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Grand Theft Auto

San Andreas

(Rockstar Games; US: Jul 2007)

Very Pretty Violence

Originally, a PlayStation2 exclusive, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas has finally made its way to the Xbox. And, while exclusivity used to mean that a game would only appear on a single platform, it now apparently means that other console and PC owners simply have to wait a few months for their crack at the so-called exclusive games. Such exclusivity is the case of the GTA series, and the patience Xbox and PC owners have demonstrated (or are forced to demonstrate) means that they are rewarded in the end.


While this newest iteration of Rockstar’s license to print money while pissing off your mom doesn’t offer any obviously new content, what it does offer is a prettier version of the ugly streets of Los Santos, San Fierro, and Las Venturas, the three major cities in the fictional state of San Andreas. The visuals in the game—as is the case with most Xbox titles—are noticeably more detailed. It seems to me that some graphical details have been added, most notably a fair amount of what appears to be new graffiti amongst the urban decay of these cities. However, these details may simply pop more on Microsoft’s powerful system. I found myself stopping to read signs on building, zooming in to glance at magazine covers in protagonist Carl Johnson’s home, and even appreciating the detailed and unique architecture of each of the game’s unique environments much more than when I played through the PS2 version.


If you have yet to experience San Andreas or if you want to visit again and have the extra dough, this version of the game is definitely the one to purchase. Your experience will definitely be more visually pleasing. However, if you have scored a 100% completion on a PS2 version, you may want to save your ducats for an actual new release with fresh content (how about SCE’s gorgeous, equally compelling, and mother-angst inducing God of War?).


If you are up for another go round with Carl Johnson’s quest to learn the reason for the murder of his mother, to protect his hood, and to free his older brother Sweet from jail, though, you will find the same brilliant package that Rockstar released late last year. While the newest console version may seem less than innovative in comparison to that Christmas release, San Andreas reveals the astounding evolution of the Grand Theft Auto series’ innovations to the medium of video games as a whole in a remarkable way.


While many reviewers seem to view this latest installment as nothing more than a bigger GTA III and a more minigame-filled Vice City, I see it as one of the most innovative approaches to character development thus far in interactive fiction.


It was Grand Theft Auto III that introduced most video game players to the concept of a freeform gameplay environment, it also introduced us to Claude Speed (the often thought to be nameless) and voiceless protagonist. His voicelessness was a conscious decision on the part of Rockstar; apparently they wanted players to pour themselves into him in order to truly inhabit this digital sandbox of a city. Such a formless character made a great deal of sense in an environment where you could do as you willed. In essence, Liberty City was our playground to do with as we wished, so shouldn’t we have a persona that was left undefined by the game’s creators to make into whoever we wanted him to be? If our silent character drove carefully and avoided random violence or, conversely, if he fucked and killed every hooker he encountered, he did so because he reflected our wishes and responses to Liberty City.


What seemed particularly enlightened about this approach to characterization on Rockstar’s part was its acknowledgement of the medium of video games. Interactive fiction is clearly different than scripted fiction—movies, novels, and the like. While you may become immersed in the “world” of a movie or a book, the experience of playing a game is vastly different because the immersion is deep enough to allow the “viewer” not merely to “feel a part” of the world, but to be a part of it by shaping it in part through your actions (be it stomping on a turtle or eating a magic mushroom to grow bigger, or gunning down a cop for no good reason). Your actions are interwoven into the plot.


Despite this innovative approach to characterization and its respectfulness to the medium of games, GTA III‘s Claude still lacked something to make him a compelling character. His voicelessness mirrored his soulessness.


While he was an expression of the player, he was not really a character. He was in Liberty City for a reason, so, too, were we, but we could not really relate those two experiences to each other. Claude lacked his own flesh, his own background, and with no way for us to give him voice beyond drawing a pistol once in awhile, we had no way to give him a soul.


Enter: Tommy Vercetti. Vice City resolved the voiceless conundrum of the prior game by introducing us to a wiseguy with a familiar wiseguy voice (that of Ray Liotta). Tommy was both a step forward as well as a step back. Maintaining the freeform style of GTA III and keeping with a roguish gangster as the protagonist still allowed players to shape their character through their own actions, but the familiarity of the mobster, the more fleshed out background of the character, and the charismatic voice acting of Liotta allowed actual interaction with Vice City‘s cast of characters, making Tommy seem more human and more compelling. Yet, at the same time, the respect Rockstar has established for the medium fell back on a more cinematic storytelling through cinematically familiar characters. The freeform character was forced to a degree back into a script.


