I’ve always gone looking for trouble in GTA games. When Grand Theft Auto III first came out, my friends and I would get together and take turns going on rampages—competing to see who could survive the longest against the cops. With the new version of GTA V out, I’ve found another way to test myself: by going in search of the biggest and baddest car crashes I could cause in Los Santos.
One of the most important additions developer Rockstar brought to the new-gen console ports of GTA V was a first-person mode. This was an unprecedented move. Outside of mods, GTA had always been grounded in a third-person perspective. Controlling a character from a vantage point several feet behind him gave players a comfortable distance from which they could view all the havoc they were wreaking on-screen.
Now you can experience everything unfolding inside GTA as if you were doing it yourself. And the game really allows for everything. Save for a few isolated activities like yoga and Trevor’s notorious torture sequence that are only available in a third-person mode, you can indulge in practically any GTA V behavior from a first-person vantage point: you can shoot an assault rifle, take a hit from a bong, have sex with a prostitute, and—of course—drive a car.
Grand Theft Auto V is still a video game, so many of the actions it simulates (shooting, doing drugs) don’t actually feel like they do in real life. What’s amazing about the new first-person mode, though, is that two crucial actions do feel incredibly realistic: walking and driving. Walking less so, obviously, since you’re still using a joystick instead of feet. But still: the weight and heft of your character, the sensation of being inside a physical space, is immaculate. Even when sitting several feet away from my TV and “moving” by way of the abstract gestures afforded by a console gamepad, I don’t feel like I’m in my living room. “Feeling” doesn’t even describe it, really. I’m inside of Los Santos.
Your head bobs and tilts with a precision that’s uniquely intimate. The motions of your feet register with a pristine patter, or heavy thud, depending on the context. Trevor’s (or Michael’s, or Franklin’s) hands reach out with just the right level of finesse and urgency whenever you walk up to a car, lean in to grasp the door handle and yank it open, and sit down inside.
Getting into a car doesn’t mean you’re simply switching from a “walking” to a “driving” mode. Not anymore, at least. I mean, yes: you are commanding a vehicle. But your command over it is limited at best. If you drive on an uneven patch of dirt or try to wiggle a steering wheel back and forth to get out of a tight space, your controller will rumble softly as the wheels underneath you cry out in rebellion. Take a wrong turn, drive too fast down a windy road, and you’re liable to end up in this sort of situation:
Barrelling down the highway or a seemingly open street, meanwhile, means that you’re at constant risk of ramming into some obstacle at top speed. Collisions that intense don’t just flip over your car or send it spinning. They rocket you straight through the windshield. The visual alone doesn’t communicate how disorienting this is, but I’ll do my best:
When you drive in shooters like Far Cry 4, Destiny, Halo, or Battlefield, it doesn’t feel like you’re a person who’s actually inside of a car. You move far too gracefully for that to be the case. It’s as if you’ve merged with the vehicle to become some self-contained cyborg. Or you’re floating slightly above it. Your physical presence inside the vehicle is pretty much guaranteed, too—once you sit down, nothing’s going to kick you out as forcefully as GTA V’s windshield dive. For all their aesthetic and thematic differences games like those still come closer to emulating the experience of racing in Mario Kart than anything genuinely realistic.
GTA V’s driving only feels new because it manages to replicate something very old, with unparalleled accuracy: cars. Cars as we actually experience them, as human beings, rather than players inside of video games.
And that’s why I felt like I was going to barf once I started playing Grand Theft Auto V on my PS4.
I’m afraid of cars. The real ones, I mean. And not in some vague, existential way that makes me fear for the future of planet earth’s ecosystem or wonder what it is about human nature that compels us to fetishize giant pieces of machinery that hurl us through space with a speed and imprecision that proves deadly far too often. The simple prospect of being inside a moving car—let alone being the one responsible for its movement—is what scares me.
Driving on a highway is practically unfathomable. Like any quirk or paranoia, this can defy logic or reason. It’s an ugly little tingling sensation, a flurry in my chest or a shortness of breath that stirs every time some vehicle I’m sitting in the passenger seat of merges onto a major highway. I’ve never driven on a highway. Nor do I ever really want to, because of a car accident I got in the summer after my junior year of high school that almost killed me and my immediate family.
