Grand Theft Auto and chaos go hand in hand—every game brings us new ways to explore violence and crime. But what happens when you eschew those values and try to play as a peaceful citizen who contributes to society?
Turns out, the game doesn't always know how to handle pacifism—not that that makes attempts any less interesting to watch. For the last ten months, Jeremy Mattheis has tried playing GTA Online with a few self-imposed rules. Commit no murder. Harm no one. Only break the law when the game requires it, or if it is necessary for self-preservation.
"I wish to engage in this world in a manner independent of pain and suffering, that is, to create and receive no negativity, to survive and engage peacefully with all other sentient beings," he declares during his introduction video to the series.
It's an exploration that has proven fascinating. From the onset, Mattheis ran into problems. The tutorial requires you to get a package from a drug dealer, for example. Normally, this would be simple: kill the dude, take what you need. But Mattheis refused to do that. Instead, he chased the guy down for two hours in the hope that the character would eventually kill himself. No dice. The character would circle all of Los Santos without injury, much to the dismay of Mattheis.
Mattheis then tried to bypass the mission through deaths—normally, if you die a certain number of times, you don't have to do the mission in question anymore. It didn't work in the tutorial, though it normally works in the main game. Finally, he tried being a little more aggressive—Mattheis threw the character out of the car he was chasing, only to find the character frozen in place. The game literally does not know how to handle the idea that maybe you don't want to murder this guy! Eventually, Mattheis did kill the drug dealer—but only because the game required him to do this in order to finish the tutorial and head into the main game.
The rest of the as-of-yet unfinished run is full of moments like these—hilarious, puzzling, and illuminating when it comes to GTA Online's design. It's funny to watch Mattheis encounter other players, or to see him try to get ahead in life in the game. Normally, you have to break the law or commit crimes left and right to make good money. But if you don't actually do that, it becomes much harder to afford anything— even if it's just a measly haircut. Even smaller things prove to be an issue, as Mattheis has to figure out what to do with the gun the game provides. For whatever reason, the game makes it pretty difficult to get rid of it—at one point, he drops the gun, only to have the character automatically pick it back up again, without prompt. Eventually, despite the game's attempt to keep him armed, he does get rid of the gun, though.
The game goes on to insist Mattheis pursue frivolous goals that he has no interest in, like holding up a store. But if Mattheis doesn't do what the game suggests or makes possible, just what peaceful thing can he do to keep himself occupied? The playthrough gets existential like that.
You might be wondering to yourself, why pursue this at all, especially when the game clearly doesn't want players to be pacifists? Part of it is irony, Mattheis said in an interview with VICE. Part of it has to do with a much deeper goal.
"I think non-gamers have a bad view of the gaming community," Mattheis told VICE. "Grand Theft Auto depicts violence, and therefore people make the assumption that it promotes and causes violence. I don't think this is true and wanted to show that, even in Grand Theft Auto, it's possible to inflict and receive no negativity, to survive and engage peacefully with all other sentient beings."
The playthrough doesn't always go to plan, of course. Mattheis does end up being aggressive at times, and he doesn't always do things like follow basic laws. Fellow players don't always react very well to his philosophy either, according to his interview with VICE.
"People complain that I'm not playing the game correctly—that there's a right way and a wrong way to play video games. I've experienced a lot of anger in the game, actually. I'll just be walking around and someone will see my name and go, 'Oh, it's him.' I think, Oh, cool, a friend just arrived, and then I'll get shot in the back of the head."
If you'd like to follow along with his adventures, head on over to this YouTube playlist, or watch the currently-available episodes of Grand Theft Auto Pacifist right here: