Junior detective Chris Cone responds to a fight call in a remote north part of Los Santos on a slow Saturday night. He’s been dispatched to dozens of fight calls before, and typically they turn out to be nonevents — nobody is present, or it’s just an accident that gets quickly resolved. He rides with his fiancée, paramedic Renee Loire. It’s nice to have some company on the drive, he says, and if someone is hurt, Loire will be there to patch them up.
Cone pulls his car up to the ping on the map, and is immediately met with a hail of gunfire that rips into the vehicle. He’s down. The last thing he sees is his fiancée, running for her life — before she is gunned down as well. The ambush was set by The Condemned, the largest motorcycle gang in the city. Cone knows who killed him, but can’t act. Doing so would break the roleplay, which is a bannable offense. The attack leaves him angry and confused.
“Why?” he says on his Twitch stream. He’s one of the few players who uses their real name in the game. “I just don’t get why The Condemned would target Chris, let alone Renee.”
A new city; a new life
The world of Grand Theft Auto Online is no longer one multiplayer game mode. It’s become an amorphous platform that players are constantly recontextualizing. The development and proliferation of Grand Theft Auto Roleplay (GTARP) gives players a place to join together in creating their own living, breathing cities. The players forge alternate lives online, pursuing jobs and establishing relationships — all with the goal of creating an environment for their role-playing.
Cone joined the “Legacy RP” server in February 2018 and was immediately hooked. “I’ve been consistently role-playing since I was 7 years old,” he says. “I’ve played every [pen and paper] game at this point.” He joined the Legacy RP police force, and quickly dedicated himself to the RP like a full-time job. Cone, a student with aspirations of becoming a full-time streamer, worked eight- to 12-hour shifts five times per week, handing out traffic citations, trying to arrest drug runners and occasionally being called to armed robberies.
The dedication led to a promotion, and Cone became a junior detective. The switch came with a new host of challenges. The system wasn’t built for evidence gathering and case building, which forced him to use an imperfect system of collaborating with other players, rather than traditional Grand Theft Auto mechanics, to play out intense criminal investigations.
GTARP was born out of the popular FiveM mod, a community-developed project that launched in 2015 to improve the established GTA Online experience. The mod gives role-players tools so they can blend traditional third-person action gameplay with a pseudo-Second Life experience — transporting them into a setting where they can be anyone and do anything, so long as they obey a series of guidelines called the “Federal Law” rules, designed to protect the RP.
Open-world games traditionally have overarching goals or win conditions to reward players for their skill or dedication. We’re conditioned through multiplayer, sometimes even rewarded, to seek out a player who got the kill and get revenge. GTARP defies all these conventions. Ideally, nobody should try to “win”; instead, the goal is to appreciate the journey and build stories for the server. Other players govern the reward, not the game. Was the RP good? Is there now a storyline others can share in? Did everyone feel it was fair?
The concept of role-playing inside a multiplayer environment is nothing new. Its history can be traced to Ultima Online and takes a path through EverQuest and World of Warcraft — but GTARP is real-world role-playing rarely seen in video games, with a depth that can become intoxicating thanks to how much it mimics real life.
Welcome to Los Santos
“We’ve got a whole bunch of cue balls at the job center,” detective Duncan says over the police radio. “Gonna need some help down here.”
Players drop into Los Santos with nothing. There’s usually a police officer who meets a new player and guides them through the character creation process. They spawn at the job center, where their journey begins. Every new player begins with the same default, bald-headed avatar — which has led to regular players calling them “cue balls.”
Cone arrives on the scene and assists. He uses a series of code words designed to keep the immersion. “Hold your N muscle for me,” he says, trying to get a new player to press the N key to use voice chat. “Now, if your brain was a computer, you might press your escape key and check your audio settings.” The player is responsive, role-playing immediately: “I just want to get a car, officer.” Cone gives them $5,000 out of his own pocket. It’s enough to buy a basic car in the game. “It’s not much, but it’ll at least get you from Point A to Point B while you get settled,” he says.
“That guy seemed really into it,” Cone says on his stream. “I think he’s going to be a good addition to the city.”