I was in the backseat of my dad’s beat-up ‘95 Honda Civic one night in June. My mom and brother Seth sat upfront. School had just gotten off, so the three of us were driving to Connecticut to visit family friends and, more importantly, get the hell out of Princeton for a little while. They’d picked me up in the early evening from a friend’s birthday party at a bowling alley on one of those long, listless stretches of road and strip malls New Jersey has, so we were already close to the interstate by the time the sun set.
There’s a quiet hum to driving at night, especially when you’re not actually the one driving. I had dozed off in the back seat, stretched out as best I could with my head resting on the inside of the left door. Not the safest position to be in, sure. But the car was so decrepit at that point that it didn’t have working seatbelts in the back anyway.
My eyes were getting heavier and heavier as the night got darker. I could see Seth’s head a foot or so in front of me, also going limp. The Honda Civic is a tiny car, so we were really only separated by the passenger seat, which cut between us like the middle line of a division sign. That’s where it hit us.
First there was a low, rumbling growl. Then a dull bang. And another. A brief staccato rhythm of weird, grating popping sounds—like a loud fart, only more metallic. The entire surface of the car shivered in place before buckling inwards toward me and my brother. I don’t think I made a sound then, but I remember my mother letting out a surprised, “Oh!” as if someone had just popped a very loud balloon.
The Honda spun out of control, its tires shrieking loudly against the pavement. I was staring out of the front windshield, seeing nothing other than murky blackness until a guardrail appeared. It kept moving closer, looming larger, then swung out of my field of vision. One more sharp bang shook the whole car as we connected, and then it stood still. I looked out the back windshield, wondering if I could see what the hell was happening on the road we’d just spun away from. I saw a large, black SUV that had been turned upside-down sliding in the direction of traffic, a thin line of red and yellow sparks trailing along.
Everything was quiet for a moment. Then my brother started gasping out these short, sudden breaths. “Fuck, fuck, fuck,” he kept panting.
“It’s ok,” my mom said. “It’s ok.” Her voice was loud and firm, but she also sounded scared.
The window I’d been resting my head on was gone except for some craggly crystal-like shards along the edges. I looked down at my lap and saw I was covered in more of the same.
The rest is a jumble of noise and voices, both angry and scared. I climbed out of the window. A woman crawled out from under the SUV. We looked at each other from across the road, both still on our hands and knees. “Are you ok?” Sirens started blaring, other incoming cars all veered off to the side of the road. Suddenly everything was very crowded. I noticed my leg was bleeding.
My mom was standing near the woman who’d run into us, shouting in a hoarse voice: You almost killed my children. She kept retorting: It was a mistake.
Driving “normally” in GTA is very different than in the real world, since the former has a much higher tolerance for damage than the latter. Any given jaunt from point A to point B in Los Santos typically involves a dozen or more car crashes. They only ever become notable if one draws the attention of the cops. Actually obeying traffic laws is a rarity; doing so adds a lot of unnecessary time to your travels.
Even then, though, the game made my family’s car accident come rushing back into my present-day mind. Having played many GTA games, and GTA V specifically, I didn’t expect this to happen.
The memory started to show itself in small ways. An uncomfortable tic, a short gasp when I’d ram into a passing car. Seeing the hood fly up after a head-on collision and having it block my vision was enough to give me pause. The palpable thuds and shrill metallic screams of passing fender-benders left me depleted of energy, as if I’d made it through some thrilling high-speed chase. Shattering glass brought the clearest image by far. The way the game’s windshields break, cracking ever so slightly for a fraction of a second before bursting apart completely, rung a little too true to real life. Windshields in GTA V don’t just disappear when they’ve been broken. They implode, vomiting glass inward. It’s a stunningly detailed animation. The first few times I saw it, I caught myself trying to inch the camera down towards the seat of the car to see if the game had left a sea of tiny jewels in my character’s lap too.
I did my best to ignore any discomfort that surfaced after smaller car crashes in GTA V. Then I lost control of a car completely for the first time.
You don’t actually feel anything, emotionally, when you’re in the middle of a car crash. All that comes later, once things stop moving. The sensation during an accident is purely physical. Adrenaline seizes you, making your every movement heavy and numb. I mostly remember my head pounding, my ears ringing, my heart racing.
