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(REVIEW) Tinkering with the Code of Reality: An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in GTA Online

> Between the 18th and the 20th October 1974, Oulipo BAE Georges Perec - a Pisces - sits in a Parisian cafe on Place Saint-Sulpice, meticulously recording in his notebook every detail of the busy life of the square. His eyes are alert to 'what happens when nothing happens'.  The more inconsequential the particulars he manages to pick up on, examine, or classify, the more excited he seems to become:

 'Means of locomotion: walking, two-wheeled vehicles (with and without motor), automobiles (private cars, company cars, rented cars, driving school cars), commercial vehicles, public services, public transport, tourist buses.'   

> The conceptual/obsessive experiment in cataloguing is a response to a writing prompt of his own devising, published about a month before in a collection of essays on public and private spaces (the adorably-named Species of Spaces and Other Pieces). Perec's practical exercise calls for the reader/writer to carefully observe the street around them and note *everything* down: one must set about it slowly, 'almost stupidly'; forcing oneself to see the space 'more flatly'. 'If nothing strikes you', says Perec, then 'you don't know how to see'. As it turns out, Perec himself is really good at seeing: after 3 days on Place Saint-Sulpice, his notes are over 50 pages long - mainly one-line annotations about buses, passersby, pigeons, gestures, more buses. He calls it An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris.

>Perec made of this modality (a dry and neutral encyclopedic gaze at the unnoticed) a manifesto. In both writing and living, he called for a shift of attention from the exceptional to the ordinary, for an abandonment of the charmingly exotic in favour of the invisibly unexceptional - according to a philosophy he labels 'anthropology of the endotic'. In the essay 'Approaches to What?', in a somewhat self-referential aphorism, he remarks that 'railway trains only begin to exist when they are derailed, and the more passengers are killed, the more the trains exist.' That the ordinary, in other words, only lives in our attention as soon as it stops being ordinary.

>If this statement is true as it sounds, then, the virtual world of Grand Theft Auto Online must without a doubt be more real than the one we live in. The game's universe is expansive and hyperrealistic to the extent that navigating its space is an experience of an undecidable quality; the abundance of detail is so accurately mimetic and uncannily convincing it that the digital artifice both disappears into an ambient background, and never leaves the centre of the stage. The minutia of IRL city-walking, and of existing in a world that follows its own will (flecks of dust dancing in the wind, catching the sun; overheard fragments of strangers' phone conversations; the gas station attendant's body language in between serving customers), are alienated from us, digitally re-engineered, and presented back to us in the guise of a crime-ridden fictional world. In this sense, the GTA series is one of the most Perecquian exercises to ever exist. (Of course, amusingly enough, Perec's aphorism is also appropriate here on a more literal level: the game franchise is entirely built upon the premise that derailing trains  - but also provoking car accidents, and especially murdering innocent pedestrians - is recommended if not required).

>Because of these underlying continuities between Perec's 'infraordinary' and the process of hyperrealistic world-making in sandbox video games, when I first read about Michael Crowe's re-enactment of Perec's experiment in GTA online (in a cafe, open-mouthed, holding a scone mid-air), I just blurted out 'Of course!' to the stranger sitting across from me. It made complete sense; the connection was there all along, only no one had ever written about it. In his wonderful introduction to the small volume, Jamie Sutcliffe confesses that he is 'jealous and frustrated [Crowe] got there first'. Although he follows this with praise for the book's undeniable 'inventiveness, inquisitiveness and relentless mirth,' I think the underlying reason for the (admittedly shared) envy is not only that Crowe exhausted a conceptual exercise skilfully, and in beautiful prose. He also hit a nerve, exposed a crucial side of the relationship between video games, literature, realism and simulation - and he did it playfully.

>At times, An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in GTA Online time follows closely Perec's model: it obsesses over weather, numbers and registration plates, the colour of people's clothes, passersby (especially women) eating things, commercial slogans, etc. Of course, these strong echoes can only highlight the essential polarities between the two universes: what in Perec's Paris is nature or chance (clouds, the pedestrians' trajectories, their conversations), is always artifice and intentionality in GTA. Even if the the game's phenomenology might be randomised, it is always layers of carefully contrived code that engender it: the player can never forgets this.

>One other definition that Perec devised for the kind of everydayness that escapes our perception is 'the infra-ordinary' - the swarm of details that hover just below the threshold of attention. If Perec's term is certainly appropriate for his preferred subject of writing, the choice of word seems even more significant in the context Crowe's Attempt because its meaning necessarily expands to the digital nature of the space explored. In the city-space of GTA, the 'endotic' and the 'infra' quite literally consist of the hidden workings below (or behind) the surface of game: the structure of its programming, the software's rationale - mechanisms that Crowe often lingers on, his phenomenological descriptions often slipping into conjectures about the game's logical engines:

That woman is still parked at a green light. Melt down. As other cars approach they brake differently, some jerkily in stages, others in a smoother manner. The computer players seem to have different levels of driving proficiency.
There's a pristine jewellery exchange store opposite. Dilapidated buildings probably cost more to design and create in this game, as they would generally have far more detail. (...)Directly opposite is the Elkridge Hotel. It can't be entered. I wonder what's inside. Is the book/cube poured full of colour, or transparency, with the road/pavement continuing on the floor? If hollow, how thin are the impenetrable walls?

Crowe's asides often touch - more or less directly - upon questions of realism and effective simulation:

The palm trees in front of me are slightly different heights. None look copied and pasted. 
It would be great if learner driver were going around, veering off cliffs, etc.
It's a shame there are no birds, it would add greatly to a sense of realism ... Perec had all kinds of pigeon action in his book.

