Greetings from Liberty City

Last summer I decided to get a Steam account. I don’t have much of an interest in video games, but when I was around 11, my brother Wil and I would spend hours taking turns playing Grand Theft Auto III, with one of us playing the game and the other one keeping an eye out for our mother coming into the basement. Against her knowledge, our cousin LJ let us keep his copy of the game after he completed it, and we always told her we were playing some Tony Hawk game.

Wil and I never really made an effort to do any of the story missions of GTA III; mostly we just drove around, blew up cars, and shot people so we could get a wanted level and flee the cops. We also tried to get hookers into our cars to hang out with them. We named the white lady prostitute Charlotte and the black one Cleopatra. Other characters had names, too, but I don’t remember most of them anymore. When Player 1 got either wasted or busted, it was Player 2’s turn.

We were virtual gangsters. For me, it was a way to escape the world of fear and distrust I was growing accustomed to with divorced parents having new significant others whom I hated but couldn’t do anything about, changing schools, pets and grandparents always dropping dead, and puberty ruining my once rockin’ hot kid body. It was almost magical to be Claude Speed, have the freedom to drive around Liberty City as we pleased, and not care about what these little video game people thought about us because they didn’t exist — and neither did we.

I find it interesting that Grand Theft Auto has come into my life when I am again asking the questions I started to ask at 11 — is this worth it? Is life worth all the letdowns? Who can I really trust? Do they like me or are they just pretending they do? I downloaded GTA III and GTA: Vice City one night after work because I couldn’t stand to watch anymore Netflix in my leisure time. It became too draining to watch a film and wonder if that’ll ever be my name in the credits or think about how many years of story ideas will be rejected before one might evolve into something. It even became a drag to talk about movies, since most conversations with people regarding film last two minutes and only cover what was good or funny or shocking. Which is fine; you can’t have in-depth conversations with everyone. But to think about how writers and artists slave away creating passion projects that to so many people will only be awkward icebreaker discussions before they move onto discussing startups and that time they did shrooms in college can turn wide-eyed ambitions into cold realities. I wasn’t giving up on my love for movies, but was instead putting it on a backburner until it didn’t make me want to vomit so much. 

If you are unfamiliar with the Grand Theft Auto franchise, there are only a few basic things that you need to know. The games take place in fictionalized cities in America — Liberty City is a version of New York, Vice City is Miami, and San Andreas is meant to be a combination of Los Angeles and the surrounding deserts. Often the protagonist is a man who has just gotten out of jail and is trying to work his way back up into the crime world. You get to steal cars, and sometimes boats and helicopters. You can kill people and take their money. That’s pretty much all you need to know.

I decided that when I bought the two games, I didn’t want to just idly drive around as I had done in the past — I wanted to play. During my recent 97 hours of play on the two early Grand Theft Auto games, I have realized some things about life that will leave a lasting impression.

Lesson 1: Be Cool

There is no shame in being late to the party when it comes to enjoying anything after it stops being new. Just because Breaking Bad has ended doesn’t mean that the show is anything less without the craze. The Wizard of Oz will turn 77 this year, but its message will always be universal. So why do we throw away video games once their graphics look dated? We still listen to songs after we’ve memorized the lyrics like the alphabet — so why do we toss video games to the side after we’re done playing? Playing a game when everyone else has moved onto its bigger and fancier successor is an under-appreciated experience — so cherish it when you can.

With that being said, be weary that “cool” varies as you age. For example, as an 11-year-old, I thought it was badass to pick up hookers, take them to a remote area, and watch the car bounce up and down, implying that the two in the car are banging (even though if you zoomed in you could see the two characters just sitting there). It’s cool to make two characters bone when you are only 11 and have a limited knowledge of what sex is other than “this goes into that.” But as you get older, if that is your definition of “cool” and you are not going out into the world and having consensual sex with real people, you will never be cool. Those are just facts.

