Minutes into the rerelease of Grand Theft Auto V, I inadvertently stomped a cat to death. Still acclimating to the controls, I pressed the attack button, which caused my character to run forward 10 feet and smash his foot down onto a cat that had just jumped off of a trashcan. It was a shocking moment. I was the one stomping that cat to death, because the update of GTA V, released this week for the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, allows players to go through the entire game in first person.
It’s the single biggest change the franchise has seen since it jumped to third person in 2001’s Grand Theft Auto III, and it changes everything about the way you experience GTA V’s virtual city of Los Santos.
More than anything else, what the first person perspective adds is a sense of immediacy. In third person, you are a camera that can control a polygonal character, but you are not that character. There is a disconnect, which allows for some distance between his actions and your button presses. When your camera is the character’s eyes, that disconnect is gone, and that makes all of the violence much more unsettling. Even though I didn’t realize that pressing that button would cause me to run forward and kill that cat, I did it. And seeing that cat up close, then the foot come up and down from the bottom of the screen as if it’s your own foot—it’s uncomfortable.
No, it’s not real and it doesn’t feel that way, but it feels wrong in a way that third person violence does not. That holds true in other first person games as well, but outside of rare moments—like the controversial “No Russian” mission in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2—you’re slaughtering people who “deserved it,” at least as far as the narrative is concerned. Not so in GTA V.
But the first person perspective doesn’t just enhance the violence. It changes how you perceive conversations. Everything is closer now, and everyone is looking right at you. Dialogue during driving missions is no longer just voiceover, and you can look to the characters sitting next to you as you drive and see them talk. There is a sense of presence to everything that wasn’t there before. And, perhaps unfortunately, that extends to the game’s sexual encounters.
As in the past, you can pull up beside some ladies of the night and call them into your car. But what was once a very disconnected experience becomes a whole lot creepier when you’re actually in the driver’s seat, looking out the window, and beckoning them in. You’re looking at her face and she’s looking right at you, and then you go find a quiet place for the two of you to be. I legitimately expected the game to break out of the character’s head and just show the car bumping as usual. After the Hot Coffee mod fiasco in 2005 forced Rockstar to pay out millions of dollars due to the inclusion of a hidden sex minigame, I didn’t think they’d even try to put first person sex in the game.
But they did. The game does not break away. Depending on what you asked for, she puts her head into your lap or gets down on top of you and then spends what feels like an eternity going through the motions, periodically making comments about the impressiveness of your manhood or just how much she’s enjoying the whole thing. Afterwards, I felt like I needed to take a shower.
It’s not just how uncomfortable the whole thing is—though it’s extremely uncomfortable—but the animations themselves are just…weird. If the prostitute is on top you, her (clothed) chest is pretty much your entire vision. You can look around a little bit, but her face is obscured and you can’t actually see anything explicit going down. Your controller, however, vibrates heavily with each movement. Seconds in, I wanted it to stop, but it just kept going and going.
(If parents want their children to never solicit prostitutes, they should give them Grand Theft Auto V. It’ll sully the experience for them forever.)
But the Grand Theft Auto experience that makes it into the news goes beyond that. You have to pick the prostitute up in a stolen car and then kill her and take your money back afterwards. And so that’s what I did. I have no idea what it looks like to actually hotwire a car, though I expect it’s a bit more complicated than GTA V makes it look, but the extra few seconds of him fiddling around under the steering column definitely adds something. Opening a driver’s side door and pulling someone out of their vehicle before driving off is likewise a very different experience up close.
And though I was already upset at the whole thing, I figured I had to see it through to the end. Stolen car? Check. Prositute? Check. Senseless Murder?…Check. Money? Not really check. Rockstar actually removed the ability to get your money back specifically a little while ago, and doing this seems to come with a guaranteed Wanted level increase—likely as a direct result of the negative news coverage—but it’s difficult to overstate just how significant a moment that is, because none of it had to happen. Rockstar Games built me the ability to do each of those things, but it was up to me to make those decisions. In first person, Grand Theft Auto lets you be the kind of criminal you want to be, rather than just steer one.
Are you the kind of criminal who runs down the beach at night wielding a knife and stabbing every woman you pass? You can do that. Are you the kind of criminal who steals a plane and then jumps without a parachute from high over a body of water? You should do that, because it’s exhilarating and terrifying all at once.
In third person, Grand Theft Auto V was like a really elaborate action figure play set. In first person, it’s a whole playground.