To Live and Die in L.S. — machinima review

The main character Bob aiming a sniper rifle on the beach

Confession time: I’ve not actually played Grand Theft Auto V. I know, right! I’m probably one of the few people left who hasn’t. It’s actually the first main GTA game I’ve skipped over – an acute case of series burnout following the rather underwhelming GTA IV. But, five years after the game’s original release, I’m suddenly itching to jack a car and explore the mean streets and sleazy burbs of Los Santos.

My rekindled interest is all thanks to To Live in Die in L.S., a machinima from Bryan Young that premiered on YouTube and Vimeo in August. If you don’t know what a machinima is, it’s essentially a cinematic film made using an existing video game. You create a narrative by manipulating the game’s characters and systems. Editing and voice acting are optional extras. In this instance, that game is obviously GTA V.

Despite the title’s allusion to a 1985 revenge thriller, TLDLS has little to do with the U.S. Secret Service, counterfeiters, or a federal agent getting himself killed with just two days until retirement. Well, he was getting too old for this shit.

Instead, To Live and Die in L.S. is basically a story of a hit gone wrong. Liberty City mobster Bob is sent to take out a crook in Los Santos. Naturally, it’s a set-up, and our smooth criminal finds himself trying to escape an increasingly hostile city with virtually every cop, hoodlum, gang member, psychopath, and vigilante hot on his tail. Along the way there are chance encounters with offbeat characters, car chases galore, punch-ups, about 417 gunfights and explosions, and a body count to rival an early Chow Yun Fat film.

In a way, there’s not much to really say about the story. Ultimately, TLDLS is an OTT pastiche of video game and movie tropes. The writing is decent and the voice acting is solid. It’s enjoyable, silly, playful, and loaded with black humour.

The main character Bob firing a pistol oustide the Los Santos airport

What really impresses is how incredibly well made it is. I can only imagine the amount of time and effort that has gone into making this 50-minute production.

Not only does Bryan Young demonstrate a remarkably in-depth knowledge of the game’s camera systems, mechanics, physics, NPC behaviours, locations, etc., but he’s also clearly well-versed cinematography and editing techniques.

The camera angles and movement are fluid and dynamic. There’s low shots and high shots, panning and tracking shots, dolly and zoom shots, pedestal and crane shots, wide angles and close-ups, first person and third person. The composition is always stylistic and purposeful, making great use of incidental props and NPCs to frame shots.

Clever editing disguises the absence of lip sync, while also creating a seamless narrative and continuity. There’s jump cuts, cutaways, and montages. And, we really get a sense of the city, its inhabitants, and Bob’s immediate surroundings as he journeys through Los Santos.

Also impressive is the skill shown in controlling and manipulating the playable characters and NPCs. The action sequences and car chases are complex, thrilling, and well orchestrated. And Young makes humorous use of the sometimes stilted, jerky character animations. It’s almost like he deliberately left them in there to remind us that we’re actually watching a video game. Amazingly, Young informs me that he did all the scenes completely by himself in GTA V’s story mode, with some sequences literally requiring hundreds of retakes.

Car chase shoot out

But the glue that binds it all together is Protector 101’s sublime score. I’m a huge P101 fan and I snapped up the soundtrack back in May when it first came out. It’s because of the album that I knew I had to check out the machinima when it released in August.

As with much of P101’s other work, the TLDLS music draws inspiration from a range of classic 80s film scores. It’s synthwave at its very finest – layered, melodic, energetic, dramatic, driven by strong, simple beats, and drenched in a dark, moody ambience. The tracks complement the scenes perfectly, generating tension, driving the action, bringing the city vignettes to life, and evoking the seediness and menace. In short, P101 pretty much steals the show.

All in all, TLDLS has the look and feel of a slick Hollywood action thriller. It’s fun, stylish, entertaining, and strangely captivating. But, it’s also a fantastic advert for GTA V, playing out like a glossy tourist promotion for Rockstar’s highly-romanticised simulation/parody of Los Angeles. Yeah, I’m almost certainly going to pick up GTA V the next time it’s on sale.

To Live and Die in L.S. is definitely worth 50 minutes of your life. So, watch it. Watch it now! Or, at the very least, check out Protector 101’s awesome soundtrack over on Bandcamp.

Album cover art for the Protector 101 film score

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