Twitch serves as a conduit for viewers to get involved in the stories of GTARP. Servers are available as search terms, allowing a networklike access to the show. Sometimes as many as 10 different streams create a collage of easy accessible stories, all operating in a communal space. Viewers are left with an occasionally cheesy but often charming soap opera that exists online 24 hours a day.
Legacy RP can only accommodate 32 players at a time, but feels larger when so many people are role-playing in one space. It can be addictive to watch, and can be even more difficult for players who become too invested in their role-playing.
Cone experienced this kind of crossover. After a week of intense RP, in which he spent 72 hours streaming, the line between life and character melted away. “I had to take a break,” Cone says. “I started to act like Chris the character, think like Chris the character. I couldn’t disconnect.” He found himself driving around his real-life town and questioning whether he needed to stop at red lights, or could roll through like in the game. Cone found himself missing turns because he was thinking too much about the RP.
On the case …
“How you doin’, babe?” Cone asks Renee as they role-play waking up in the hospital. Both have been shot multiple times, but in their role-play storyline the medics arrived in time. “How the fuck do you think I’m doing? I’ve just been fucking shot for no reason,” Renee barks back before apologizing to Cone. “Do you remember anything?” he asks timidly. “No, all I remember was us driving to a fight call,” she responds.
Players follow a list of rules called “Federal Law,” which govern the separation between game and out-of-character (OOC) interactions. The section on how players must act when they are shot or incapacitated is very clear: If a character gets knocked out by blunt force, they are able to remember everything leading up to the moment they went down, but if they are shot, they must role-play as if everything 20 minutes prior to their death was lost to amnesia. The players role-playing as Cone and Renee both knew The Condemned ambushed them. They saw their motorcycles and signature red-and-black jackets, but neither player was allowed to remember any of it. As far as the characters knew, it was a random unprovoked attack, and nothing more.
The line Cone needed to walk, especially as a detective, was razor-thin. He was role-playing out the investigation of his own shooting, knowing full well who did it, but needing to act as if he had no clue. Every action he took had to make sense in the fiction. That led to tension a few hours after the shooting, when Cone joined several players — including members of The Condemned — at the city’s square, which operates as a social gathering hub. Killed and killer, making small talk about cars and the weather, both sides waiting to see if the other broke.
Cone had a clear path of investigation that made sense inside the role-play, but no way to execute it. For weeks the trail went dead, and Cone was ready to give up on the storyline. Then he got a message.
Walls up, walls down
Legacy RP has an extensive application process for someone who wants to become a permanent citizen. Those who show a desire to role-play get invited to the city, but there’s a need for the city to replenish itself with new players, which requires the stringent application process to be dropped in hopes of gaining players through osmosis. This is the cycle of “walls up” and “walls down.”
When the walls are up, nobody is allowed in the city unless they’ve been approved by administrators. It’s where the server’s regular players work together on larger storylines and further grand narratives.
“Walls down” is anarchy. Any player is allowed in, provided there’s space on the server, and with that come the problems of any massive online multiplayer game. The city’s police and admins are on full alert to keep the peace as best they can, protecting the server’s regulars from players who randomly kill others — modders and trolls who join just to disrupt. It’s a necessary state for the health of the server that allows for people to try out Legacy RP, and hopefully become good members who apply to be whitelisted. But only 20-25 percent of players joining the city when the walls are down tend to have a desire to role-play.
A small number of people help protect the city in case of modders or impropriety. Their characters wear badges emblazoned with “IAA,” which stands for “Internal Affairs Authority.” They are the moderators, and the first line of defense. There are still times where it’s difficult to do this job. “The hardest issues as IAA I’ve ever had to deal with is underaged kids,” says Dustin, a moderator who has been with Legacy RP since its beta. “When they are role-playing so well, and then you have to tell them they have to leave — the sadness in their voices just hurts,” Dustin says. “Part of you wants to take them under your wing and help them grow into amazing role-players.”
“They’re fucked. One of them rolled over and turned State’s Evidence,” Cone says with a smile. “It was Renee’s in-game brother. He’s the treasurer of the club and he’s pissed that she got killed. He didn’t sign up for this.” The imperfections of the mod get revealed when Cone explains how they’re role-playing it out. “He gave me a thumb drive with a sworn affidavit that they were with The Condemned when they were discussing how they shot Cone and Renee, as well as their gun running operations and drugs. We have them dead to rights on everything.”
