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Summer of the Shark: Artificial Life and The End(s) of Game Spaces in Rockstar Games’ Grand Theft Auto V

22/12/2013
channeltwo

“It emerged from the forest behind the Collins house one evening in May and zeroed in on Sandy, the family’s 50-pound Labrador mix. As two of Collins’ children watched from the doorway, the cougar chased Sandy around the house and cornered her by the back deck.Clamping its jaws around the dog’s neck, the cougar dragged Sandy 50 yards into the woods. There it gnawed on her head and shoulder, buried the rest for later, and stretched out for a long nap.” [1]

In an inspired moment, we decide to drive a semi-trailer truck up a steep hill. This sort of interaction comes naturally in “Grand Theft Auto V” (GTA V) and it perhaps makes up for all the early driving games where leaving the road resulted in losing the race or the destruction of the vehicle. Leaving the road, leaving the story and leaving the rational is encouraged in GTA V. The Grand Theft Auto series of games are all loosely based on American cities: Liberty City on New York City, Los Santos on Los Angeles, San Fierro on San Francisco, Las Venturas on Las Vegas and Vice City on Miami. In a truly American dream, nearly all space in these cities is traversable by automobile. Running over more than a few pedestrians, or a single police officer, brings on a police chase, but driving over the line and into the wild is encouraged. It is necessary to complete a few of the scripted, trite, missions in order to acquire cash or unlock characters, but the game seems to invite and reward more creative explorations of space.

We have a large truck and intend to drive it up a very steep hill. We flip the radio station from the station that had been playing when we hijacked the truck to another station. The trucker we just flung to the ground has become an angry, red dot on our mini-map. “Still D.R.E.” by Dr. Dre is now on the radio as we cross the sidewalk and begin our ascent. We need to avoid the trucker, still chasing his truck as we pull out from our lane and position the semi at the base of the hill. Most drivers run from their vehicles when carjacked but others chase after our character and pull him out of the vehicle for a physical confrontation. Some truck drivers and others in the rural areas outside the GTA V city of Los Santos are armed.

The truck moves slowly up the incline, over the grass, as we avoid trees growing on the side of the hill. The Xbox game controller vibrates in relation to the terrain—haptic feedback letting us know we have left the road. We only make it halfway up the hill before gravity is pulling us back down. We attempt to swerve back and forth to get some traction but the truck reacts to being sideways on an incline in the same way it might outside the game space, it topples over sideways and slowly slides down the hill.

With a press of the Y button, we exit the vehicle and jump away without harm. Vehicles in GTA V cannot be righted so the truck is now useless and our semi-trailer truck ascent has ended all too quickly. We decide to attach a sticky explosive to the side of the truck and move further up the hill so we can detonate it remotely. In a moment only possible in a game space, perhaps only in this particular game space, we ignite the explosive and, as we watch the flaming wreck of the truck slide down across the sidewalk and into traffic, pedestrians fleeing in all directions, we are attacked and immediately killed by a cougar, whose approaching mini-map red dot we had failed to notice.

Cougars make the less developed areas of GTA V more dangerous to explore on foot. While it is possible to get mugged in the city [2], it seems much more likely to encounter a cougar attack outside the city than a criminal attack inside the city. The cougars in GTA V do not limit their attacks to playable characters: “I saw a cougar killing another person. I walked up to it, but then I changed my mind and ran off to the other direction. Heard a scream, looked at my left, and saw some poor smug being attacked and mauled.” [3]

This video shows a cougar running through the streets of a rural town, taking down pedestrians. [4]

“Three years have passed since Wes Collins moved his family into their house in the woods. Until the cougar attack in May, they enjoyed the parade of wildlife from their back door.   Now the four children, ages 8 to 14, are not allowed to play alone outside. Collins bought a can of pepper spray, and he cleared trails out back “to make our presence known,” he said. Collins said he likes wildlife, but he values the safety of his children more. He’d like to see Washington rescind its new ban on hunting cougars with hounds. `You either control the population of cougars or start killing humans,’ Collins said. `There’s not enough room for both of us to survive.'” [5]

