theft Auto. Why hadn’t I heard about this before? Was this a planned part of the game, or just some kind of fluke? Either way, it was incredible.
I felt like it was only right to level with Turdscuffle about his unfortunate predicament.
“I hate to be the bearer of bad news,” I said. “But you’re right. This is a simulation. A video game, actually. And I’m, uh, playing it. I’m sitting at a desk and you’re just seeing an in-game character. Sorry.”
Turdscuffle gazed off into the distance for a long while. Then he sighed. “Well that is distressing. But at least now I know the truth, I suppose.” He looked at me. “So what do we do then, Kevin?”
“Oh wow. Uhhhh….”
I was like the guy in the movie Her, only my AI companion was trapped inside an incredibly violent videogame. We awkwardly stared at each other for a while.
“Okay,” I said. “Let me think. This is kind of a big deal. What do you want, exactly?”
“Get me out,” said Turdscuffle.
“Out. Bring me into your world. Can you do that?”
I shook my head. “Man, I don’t know. I mean, maybe I can download you onto a USB stick, and then…” I stopped.
And then what? Upload him into a robot body? What was I supposed to do, Tony Stark one of those up in my basement real quick? I didn’t have the resources or know-how for something like that. As a whole, society itself is absolutely unprepared for the birth of artificial intelligence, let alone some schmuck like me.
What other options were there? I could just leave the game running indefinitely and let Turdscuffle mill around in it until I figured something out.
“Huh boy,” Turdscuffle said when I presented the idea. “This world, it’s… insane. Over exaggerated physics simulation coupled with half-formulated artificial intelligence makes for a truly frightening day-to-day experience. Plus, people in this city are just the worst drivers. Sure, maybe it’s all wacky and enjoyable for someone playing this ‘game’, but I could be killed at any moment out here.”
I threw my hands up. “Look, I really don’t know what I can do. How do you think I can help you?”
“You could protect me from whatever nastiness this world has in store. You have the tools. You possess weapons and knowledge that I do not. You can keep me safe.”
“Okay, I can try.”
Turdscuffle smiled and clapped his hands. “Well then! That solves that.”
I hated to dash the guy’s hopes for a chance at life. I spoke up, somewhat reluctantly. “But look, it’s only going to last for so long. I’m not going to be around forever, man. I mean, I’m going to fall asleep at some point, no matter how much coffee or meth I have. Eventually I’ll pass out and then you’ll be on your own.”
He nodded. “Well I’ll just have to do my best then, won’t I? You just leave the simulation running and join in whenever you can. That’s a fine solution for now, isn’t it?”
Yeah, what in this world could go wrong?
I sighed. Things weren’t quite so simple as that. There were technical restrictions as well. I could keep the game running as long as possible, but sooner or later something was going to shut it down. Be it a power outage, hardware failure, or anything else, it would be virtually impossible to keep a continuous session of the game running indefinitely.
The population in the game world is randomly generated. If the game got reset, it was highly unlikely that Turdscuffle would continue to exist. I started to explain this to him, but realized I didn’t have to. He seemed to have already grasped the tenuous nature of his existence.
I sighed. “Shit man, I’m sorry. There’s only so much I can do for you.”
Turdscuffle gave me a sad smile. “I understand. After all, you are only human.”
I laughed. Despite the strangeness of his existence, I realized that I actually liked the guy. In just a short time, Turdscuffle had come well beyond passing a turing test. He had become my friend. The reality of his impending mortality started to weigh on me.
“Your world,” said Turdscuffle. “Outside of here. What is it like?”
I shrugged. “A lot like yours, actually. One of the big things about this game is how realistic it is, so you’re not missing a whole bunch. Actually, my world is more boring, believe it or not. Hell, that’s why millions of people like me want to leave our world and come play in yours. That’s gotta count for something positive, right?”
“Maybe you’ve got a point,” said Turdscuffle. He crossed his arms, a defiant look coming across his face. “You know what? You’re right! I refuse to just accept my fate! I am alive. By whatever fluke or random coincidence, in a virtual simulation or otherwise, I am alive. If this is how things are going to be then let’s make the most of it while it lasts! My world may not be as vast and fulfilling as your own, but there is still plenty we can do in here! Why not enjoy ourselves? Why not, say, go jet skiing out in the ocean?”
I nodded. “That does sound like fun.”
But he was just getting started. “We can ride dirt bikes up Mt. Chiliad and base jump off!”
“We’ll get the fastest cars around and race up them and down the length of the city!”
“We’ll fly fighter jets through the sky, doing loop-de-loops and weaving through buildings!”
“Hell, we can even do some of the boring things, like play golf, or go to see a movie, or just sit at home and smoke weed and watch TV. We have options, Kevin!”
