Rockstar’s Cosmopolis - GTA Online still provides a brutal satire of modern life

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An image of GTA Online crossed with Cosmopolis.

Returning to the ageing behemoth that is GTA Online in 2022 is a bizarre experience.

Starting from level one with a fresh character in a world full of players who, in some cases, have been playing for almost a decade solid while they wait for GTA 6, leaves you feeling helpless in a way that’s quite unique.

It certainly was a big change from playing as the protagonist I’d first created in the game’s infancy and then carried from PS3 to PS4, accumulating a moderate fortune and property empire, that still paled in comparison to most hardcore players, along the way. Having switched primary gaming platforms in recent years, this time I’d left all of that useless wealth behind, choosing to walk through the streets on foot with nothing but the clothes on my back and a tiny pistol with a handful of bullets.

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I could have stolen a car, circumventing the laughable hyperinflation that put all of the swanky new vehicles added by the recent Criminal Enterprises update well out of my price range, but I didn’t want to. When playing as my old character, all of my journeys had been conducted by car. These were rarely joyrides, rather panicked dashes between properties, conducted in the manner least likely to see me dragged into a costly fight with another player.

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“A spectre is haunting the world, they cried.”

A screenshot from GTA Online.

Observing this difference was the first point at which I began to formulate similarities between my numerous GTA Online experiences and a book I read last year, Don Delillo’s Cosmopolis. Recalling my mad dashes around town in a heavily customised and impenetrably armoured supercar, I began comparing them to the journey of Cosmopolis’ protagonist, Eric Packer, a Wall Street billionaire who, over the course of the novel, makes a pilgrimage through the log-jammed streets of Manhattan in the back of a chauffeur-driven limousine, sealed off from the outside world.

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The speeds of our journeys were vastly different, mainly due to the fact that I didn’t have to obey the rules of the road, but both were dictated by the outside world we were desperate to remain isolated from, with my character trying to outrun the rowdy GTA crowd and Packer being shielded from New York masses by his car and security team. Sheltered fools entombed in our antisocial chariots, robotically commuting from point A to point B.

In my case, this practice had been largely motivated by fear and soon, my new character found himself face-to-face with the scariest proposition any GTA grinder can encounter. I’d heard tales of modders running riot on PC and this one lived up to the hype, teleporting around and raining explosive death on others like something out of the Old Testament’s wizened pages. Despite possessing a decent amount of firepower in my past guise, this kind of encounter back in those days would have seen me run for the hills, desperate not to have my precious car destroyed or waste valuable ammunition in a pointless firefight.

“The urge to destroy is a creative urge.”

A screenshot from GTA Online.

Like Packer, I’d have panicked about the credible threat looming directly over my life, while remaining indifferent to the invisible market forces that could actually do damage to my precious bank balance. This time though, things were different. I had no chance of winning, but also nothing to lose. I was also in the mood for some fun.

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My first few attempts at battling the modder were fruitless, with him teleporting me into a literal cage prop at one point before blowing me into oblivion. Aside from this, though, there was nothing he could do to dissuade me, so I persevered. Soon, an opportunity presented itself. I ducked into a shop to avoid a barrage and all of a sudden, everything went silent. Emerging from my refuge, I saw the modder standing motionless in the middle of a road. His movements suggested he wasn’t AFK, so I can only assume the fire ceased out of pity.

Without hesitation, I walked up to him and took my shot. Having put away my gun, I threw a punch at him. Surprisingly, it connected. As he staggered, I threw a few more haymakers. These also landed. Then, he blasted my sorry bottom into the stratosphere. I died not knowing if I’d inflicted any real damage, and not caring. In my own eyes, I’d fistfought God and made him bleed. I’d also had one of the most enjoyable experiences of my lengthy GTA Online life.

“The market culture is total. It breeds these men and women.”

A screenshot of GTA Online.

This exchange got me thinking about what would have happened if I’d returned to the game and resumed my old grinding ways instead. Sure, I could easily have abandoned freemode at the drop of a hat and gone on a tour through all of my old heist and race stomping grounds. I could have tried fruitlessly to earn enough wonga to get myself back on the property ladder. I could have opened up the contacts list on my phone. I could have accepted a mission with such low pay that I’d have had to do it ten thousand times to even make a dent in the super high prices of most of the game’s content. I could have sat on the sidewalk as a character I might once have known lectured me about what I should do, in the same passionless voice that Eric Packer’s inner circle use in their discussion of the stock market’s arcane movements with him.

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Or, I could have done what the game’s horribly warped economy is actually designed to get players to do: spunk significant amounts of real world money on shark cards in order to gain the artificial advantage necessary to do anything more than fight to survive in such a rigged economic scenario. Such an idea might once have appealed to me, but at this point it just reminds me of our own reality, in which working class people are forced to confront the fact that our lack of a trust fund effectively rules out our chances of properly owning a home without any caveats.

This feeling certainly wasn’t helped by the premise of the storyline that comes with the game’s latest update, which sees a heatwave hit Los Santos, as petrol prices rise and the world’s fictional economy flirts with a recession. All of these inclusions provide ample evidence that Rockstar is still determined to offer the most apt and on-the-nose satirical parody of our current terrifying timeline in modern gaming, but it’s those insidious little mechanisms that the developer has baked into GTA Online’s actual economy that really make the game remind you of real life’s most caustic truths.

So, instead of enduring the same misery that I do in real life by becoming another wannabe Eric Packer, this time I’d decided to play in a manner more comparable to Cosmopolis’ antagonist, the dirt poor Benno Levin. Levin is Packer’s former employee, who now spends his days fascinating over murdering his wealthy ex-boss. Though, instead of getting lost in an obsession about hunting GTA’s oligarchs, the made men and women trapped within a web of NPCs cold calls and churning business notifications they can’t escape without burning their entire existence to a crisp, I used my destitution to set myself free.

“Isn’t this what you have to do to show them that you’re serious?”

A screenshot from GTA Online.

Through that modder, a strange and scary creature living outside of GTA Online’s orderly society, I finally found a way to play the game solo without descending into the grind. Perhaps the explosive shroud enveloping this clearly cheating player mirrored the flames that engulf a man who sets himself alight in true Buddhist monk style during an anti-capitalist riot that Packer rides through during his Manhattan odyssey. Maybe the violent spectacle of something so clearly outside of the remit of the forces of GTA Online’s all-encompassing market helped to drag me, as the monk almost does Packer, to the realisation that I shouldn’t go on living as I had in this soulless system.

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Or, maybe I was always destined to end up looking beyond the veil of comatose virtual order, realising that the best way to live in GTA Online is to look for the weird and asymmetrical, getting involved in the quirky cosplays and senseless stunts that many players enjoy. After all, this is the revelation that awaits Packer once he reaches the ruinous scenario at the end of his tale, standing helplessly in the apartment of his would-be killer, Levin, only for the poor psychopath to calmly inform the broken ex-billionaire that his inability to see anything beyond the order of the market is what’s lost him his fortune via a bad investment.

Unlike Packer and Levin, my two GTA Online characters, the rich criminal on the Playstation and the free spirit on PC, will never meet. But if they could, I think things would end much as they do in Cosmopolis, with the man who has it all entirely open to being shot in the head.

The only difference is that my Eric Packer would be doomed to respawn.