None of this would hold up in court. There was no tangible evidence outside of an affidavit, and that wouldn’t be enough. But the police of Legacy RP don’t have the ability to fingerprint, run tests on bullet casings or do any traditional police work that would lead to a conviction. “It’s all been reviewed by [police chief] Sully, and he said the case is sound. He went and checked stream footage to make sure this was all in RP, not a breach of meta. It all checks out.”
Cone is excited. Not because he’s getting to bust The Condemned, or getting revenge for being downed, but because the informant breathed life back into a story he thought was dead. The arc can now be completed, and he begins to brew up ideas for where Cone can go after his run-in with The Condemned, even the possibility of creating a new character.
The future of Legacy RP
The goal for citizens of Legacy RP is to have the city as full as possible at all hours of the day. It’s growing, with more people applying to be whitelisted each week, and new, dedicated role-players are finding a home.
Poaching players is common in GTARP. Most of the active members of Legacy RP have received invites to join new servers, many of them with the promise of elevated roles. Cone has been offered city sheriff and an admin spot on one up-and-coming server because of the talent and effort of his role-play, but despite the allure he plans to remain where he is. “I might create a character over there,” he says, “but Legacy is my home.” The same can be said of Dustin.
“I’ve been offered positions on some of the larger RP servers, and also smaller ones,” he says. “I love this server. It’s like a child to me. I’ve been here since day one, and seen a lot of people come and go. But my main focus is on the health and well being of LRP, and I wish the other servers nothing but luck.”
After Chief Sully reviews real-life law, he decides that The Condemned will be charged under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). It’s an extremely complicated procedure that’s almost impossible to role-play correctly. The plan is to raid the Condemned Customz Shop, the legal branch of the club’s activity and a gathering hub for the gang. From there, players will be arrested under the RICO act, the club’s property will be seized and all owned locations will be made permanently accessible for search by police. It’s a widespread and unprecedented decision, but believed by police to be the logical conclusion. In the eyes of the police, The Condemned was a known, established criminal organization, but the cops didn’t have proof until Cone got that thumb drive.
My phone buzzes at 12:40 a.m. “It’s going down. Now.” I turn on Cone’s stream and it’s black. His familiar “Stepped away for a moment” banner is displayed, and I know what’s happening. The police are planning the raid, and Cone doesn’t want to risk the chance that someone could be watching and relay the information — breaking meta and ruining the plan.
The video cuts back on, and the tone is different from anything I’ve seen before. Police cars run silently in an intricate ballet down the streets. One officer blocks the alley behind the Condemned Customz shop with a large all-terrain vehicle so nobody can run. The raid begins, taking other players by surprise.
Police down or arrest the members of the club, and paramedics arrive on the scene. Chief Sully tells The Condemned that the Los Santos Police Department is there to issue RICO charges, and then things take a turn. “Now I’m going to turn everything over to Detective Chris, who organized this case,” he says. The weight of this statement is momentous, whether intentional or not. The chief puts the burden of explaining the complicated charges on Cone, and he’s not prepared for it.
Cone nervously explains the procedure, without fully being able to articulate the city’s rules. The members of the gang swear at him, threaten his life, role-play spitting on him. “This is how it’s going to go down, and if you have an issue you can lodge a complaint on the city’s app,” he says. The Condemned don’t think he has the evidence, and one of the gang members lashes out and breaks character, accusing Cone of breaking meta by watching their streams to validate the charges. Cone snaps, screaming at the criminal out of character for accusing him of cheating.
Sully calls Cone over to a private meeting with Cody, one of the gang’s senior members. Viewers hear Cody say one thing before Cone mutes his stream and goes dark: “When we agreed to all this, you didn’t tell me …”
When the stream returns half an hour later, the RICO charges have been dropped. Cone’s character is livid. The gang members are searched, and drugs and weapons are seized as a result — but no charges are brought against any of them. The bulk of their dirty money, drugs and illegal firearms remain protected, presumably in caches at their private residences and businesses. The original plan was to search these locations as part of the RICO charges, but that hasn’t happened. The Condemned have suffered a minor setback, and now there’s a target on Cone’s back.