2001: Summer of the Shark

Jessie Arbogast was attacked by a 7-foot, 250-pound bull shark on July 6, 2001 and lost his arm and enough blood that he was left with anoxic brain injury. The dramatic rescue, with Arbogast’s uncle attacking the shark, dragging it to shore and retrieving Arbogast’s severed arm, set off months of shark-related coverage in the twenty-four-hour news cycle. Later and far away, in the Bahamas, an american tourist was attacked by another shark. A few weeks later, near the site of the attack on Arbogast, a surfer was bitten by yet another shark. Each event fed into the shark-focused coverage. Time magazine’s cover from June 30, 2001 proclaimed the summer of 2001 as the “Season of the Shark”. The cover featured a close up of shark’s jaws seen simultaneously from above and below the water. Two additional fatal shark attacks and constantly-repeated helicopter footage of shark swarms off the coast of Florida kept the focus on the dangers lurking in the water, until the morning of September 11, 2001, when this imagined danger became a less exciting story.

The attack of Jessie Arbogast is often cited as the beginning of the “Summer of the Shark.” However, six days earlier, in the London’s Daily Mail, Christopher Hudson presaged the media circus of Summer 2001 in a book review titled “Summer of the Shark.” [6] The review focused on two books about “a series of fatal shark attacks in a cluster of Eastern seaboard towns south of New York, complete with panic-stricken holidaymakers, attempts to hush up the danger, bill-posted rewards, and scientists joining the hunt to track down the killer.” The Jersey Shore shark attacks of 1916 were the basis of Peter Benchley’s novel “Jaws” and the subsequent, first, blockbuster film of the same name in 1975. Unlike the summer of 2001, the Jersey Shore attacks were confined to a small area and a period of two weeks. Prior to this, it was thought that sharks did not attack humans or even come close to swimmers. This was changed on July 12, 1916, when, after two attacks along the Atlantic coast, an approximately eight-foot long shark swam up Matawan Creek. There, it killed eleven-year-old Lester Stillwell and injured one of the men attempting to rescue Stillwell’s body, resulting in his death from blood loss. Thirty minutes later and a half-mile away, fourteen-year-old Joseph Dunn was pulled from a swimming ladder as he attempted to exit the water. He was rescued by friends and survived. [7]

We are riding a stolen jet ski out into the open ocean. The waves beneath us are beautifully rendered but seem separate from the space, as if by a sheet of glass. Although the jet ski reacts to the waves and we can even jump over them, the illusion is not completely convincing. We have not read anything about GTA V yet and we do not know what to expect as we head out from the city to see at what point the world ends. We vaguely hope the well-rendered materials will fade out to reveal bright green polygons, the triangular structures familiar to those lucky enough to have played Atari’s “Battlezone” (1980) or “Star Wars” (1983) on original, and intensely beautiful, vector monitors. We remember this fade from reality to polygons, however, as a cinematic device from the movie “The Thirteenth Floor” (1999) and it is unlikely to appear in a game like GTA V. If the Grand Theft Auto series has progressed in any way, it is in the visual details constructing a convincing reality that makes up the game space and a move towards, if not realism, then a seamless and convincing virtual world.

As we move outward over the rolling waves, we can not expect them to disappear, leaving the mathematical structure of the GTA V world. We must, however, expect our outward vector to end. All game spaces, even a space as open as that of GTA V, must have an endpoint. While some games generate terrain as the player moves forward, they must still have some sort of end, if only a limit based on how extensively code can describe a world. As noted by Markus “notch” Persson, the developer of “Minecraft” (2009):

“First of all, let me clarify some things about the ‘infinite’ maps: They’re not infinite, but there’s no hard limit either. It’ll just get buggier and buggier the further out you are. Terrain is generated, saved and loaded, and (kind of) rendered in chunks of 16*16*128 blocks. These chunks have an offset value that is a 32 bit integer roughly in the range negative two billion to positive two billion. If you go outside that range (about 25% of the distance from where you are now to the sun), loading and saving chunks will start overwriting old chunks. At a 16/th of that distance, things that use integers for block positions, such as using items and pathfinding, will start overflowing and acting weird…We’re probably not going to fix these bugs until it becomes common for players to experience them while playing legitimately. My gut feeling is that nobody ever has so far, and nobody will. Walking that far will take a very long time. Besides, the bugs add mystery and charisma to the Far Lands.” [8]

