Q/A with Grand Theft Auto's War Correspondent
A Portland film editor transmits violent, chaotic, poignant images from inside a video game
By day, Christopher Murrie is a film editor for Portland-based animation house LAIKA, where he's worked on movies like Coraline and ParaNorman. But after hours, Murrie plays war correspondent and photojournalist in one of the most violent worlds imaginable: Grand Theft Auto V, a hugely-popular videogame released late last year.
Grand Theft Auto Online (as GTA's multiplayer mode is known) is a massive, unscripted game set in Los Santos, a sprawling metropolis much like Los Angeles. Players who log on are free to race around the city (in stolen cars, motorcycles, boats, helicopters, or jets), play golf or tennis, knock over banks, liquor stores, and armored trucks, and yes, rob and kill other players. The result is an unpredictable, chaotic digital war zone. Most of the action, of course, goes undocumented.
Enter Murrie, who last month began using the in-game cellphone camera (which includes Instagram-like filters) to transmit pictures of gun fights, races, and stunts from Los Santos. Murrie’s grainy photographs capture a gritty, dangerous world that somehow feels human and real and his posts have already inspired an entire internet subcommunity devoted to "war correspondence" from GTA.
We asked Murrie to tell us what it all means.
Are you an avid gamer?
I have been a gamer ever since getting an Atari 2600 in the late 70s. It is a hobby that has stuck with me almost my whole life. I have been a GTA fan since GTAIII—the first of the 3D generation titles was released on the Playstation 2. Rockstar [GTA's developer] has consistently made some of the most engaging and ridiculously fun games that I have ever played.
Why document these digital experiences?
I guess the root of it was in looking for a different way to interact with the game world and other players. Capturing interesting images was part of the goal, but I was equally intrigued by watching how other players would react to someone acting as a combat photographer within the game world. In a way, it ended up creating a game within the game, where the challenge of finding and photographing conflicts became just as challenging and entertaining as playing the game as intended.
How much control do you have over the shots you take?
The camera used in the game is built into your character's cell phone. It can be a bit cumbersome to activate the camera in a hurry so it takes some practice to learn how to position yourself where the action is headed as opposed to where it is immediately unfolding. You do have some options for different aspect ratios and some filters which adds some control, but switching to those costs time- which often is the difference between catching and missing the action. I often use photoshop after the fact to crop and tweak contrast, clean up jpeg compression artifacts, and resize them.
How do you avoid getting killed while you're taking pictures?
A common tactic I use to escape from tanks (which are tremendously overpowered in the game) is to switch to "passive mode" which makes you immune to projectile weapon and melee damage. This is an easy way to get some distance between you and an overly aggressive player in a tank. One evening it occurred to me that I could use this mode to shadow the tank as it rolled around causing havoc and I just started taking pictures. I enjoyed the process so much that I ended up just running with the idea.
What’s the craziest thing you’ve seen so far doing this?
Trying to single out a 'craziest' thing is pretty tough in a game that is built around large scale chaos and over the top destruction. I think the things that delight me the most are seeing players come up with novel and interesting meta-games within the world. Anyone can grab a controller and drive around shooting other players, but when people come up with clever ideas like staging fistfights on top of moving oil pumps; arranging epic coordinated stunt jumps involving multiple cars, jets, and helicopters; or just driving around in a city picking up every player on the map for a giant group joyride; I get very excited by the creativity that people display and the fact that the game world supports these kind of novel emergent gameplay ideas.
Does the violence in GTA disturb you ever?
Rarely. The game world is so over the top and satirical that it is hard to give any gravitas to the violence. I have been surprised that some of the photos I have taken, when seen out of the context of the game, can be pretty disturbing. I think that was one of my big surprises as I started seeing my pictures turn up outside of the game itself. They suddenly had a weight to them that gets blunted within the context of the game.
Have you witnessed any acts of kindness?
I am always impressed by the moments of teamwork and cooperation that can spring forth while playing. Kindness or generosity may a stretch, but I certainly have encountered plenty of people online who are there to cooperate and genuinely respond positively to a player who clearly is a noncombatant. I've had people offer to drive or fly me around the map to help me take photos and chase the action.
For more images, visit Murrie's blog at gtavmedialens.blogspot.com.