I’ve played through somewhere between a third and a half of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas now. I’m not sure I’m going to finish it, largely because I don’t play it when Miranda is around, but I think I’ve seen enough of it now to say something.

It (preceded, of course, by earlier games in the series, and other games influenced by them) certainly has some important gameplay advances, ones that were new to me. Much of the development of video games, especially once 3D hardware came on the scene, has consisted of giving people larger and larger worlds to explore in, with fewer and fewer artificial barriers. The most dramatic single advance was probably Super Mario 64: before that game, platformers had people starting from the left side of a (quite artificial) world, moving to the right (getting items from boxes and squashing bad guys), until they reach their goal. But in Super Mario 64, levels were 3D areas that you could wander all over in; you had a task to accomplish instead of a location to reach; and you went back to the same level multiple times to accomplish different tasks.

Still, the game was divided up into multiple levels (connected by an overworld), the goals were pretty arbitrary, and, while the levels looked large at the time, they look pretty small a decade later. These issues are all grappled with by GTA:SA (and, presumably, other games in the series), quite successfully. There are no longer individual levels linked by an overworld: the action takes place on one map. (With the slight caveat that some missions have you entering buildings that can be only accessed during that mission.) The goals of missions, instead of being arbitrary, are (largely) designed to advance the plot. And the map is much larger than that of any other game I’ve seen; I haven’t compared the map to those of actual cities, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the number of streets and blocks in the map compared favorably with a medium-size real-world city.

This vastness requires some careful gameplay design: it’s great to have a big world to explore if you’re in the mood to do that, but if you’re in the mood to make progress in the game, the vastness can turn into tedious traversals if you’re not careful. All in all, I think the game’s designers did a good job of dealing with this issue. They broke the map up into three cities (plus some intermediate rural areas); while you can drive anywhere at any time if you want to, the missions at any one time are relatively close together, reducing travel time and encouraging you to become familiar with one specific area of the map. You usually have several different missions to chose from, so if you’re frustrated with one mission for some reason, you can do something else instead. You can buy new houses to serve as save spots in different areas of the map. (Though it can be hard, at least initially, to save enough money to do so; fortunately, most of the time it’s not really necessary, and I was able to save up enough money to buy a house when it really mattered.)

The missions themselves are extremely varied. In the first mission, you just have to get from one place to another without being killed. But soon you’re hunting people, breaking into houses (with either stealth or mayhem in mind), protecting people, delivering items, planting evidence for cops, starting gang wars, racing cars, dancing, evading cops, burning fields of marijuana, piloting radio-controlled airplanes. and who knows what else. I have a hard time thinking of a video game genre that isn’t present here – there are shooting, racing, stealth, rhythm (including one where you have to bounce your car in time to the music), strategy, and rpg elements. You ride bicycles, motorcycles, lots of different kinds of cars and trucks, a combine harvester, planes, and walk. It’s a very varied game.

As I mentioned above, it also has the distinction of being the only game I own that I won’t let Miranda watch. Some people seem to be up in arms over this aspect of the game; I tend to think that people like that are ridiculous. Why would you expect an art form to limit its productions to those that can be appreciated by 5-year-olds? Surely that would be a sign of intellectual bankruptcy? (As would, of course, a form that can’t produce works that can be appreciated by 5-year-olds.) Do these same people want me to only own movies that 5-year-olds can watch? Or only read books that 5-year-olds would like? The mind boggles.