“I didn’t remember how RICO worked in real life,” Michael Sullivan, who plays Chief Sully, tells Polygon. “It’s hard to try and incorporate a game mechanic that is as big as RICO into a game.” The issue is whether both sides feel that the execution of the role-play was fair, and The Condemned took issue with how the police gained evidence, feeling that much of it happened out of the game. The reality of the role-play soon dawned on the police as well: RICO would have destroyed The Condemned. While the role-play made sense logically, it also would have forced an entire group of players to end their stories and either create new characters or try to work under nearly impossible circumstances, and there were some members of the club who weren’t involved in criminal activities.
“It is not in our interest to ruin people’s role-play, and had we fully done it, then the entire [motorcycle club] would have had to come up with something else to do since the business would have been hard to handle,” Sullivan says. “I’ll admit to the mistake I made in the RICO drop. It won’t happen again.”
The damage might be beyond repair, at least to Cone’s part of the plot.
“I think Sully’s going to ask me to perma Chris,” Cone tells Polygon. “Apparently Cody asked Sully last night OOC how many times they need to target an officer before there’s a forced perma.” Each player is in control of their character’s life. It’s usually on them to decide when they are permanently killed, forcing them to create a new character. However, there are scenarios where players can be asked by admins to kill their characters if it makes sense in the role-play. One of them is being shot and downed multiple times over the course of their life.
“Chris got thrown under the bus,” Cone says, “He’s a dead man walking. I know it. Everyone knows it. The Condemned are going to kill Chris every time they see him now. I won’t be able to remember, and Sully is going to ask me to perma. I don’t think he likes me actually investigating things.”
Cone is silent through most of the regularly scheduled police department meeting later in the day. Most of the meeting is about procedure or correcting common mistakes. Then it comes time to discuss the RICO raid.
“Alright, everyone, I want to discuss what happened last night,” Sully says in his typically stern fashion. “I still think Chris did a good job in RP. Does anyone have anything they want to say?”
“I do, Chief,” Cone says, emotion filling his voice. “I just want to say that you threw me under the bus last night. A junior detective never should have been the one to hand down those charges, and now there’s a target on my back and several other officers’ backs as a result of what you did. I’m a dead man walking. Other officers are probably going to be targeted, too. As far as I’m concerned, when I do get shot, the blood is going to be on your hands.”
“Now, Chris, I get why you’re upset,” Sully replies. “But [The Condemned] don’t like any of us, and I don’t think it’s just you … ”
“How many times do we need to target an officer before he’s forced to perma?” Cone barks out, echoing the purported question Cody asked Sully. The silence is brief, but the tension can be cut with a knife.
“Chris … I will talk to them. I will get that target taken off you.”
“No, don’t. I’m serious. It makes sense in RP. The Condemned have every reason to want Chris dead. As far as they’re concerned, that entire raid was his idea alone. I don’t blame them for wanting him dead; I would, too, if I were them. Don’t take the target off me. I just want you to know that when I’m killed, the blood is on your hands.”
“If anyone is streaming right now, please mute your GoPro,” Sully asks. The stream falls silent.
A month passes — an eternity in the world of role-play. Cone’s character has changed. Fallout from the RICO case led Chris to become a more hard-nosed cop. He refuses to give anyone leeway, argues with lawyers and pushes the limits of what citizens find acceptable. His character is losing control of the world around him as more gangs begin to emerge in the city. The Condemned are still the big dogs, but the Grove Street Gang and The Orange Gang make for new criminal role-play avenues. They quickly learn to hate Chris, and it’s not long before he’s targeted at every opportunity.
Junior detective Chris Cone responds to another fight call on the outskirts of town. He doesn’t even manage to step out of his car before gunfire rips into his vehicle. This time, there will be no investigation — Cone decides to perma his character. Almost nobody is on the server when Chris dies. There is no grand conclusion to his story. Just a cop, working a beat, gunned down on a slow night by some criminals who were bored.
The next day, he creates a new character. Another cop. A new arc, a new story. Cone achieved his goal. The role-play will go on.
Chris Cone is still playing GTA Roleplay on the Legacy RP server. His stream can be found at conesgaming.
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