When Ash was first skydiving above the canals of Vespucci, she wasn’t sure she was going to make it. Nighttime draped the city of Los Santos, and her target, a hole above a liquor store, was small.
In the real world, Ash was lying in bed in the United Kingdom, left somewhat immobile and in pain after she was injured working security in 2014. But in GTA Online, Ash was roleplaying as a stuntwoman with a flair for piloting jets through construction zones. Not long before her descent, while mucking about in the Xbox 360 version of Rockstar’s open-world shooter, she had noticed a giant sign. It was a donut hole in the center of the O in “Liquor Hole.”
If you are one of the millions of people who has played Grand Theft Auto 5, there’s a good chance you know exactly where the shop is, and have tried catapulting yourself through the neon green advertisement. The stunt has practically become a right of passage for anyone looking for an amusing distraction. Even if you haven’t, you may have watched one of the many viral videos of folks attempting to land the stunt. If you so much as see the Liquor Hole, the gears in your head will start turning.
“The name itself is slightly suggestive,” Ash remarked in a Skype call with Polygon. “Just the general design of it stands out. You can’t miss it.”
But before it became famous, Ash was uncertain if she could land the stunt. Ash had, at that point, spent tons of time as a denizen of Los Santos. She knew first-hand that many of the nooks and crannies present throughout the game may not be as flexible as they seem. Just because a ladder has spaces between its rungs doesn’t mean your character can climb it, for example. Already, she had tried to land the trick a dozen times, to no avail.
“The first few attempts I slammed into the sign,” Ash said.
And then it happened. Her character passed cleanly through the sign, only to then gracefully open her parachute before landing in the middle of traffic. Looking at the clip that started the entire phenomenon, you get the sense Ash was in disbelief. Her character just stands there for a few moments, taking in the view, before unlatching her gear. Her character celebrated the unlikely feat by humping at the air. The very next day, her triumph was all over the internet.
The world of Grand Theft Auto stunts is a vast one, with entire groups dedicated to finding the best capers the virtual city has to offer. And with dozens of vehicles and aircraft to choose from, the stunt opportunities are endless.
There are people who spend hours grinding and cruising on BMX bikes, while others pass the time by jetting around in nimble planes, which manage to squeeze into all sorts of unlikely places. Skyscrapers, construction scaffolds, and unusual architecture all provide a fertile playground for tricks.
But unlike the Evel Knievels of the real world, Grand Theft Auto stunters aren’t dealing with a set law of physics. Things aren’t as straightforward as getting hit in the head with an apple and extrapolating specific ideas about how gravity works, as Newton once did. The variables are gigantic, which is not helped by the fact most games are held together by duct tape.
What if the apple tree sits atop an NPC spawn point? What if the player is sitting inside an upside down tank that has caught fire and someone else bazooka’d the tree? It’s impossible to predict how a user might make the elements of the world interact with one another.
The very fabric holding the game together can also change from update to update, depending on what Rockstar tweaks behind the hood. New additions have to contend with old coding that may not take everything into account. More often than not, though, players love to experiment and see how things react when you smash them together. You might, for example, ride a specific GTA bike because if you hit a wall just so, the physics will launch you into the air. Finding these reagents is practically a game onto itself.
“They’ve achieved the perfect balance between reality and fantasy,” Ash said of GTA’s physics.
Over the years, Ash estimates that she has spent 5,000 hours trying to perfect the Liquor Hole stunt, whether that meant using the fancy new plane Rockstar added to the game, or trying to see if she could nail it backwards. Just finding a way to get a car through the Liquor Hole took her three weeks.
What exactly is it that ate up so much time? Well, much of it comes down to experimentation and patience. Ash deals with questions like: What’s the best launch point? How fast should she go? What can give her the right momentum? When and where should she lift her view or move the steering wheel? It was an obsession that lasted three years, during which she played the game nearly every day. Unlike Netflix, which bored her after a few months of being forced to stay home, the wonders of GTA Online were bountiful.
“I don’t recommend anybody spend the hours that I [did.],” she said. “The only reason I [did] that is because you know I can’t really do much else. Having in a day stuck in bed? I’m going to spend 12 hours trying to get a stunt.”
Nowadays, Ash has largely moved on from GTA Online and is spending her time in Call of Duty — but not before covering “pretty much all of the [GTA] map when it comes to obstacles that you can skydive through.” Despite getting a surgery for her herniated disc in 2015, Ash is still largely homebound, where she has to limit how often she’s up on her feet or sitting down. Recently, she was also a part of a book about how video games save lives.
“I’ve still got mobility issues,” she noted. Thankfully, she’s not in as much pain anymore. While she doesn’t explore Los Santos as much as she used to, she hasn’t fully left the scene. At the moment, she’s serving as a stunt coordinator for an upcoming GTA machinima, lending her bold expertise to the cinematic project.
Even now, after years of watching others follow in her footsteps, it astounds her to see how much of an influence she’s had on the culture of GTA Online, where stunting is a way of life.
“I was just recording stuff that I was doing in-game just for friends,” she said.