The most upsetting car crashes for me are the ones that take me completely off-guard, like my family’s did. Those rarely ever happen in GTA V, though. Michael and Trevor might pound their fists on the steering wheel and curse out other drivers when they run into each other. But doing so is darkly ironic comedy. We all know who really caused the scene. All the non-human drivers in GTA are remarkably well-behaved in comparison to the monster the player becomes when they get behind the wheel.
The thing that fascinates me about GTA V now is that I don’t feel like a monster when I drive. Even when I’m living out a typical badass fantasy by, say, zooming down a sunsoaked oceanside road, blasting classic west-coast hip hop through the radio, part of me is still scared. Because at any moment, this could happen:
For a game that gets a lot of criticism for offering players an uncomplicated power fantasy, GTA V has an incredible ability to make me feel uniquely vulnerable. It still creates plenty of fantastical moments too, of course. I don’t have many qualms when I’m gunning down cops or blowing up helicopters willy-nilly with a grenade launcher, for example. I’m just acting like a giddy maniac. But the balance between these two sensations is what makes the game special.
See, driving is integral to the experience of playing Grand Theft Auto. I mean, it’s in the name. Any qualms I had with doing so had to be overcome if I ever wanted to do anything in Los Santos that was interesting or fun. I did learn to overcome them simply by playing the game and developing a tolerance for its supremely life-like renditions of car crashes.
I had to go through a similar training process in my own life after the car accident. Swearing off driving wasn’t an option, so the only way to do so without losing my shit took practice. I stuck to small roads, short trips. I had to give myself small tastes of driving before I could stomach hard turns and dense traffic again.
In real life, the key to good driving is avoiding any and all hazards. The only way I was able to face my real fear of cars, then, was to get back behind the wheel and do my very best to make sure nothing bad happened.
Grand Theft Auto V, on the other hand, lets me play a virtual game of chicken as many times as I want. So that’s exactly what I’ve been doing. I wouldn’t call it “thrill-seeking,” even, compared to the masterful stunts that many other GTA V players have pulled off. It’s more like: whenever I’m driving, especially really fast, I start to feel a strong urge to turn into the next car I pass by. I don’t need to go looking for an accident waiting to happen, because I can always be the one causing them.
Playing GTA V, I’ve begun to notice the limits to GTA’s realism. Your character doesn’t suffer a physical handicap when using a phone while driving, for instance. Even after careening through the air and landing upside-down, cars always seem to right themselves so you can continue on your way. And then there’s the whole matter of never truly suffering from a car crash for any longer than the time it takes the game to reload and drop you outside of a hospital with a little less money in your pocket.
Driving recklessly in GTA V wasn’t just what triggered flashbacks to a traumatic experience. The realistic side of GTA V’s first-person driving is what did that. The ridiculous video game side of the picture is what let me do something incredible in turn: get up off the ground after a devastating car crash and do the same thing over, and over, and over again. If I think about it, I guess I did get off the ground once after a car accident far worse than many of the ones I’ve caused in GTA V. But driving—real driving—hasn’t offered a similar invitation for recklessness since then. Because, really: if you survived one car crash, why would you want to try again?
A car crash is terrifying when it happens in real life. They’re terrifying in GTA V too. But once I got used to them, they became something else entirely. Something exciting. Even fun.
A few days after I started playing GTA V again, I pulled onto the highway. “Let’s try something out,” I thought to myself, “just to see how it goes.” I pulled the right trigger on my controller all the way down, putting Franklin’s foot to the floor. The car picked up speed. I whipped past other drivers, hearing a slight whoosh every time I came too close to one. My hands were trembling, and I was breathing unevenly. I noticed that I’d lost precise control of my vehicle; the car wavered precariously as it zoomed down the road. I didn’t let myself stop. Once I’d gained enough momentum to see that I wasn’t going to be able to move any faster, I glanced across the road to examine the incoming traffic. I inhaled deeply, and turned straight into it.
The force of the impact rocketed me out of the windshield. Somehow, I survived. Dizzy but still in one piece, I got back on my feet. I glanced around the open road, searching for the fastest car I could find.