The world of GTA Online is a violent and unforgiving place. It is a realm of meaningless deadly violence – like Watford high street on a Friday night. Other players just want to shoot you or steal your stuff, or shoot you and then steal your stuff. They rampage through the city streets committing acts of unprovoked misanthropy. It is like some sort of disturbing psychological experiment - the kind of thing Stanford professors may have set up in the '60s. But people are doing this for fun every day. People just want to kill strangers and drive their cars off cliffs. It's human nature.
But not for me. I very much enjoy attempting to subvert the atmosphere of crass, wordless aggression that permeates Los Santos. When I see another player, I'll approach them saluting wildly, or I'll stop my car and hope that they get in. Usually I just get shot. Once, some guy rolled up on a motorbike and I got on and we rode through the streets in matching Ponsonbys outfits shooting at pedestrians like a hipster Bonnie and Clyde. That never happened again.
So really, every time I go on GTA Online I'm trying to capture that fleeting evening of romance and casual psychopathy. My favourite thing is to fly about in a helicopter following police car chases; if anyone crashes or gets stuck, I swoop down and land nearby. "Quick, get in the chopper," I shout fruitlessly to the anonymous player as they seek to avoid the cops. They usually shoot me and steal the helicopter. I just shrug and restart.
Then one day *this* happened, and it finally taught me the lesson I should have learned months ago: that friendship and altruism have no place in this pitiless society of maniacs. We are all victims of our environment, and in GTA Online, that means we all become maniacs, we can't help it. "He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster", said Nietzsche. I should have listened to that guy.
So one night I was flying around, weaving in and out of skyscrapers, looking for some trouble to get into. I checked the map, and watched the white dots of other players careering through the streets.
But then far away, on the north side of Mount Chiliad, I saw one lone player, practically stationary. What were they doing out there in the rocky wilderness? Maybe they were stranded? Perhaps they had ventured out into the craggy expanse and got stuck, or they had parachuted out of a plane in a moment of panic. I had to know. I had to save them. I headed out.
It took me a few minutes to reach them. My helicopter traced the looming mountainside, moving down its peak and over the rolling slopes. I am not a good pilot so maintaining altitude and speed is always tricky; I strafe tree tops and power lines, the craft wobbled and lurched through the blackness. And then there they were, on a tiny ledge, high up a steep cliff. They were stuck. I could land and rescue them. I had Robyn's With Every Heartbeat on the radio. I felt heroic. This was the interaction I had been waiting for: one of pure unadulterated kindness. The other person would speak of this random act with mystified fondness.
My helicopter swooped around and then approached the landing. Slowly, shakily, I was coming in for the rescue. I was so close. Robyn was singing.
"Maybe we could make it all right/
We could make it better sometime/
Maybe we could make it happen, baby"
And then suddenly, there was a terrible noise, like the grinding metal parts of some huge malfunctioning machine. I thought for a second that my rotor blade was hitting the cliff face, but then, I looked to my right and through the darkness I realise that, no, that's not what was happening. There was something else out there.
And then I understood.
The other player had a helicopter - their own helicopter. They weren't stuck, they hadn't been abandoned out here; they had flown a chopper out and landed and now I was accidentally engaging in melee combat with it. Their beautifully parked Frogger, probably purchased with thousands of dollars' worth of in-game cash, was being inexplicably pulverised by a mad man.
Even as I realised this, it was too late. My own inexpertly piloted vehicle was skirting sideways into its stationary twin. In one last almighty crash, the other chopper was dislodged from the rock shelf, sending it plunging into the chasm below – I think maybe on fire.
The other player did nothing – just nothing that whole time. Their avatar stood there, seemingly in shock and disbelief, watching this whole nightmarish assault take place. When my chopper reappeared over the ledge, the figure took a couple of steps back, as though readying for another vicious and unprovoked attack. I wanted to land and somehow apologise - perhaps through some sort of physical gesture - although the only one the game allows that isn't blatantly antagonistic is a salute or a hip grind. And it didn't feel right, to touch down, get out of the chopper and sort of go 'yoo-hoo, cooey, over here!' as they struggled to comprehend my actions.
Also, I was sure they were about to open fire, I mean, who wouldn't? Here they were out on Mount Chiliad, taking in the vast digital panorama, enjoying a few moments of respite from the mindless player-on-player violence, and then out of nowhere comes a helicopter, lurching through the sky like a drunken hornet, spinning mercilessly into their craft and then reeling away. I would have shot me.
And my helicopter was a mess, smoke billowing out of the rotor, one shot would have taken it out. I panicked. I panicked and I flew away, curving right, around the mountain toward Los Santos. Below me, the flickering lights of a highway, and in the distance the security of the city, with its predictable violence and casual relationships of manually assured machine gun fire. Soon the sun would come up, and the player on the ledge would maybe leap off and parachute to safety or simply quit the game. Perhaps they would never play again.
But I'll tell you what they didn't do that fateful night on Chiliad. They never fired back. They never even pulled a gun.
The world is a violent and unforgiving place. Sometimes you just have to accept that. Sometimes you have to understand that people are just going to come along and blow up your helicopter. Sometimes, there's nothing you can do about it.