Year of release: September 17, 2013

I’m fifteen hours into Grand Theft Auto V, and I can’t stay focused.

I’m playing as Trevor, the psychopath of Los Santos, and as I drive to my next mission – it involves hijacking a submarine for a big heist – I hear a woman scream. “Help! That man stole my purse!”

Well. All right. Here we go again.

A red tracking dot appears on my map, and I’m off. I floor the gas in reverse, chase the mugger down on foot, and push him to the ground – five seconds and three stab wounds later, he’ll never virtually mug someone ever again. I then return the woman’s purse (I could have kept it, but I’m feeling magnanimous today), get back in my pickup, and continue driving to the docks. The first thing you notice about Grand Theft Auto V is that there is an overwhelming number of things to do – your initial impulse is to try everything at once.

The cumulative effect of all this aggravation, however, is well worth it. It creates a beautiful illusion – of a living, breathing city with many stories to tell – a city that will continue to live on long after Michael, Franklin, and Trevor get arrested or drop dead. 

All sandbox games claim to offer free will and choice, but it’s often an on-the-rails experience – you’re allowed to explore, but only within the preordained boundaries that the developers have set for you, and only when they want you to. Earlier Grand Theft Auto games suffered from this as well, hermetically sealing you off from the best cars, guns, and neighborhoods with improbable excuses. Grand Theft Auto V throws all of that out the window, allowing you to explore the entire city within the first several hours of play.

You want to pick street fights with the Grove Street gangs? Check. You want to sneak around in the backyards of ritzy, gated communities and hijack convertibles? Check. You want to escape to the countryside and go swimming? Check, and make sure to dive beneath the water’s surface – there are meticulously detailed coral formations and tropical fish that should not be missed – not to mention a downed flying saucer and a whale skeleton for the most intrepid explorers. The detail. Good Lord, the detail.

Los Santos residents are always up to something – they’re texting their friends, they’re relaxing on a smoke break, or they’re arguing in the streets. Residents run for cover when it starts to rain. Main characters update their social networking profiles to coincide with the game’s events. The movie theaters play actual films, with funny scripts and narratives that are all their own. The moon even has phases to correspond with the week. Imagine what it’s like to be a developer on this game, painstakingly illustrating landscapes and details that 99% of players will never appreciate or see. Or, to be a voice actor, recording three years worth of dialogue that most people will never stick around long enough to hear.

The cumulative effect of all this aggravation, however, is well worth it. It creates a beautiful illusion – of a living, breathing city with many stories to tell – a city that will continue to live on long after Michael, Franklin, and Trevor get arrested or drop dead. It’s resonating to know that with so much detail, one player’s experience will never be exactly like another’s.

Long time Grand Theft Auto fans know to brace themselves for the provincial, ‘moral outrage’ whenever a new game drops. The pearl clutching usually focuses on singular elements of the game play – the virtual lap dances, the Rampage mini-games (although you are defending yourself against murderous, ‘post-ironic’ hipsters, to be fair), and the high-speed police chases. But let’s be real here – if wanton killing and virtual boobs were all that there was to this franchise, it wouldn’t have racked up billions in sales. It would get old, very quickly. What propelled this franchise – and particularly, this game – to record breaking heights was not its adrenaline rush highs, but its downtime lows - the way it satirized the mundane rituals and behavior of every day life.

In Grand Theft Auto V, nobody is safe – guilty liberals, redneck conservatives, gun enthusiasts, and pot smoking, yoga hippies are all skewered with aplomb. The game saves its harshest criticisms, however, for the celebrity worship that dominates American culture. From the materialistic celebrities themselves to the paparazzi that follow them to the slavering fans who imitate their every move, it’s a cyclical clusterfuck that drives the game’s humorous tone. Back to the game. After successfully parking the submarine in a warehouse, I switch characters from Trevor to Franklin, the rags to bitches gangbanger of my crew. I’m on the roof of a building with a sniper rifle, and I’m trying to head shot the CEO of a tobacco company. I’m manipulating the stock market – if I kill this guy and then immediately invest in his rival’s company, I’ll make a ton of money. I’ll also hear about it on the radio right after it happens.

And then I’ll conquer another mission. And another mission. And a stunt jump. And another mugger who snatches an old lady’s purse. It’s all about those little things, those moments of wry eccentricity, that make Grand Theft Auto V one of the best games of the year, but one of the best game of the past five.