As is obvious from the list of activities presented above, your character in the game does lots of things that would be considered horrible in real life. The game can hardly be considered as showing uncritical approval of these actions, however. One recent article I read complained that in the game, you can make progress by stealing cars and shooting policeman. I doubt that the reviewer in question (unlike Alison Bechdel) has actually played any of the game (shooting policemen, in particular, actually isn’t a major component of the game, and in most situations is more likely to hinder your progress than to help it), but in fact these actions are presented in a much more problematic fashion in GTA than in most other games. It is no exaggeration, I think, to say that looting and vigilanteism have been major themes throughout the history of video games: in the Colossal Cave adventure, you were supposed to take all the treasures you could find in the cave, with no thought of whom they might belong to. In the Zelda or Mario games, you look for items wherever you can find them: for example, in Zelda games, whenever you go into people’s houses, you break their pots hoping to find money or items, and you open their chests searching for treasures to take. When wandering through the countryside, you’re encouraged to kill everybody you meet, partly for defensive reasons, but partly just to get stuff. (Indeed, if those games were written from a different point of view, then “vigilanteism” would be far too kind a description: thuggery and amoral killing might fit the bill better.)

So, yes, in GTA, you steal a car whenever you want to get somewhere: you don’t have your own car that you actually take care of. But the very realism of the game means that you can hardly ignore the moral implications of your actions, and what would happen if everybody acted the way you were. Every time you bump into another car, your character makes a quip along the lines of how the other driver got their license, but of course you’re the one at fault, not the other driver. And in the first quarter or so of the game, when you frequently have passengers along on your trips, those passengers make fun of what a bad driver you are.

Similarly, a reviewer who hadn’t actually played the games could pretend that, for example, they valorize gang violence. And, in fact, in the first portion of the game, you do spend time building up your gang, and getting a fair amount of power and profit while doing so. But the end of this part of the game, that’s all in ruins: your gang is destroyed, two of your closest friends were really police stool pigeons, your brother is getting raped in jail, and you’ve only survived because some corrupt policemen think that you can be more useful doing their dirty work for them instead of rotting in jail. (Incidentally, in later sessions of the game, the main character moves out of gang warfare into the fringes of more organized crime, and you make a lot more money that way: again, hardly an uncritical endorsement of gang life.)

The best example of this problematization is in the character of OG Loc. When we first see him, he’s just gotten out of jail, and our job is to kill the person who raped him in jail. He’s trying to stay out of trouble from his parole officer, but he really wants to be a gangsta rapper, and is constantly going on about how he knows life on the streets, how he’s keeping it real. We usually hear him saying this while wearing the uniform of a fast food joint where he’s working, however. It’s typically followed by some awful rhymes that he spouts; his solution to his lack of success as a rapper is, instead of improving his skills, to steal lyrics from other people, and to kill other rappers’ managers. At the end of the first section, he’s decided that he can’t take the life of a fast food worker (which I certainly sympathize with), and that he would rather be an “ass technician” in jail instead of a “fry technician”, that he wants to “keep it real” by going back to jail.

Later in the game, we get to hear OG Loc in a radio interview. He’s apparently gotten out of jail and is a little more successful, and still can’t stop talking about how he knows life on the streets, how he’s keeping it real, accompanied by derogatory comments about women. The interviewer finds this ridiculous; as he points out, we all grew up with a street outside of our front door. So OG Loc pulls a gun on the interviewer in the studio; the interviewer takes back everything he said, saying that he didn’t mean to imply that OG Loc’s women weren’t all “bitches” and “hos”.

Which brings us to the role of women in the game. They are, of course, presented in a fashion that would give pause to anybody with a hint of feminist consciousness. But, as in the last paragraph, that viewpoint is treated in a far from uncritical fashion. And while most of the major characters in the game are male, I’ve seen three important female characters so far. One of them, Denise, isn’t too interesting. The other two that I’ve seen so far, however, are quite strong female characters: Catalina, while apparently insane, is also extremely competent (and easily bosses the main character around), while Kendl, the main character’s sister, is the most sensible person I’ve met in the game, and the only person with a real vision for how to make money and advance in life without crime.

There’s a lot of good stuff here: both in terms of video game gameplay advances and in terms of the sophistication of its plot and its approach towards real-world themes. Before playing the game, I suspected that the GTA series were the most important games of this generation of consoles; now, I’m sure of it.

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