Uncanny City: “Grand Theft Auto V” and Ludocartographic Dissonance

on Friday, Oct. 4th

I have a bone to pick with "Grand Theft Auto V".

It's not the misogyny, the misanthropy, or the way that broad humor is used as a cudgel to deconstruct American popular culture. No, this is a “GTA” game, I knew that was what I was getting when I plunked down $5 to pre-order the game months ago in the ritual of commitment that gamers make to affirm our identities.

The attraction to the “GTA” franchise exists for me in spite of all those factors.

The violence itself has never been a reward for participating in all the chaos for me. The payoff has always been the way the latest rampage is metabolized by the in-game radio station into an anecdote. The worst atrocities papered over with the kind of banal wit endemic to real newscasting. If I did not visit horrors upon the residents of the “Grand Theft Auto” universe I'd never get to hear just how badly the media gets the story wrong.

The hinge point of the reward loop is the simple joy of driving through an American city at top speed in a thinly disguised import car with the radio blasting. That's been ballast enough for the thematic ick. A good plaster for the abundant disconnect between the game's narrative and gameplay.

There's actually a term in gaming circles for the gap that exists between gameplay and story. In the “GTA” series this is found in the tension between the script's view of the protagonists as reluctant anti-heroes and the sociopathic way that the game is actually played.

The term of art is "ludonarrative dissonance". The "ludo" comes from the Latin for playing: ludens. "Narrative", of course, refers to story and "dissonance" serves the same function as it does in the phrase "cognitive dissonance".

I need to add a new term to the lexicon: ludocartographic dissonance.

The current iteration of “Grand Theft Auto” takes place in a fictionalized version of Los Angeles called Los Santos. It is territory the series has covered before, kind of. A previous installment–“Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas”–took place largely in the same city, although the layout of the maps have changed.

If anything the map is closer to the reality of Los Angeles, and therein lies the rub.

There's another term of art in gaming you might be familiar with: "the uncanny valley." This refers to what happens when digital characters become something more than cartoony avatars but still fall short of real life. It can create a nagging sensation that something is wrong. A tickling at the back of the neck that prevents disbelief from being fully suspended.

This is what is happening to me with "GTA V." When last I played a “GTA” game set in Los Santos I was not a resident of Los Angeles. I was familiar enough with the streets of L.A. to appreciate the way that the fictional city suggested the real one. The Santa Monica pier area in particular still stands out in my memory, and I can't help but think of the game when I visit it in real life.

Now, after a few years of residency, the discrepancies between the real world and the game are grating. As the game gets the details right, it pushes up against the holistic image of Los Angeles that is inside my head, my own internal GPS.

Case in point:

In the very first mission of the game I found myself crashing into an all too familiar building out in the marina. Within seconds I was screaming "You have to be kidding me!" at the television.

I had just rammed a sports car into the apartment building of a former paramour. What the hell was that building doing there? I poked around the game neighborhood, and for a one block radius all the details were correct. It was spooky. I was in a place I swore I'd never be again. Only it wasn't me. But it was.


Tearing off at top speed I was able to reach downtown L.A. from the Marina in about 90 seconds. If that. For those who are not familiar with Los Angeles let me assert the following: this is impossible without bending the laws of physics and probably destroying the universe.

With my eyes opened up to the dissonance, the discrepancies between the game and real life began to take their toll. The Beverly Center is not three blocks from Pershing Square. Griffith Observatory is on the other side of the Hollywood sign from where the game places the "Vinewood" sign.

I know full well that the city Rockstar's designers have created is an artistic choice. It is an edited version of reality. The choices they made are different from the ones I would have made. Yet I wonder if modeling a real city so closely is a good idea anymore.

As the technology that drives our simulations get better, as we collectively race towards the ability to slip into virtual worlds with the fidelity of "The Matrix," is it worth it to spend so much effort creating slightly twisted versions of real places?

My internal GPS of L.A. is so good that it goes through fits when I drive through Los Santos. I am incapable of relaxing into the game's driving mechanic, blasting the stereo, and having a good laugh about the horrible thing I just made happen because of the way the virtual pundits are framing it on their inane talk show.

Because that store is on the wrong side of the street. The whole city is wrong. Disbelief rears its head and won't let go. The reward loop is broken and I'm stuck in a backwards world with no moral center. With no way to escape.

Follow Noah Nelson on Twitter (@noahjnelson)


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