The scene: Grand Theft Auto V’s iconic city of Los Santos. People mill about outside an apartment building, likely plotting crimes. Nothing seems out of the ordinary—except for a lone figure. Clad in suffocatingly tight leather pants and a bulletproof vest, he looks prepared for anything and nothing all at once. He also looks like Keanu Reeves. He approaches a nearby man and asks—practically begs—for a cigarette. “I need my fucking...I need my fix,” he says in a hazy rasp. Then he trails off as he repeatedly slides into a T-pose while repeating the same sentence over and over. “I need my...I...I...I...I...” This is Grand Theft Auto role-playing, and these days, it’s a little different than you remember.
GTA role-playing is exactly what it sounds like: Players run around in GTA V’s massive open world and pretend to be cops, criminals, and everything in between, living out daily stories of their own makings. GTA V’s player-made “No Pixel” role-playing server never went away, but the delirious highs of the 2019 GTA RP boom feel like a distant memory. However, on the back of No Pixel’s 3.0 update (which launched last Friday) and the general popularity of role-playing on Twitch, GTA RP is back and bigger than ever. To wit: In March of 2019, at the height of the trend, GTA V peaked at 304,053 concurrent viewers. Last Sunday, it topped out at 438,350 concurrent viewers. Even yesterday, which wasn’t quite as much of a banner day as Sunday, still beat March 2019's high point by nearly 100,000 viewers.
It’s not difficult to see why: First and most obviously, Twitch’s overall viewership is much larger now than it was in 2019, meaning that a not-insignificant number of viewers are probably getting into GTA RP for the first time. As in 2019, big names have joined the scene’s regular cast of cops and robbers, with controversial megastar Félix “xQc” Lengyel enacting the will of Twitch’s collective id while, on the opposite end of the spectrum, Chance “Sodapoppin” Morris resurrects his subtly brilliant character from last time around, Kevin Whipaloo, the man who refuses to do crime in a city where basically the only thing anybody does is crime. Streamers who’ve seen their star rise since then, like politics juggernaut Hasan Piker, have also joined the fray following turns in the unruly barrens of Rust RP (Piker is playing a character with a hammy Italian accent who “disguises” himself by using a hammy Texan accent).
The appeal is more or less the same as last time: Streamers enact their own chaotic micro-dramas, and you never know when a big name or notorious character might make a cameo in your favorite streamer’s show. It is absolutely, 100 percent trash television; problematic stereotypes and caricatures abound, as do scenes of Jerry Springer-like drama. It’s impossible to look away from, even though you spend equal amounts of time laughing and cringing.
But unlike Rust or Minecraft, which are much better at facilitating the wanton punching of in-game trees than role-playing, No Pixel 3.0 includes more role-playing specific features than ever. Crime and the policing thereof are far from the only real options; now players can also be driving instructors, mechanics, dealership owners, judges, and more. Morris’ character, Kevin, runs a burger shop that has mostly functioned like a real burger shop, with customers and employees and everything. That might sound boring, but then somebody role-playing a wizard shows up in the parking lot to sell Kevin a “potion” that’s actually just a bottle of high-fructose corn syrup, and the entertainment value of running a restaurant in a city gone mad becomes crystal clear.
The single greatest example of this dynamic is Burn, a streamer who’s spent the past several days role-playing as Keanu Reeves’ character from Cyberpunk 2077, Johnny Silverhand. Like Vader last time GTA RP blew up, Burn is this season’s breakout star. His pastiche is excellent; he nails Reeves’ schmaltzy yet believable intensity, turning even mistakes—like stabbing an ally—into excuses to rant about how he’ll stop at nothing to bring down “corpo scum.”
Burn dials everything about Reeves’ performance and Cyberpunk itself up to 11, liberally spitting phrases like “that’s cyber-fucked” in a perfect Keanu Reeves voice while somehow not breaking character to laugh about how ridiculous he sounds. In what is now his second most-popular clip of all time, Burn takes this joke to its (logical?) conclusion, telling a department of corrections officer the name of a person who can help him bring down the diabolical Arasaka corporation: Howard. The officer, another player, says he does not know Howard.
“You’ve never met Howard?” replies Burn, as Johnny. “What about...Howard Deez Nuts?”
“Oh my goodness,” says the officer, who walks away.
Burn then Burn makes his Johnny avatar turn and face the camera, as the distinctive Cyberpunk 2077 theme music suddenly swells.
“Yeah,” he says, using an emote to make it look like Johnny’s removing his sunglasses, “I’m Johnny Silverhand, and you just got cyber-punked.”
It is the dumbest shit I’ve seen in my life, and it made me laugh so hard that I’m sure my neighbors two floors up heard me.
Burn is not just Johnny Silverhand; he is Johnny Silverhand from the notoriously buggy video game Cyberpunk. This means that he, too, regularly glitches out, barking half-phrases over and over while using an emote to T-pose. It’s not exactly an original joke at this point, but what sells it are Burn’s execution and timing, as well as the game’s willingness to play along. No Pixel, after all, should not exist. It is unofficial and player-made, meaning that it, too, is prone to over-the-top comedic freakouts.
One of the most popular clips on all of Twitch in the past several days sees Burn crash a truck into a mailbox, at which point Lengyel, who was riding in back, goes flying out into the street.
“What the fuck?” Lengyel yells.
Burn begins to say “You cyber-fucked up, kid,” but cuts himself off and starts T-posing while saying, “You, you, you, you, you.”
“I think we broke him,” says Lengyel.
But then, without missing a beat, Burn resumes walking normally and moves to get back in the truck. “I’m perfectly fine,” he replies in a tone of venom-filled petulance. “Just get in the fucking car.” His character then sits down outside the car and floats in place. Burn set up the joke, but it was the game that delivered the punchline.
Rust and Minecraft might have upstaged it, but GTA RP never went anywhere, and now it’s here to remind everyone who the real king of preposterously dumb, somehow-good performance art is. Truly, we have all been cyber-punked, and we are better for it.