We know we have reached of the GTA V world, not because we hit an invisible wall, as in previous GTA games, but because our stolen jet ski cuts out and begins to sink. The open ocean is no longer a space that provides waves for jumping. The default camera view in GTA V is third-person, meaning our camera floats above and behind the character. Ours now looks small, wet and very far from the beaches of Los Santos, completely isolated. We have not yet noticed the red threat dot on our mini-map). We decide to begin swimming back, fairly confident that our character can swim for an unlimited amount of time, like previous versions of GTA. It looks to be a long, boring slog back to shore when we finally notice the red dot, close by and headed for our character. We turn in a circle, sweeping the camera around the horizon, and and see only open ocean. Similar to “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas” (2004), characters in GTA V can swim under the water, opening an engaging but dangerous space for game activity. This world is murky, visibility is limited to a few hundred feet, and air runs out quickly. We dive under but do not immediately notice the shark. Still, we suspect the dot presents a serious danger. We begin swimming quickly but the red dot is getting closer. We swivel the camera in front of the character, trying to see the danger while also acting as cinematographer. The shark passes behind our actor and dives down. It is too late for swimming. The angle switches so that we are watching the character from above. The shark erupts from beneath him. Gaping jaws grab his torso and the shark shakes from side to side. He screams and blood pours out as our screen fades to the gray monochrome that GTA V employs to indicate that our virtual life has ended.

There remains some question about whether sharks appeared in Rockstar Games’ previous “Grand Theft Auto: Vice City” (2002), in which swimming was impossible. There are videos [9] that show sharks spotted via sniper rifle from a boat in the waters around Vice City. People also claim to have been attacked by sharks in “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas”. They describe their character as having been bitten or stabbed to death while swimming. Others dismiss this as a myth, chalking up the deaths to players letting their oxygen level deplete to the point of death. Any video of sharks in previous games could be due to user modification of PC versions of the game. The appearance of unconfirmed urban legends and possible easter eggs are not new to video games [10]  but the existence of controversy over whether sharks exist in a medium in which video screen capture and game edits are possible is a testament to the immersive and mutable reality of the GTA universe. [11]

Similar to the shark in the film Jaws, and unlike sharks outside media space, the sharks in GTA V can appear anywhere in the ocean and will always attack swimmers. There is no doubt about their existence in GTA V as Rockstar Games released a Jaws-like screenshot (above) when promoting the game. Their placement and the way they function as artificial life only in relation to the player underscores the cinematic basis of this space. A realistic artificial life algorithm would have the sharks looking for food and likely ignoring any humans in the water. Instead, shark attack is inevitable at the end of the world and the attack becomes a scene in which a player, unlike a viewer, has some agency. While we were unarmed and surprised, sharks can be killed with a knife. The attack takes place as an interactive event somewhere between a static cutscene and the open world of the majority of the game. Other wildlife, like the deer, appear more randomly in the game landscape and run from the player, or attack quickly and without cinematic build up, like the mountain lions which prowl the hills around Los Santos.

The Joy of Vertical Space

While the previous “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas” had a large, rural space, the vehicles in the game were much more sensitive to vertical drops. In GTA V it is possible to drive a truck from a large cliff, crash, roll, return to all four wheels and continue. It reminds us of our early game experience with Hitmaker’s “Crazy Taxi” (1999), in which it was possible to drive the taxi cab under water, across hills and through train tunnels, with a screaming passenger in the back. GTA V’s cars will not drive underwater and when we are not careful, we end up sitting underwater, our experience of speed at an ignoble end. The drive for speed combined with the joy of hills and mountains, and experiencing those vertical spaces on ATVs, motorcycles, trucks, standard cars, luxury convertibles and even bicycles is incredibly compelling. As Paul Virilio writes of the Amerian 1960s lust, “To succeed is to reach the power of greater speed, to have the impression of escaping the unanimity of civic training.” [12]

Bounding over the hills in a more appropriate truck, one with large wheels and (we imagine) huge virtual shock absorbers, we delight in the incredibly large and ever changing vertical space. In addition to cougars, the rural spaces have deer and, occasionally, herds of deer. When we find a herd, high on the hilltop, they bolt and we follow them, not running them down, but not avoiding that possibility. We are moving quickly over the space, surrounded by a herd of animals, completely satisfied to move forward through the space. The experience is not a simulation of any possible natural world but instead reminds us again of cinema. In a scene from “Jurassic Park” (1993), combining blue screen, three dimensional animation and live action, three characters discovered a herd of dinosaurs, flocking as they sprint over the terrain. The dinosaurs turned towards the camera and the characters also began running, surrounded and trying to avoid being trampled. A Tyrannosaurus rex erupts from a copse of trees and takes down a smaller dinosaur. In GTA V we are both the possible danger and the characters moving with the herd, driving quickly across the landscape, a tight grip on the vibrating controller. As Soraya Murray describes her experience in “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas”, “…though the bobbling image and rumbling controller in no way replicates the ‘actual’ feeling…the visual language effectively conveys the exhilarating rush in largely cinematic terms.”[13]

