I am on a rampage. Having recently been laid off from my posh tech job, the one with the free sodas and Work From Home days, the one where the employees put the casual in business casual and there's non-stop tension between the Product and Design teams, the one where the staff, like its counterparts dotted all up and down the San Francisco Bay Area, is expected to internalize Jeff Bezos's maxim of "Work Hard. Have fun. Make history"—having recently been laid off from that company, I am currently infiltrating a very similar one: a posh tech space where the employees wear shorts, say things like "Design [keeps] changing its mind overnight," but rally around the idea that "We're making History dude!"
I am armed. I have a pistol with a silencer, a shotgun, extra rounds. This is my chance at … fame? Money? Revenge? Who cares. I just wanna fuck this place up.
I slip into the office during business hours, passing myself off as an IT guy. The hip employees banter: "Where's my hemp milk?" The muzak is indie rock. Having cased the joint, I find my way to the office of the company's cocksure CEO, this young Master of the Universe type who thinks he's Thomas Edison in Diesel jeans. I rig a bomb to his cell phone. I then retire to my house to watch on my flat screen as that bomb explodes, blowing the prick's head off at a press conference—blood, gore, chaos.
This little stunt—I'm not sure how to feel about it. It's part of this fog I've been living in—I'm angry and confused, hurt and lost. I've been day-drinking, skipping meals, smoking weed, and having delusions. At night I get shitfaced in bars. I go to strip clubs. My friends have been great—we meet up, get hammered. My loved ones think I’m a disappointment. I'm bombarded with advertising, assailed by harrowing headlines, adrift in a culture of celebrity, excess, drugs, consumerism. These feel like end times, and I have no one but myself to blame for how I got here. But hey, at least when I'm feeling low, I can go back to the tech company and shoot the place up, gun down a few more of those pompous, oblivious fucks, maybe use a shotgun this time.
It feels weird to write this down.
I realize these are delicate times we're living in, and I understand the sensitivities. What I'm writing is scary, but it's the truth: I really did get laid off, and I really have been playing Grand Theft Auto V, which really did come out the day after I was let go. And everything I've just described takes place in the game, and surely a whole lot in addition to that, which is really and mainly the purview of this piece—the game, the context, the whole big mess of it all. But I mean fuck—this really was day one: the first day after being let go (from my job), the first day being set loose (in the game).
Digression: To the poor intern somewhere in the catacombs of the J. Edgar Hoover Building about to start an FBI file on me, let me save you some time: I have a history of mental illness, having struggled with depression in college and again in my mid-20s; I do not nor do I ever plan to own a firearm, although I do own a couple decent chef's knives and can walk you through their selection and use if you're interested; I have never visited the Middle East; less than a year ago, I was diagnosed with testicular cancer, had what's called an orchiectomy (look it up), and have been cancer-free ever since. You know your business better than I do but I imagine I fit snugly into a handful of personality templates. Do you already have a "Walter White"? (You guys gotta have names for these things right? The "Osama," the "Tsarnaev"?) Maybe that's where I'd fit best—cancer survivor facing financial hardships. Pretty sure I don't have the megalomania thing, but, hey, ya never know; I hear it comes on slow. Follow me on Twitter at @gkamps.
For all kinds of reasons, I'm not going to dwell much on the specifics of the job I just lost, but I will say this: You don't work somewhere for seven years if you don't believe that the work you're doing is fairly special, suited to your skills, challenging; that your colleagues and bosses are good people, sharp and trustworthy; that your company values your contributions, etc. So yes it is indeed basically just flat-out heartbreaking to be shit-canned out of the blue when you believe these things, but at the same time there's really only so much time one can spend contemplating the machinations of people or forces beyond your control: Shit happens. I had a great run, did great work, it was time for a change, this was meant to be. That's what you tell yourself at least, in your calmer moments, when you're not crying into a pillow or drinking yourself ridiculous. In the weeks since getting laid off, I've enjoyed a half-dozen of those seizure-like crying fits, the ones where you find yourself gasping for air in between bouts of outright blubbering; I've smoked a reasonable amount of medical grade, doctor-prescribed, totally legal pot (I'm not kidding about the cancer stuff); I've spent inordinate amounts of time at my local; I've felt cataclysmically down and euphorically up. To put it a different way, I've felt, and in some cases behaved, much like I did when I was 19-23, which is exactly the mindset you want to be in when playing GTAV, for better or worse.
You play as three characters, which you can switch between more or less at will: Michael, Franklin, Trevor. Michael is the retired former thief about to be pulled back into the game; Franklin is the young gangbanger who through some very smart writing does the pulling; and Trevor is Michael's former BFF, a meth-addled psychopath running drugs out in what appears to be the Salton Sea before he discovers his old buddy is alive and well down in Los Santos, and proceeds to look him up. Hilarity/crime/characters covered in feces/whisky drinking/pot-smoking/coke snorting/hooker solicitation/torturing some guy with pliers and a car battery/yoga lessons/Rottweiler training/jumping the Hollywood sign/killing rednecks/a bunch more stuff I haven't even discovered because I'm only a third of the way through the game ensue.