Lesson 2: Speed Isn’t Always the Key to Success

Throughout both games there are numerous timed missions that are designed to be accomplished only in the final seconds. It’s easy to make the mistake of going fast in order to beat the clock, but relying on speed can prevent you from having the time to avoid obstacles that get in the way. For example, in Vice City, I often like to have the protagonist, Tommy Vercetti, drive a motorcycle. But in a mission where you are chasing the cartel or trying to lose the police, if you hit another car or run into a building, you will fly off the motorcycle and it will take even more time to complete. How does this apply to real life? Say you are running away from a serial killer. But you are running so fast that you don’t see the sidewalk has ended and so you trip into the street. It will take some time to stand up, address the situation, put pressure on your wounds, and find out where to run next, and before you know it, he has hacked you to death because you weren’t fast enough.

Lesson 3: Cheating Is a Necessary Evil Full of Consequences

I am not sure how players are expected to play GTA III or Vice City without cheats. One of the reasons I have not gotten obsessed with San Andreas is that the cheat codes on Steam are random letters jumbled together. For example, if you want weapons in GTA III, you simply type: “gunsgunsguns” onto your keyboard, and you have the entire set of weapons offered for the game. In Vice City, you can choose from “thugstools,” “professionaltools,” or “nuttertools.” I always go for “nuttertools” because you get a chainsaw. In San Andreas, however, the weapon cheats are either: “UZUMYMW,” “WANRLTW,” or “KJKSZPJ.” Maybe there is some sort of logic in these three cheats, but here’s the thing, I’m not an autistic genius who can crack codes in less than two seconds.

Cheats do make gameplay easier, but beware: in an excessive amount you can prevent yourself from winning. Not because “oh, but it’s against the morals of the game, you didn’t really win,” but rather, enough cheats can corrupt a file and make it unreadable to your computer. I learned this the hard way with Vice City. I had just completed a particularly difficult mission halfway through the game where you had to outrace this one driver, and I was super excited. I went downstairs for dinner and when I came back, Steam would not let me open the file, as there had been an unexpected hold. It was truly devastating, but a lesson well-learned. Sure, cheats will get you somewhere faster, but the aftermath if caught is severe.

Lesson 4: You Will Make Enemies

The closer you get towards finishing a game altogether, the more enemies you will have. You will have gained respect among your peers and have earned a boatload of money, but you will have pissed off others in the process. Life is a competition, and you can’t make everybody happy. You shouldn’t go out of your way to piss people off, but don’t pass by opportunities because you are afraid of who will hate you. (This is all assuming you are a good person with good intentions. If you are reading this and think that I am deeming it acceptable to exterminate a race of people or blow up abortion clinics, then you are drastically misinterpreting what I am saying.)

This aside, it is important to take into consideration what you will lose if you do become successful. Barack Obama is probably pretty grateful that he is the President of the United States, but he can’t go to a Starbucks by himself without getting bombarded by soccer moms who think he is just the bee’s knees. There are certain places in both Liberty City and Vice City that you can’t get to after you complete a certain mission because you kill too many of the mafia or cartel’s buddies and if you set foot in their territory, people will shoot you from many different angles and you will likely die.

Lesson 5: It’s All Just a Game

After I completed first Vice City and then GTA III, the high ended like air being slowly released from a balloon. There was so much hype towards finishing, and then when it happened, I was left there thinking, “Is this it?” The journey was fun. I liked getting to drive around the beach with ‘80s music on the radio and Ray Liotta’s voice mocking the people Tommy runs over. I liked unlocking the new neighborhoods I had never seen before in in GTA III. I enjoyed completing the missions, sometimes on one try and sometimes after dozens, and ultimately feeling like I had accomplished something great, though in reality, thousands of others had done this before me. It was my journey, and no one else’s. I didn’t care how long it took to get there. But when it was over, I just found myself driving around and shooting hookers, like I had been doing in the first place so many years ago.

I ask myself what’s the point of playing if eventually I’ll just wind up doing what I already had been doing. I suppose it’s kind of like asking yourself why bother to get potty-trained if you’ll just wind back up in a diaper in old age — there are a few decades in between where you’d benefit from not peeing your pants every day. Grand Theft Auto taught me that the journey is worth taking, even if the desired destination will be disappointing. 

Rachel Petzinger is a comedian. She has since moved onto other games, such as L4D2 and Half-Life. You can follow her on Twitter @chelpetz.