Last night’s dip into GTA Online’s Operation Paper Trail missions was surprisingly chilling

My wife plays GTA Online a couple of times a week. It’s not hard to see why she’s stuck with it. Rockstar’s endlessly unspooling criminal playground is weird and sometimes creaky, but it’s still beautiful – no other company has captured the rosy opioid bloom of LA light like this – and it’s still fun. More than anything, it’s unpredictable: whenever you go into GTA Online, you always come out with some kind of story.

Last night Sarah was busy, so I fired it up alone. I wanted to check out the new GTA Online Criminal Enterprises update. But this is important for what follows: I don’t regularly play the game myself. I watch it from the sofa a lot, but I almost never pick up the controller.

Criminal Enterprises brings quite a lot to GTA Online as far as I can tell. New weapons and new vehicles are just the start of it. There’s also a suite of story missions, though, and this is what I was interested in.

The missions form a short narrative called Operation Paper Trail. The idea is that a heatwave has struck San Andreas and oil prices have gone through the roof at the same time. Climate change and the cost of living crisis! In GTA’s world, as a government agent informs me, the oil hike is because of good old price gouging, and we’re quickly dispatched to do something about it. Not stop it, by any means, I gather. We’re off to wet our beaks.

At first when I took all this in, I felt a little pompous sympathy for Rockstar, which is surely in the awkward position of parodying a world that can seem to be so far beyond parody by this point. Imagine, I thought, what it’s been like running GTA for the last few years, having to react – to elevate and ironise – the things that have come to pass since 2013. I wondered, rather snootily: isn’t it almost quaint that GTA designers put rising oil prices down to something as easy to grasp as price gouging? Because the road they are not taking maybe leads to the idea that our zombie global economy is feral by this point – that what once made sense no longer makes sense to anyone. The global complexity of getting goods from here to there, with climate change thrown in too, means that the economy has engaged a spirit of its own – not alive, exactly, but not dead either: undead.

Anyway, as so often with GTA Online I find myself out of my depths with these thoughts. All I really know is that I don’t really know anything. Onwards. I loaded into the game, went to the appropriate government agency to be sworn in, and then headed off to do a Paper Trail mission. These missions are all multiplayer affairs, so I teamed up with some guy I had never met and we got in our cars and drove off to the first marker.

First objective: break-in in a fancy mansion to steal data off a computer. We were in Bunker Hill, I think, which is Pillbox Hill in the Shift-F7 world of GTA. We walked into this apartment, and I have to say – as a person who watches a lot of Million Dollar Listing: Los Angeles – that I was quite impressed. Book-matched marble, tasteful staging. A good flow to the rooms and ceilings that must have been 10 feet. If this was in the Bird Streets you’d be looking at 2000 a foot. You’d be breaking records.

All of which is to say that GTA has a lovely eye for the details of Los Angeles. Its interiors are as lavish and quietly odd as its exteriors. This was a quiet part of the mission so I had time to notice this stuff – we found the computer, my friend tapped away at it, and we were out of there.

From here we had a choice of locations to go to. We decided on the one that was downtown, as it was closest. My friend drove off, and I tried to follow, but I got so hung up reading the mini-map – this always happens – that I ended up rear-ending several trucks along the way. By the time I got to the destination, my friend was already inside the building. I could tell this because I could hear the sound of shooting coming through the walls and bleeding into the street. A clever detail. Nothing sells the fiction of a place like hearing your co-op buddy inside and causing havoc, while you’re outside and trying to get in.

Sadly because he was causing havoc, and because I was so late, I walked straight into an ambush. FIB officers all over the place, their cars nose-to-nose in the street. GTA combat, often seen as a weak element of the series, is actually pretty fun by this point. Because of the auto lock-on, it makes you feel like a professional from a Mission Impossible movie – the double-tap-to-the-head kind of person. Playing with a pistol and silencer only reinforced that feeling. Sadly, it was absolutely just a feeling. Within seconds the FIB had shot me to pieces. I respawned and they shot me to pieces again. I had used up the spare lives that our duo depended on.

I was dead. Out of the game. And here is where it got interesting.

Rather than being kicked out to a game brower, I was now inside the building, watching my partner fulfilling the mission that I had already failed out of. I was a sort of ghost in the security system, moving from one CCTV camera to the next as he paced about. And what I discovered is that, while I had been outside getting murdered, he was inside, revealing that he was extremely good at GTA Online: he had dispatched everyone and was calmly completing his objective.

If you watch as much Food Network as I do, you’ll be familiar with the idea of “cutting through.” Guy Fieri will have parked his Trans Am outside some Bob-and-Sally eaterie in Dogbrain, Vermont, and he’ll be waxing about a sandwich he’s just eaten. Sweet pork and American cheese! But then the sour pickles mix perfectly with all of that – the pickle juice “cuts through” the fat and the sweetness. Well, watching this extremely precise and deadly man going about his business, it cut through. It cut through the friendly cheeseburger of GTA Online’s satire and made everything a little uncanny.

I watched him for the rest of the mission, as he headed off to the next checkpoint and I followed along, my security cam presence shifting to drone or police copter, me just a cheerful ghost in the machine. A warehouse somewhere – another find-the-gubbins deal, except lovely GTA staging had pulled off the trick of killing the lights, so my partner was wandering around in the dark. That same purposeful stride with which he had paced through the office mission, though. More blandly efficient carnage.

And this distance I was able to get – the peculiar multiplayer-game distance of being dead but still witnessing what happens next – it suddenly made me realise what Paper Trail was getting at. It was hardly hidden, to be fair: the explicit pitch, I think, is that climate change and the cost of living crisis, this whole global tragedy, is really an opportunity for some terrible people out there to make money. Nice point, and true, I imagine. But there’s being told that in a cut-scene, and then there’s watching it play out over quite a long time, watching the person who was your partner, up until you died, cutting a path through a city because a global catastrophe means there’s short-term bank to be made.

Listen. Even the mission objectives themselves – hack a computer and steal this and that from downtown? Certainly you could argue that these objectives are a simple limitation stemming from the puzzle pieces that GTA’s designers have at their disposal when building new adventures. But in its sense of being removed from anything real, this stuff can also hint at the diffuse nature of climate change and economic problems – the intangible, spread-everywhere details that make these problems so hard to grapple with in the first place. Servers and warehouses and somehow that’s climate change? The potential complexity of it! It has lingered with me a bit.

It was a relief, I think, to part ways with my partner after that. A relief for him because I was comprehensively useless as a crime buddy. A relief for me because he had made the knockabout fun of GTA strangely chilling. And ultimately I appreciate that, I think. It was a very memorable hour or so, sufficiently elegant in its staging – the sudden death, the security-cam afterlife as eternal witness – that it almost felt like GTA’s designers had planned every haphazard moment. And it was a reminder, of course: every time you go into GTA Online, you come out with a story.