And again it's all kind of weirdly serendipitous and cathartic and then really and especially in the darker moments of the game just kind of bone-chilling to play all this in the kind of emotional, physical, and financial state that I'm in (depressed, lethargic, and panicked, respectively). I mean, I wasn't exactly a happy camper to begin with. I've had two blockbuster illnesses in recent years, the last one, testicular cancer, having "arrived" just 10 months ago. It didn't get to the Lance Armstrong, tumors-in-my-brain stage, we caught it early, cut the thing out, the thing being my right testicle. From the range of possibilities of what could have been, I got pretty lucky. I've been cancer-free for most of the last year. But still. Additionally, my girlfriend and I have to move apartments, and rents aren't cheap, unless maybe we live next to the oil refinery (I could blow it up!). Oh and my shrink died. That also happened this year.
And so it feels real good in a uniquely American way to chase this Ryan Seacrest avatar down the Los Santos river bed in a Mac truck, to eventually catch him, have him pull his pants down, then film him dancing as we make fun of his junk. It's oddly cathartic to partner with a deranged paparazzo and take pictures of the Miley Cyrus and/or Taylor Swift avatar—"America's favorite daughter" Poppy Mitchell—as she takes it up the dirt button in what's supposed to be the Chateau Marmont. It was a gas assassinating some bought-off jurors about to railroad a class-action lawsuit against a cigarette company, to smoke high-octane pot then massacre the ensuing parade of hallucinatory clowns/aliens that show up. It is, I will tell you, totally fucking peachy to act like a criminal in my state of mind, to inhabit a world where the only consequence of whatever destructive action is the thrilling hassle of outrunning the cops.
I mentioned the depression. I used to have these thoughts—weird, violent, scary thoughts, so scary I was nervous to share them with my shrink even. You've had them as well, in that dream you don't talk about, in that moment when you're standing on the edge of the platform thinking, "All it takes is one step." They're the reason we root for Walter White, the reason the camera doesn't cut away when a player goes down on the field. It's the reason car accidents cause so much traffic: We're not just morbidly curious, we're curiously morbid.
The argument against video games like GTAV is that they're teaching people how to be violent, but that's quackery—people are violent. Life is frightening. For a long list of reasons starting with cell division and ending with whatever Miley tweeted yesterday, people gun other people down, or run them over and drive off, or steal their money, or blow up schools. People kill hookers. Cops chase them. Maybe they catch them. This isn't what we're becoming. This is what we are, have always been. GTAV did not invent, nor does it provoke, these behaviors. It merely gives us a sandbox in which to explore them, indulge them, to sit with them and contemplate their strange existence in our imaginations (even yours, Tipper), to understand that in fact they are not unique to a handful of psychopaths waiting their turns on death row, that there is—surprise!—trace amounts of psychopath in all of us.
Says David Chase, creator of Tony Soprano, in Brett Martin's Difficult Men: "I realized … that I'd never be truly happy in my life … until I kill a man."
The other day my girlfriend and I had one of those conversations where she cries and I cry and it's not really a fight but emotions are all over the map—that's one thing about life crises like this: Heartbreaking desperation and Hulk-smash anger await you like potholes in a bad neighborhood. But let's see, what did we fight about, oh right: the fact that I've been sitting around getting drunk playing video games. I explain that this was my clever idea, one of the best I've ever had: My first "job" after getting laid off would be to sit around, drink beer, and play video games. Then write about it! I am a genius! I'm moving on with my life by not moving on, because not moving on is my job. The end. Game set match.
I hate myself.
The room I'm sitting in is small, recognizable to some New Yorkers as maybe a bedroom, but to the rest of the civilized world as a closet. It gets very little light, is essentially a storage space crammed with books and extra sheets and a vacuum, but I've managed to hang a TV in here and stick one of those lunch-tray sized Ikea desks to the wall, and it's been in here mostly that I've written and played and wallowed. The desk is covered in coffee cups and beer bottles (thankfully I quit smoking). The Xbox, which I generally leave paused, hums persistently, like insects in nature. The void calls.
Says Trevor, "I'm looking into the abyss, Michael—and I like it."
Trevor is the most fun to play. He's sadistic, unhinged—there's a scene where he's just ejaculated into a teddy bear's eyehole, another where he wakes up drunk in a barn, another where he's hovering post-binge over a couple on the beach, clad in shit-stained tighty-whities and a tanktop, ogling psychotically until they run off in fear. Who wouldn't want to be Trevor?
"This is why the country is so screwed—too many You's and not enough Me's," says Trevor. Trevor is as deranged as he is confident. You can't really tell if he's the driven head of Trevor Philips Industries Inc. or the deluded speedfreak that bloodies his head against walls and desperately wants someone to follow the tattoo on his neck's instructions to "Cut Here" (OK, he's both).
Each morning, I make a choice: flip-flops or slippers? I haven't put on pants in two weeks. The best way for me to keep track of the days is my senior-citizen pill case, which contains my various meds. I've been wearing the same outfit, been forgetting to eat, been day-drinking. I'm angry and confused, hurt and lost. I'm in a fog. I tell my girlfriend, "Everything's going to be OK—don't you trust me?" I smell like last night's bourbon and I haven't shaved.
Everything's going to be OK. Don't you trust me?
Garrett Kamps is a writer living in San Francisco. He's @gkamps on Twitter. Image by Jim Cooke.