Each time we find a vehicle suited for off-road driving, we worry that it will eventually wreck completely. GTA vehicles show aesthetic damage when they collide with objects, people or animals and further collision results in the loss of doors, the car hood and tires. Wheels will eventually bend inward and outward, slowing the car. Finally, a car will catch fire and explode after too many falls or collisions. The spaces we seek out are fairly far from the roads, and the police, and these spaces do not present many vehicles to carjack once our primary vehicle explodes. Losing our truck could result in the death of our character or, much worse, require a hasty exit and a long walk back to a road where a new car can be found.[14] Nothing feels more alien to GTA V than hiking through the woods. The slow speed of trudging back to developed areas (or running, requiring constant button mashing and staying within the characters maximum endurance) is coupled with the danger of cougars, or simply falling off a cliff. While a vehicle can survive a ridiculous drop that does not match physics in the outside world, a character cannot.

There are good and bad deaths to be found in the GTA V game space. While there is no way to lose at GTA V, watching our character stumble over a cliff and bounce down a ravine feels closest to a loss. Driving into an unexpected and high speed collision with an object that cannot be destroyed by the car, and the subsequent ejection of the character, who takes flight for a short while before himself colliding with an immovable object, feels much more like victory. From the slow dread of our jet ski going under the water, and the sinking recognition that we are about to relive a movie scene, to an instant death by cougar, to leaving the vehicle via the windshield in a scene resembling a seatbelt safety video, GTA V, and the entire Grand Theft Auto series, relies on slapstick humor but more so on an intense desire for the active yet vicarious violence possible at the repeated end of the character’s life. In a doubling of the condition Steven Shaviro, referring to the attraction of death and dismemberment in horror cinema, calls “vertiginously passive fascination,” we connect with the character and in GTA V we desire and can attain death, over and over again. We seek the moment at which the game takes over and time slows down and we, and our character, meet an incredibly violent end. We are seduced by the promise of the destruction of the vehicle we were driving, our own virtual carnage, a spectacular end. “I’m taken on a wild ride through a series of thrills and shocks, pulled repeatedly to the brink of an unbearable and impossible consummation.”[15]

The experience Shaviro describes above, based on watching George Romero’s “Living Dead” trilogy, moves to a strange space between directing and suffering, indulging in and being removed from the violent physics of GTA V. Shaviro discusses the use of “special effects” in horror as “grotesque visual effects and…affective and physiological effects on the viewer.” Our character’s head smashes into the side of a boulder and there is instantly blood. The algorithms driving the game have already calculated this impact and that the character will not survive. We lose control and watch passively. This changes the camera mode to slow motion, presumably because the game developers, borrowing from horror cinema, know we want to prolong this moment. The character’s neck snaps and the body, still in motion, crumples before it smashes into the cliff face. Previously we were connected to the character, he was driving the car as we were driving the car, together. As his neck snaps, our connection is broken and he becomes a ragdoll. Ragdoll physics, a phrase that describes exactly what it is, take over and what was our character, and is now an abject body in the scene we constructed, spins wildly across the game space. The scene is not scripted, what transpires is based on what objects exist in the vector the ragdoll character moves through. Any unmoving object impacts this body and it flails in a new direction. Any moveable object skitters away until finally the body comes to a rest. Rockstar Games has selected the perfect phrase for this end and it has remained consistent across the GTA series. A word appears across the now completely gray monochrome screen in burgandy: WASTED.

_

This review was written with substantial input from Channel TWo collaborator Oskar Westbridge.

1 Associated Press. “Cougar Attacks Increasing in West.” Retrieved from http://www.igorilla.com/gorilla/animal/cougar_attacks_increasing.html

2 "Those Guys" "How to get Mugged in GTA 5." Retrieved from http://youtu.be/IJgeCiJ-l4c

3 "Stitch". “Cougars!” Retrieved from http://www.neoseeker.com/forums/55711/t1903993-cougars/

4 R1CHARD x 617. GTA V: “Cougar Killing Pedestrians”, Retrieved from http://youtu.be/db3FXEuO_80

5 Associated Press. ibid.

6 Hudson, Christopher . "Summer of the shark." Daily Mail, London. June 30, 2001.

7 Jersey Shore shark attacks of 1916. In Wikipedia. Retrieved from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jersey_Shore_shark_attacks_of_1916

8 Persson, Markus. “Terrain generation, Part 1.” Retrieved from http://gaming.stackexchange.com/questions/19179/what-happens-when-you-reach-the-edge-of-the-world

8 Persson, Markus. “Terrain generation, Part 1.” Retrieved from http://gaming.stackexchange.com/questions/19179/what-happens-when-you-reach-the-edge-of-the-world

9 GTAMyths1. "GTA Vice City Mysteries - Myth 4 - Sharks." http://youtu.be/CAlxo71Z6HM

10 Kaulay, Jonathan. “10 Creepy Video Game Urban Legends.” Retrieved from http://listverse.com/2013/06/06/10-creepy-video-game-urban-legends/

11 “Sharks”. Retrieved from http://gta-myths.wikia.com/wiki/Sharks

12 Virilio, Paul. Mark Polizzotti trans. Speed and Politics: An Essay on Dromology. Semiotext(e), 1986, NY NY, p 120.

13 Murray, Soraya. "High Art/Low Life: The Art of Playing 'Grand Theft Auto.'" PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art, Vol. 27, No. 2 (May, 2005), p 93.

14 Although Irene Chien notes that "Resourceful players discover that if you are stranded in a deserted part of the city with no means of transportation, you can dial 911 on your cell phone and then carjack the ambulance that arrives to rescue you." Chien, Irene. "Moving Violations" Film Quarterly, Vol. 62, No. 1 (Fall 2008). p 80.

15 Shaviro, Steven. Contagious Allegories: George Romero. . Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.

1 Associated Press. “Cougar Attacks Increasing in West.” Retrieved from http://www.igorilla.com/gorilla/animal/cougar_attacks_increasing.html

2 "Those Guys" "How to get Mugged in GTA 5." Retrieved from http://youtu.be/IJgeCiJ-l4c

3 "Stitch". “Cougars!” Retrieved from http://www.neoseeker.com/forums/55711/t1903993-cougars/

4 R1CHARD x 617. GTA V: “Cougar Killing Pedestrians”, Retrieved from http://youtu.be/db3FXEuO_80

5 Associated Press. ibid.

6 Hudson, Christopher . "Summer of the shark." Daily Mail, London. June 30, 2001.

7 Jersey Shore shark attacks of 1916. In Wikipedia. Retrieved from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jersey_Shore_shark_attacks_of_1916

8 Persson, Markus. “Terrain generation, Part 1.” Retrieved from http://gaming.stackexchange.com/questions/19179/what-happens-when-you-reach-the-edge-of-the-world

8 Persson, Markus. “Terrain generation, Part 1.” Retrieved from http://gaming.stackexchange.com/questions/19179/what-happens-when-you-reach-the-edge-of-the-world

9 GTAMyths1. "GTA Vice City Mysteries - Myth 4 - Sharks." http://youtu.be/CAlxo71Z6HM

10 Kaulay, Jonathan. “10 Creepy Video Game Urban Legends.” Retrieved from http://listverse.com/2013/06/06/10-creepy-video-game-urban-legends/

11 “Sharks”. Retrieved from http://gta-myths.wikia.com/wiki/Sharks

12 Virilio, Paul. Mark Polizzotti trans. Speed and Politics: An Essay on Dromology. Semiotext(e), 1986, NY NY, p 120.

13 Murray, Soraya. "High Art/Low Life: The Art of Playing 'Grand Theft Auto.'" PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art, Vol. 27, No. 2 (May, 2005), p 93.

14 Although Irene Chien notes that "Resourceful players discover that if you are stranded in a deserted part of the city with no means of transportation, you can dial 911 on your cell phone and then carjack the ambulance that arrives to rescue you." Chien, Irene. "Moving Violations" Film Quarterly, Vol. 62, No. 1 (Fall 2008). p 80.

15 Shaviro, Steven. Contagious Allegories: George Romero. . Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.