The Passenger’s Seat

Elaine Nelson
Published in
5 min readSep 20, 2016

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Almost nothing is as AAA as the Grand Theft Auto series: big budget graphics and shooting and driving and hookers and trash-talk. It’s not about feelings or memory, the smell of flowers or the comfortable feel of a long-time relationship. Except when it is.

I’ve probably watched more GTA than anyone alive who hasn’t played it. I know it intimately, but from the outside. The same way that GTA San Andreas knew my youth: as a simulacrum of a thing. And now how GTA5, Los Angeles, and I circle one another. Which one of us is “real”?

I didn’t learn how to drive until I was in my mid-20s, when I was already living in Washington state. Which meant that for my mother, my friends, my sweethearts, I was the person in the front passenger seat looking at the map, looking out for the landmarks, keeping them awake on late night drives. And if they knew where they were going and didn’t need my attention, I could watch the landscapes go by, watch the clouds drift across the sky.

A common sub-type of play-through video: the time-lapse long-distance drive.

When he started playing Grand Theft Auto, the sky wasn’t anything to take notice of. But because it was a console game, I sat in the passenger seat on the couch and gave directions.

San Andreas had great skies, and we went on side quests taking tours of an almost but not quite familiar city. I had the laptop open, and for weeks one winter looked up directions to gang tag locations; another friend came over and the three of us drove all over the city, looking out for landmarks that someone else had written in a guidebook, a wiki, a text file. Turn by turn directions; we got lost less often in San Andreas than in Portland.

And when he wasn’t on a mission — he’d go off cycling at “night” in the mountains with the whoosh-whoosh sound of pedals — I could watch the sun rise and light enormous clouds into towers of pink and white.

We spent years with San Andreas, because of the gameplay, because you could just drive around aimlessly like we sometimes did in the real world of semi-rural Washington. Because there was sort-of multiplayer, a few places where a friend could join in for a little sightseeing and absurdist mayhem.

When GTAV came out it was like going back to a familiar town. You can’t go home again, right? But yeah, technology changes, culture changes, and so the San Andreas of V was bigger skies, meaner self-awareness. Online play meant our friends were off in their own living rooms instead of sharing snacks and chairs.

Those skies, though! A game with so much shooting and death and cruelty, in which the shadows of a palm tree shift slowly across a bright sidewalk.

Everything was big and glossy…like a video game.

In May 2015 I went to southern California for my longest visit in 20 years. The megalopolis is incomprehensibly vast, so even having spent my whole childhood in southern California, there’s huge areas I never knew. And many of the places of LA that are in GTAV’s San Andreas hadn’t yet been built when I moved away.

The places that I visited which I knew least felt the most like the game: Staples Center, downtown. It’s huge and outlandish. Skyscraper-size LCD billboards. And yet even there, what I noticed most of all is something invisible in the game: the edge of Skid Row has been shifting, but people still cluster and sleep in the windowsills of buildings with multi-million-dollar condos.

I left downtown feeling alienated and anxious, the worst of excessive “I can’t believe it’s not GTA!” all around me.

But I got off the train in Pasadena and walked to my AirBnb, and the wide pale streets and the branches of oaks meeting in midair over the street, the Craftsman houses. Places that aren’t in GTA, that have no need to be in GTA. Scents, which can’t go in a video game: not just citrus or jasmine, but the deodar cedar that swirled around the walk home from school. Stepping on avocado leaves and knowing that smell from hours of raking in my own yard.

Also, NOT driving. And GTA is all about the driving, or sometimes about riding BMX bikes up to the top of imaginary mountains, but definitely not riding the bus. And to me SoCal is always about riding the bus, or being a passenger.

Where I’d been holding the contradictions and comparisons in my head while I was downtown, back home, I was riding the bus with my junior high BFF, giggling and talking non-stop. Catching up. Remembering and being without intermediaries or simulacrums.

Clouds burning off of the San Gabriel Mountains as I wait for a bus.

Postscript: Undead Warriors

As a watcher of video games, I often come up with my own little headcanons. One of my favorites comes from the pre-staged gang fights of GTA Online.

The dead-end kids in the dead town by the dead lake knew not to go into the abandoned motel at night. Once it had been a hangout for the casts and crews of ridiculous B-movies made out in the desert. Then a pit stop for hassled families trying to get to the parks and campgrounds, and finally a cesspit of meth, graffiti, trash, worn-out and amped-up lost souls.

That wasn’t what the teenagers were afraid of, though. Even the kids who carried a piece wouldn’t venture into the motel grounds once the sun went down. Every night, the same scenario played out: if you were there and awake at just the right moment, all around you would be the shouting. Gruff, crazed voices from every direction at once. And if you wait too long, they’d start shooting at you, whether you shot back or not.

Rumor was, a guy in Sandy Shores spent the night in the motel, only he had a gun, and he shot back. Said he tied 10 times that night, but every time just woke up not even bleeding, but time stopped until somehow he capped all those guys and the shouting stopped, and he was just standing out in the desert as the sun came up.

Another story went that after the shooting started, some juggalo dude just came outta nowhere driving some fancy-ass car, and blowing all those others guys away like a shitty action movie. Girl that told that story said she just hid out behind some mattresses and once everyone was dead it was just over.

Other people, they went crazy. They disappeared. They got found in the morning: screaming, crying, or comatose. At least that’s what you heard. Still: abandoned haunted motel? Whatever, dude. Druggies and weirdos tell stories.