Grand Theft Auto Online is a war zone, only there's no sides and no chance of eventual peace. The streets of Los Santos are filled not with hopeful young starlets or happy-go-lucky tourists but with cold-hearted killers who'd happily turn on their friends and comrades if they ever ran out of police, civilians, and other human players to mow down.
But in the heat of new year chaos one player decided to step back from the bloodshed and to document it for the world to see. Christopher "Cy_Sperling" Murrie, a film editor with credits in Coraline and Paranormal, was GTA Online's first war correspondent, earning acclaim around the web for his serene portraits of extreme violence in a virtual world. He was hardly the last, either.
An entire community has built up around the concept, on both Reddit and Rockstar's Social Club, with many members going so far as to embed themselves in other crews — providing a photographic record of the heists and shootouts and other spoils of the lives of hyper-violent criminals.
It all started in January. Murrie grew frustrated with rampant hacking, which he says resulted in billions of (virtual) dollars being distributed to a subset of players. "It was nearly impossible to find an online session that didn't have a couple of tanks rolling around blowing everyone to hell," he explains. "Out of frustration, I switched into passive mode, figuring I could have some fun chasing the tanks and taking pictures of the battles. I had so much fun that I decided to start following individual players around as well."
He posted a handful of photos in an Imgur album at the /r/gaming subreddit "on a lark" one night. "The next morning I had over 2,000 upvotes, an overflowing inbox, and coverage of my post by Kotaku," Murrie recalls. "At that point I realized I was on to something that people liked. The /r/GTAV Media subreddit grew out of that organically."
The Social Club "Media Lens" crew, meanwhile, was initially just a means to an end—he wanted to emblazon "MEDIA" on the back of his clothing, and only being in a crew allows that. But the Social Club crew also grew fast. "We hit 300 members in roughly a week," Murrie recalls, "which was a surprise. But, again, it opened up all sorts of interesting roleplaying opportunities. People were volunteering to be pilots [or bodyguards] for crew photographers.
"It created a whole new facet of emergent gameplay."
And indeed the crew page is littered with dozens of photos that would never be possible without cooperation from skilled combatants. That's not to say, however, that everything goes smoothly for players wearing the Media Lens colors.
"Like any online game, there's a certain percentage of people who will kill on sight regardless," says Murrie. Passive mode acts only as a partial workaround to this, as it protects you from being shot under fairly specific circumstances—you're fair game if you're in a vehicle or embroiled in a gang fight, for instance, and you can always be run over.
"In passive mode [you need to try] to make people understand what you're doing by waving the camera around and 'flashing your back off' to show the media tag on the back of a shirt," explains Gryffindor_Elite, a GTAVMedia subreddit moderator and fellow virtual war correspondent. You get killed on a regular basis, regardless. "I've been ran over lots and shot lots. Stabbed lots, [too]. I got hit by a golf club once; that was a nice change of pace."
Grand Theft Auto Online presents a curious set of advantages and disadvantages over real-life combat photojournalism. These simple facts that you can become invincible to bullets and you respawn (usually just a couple of blocks away) when you die pose huge opportunities to get in the thick of the action. GTA Online may not have telephoto lenses, but that's hardly a problem when you can more-or-less stand safely beside a firefight.
"I've been ran over lots and shot lots. Stabbed lots, [too]. I got hit by a golf club once; that was a nice change of pace." - Gryffindor_Elite
On the flipside, the canned nature of animation in games means that some kinds of photos are already clichéd—such as a gunman aiming at the camera—while others, like corpses lying stiffly in a circular puddle of blood, never worked to begin with. And the camera is limited in what it can do. You get several Instagram-like filters, a zoom, and the ability to pan 360 degrees around. There's no manual focus or exposure controls, and the only way to change the aspect ratio is to wrap a frame around the photo. You're using a smartphone, basically, and there's no third-party app that can extend its functionality (unless, of course, you take to Photoshop afterwards).
GTAVMedia moderator and real-life photography buff gamefish considers these limitations part of the appeal, though. He burned out on the game quickly after finding it to be "a futile circle of earning money to buy ammo to shoot at people so you can earn more money to buy more ammo." The allure of virtual combat photography drew him back in. "It gave a new purpose to the repetitive scenarios," he said. The pains of Rockstar Social Club eventually drove him away again, but he admits that he's waiting for the PC release.
Hearing this, as someone whose experience with Rockstar's latest murder simulator open-world playground was cut short by boredom at the opportunity to do the same killing and thieving as before in a fancier package, I thought it was high time that I gave GTA Online photojournalism a shot. So I entered the fray, ran towards the sound of sirens in the distance, and proceeded to get shot just as I moved close enough for a photo of the carnage before me. Passive mode really is essential.
My next half hour as a combat photographer was mostly spent getting run over while trying to take test shots (to get familiar with the camera). One player in particular, whose name I can't remember but who drives a green sports car, was deadset on killing me again and again. I climbed to higher ground. He was pissed. I couldn't figure out a good angle to capture his mad dashes up and down the street, killing all who came near. Gamefish and Murrie and all the other GTAV Media people make it seem easy. Far from it, in fact, but I soon found that that's part of the charm.
GTA Online is a particular kind of war zone. It's not the stereotypical thing of giant battles raging across huge fields or of bombs and artillery duking it out from a distance. It gets in tight. Snipers are rare. Police and civilian massacres are all too common. Most players go in all guns blazing, safe in the knowledge that if they die they'll simply respawn moments later a short distance from where they fell.
Battles rage across the entire city, popping up in skirmishes at one place and then moving to another once the villains run low on health or ammunition. Los Santos is a place of lawlessness, where police and firefighters are not there to enforce order but to be cannon fodder for mass murderers in monkey masks.
I eventually stumbled upon a group of three teenage boys causing one such commotion at a beautiful multi-storey house in the rich part of town. They were bemused by my presence, especially as I wandered in among the policemen attempting in vain to siege the house. The well-armed monkey anarchists stood on one side of a bullet-proof, explosion-proof glass, while I and the police stood on the other. Both sides stubbornly shot at each other, irrespective of the situation.
Outside, another player took pleasure in spraying bullets into dozens of cops, who ran and yelled and ducked for cover in a disturbing show of emergent realism. Grand Theft Auto always thrived on the baser side of human nature; GTA Online takes this another level, and in so doing offers an incredibly compelling platform for photography.
It's easy to understand, then, how a game famed for its cynical social commentary and extreme gang violence can accidentally become the source of poetic imagery showcasing the grim, gritty reality of street warfare.
What's fascinating from a psychological perspective is how other players react to the presence of combat photographers. "I get a lot of people who honk and want me to come along in their cars," Murrie says. The "media badge" combined with passive mode and camera phone out make it pretty obvious to most people what he's trying to do. Some provide inside access or try to show off their customized cars. Many use the middle finger gesture. And there's always one guy dressed like the Insane Clown Posse who'll do nothing but try to kill you by any means possible. "[But] the best photos [come] from people who just accept that you are there and carry on with their fighting, but still wait for you to catch up or line up a shot." explains Murrie.
He hasn't had the time of late to continue his war correspondence, because of work (as a film editor) and family commitments, but he speaks of being "delighted to see the idea get legs and become a thing that all sorts of players are doing." And with the PC version set to be getting a video editor, GTA Online photojournalism might soon rise to another level.