I’ve recently started replaying Grand Theft Auto 3. Actually, ‘replaying’ suggests both that I’ve completed it before, which I haven’t, and that I’ve played more recent games in the series extensively, which, again, I haven’t. But then “I’ve recently started playing Grand Theft Auto 3” suggests I’m about (christ) 13 years behind the videogame curve, which is not true. I am at most 5 or 6 years behind.
Anyway, yeah. I’ve started Grand Theft Auto 3. It’s wonderful, obviously. Despite lots of pop-up and a targeting system that seems to want me to kill fleeing pedestrians rather than the rival gang members trying to shoot me with their guns, I’m having a great deal of fun, not least because of the large number of strange, inexplicable things that I’ve witnessed on my travels. Allow me to paint a picture with my words.
In my search for hidden packages, I drive down a tunnel, possibly one behind a big shopping mall. To my joy, the pop-up gods reveal a hidden package about half-way down the tunnel, but the package is not alone. (Incidentally I realise I’m typing the word ‘package’ rather a lot, and I appreciate the fact that you’re keeping your snickering to a respectful level) The hidden package is surrounded by four hobos. I stop the car and get out. I look at the hobos. I walk around the hobos. I intentionally bump into one of the hobos, to see if he moves. He does not. All four stand stock still, staring intenting at the hidden package. ‘Why?’ I think to myself. ‘Why are they stood here?’ Well.
The hidden packages in GTA 3 are plastic bags filled with white powder and wrapped up with tape, i.e. packets of cocaine or some other drug. The people surrounding the package look like they sleep on the streets. Not to generalise of course, but sometimes the reason a person is homeless is that they are addicted to drugs. Perhaps such a fate has befallen these helplessly entranced souls. The most likely actual genuine explanation of course is just that the game designers thought it would be amusing to put some entranced hobos around this spinny, glowy thing down this tunnel. But. But! Let’s merge those two approaches somewhat. These homeless people happen upon a tunnel, possibly one behind a big shopping mall. They wander inside, to shelter from the rain perhaps. What confronts them is both familiar, and utterly unlike anything they’ve ever experienced before. It looks like a kilo of drugs, and they think they’ve hit the jackpot, but somehow, they know they can’t approach it. Why’s it floating a few feet off the ground? Why’s it surrounded by white light? This object, which to me as a person playing this game is perfectly normal, a thing to be picked up and added to the inventory, is to these hobos what the monolith was to the apes in 2001: A Space Odyssey. It suggests a higher existence they cannot participate in, it is an object which reveals to them the emptiness, the futility of their existence. It makes them aware that they are NPCs in a videogame. No wonder they’re staring at it.
With caution, I push past the hobos and pick up the hidden package. I expect to be mauled by people who have just had the most significant thing in their lives taken away from them, but nothing happens. They carry on staring, at the spot where the hidden package once floated. I find it difficult to blame them. If I’d come across an object which fundamentally shifted my perception of the nature of reality as I understood it, I’d struggle to know what to do when it disappeared as well.
I’m reminded of one issue from Grant Morrison’s run on Animal Man, called (I think) ‘The Coyote Bible’ where a character very similar to Wile E. Coyote finds a way to ‘rise’ from the level of reality where cartoons exist to the ‘level’ of comic books and is transformed into a zombie-like wretch when all the countless injuries he’s suffered (falling off massive cliffs, being blown up by piles of hissing TNT, etc.) actually ‘stick’ and have a lasting effect on him. (Obviously this raises some debate as to the ordering of these realities, why are Warner Bros. style cartoons ‘lower’ than comic books? Are we working in a system where, say, abstract painting is at the bottom and our reality is at the top? A discussion for another time.) If any of these hobos were to touch the hidden package would they ascend to a higher level of reality? Would it bring them to ours? I suppose we’ll never know. And neither will they, as I’ve got it now, ha ha.