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When games become milestones and ghosts in our lives

GTA V - Trevor

Above: Trevor from Grand Theft Auto V.

Image Credit: Rockstar

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I think of video games autobiographically. They’re milestones in my life.

When I think of the game Rock Band, I remember my bachelor years of my early 20s in my old, cramped ground floor apartment. I had little to no responsibilities and spent as much time with my friends as I cared to, getting noise complaints from the neighbors as my friends and I jammed out on the instruments.

When I think of Batman: Arkham City, I recall when I was 26. I think of the time my ex-fiance and I spent playing it on our respective Xbox 360 gamer profiles, promising each other as we got ahead that we wouldn’t divulge any spoilers and getting wrapped up in the combat and gameplay as well as the storyline.

Now, when I picture Grand Theft Auto V, I think of my cousin Trever. Trever killed himself on August 22, 2013. So when I saw him front and center as one of the main protagonists in the latest installment of Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto franchise, it was quite a shock to me. He had about 20 years, 50 pounds, and more than a few loose screws extra than his former self, but it was Trever nonetheless.

Trever and I were only two years apart growing up in a very close-knit family and stayed that way well into our adulthood. When we moved out of our parents’ places, we got our own house together. I have fond memories of that house, Trev and I laughing hysterically playing The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion as we harassed the townsfolk and exploited a bit more of the morally warped aspects of its open-world, sandbox gameplay. When Trever got married, I was his best man.

His death came as a surprise to everyone. Just a week before it happened, Trev and I were talking about how we couldn’t wait for GTA V to hit the store shelves of the GameStop he was managing. Just a week before he was happy, he was excited. And as trivial as this conversation was about a video game, he was anticipating the future.

In Grand Theft Auto V, players encounter the protagonist Trevor for the first time caving in an acquaintance’s head with his boot heel after an altercation involving the poor sap’s girlfriend. He is a hollow-eyed, twisted, teeth-gnashing, lit-fuse of a man who ultimately encapsulates every gamer’s dark place of what it truly means to have the freedom to do whatever you want to whomever you want in an open-world game. This is the kind of character the Trever I knew could get behind. Over-the-top, ridiculous, hilariously written, and relatable, sans the killing and mass destruction, of course.

GTA V Trevor

It was in the “Crystal Maze” mission that things started taking a turn for the strange. My job was to meet up with the O’Neil boys, a rival meth peddling family I was tasked with taking out. The GPS blip on my map indicated it would be a little bit of a drive, so I took that as an opportunity to trawl the radio stations I had not yet been able to turn my attention to. I turned it to some R&B easy listening, not paying attention to the song crooning in the background as I floored the pedal of Trevor’s pickup truck.

Then it happened out. I’m still not certain if it is a scripted event in the mission (I’m admittedly hesitant to replay the mission and test the theory and risk experiencing it again) or if it’s just a randomized character quirk that developer Rockstar Games threw in that made Trev do it. Upon hearing the easy listening, Trevor, my video game avatar, let out a guttural scream, groaning, “Uuuuaaagh, what is it with this music?!” and changed the radio station to Channel X’s hardcore rock, real-world Trever’s favorite. “That’s more like it!” he shouts. It was at that point that I had to pause the game and take a moment to walk away from what just happened. I suppose it could be worse. It could be 2008, and I could be playing GTA IV and hear Roman incessantly call, “Cousin! You want to go bowling?” to freak me out even more.

I am not naive to the fact that the traumatic event in my life has skewed my perception and motivations behind playing Grand Theft Auto V. I do not doubt the extent to which I am using the game as a device of escapism after losing someone incredibly close to me. I am quickly reminded of what Tom Bissell writes in his book Extra Lives regarding his first taste of Grand Theft Auto and cocaine. I am by no means spiraling down to the point of being that morose. Bissell’s sort of love letter to the GTA franchise (as well as GTA IV’s protagonist) is an eerie prophetic send-up to exactly what I’m writing about — nevermind it being probably the best article Bissell has ever written on Grantland. But I can’t help it. I’m in this now. GTA V is in my life as my chance to reminisce over a loving father, husband, best friend, and a large part of myself that I will never have again.

My family and I joke. We say if Trever believes in a heaven, then reincarnation as the craziest character in the most in-depth, critically acclaimed open world of Rockstar’s latest, record-breaking triple-A title would be his nirvana. I can take comfort in that. Now if you’ll excuse me, I gotta go power up my Xbox and hang out with Trev for a bit. This bank isn’t going to heist itself.