Those who read my Team Fortress 2 article might remember that I was less than complementary about the communities of other online games. One that was name-dropped was Grand Theft Auto V, or to give its specific name, GTA Online. I don’t know why they didn’t just put that as the title of the whole game, as the vast majority of players skipped past all that wordy plot-stuff and went straight to the servers, whereupon they could scream abuse at each other on their own instead of having it done for them by the protagonists in cutscenes.

I played a fair bit of GTA Online and came out less than enthused. Let’s not mince words, I usually came out angry enough to bite a hole in my desk. I kept going back, though. I kept trying to find that special something I had apparently missed, that secret ingredient that managed to get it those absurdly high reviews. Did the game spit out chocolates for everybody else? Were they being put into servers with courteous English lords? I don’t understand it. Or rather, I didn’t understand it, until something happened.

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I desperately chug whiskey to avoid talking to the person who invited me over. You can’t say that this game isn’t realistic.

Last night I played the game with a couple of friends, and we had a whale of a time. A truly hilarious experience. It started with driving through the streets of Los Santos in an ATV with a turret on top, later moved onto driving a family sedan up a mountain, then we went swimming down river rapids and got smashed to pieces on the rocks, before finally discovering a military base and spending three hours trying to get past all the angry men in tanks, in order to steal a fighter jet each.

That last bit was especially good. The base had a high fence around it, you see, so the only way in was to drive off a cliff on one side and try to jump the fence, like a cross between the A-Team and the Dukes Of Hazzard. And then, of course, it came to giving tanks the old run-around and trying to find a Harrier that hadn’t been blitzed in the previous attempt. Great fun, even when frustration got the better of us and we started shooting each other with flare guns like we were auditioning for the Fantastic Four.

So why was I having such a miserable time before? It might just be down to playing with friends. After all, anything is better when experienced through the filter of camaraderie, but I’m not so sure. I’ve played games with friends before and yes, it’s nearly always fun, but still, some games work better with more than one people. They suit it better, you know what I mean? The Left 4 Dead series is a good example of this. It has a lot of mechanics that depend on having people help you out, such as shoving zombies off you when you’re tackled to the ground, or reviving other players when they’ve been killed.

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Yeah, Massimo, it’s a cool car and all, but why do I have to sit in the back?

But this isn’t the same thing as Left 4 Dead, not quite. There wasn’t as much collaboration between us in GTA Online – yes, we were working together to get planes, but we kept turning on each other out of sheer excitement and for the occasional profit. At one point an NPC put a bounty on me when I nicked his car, so one of my colleagues promptly turned around and bashed my head in with the butt of his shotgun. I think we can safely say that this wasn’t one of those “All for one” deals.

But actually, I think the key lies somewhere else, in a manner with which we can all identify. I remember going to a playground with my mates as a child, at least between eye-destroying sessions with my true best friend, Game Boy. It was always great fun, chasing each other up the climbing frames, powering down the slide, seeing how far we could launch off the swings without breaking anything. Good times.

But being at the playground on your own sucks, even as a kid. It becomes repetitive, there’s less adrenaline to the whole thing, and without everybody yelling it’s harder to ignore Father Milton watching from the bushes a little way off.

It’s difficult to explain why this is the case, or at least to that extent. It can’t just be that friends are fun, because whenever we had nothing to do, we’d just lie about grumbling and kicking the wall. And it’s not the playground on its own, because otherwise I wouldn’t be leaving within five minutes and desperately trying to avoid eye contact with the man of God.

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It’s like every family car ride I’ve ever been on. Except with slightly less shouting and gunfire.

To me it’s all down to a loose framework with which we can enjoy ourselves. GTA Online struggles when it tries to fill the gaps, it struggles when it tries to take control from us. It’s why the Heists are usually annoyingly linear. I’m not here to play a rail shooter, I want to do whatever I want.

And with the tools in place, the game can allow for quite a lot. That military base might have been designed with the idea of pilfering planes in mind, it might not have. But it would have been a lot more dull if we had to break in a single way, do it the same way each time. The satisfaction was us filling the spaces with our own ideas. The bickering over vehicles, the consideration of different entry points, feeling rather smug when you manage to get a jet before the others do.

When GTA Online puts me on a leash and gives me specific instructions, I feel bored. But when it leaves me in the open world with my imagination and a bunch of friends to torment, that makes me happy, because suddenly the possibilities are limitless. Of course, you can’t get that experience with strangers, which is why it suffers so much when you’re playing solo.

You could almost think of GTA as an unstable mass of chemicals, but it needs a trigger. Something very specific to set it off. And that something is a close friend or two, friends who you feel like indiscriminately killing for a few hours. Forget the heists, forget the rigidly defined missions. I didn’t come to a huge sandbox to pick up an instruction manual. No, I came here to cover my car with C4 and drive straight at my mates, pretending I’m a bob-bomb on steroids. And no elaborate tangle of disjointed missions and planned robberies can make me forget that real pleasure that comes from rolling a grenade to your friend’s feet, and watching the remains of him fall from the sky like chunky rain.

It’s just my way of saying “I love you.”

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Explain that again, Phil? You used a flare gun in self-defence? Yeah, whatever. Seems legit.

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