"Você quer uma carona?" says the driver of a blacked-out Subaru-like sports car as I approach the road just a few hundred yards from Vespucci Beach's Pleasure Pier. "Eh… I don't speak Portuguese, mate," I say into my headset. Silence follows. I can't tell if it's lag, or if the man is simply trying to untangle my Glasgow accent. Maybe he's contemplating putting one between my eyes in front of the ferris wheel, and speeding off towards the city. I brace myself for the worst. "Ah, Inglês," the man says, after what feels like a very long time. "Okay, do you want a ride?"
I'm back mucking around in GTA 5 roleplay, this time on one of open-source multiplayer mod FiveM's surprisingly stable fan-made 2,048-player servers. Granted, the population has balanced out somewhere around the 1,600 mark right now, but this is over and above the busiest I've ever seen Los Santos. And it's chaos. Even besides the sheer volume of bodies sprinting past one another up and down the street, careering into lamp posts and fire hydrants in fast cars and Italian scooters – and, always, screaming expletives into their microphones – it is, somehow, more chaotic than I could have imagined. Right now, for example, I'm chatting to a baby who has just informed me in the squeakiest of voices that they've dropped acid. Over my shoulder, a huddle of psychedelic revelers is already well on their way to Nirvana. And beyond them again, a group of Brazilian techno devotees is busting some enthusiastic moves to the tinny bass from an old-school boombox.
Every time I visit GTA 5's roleplay scene, I leave with my mouth agape and a new story to tell. But as each forum grows in numbers and capacity, these tales seem to be getting weirder and wilder – and while I'm hardly complaining, I am fascinated by the evolution some of these spaces have endured over the last several years.
What a trip
I am, of course, playing on one of literally thousands of other servers – some of which still boast the official GTA Online's 32-player count, others of which hit between three and five hundred, most of which don't surpass 1,000. But in these special almost-2,050 player-filled worlds (to my knowledge, the biggest FiveM has ever supported), things feel different. Like any fan-made RP playground, there are loads of formalized, gamified roleplay activities to crack on with – job centers to visit, banks to rob, cars to boost, drugs to sell, and so on – but one thing I've noticed among the more ambitious servers recently, is the fact that players here seem content in sidestepping all of these preoccupations in favor of simply hanging out.
I first noticed this about a year ago, when I watched the world burn in a 1,000-player GTA Online roleplay server while playing the guitar. That particular server, Impulse99, is a whirlwind of carnage and explosions, scored by frantic screams, gunfire, screeching tires, and EMS sirens. It's a lot to take in. But it's also a sight to behold, particularly as an observer – and especially if you're more used to GTA Online's vanilla spaces, which welcome, roughly, 3,125% fewer players. FiveM's 2,048-player servers, on the other hand, boast a player count 64-times the size of official GTA Online's playgrounds, which, when written down, makes the chaos that invariably unfolds within them seem more reasonable. Still, chatting about drug use to a roleplaying baby is a different level of weird.
"I'm sinking," was the only line I caught in that conversation with any degree of clarity. I'm not sure I fancy following suit. Although these folk do appear to be having a good time. "Peyote," one guy says, dressed in a cow onesie and wearing a parachute, with no further explanation.
Brazilian techno is proper banging, so I can't complain about these dance moves – especially given the fact I'm playing on a Brazilian server.
And while this game of tag with a group of roleplayers and one erratic police officer started out in good spirits, the cop eventually whipped out his taser and started dropping bodies without warning. Which was a bit disappointing.
All of which leads me back to my seemingly friendly, sports car-driving, hitchhiker-picker-upper man who first stopped me next to Vespucci Beach's Pleasure Pier. Relieved that our initial interaction didn't go south, I agree to the offered ride. But after fumbling with his locked passenger-side door, my avatar inexplicably smashes the car window with his elbow, reaches into the vehicle, flicks the lock, and clambers in. "Sorry about that, mate," I say. "That was an accident." The man laughs, mutters something in Portuguese, and we speed off. I breathe an audible sigh of relief.
From there, we pinball around the city's back alleyways, car garages, and recycling centers completing a series of drug drops. It's the most 'normal' thing have felt during my time in this slant on Los Santos so far, at least against how GTA 5 and GTA Online often play out in their base states. This feeling is compounded when, after finishing the final drop, the man asks me to get out of his car. Another of his pals begins hurling abuse at me, unprovoked, before the man who I've spent the last 20 minutes the company of, chatting about football and the upcoming Qatar World Cup, pulls a gun and puts one in my head. I drop to the floor, stone dead, before the man picks me up, carries my limp body across the road, and dumps me into the Los Santos River storm drain.
The above is GTA as we know it. And while these interactions can be great fun in the right circumstances, be that in official GTA Online, or elsewhere in the GTA 5 roleplay scene, there's an anticlimactic feeling about this particular exchange. After spending so much time with players simply enjoying the freedom of this high-capacity server – chatting among themselves, dancing and carrying on, even pretending to consume psychoactive substances – this pivot to explicit lawbreaking and gun-toting, somehow, weirdly, feels incongruous. I realize how contradictory that sounds given the fact we're talking about Grand Theft Auto here, but it also speaks volumes of how roleplay servers like this one appear to have evolved into social hubs, where familiar rules and activities have seemingly become secondary.
Don't get me wrong, there are thousands of GTA roleplay servers whose sole purpose is to provide criminal worlds brimming with elicit activities, or lifelike spaces where players hold down jobs and follow the letter of the law as per reality – but there's something inherently refreshing about the lack of structure in the highest capacity servers I've experienced so far. If you want to go down the criminal path you can – just like my sports car-driving, drug-dealing, head-shooting ex-pal – but in these spaces there's no pressure to perform if you don't fancy it. Which I think is cool, and again reflective of the steady evolution within the GTA 5 roleplay scene that I've witnessed since first dipping my toes in several years ago.
With this in mind, I can't help but wonder what the RP spectrum will look like in years to come – how big can these servers feasibly get without breaking within the GTA 5 framework; and what can we expect when GTA 6 eventually rolls around? Who knows. I just hope, whatever happens, it comes with Brazilian techno.
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