>Even more interestingly, at times his observations go as far as hinting at the inherent opacity of the concept of mimetic representation itself: what is realism, when truly accurate depictions often seem even more surreal in their uncanny effect? Doesn't GTA's lifelike graphic rendering - like meticulously inventorial writing - draw attention to the very artifice of artistic creation? 

Very light rain. This slight rain seems realistic, but in Perec's reality the rain stops "very suddenly". If that happened in GTA it would seem like poor attention to detail.

>In a review of Auerbach's Mimesis, Terry Eagleton elaborates on Brecht's idea that realism really is a matter of effect, not a matter of technique. The definition cannot be applied at the level of production or its methods, it has to depend on reception - at the level of reading, or, in this case - playing. Realism happens between the artwork and the audience's expectations; it's not about verisimilitude, or about whether a text (or video game) recalls something familiar; it's about whether or not the experience of the work matches an unmediated experience of reality: 'Realism is as realism does'. 

>Eagleton concludes that 'artistic realism, then, cannot mean "represents the world as it is", but rather "represents it in accordance with conventional real-life modes of representing it". Realism as we normally understand it, then, has more to do with convention; it is more like an autonomous process of creation than a neutral mode of reporting. At one point, Crowe wonders 'what poets like T.S. Eliot would've added [to the game] by way of details within details'; the underlying idea here is that a deeper and deeper level of realism can only come from fabrication and designed artifice. A truly realistic world doesn't exist, it has to be manufactured and carefully weaved together. Perec, Eliot, the nerds at Rockstar Games: all mods, tinkering with code to fashion a world that feels more real than the invisible one we live in.

>The most prominent strand of reflections in Crowe's Attempt, however, is dedicated to imagining a future in which GTA is so utterly realistic that it surpasses reality itself. Crowe pictures the horizon towards which the GTA series is moving not only as a simulation indistinguishable from its original, but as a utopian uber-world populated by perfect AI characters:

In future games, players will be able to chat with all computer characters about any topic, for any length of time. The only problem would be that the computer characters would likely find us too boring and go off to chat with another computer character that has also read every line of text and seen every film/artwork.
I wonder how detailed these games will become. Could growing a zit in the game affect your character's day? ... Could millions of players all live as microorganisms on the face of a GTA character?

>The beautifully apocalyptic scale of Crowe's prophecy is made somewhat more ominous by the hazy, yet closed, temporal arc that his little book follows. Whereas Perec opens and concludes every section of his Attempt declaring the time window of his observations, Crowe rarely if never talks about the passage of time in the game ('I dont keep track of time as i should, here or irl'). The only real time marks - vague, atmospheric, possibly just conceptual - are in the names of the 5 sections the book is divided into: '(Daybreak)', '(Morning)', '(Break)', '(Nightfall)', '(Night)'. Crowe's 24-hour cycle - whether referring to IRL or GTA temporality - is possibly more compellingly symbolic than Perec's 3 days. The self-contained movement from dawn, to sunset, and then darkness, lends the volume a sense of closure that it would otherwise lack - given its status as a semi-conceptual exercise aimed at an inherently unattainable objective ('exhausting' a place). 

>This explicitly closed timeline also means that Crowe's subject, and thus his literary project, assume more gravitas than one might expect. What could begin in the reader's mind as a playful pastiche actually becomes more like a tragedy, with Crowe's avatar helplessly standing and witnessing unstoppably violent events, most of which utterly gratuitous. The text is so ridiculously faithful to the Aristotelian unities of time and place (one day, one place), that one might turn a blind eye on its complete lack of any unity of action ('events strictly tied together as cause and effect, adding up to one single story' sounds pretty much like everything this book is not). The book does funny, but it also does serious, poetic - although possibly not cathartic. In a sense, Crowe's avatar is a bit like a postmodern Hamlet: a passive and melancholic intellectual antihero, surrounded by farcical death in a corrupted society.

>In the last section of Crowe's Attempt, '(Night)', the more beautifully poetic descriptive fragments that populate the book gradually increase in number as if to signal the nearing calmness of closure. These are nominal phrases that choose to go nowhere; many are about things that are far away, abandoned, or circular:

A very high crane in the distance.
1000s of lights visible from my spot.
The window lights have different hues, every light isn't just white. Slight yellow, greens.
One side of the sky is pink, the other blue, held apart by purple.
A plane flying by way off in the distance.
An ambulance is burnt out, two people inside burnt entirely black.
A human is spinning around in circles in their car (...).
Dropped cigarette on the floor.

>Before you know it - much, much before the last section - you'll feel stupid for ever thinking this book would be just a parody to lol at, or a kool koncept to show your other Highbrow x Lowbrow friends and pat each other on the back for knowing the experimental French literature reference. You'll be moved by how beautiful Los Santos can be - the geometry of its facade architecture; its computer-generated clouds drifting above sports cars, reflecting the light in coupé red or neon purple; private (NPC) citizens relaxing on benches or outside cafes, smoking, eating donuts, eating bagels, talking into their phones to their private (NPC) citizen friends about their job, their boyfriends, their drug problem. I won't say you'll forget the world you're in is a video game you're in - because Crowe won't let you - but I think you will stop caring. 

>An Attempt at Exhausting a Pace in GTA Online is published by Studio Operative, and can be bought at Glasgow's Good Press, or here


Text: Denise Bonetti


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