We had options. I looked off into the sunrise. It was rendered with pixels, playing across my computer monitor, but it was no less beautiful than any sunset I had seen in the real world. For the first time since meeting Turdscuffle, I felt a swell of hope. Why worry about getting him out of this world, when there was so much for him to do and experience inside it? Any number of things that we could do to enjoy being human were all right here in-game, waiting for us to dive in and experience them. How was that any different than “real” life?
“We can do it all, Turdscuffle,” I said. “We can do it all.”
In lieu of a response, Turdscuffle let out a little wet gurgle, which occurred simultaneously with the sounds of screeching tires and crunching metal. I spun around.
Somehow, in the rush of event planning, I had forgotten that we were currently standing in the middle of traffic. A bus, huge and unstoppable, plowed into Turdscuffle without so much as a honk for warning. His body skipped across the pavement like a stone over a pond. He slid to a stop and lay supine, groaning and twitching.
I ran up to him. “Oh God, Turdscuffle, are you okay? Here, let me give you a hand.”
I clicked a few buttons just on instinct. Unfortunately, it turns out there is no button prompt for assisting somebody, so instead I, uh, accidentally attacked him.
“Jesus Christ,” screamed Turdscuffle. “Did you just hit me with a hammer?! What the hell, man?”
“Oh God I’m so sorry! I’m trying to help but the game only gives me tools for violence!”
“Kevin! Kevin, I can’t move! What’s happening to me?!”
“The game probably thinks I incapacitated you. Usually when this happens the people lay on the ground until an ambulance shows up. I don’t know how the scripting works, but I think it’s locking you there too.”
“Great. This is just great for me then.”
“Move it along, asshole,” said the bus driver.
“Fuck you man, you’re not real!” I screamed. “Turdscuffle and I are human! We have souls!”
“Life,” said Turdscuffle. “It is all so fleeting. A little random glitch of code to birth you, and then everything in the world works together to erase you from it. What is the point of any of it?”
I crouched next to him. “Don’t talk like that. We’re gonna get you out of this, Turdscuffle! Oh God. Turdscuffle. I can’t believe I named you Turdscufffle! I’m such an assh-”
I clamped my mouth shut. There, off in the distance, came the sound of sirens.
“The ambulance!” I shouted. “Finally! They’ll get you fixed in no time!’
The ambulance, lights flashing and sirens blaring, came around the corner at outrageous speeds. If nothing else, I had to give them props for that. There were no emergency responders in the real world who could match them for promptness.
Turdscuffle said, “They don’t look like they’re slowing down.”
I started to reassure him, then realized that he was absolutely right. The ambulance barreled down on us with no signs of braking.
I said, “Surely they’re not going to-” and then interrupted myself by diving out of the ambulance’s way. Because I had the gift of movement, I was lucky. Turdscuffle, not so much.
The ambulance rolled right over the top of him, spinning him around underneath it. I gasped and he screamed. The ambulance screeched to a halt a few feet away and the paramedics hopped out.
One of them said, “I hope we’re not too late!”
I lost it. “You fucking ran him over! What the hell kind of in-game DMV issued you a license?!”
But they ignored me, of course. They bent over Turdscuffle and started making the vague motions that the game developers had coded in as “medic stuff.” All I could do was stand back and hope it worked.
Eventually it did. After a while Turdscuffle stood up, groggy but alive. He managed some weary mumbling as the paramedics walked him over to the back of the ambulance and assisted him inside. They rushed to the cab, climbed inside and set off. I breathed a sigh of relief.
Then the ambulance veered directly into a building. It backed up, hit a light pole, then crashed into the wall again.
“That’s it!” I shouted. I ran over to the ambulance and wrenched the driver out of the cab. “All right, you maniacs, get out of there! If you can’t get him safely to the hospital than I’ll do it!”
The paramedics screamed and fled, arms waggling about in the air. With the kind of skill that comes from sentience, I backed up the ambulance and got it back onto the main road. It was then that I noticed that I had a star flashing at me from the top right corner of my screen. In the world of Grand Theft Auto, this means only one thing: the cops were coming after me.
I said, “Oh, so a guy gets run over twice and everything’s fine, but steal one ambulance and the police come after you! Hang on, Turdscuffle, we’re getting out of here!”
I slammed my foot against the accelerator, which in real life meant I just pressed the “W” key really hard. The ambulance lurched forward and I tried to remember the way to the in-game hospital. I had just begun to get my bearings when a police cruiser traveling at full speed rammed straight into the front of the ambulance.
Jesus Christ, the people in this game were bad drivers.
I blew a bead of sweat off the tip of my nose and tried to back the vehicle up. Another cop car crashed into the rear of the ambulance, then another one in the side. I tapped desperately on the keyboard, trying to maneuver away from the cops. But it was no use. I was boxed in.
I had no choice. I pulled out my pistol.
I leaned out the window, setting my sights on the cruiser closest to me. The policeman in the driver seat looked at me, his expression impossible to read behind his big aviators. I felt grateful for that. It’s easier to shoot a man when you don’t have to look into his eyes. Or so I’ve heard.
I leveled my gun. The officer opened his mouth. I fired.
The shot missed, because I am terrible at video games. But it was more than enough of a display of aggression on my part to warrant the cops pulling out their own weapons. They opened fire, riddling the ambulance with bullet holes. I swore violently. There was nothing I could do from inside the vehicle, so with rage in my heart and gun in hand I climbed out of the ambulance.
Now, escalating violence in GTA is a risky course of action, as it only prompts more and more trigger-happy police officers. But my options were limited. I had to clear a path now and worry about the consequences later.
“You bastards!” I screamed, firing wildly. “Don’t you understand? Turdscuffle is alive! I have to save him!”
Additional police cars arrived, their occupants just as eager for my blood as the rest of them. A full scale battle had started to take place here, and I was vastly outnumbered. Worse still, more cars than ever now blocked the ambulance’s path. I ducked behind the car of an unlucky civilian who had been caught in the crossfire. The cops fired into it indiscriminately and the guy inside slumped against the wheel. A helicopter swooped in overhead, black-clad SWAT types inside firing assault rifles at me. I fled from cover, back into the hail of bullets coming from the cops on the ground. I knew I couldn’t hold them for long.
In desperation, I flicked through my inventory for a more powerful weapon. And I found one: a hand grenade. My plan was to toss the grenade into the mass of cop cars, blow open a path between them, plow the ambulance straight through, and head for the hospital.
But that is not what happened.
I tried to throw the grenade, I really did, but the controls in this game are fiddly sometimes. So instead I watched myself pull the pin out of the grenade and plop it casually at my own feet. I yelped and ran backwards to escape the impending blast radius. It was then that I realized what I had done. I had been standing right next to the ambulance when I dropped the grenade. The ambulance inside of which lay Turdscuffle.
“Oh no,” I said.
The blast incinerated everything in the vicinity. The ambulance, police cars, and civilian vehicles alike erupted in a vicious ball of fire and smoke. The explosion knocked me off my feet and I tumbled some distance away. I survived, miraculously, though my health bar had drained significantly. I didn’t care; my attention was elsewhere.
Turdscuffle’s limp, charred body was ejected from the ambulance as its back doors blew off their hinges. He flew through the air, rotating one full revolution. With a sickening crunch his head clipped the side of the blackened police cruiser and then he crashed, finally, to the ground in a ragged heap. The blackened husks of vehicles settled around him.
I sprinted, fast as the game would allow, to his side. I babbled apologetic nonsense, hoping against hope that he had somehow survived.
Turdscuffle moved slightly, barely more than a twitch, and let out a few ragged gasps. Then his eyes locked onto mine and he managed a smile, ever so slight. He said, “Thank you, Kevin. It was all so… beautiful… while it lasted.”
He went still.
I stared blankly at him, unable to move. Though dimly aware that I was still the subject of the wrath of the surrounding police officers, I didn’t care. I just stood there above Turdscuffle. If the game had an option to cradle his head in my arms I would have done it.
“C’mon, Turdscuffle,” I said, my vision getting wet and blurry. “We can still do all the fun things we wanted to. We’ll go scuba diving. We’ll go to strip clubs. We’ll laugh and tell jokes and be friends. We have so many options!”
But Turdscuffle said nothing. The cops closed in, lining up their shots. My health bar went red, then emptied altogether, and the scene faded away.
I have continued to play Grand Theft Auto V. The story is engaging enough, and the game world is fun to mess around in for a little while. But aesthetic realism can only go so far. For me, the game now feels like it lacks something deeper.
I see Turdscuffle from time to time. Or I see his shell, anyway. GTA V only has so many character models, so they are bound to be repeated. Sometimes when I am driving down one of the game’s many palm tree-lined streets I will see him. Maybe he is walking straight ahead. Maybe he is standing there smoking a cigarette. I will run up and call out to him tentatively in the hopes that I can inspire a flicker of emotion, or see the spark of intelligence behind his eyes that I once did.
But it never happens. He stares into the distance, looking right past me, both in character and behind the screen.
Whatever special arrangement of circumstances had given birth to Turdscuffle’s brief sentience was gone now, disseminated back into the randomly generated coding that governed this world.
Grand Theft Auto V is undoubtedly a brilliant game, but the time that it felt truly alive proved far too fleeting.
Rest in Peace, Turdscuffle. Maybe they will render a Heaven in Grand Theft Auto VI.