Some ability to shape Tommy’s appearance helped offset the scripted character, though. In particular, Tommy’s various outfits allowed for players to make Vercetti somewhat his own. My version of Tommy, for example, was always well dressed, favoring a dark grey pinstripe suit. I saw Tommy as a classic mobster, and I dressed him appropriately. While yours may have been a more Pacino-inspired Miami thug, wearing the default street clothes—Hawaiian shirt and acid washed jeans. Or maybe he was more of a gangbanger, wearing Puerto Rican colors throughout his rise from paid muscle to crime lord of Vice City.


Dressing the paper doll of Tommy Vercetti, though, while adding a sense of possession of the game’s protagonist, is still a fairly limited and limiting expression by comparison to what Rockstar seemed to intend through its voiceless GTA III protagonist. Hence, my sense that San Andreas‘s chief innovation is in evolving this approach to freeform characterization in an interactive narrative. In my mind, Carl Johnson, is, thus far, Rockstar’s most interesting and fully rounded character, and a character whose development within the sandbox that Rockstar has allowed me to play in has, as a result, belonged most completely to me.


Like Tommy, CJ has a voice (given to him by a newcomer to voice acting, Young Maylay, whose work here makes me hope that this is not his only foray into acting). And, like, Tommy, the player can dress him as he please. Although with four or five clothing shops to purchase from and multitudes of options of how to dress him from foot to head, the player finds this paper doll much more versatile and the options allow players to truly develop a style and sense of their character. Again, I favor a more dapper gangster in tweed suits, but you may want a shirtless and tattooed gangsta, ripped and hard straight out of the gym.


The ability to fatten CJ up or turn him into a lean and muscular sculpture of a man is more than cosmetic, it shapes the way you view Carl, and Rockstar is even clever enough to include different scripted responses from NPC based on CJ’s physical appearance. That the script now hinges on the way I decide to build my character is an indication that Rockstar has a real growing understanding of what interactive characterization is and could be as opposed to the empathic relationship that viewers normally have to scripted, linear forms of fiction.


Many of the other seemingly “minor” additions to the GTA formula additionally add to this sense of interactive immersion in the world of San Andreas. No two CJs will really ever be alike, not only based on their appearance but based on some of the minigames added to San Andreas. If you spend a lot of time on the basketball court or playing the video games in the convenience stores throughout San Andreas, your CJ is drastically different than mine. Rather than waste my time on sports and games, my CJ is a player and does not have time to waste on that crap. I have played through the game three times now (twice on the PS2 and once on the Xbox) and every time my sense of CJ has been in part shaped by his dating and bedding five or six women throughout the course of his adventures. On the other hand, I have seen my original CJ go from a chiseled tough guy to a gluttonous, fat man—each of which are gangsters, but gangsters of a different sort to both me and the characters that I encountered within my various visits to San Andreas. Each tour of San Andreas, in essence, has become a different kind of story with each of these different CJs.


If revising and shaping the protagonist is a central focus of the game, so too does this theme arise throughout the plot. Of particular note is Rockstar’s invocation of 90s culture with cars and clothes familiar to that generation, and then its interesting revisioning and ultimately romanticizing of 90s history through events mirroring the LA riots and gang culture in general.


I find it ironic that GTA is so often cited as a grittily, realistic game due to its portrayal of violence and criminality, given its more romantic approach to its gangsters. While CJ runs some thuggish missions, he nevertheless has a rather romantic approach to drug use—he just says, no, throughout the game to friends who offer him some of the sticky icky and he, like his brother Sweet, ultimately wants to clean up his Los Santos hood by removing the crack dealers preying on his peeps. One has to imagine that in Los Santos’ real life counterpart, Los Angeles, gangbangers were hardly interested in running dealers out, so much as dealing themselves. And that it was not and is not the gangs that have attempted to keep drugs off the streets there, so much as local churches and other community organizations that have tried to find a means of cleaning up the community.


The more romantic and more black and white ethics revolving around drug usage in the game are most clearly prevalent through the betrayal of CJ by two of his long time friends, Ryder and Big Smoke, both of whom are associated with marijuana (Ryder being a persistent user—he smokes in nearly every scene—and Big Smoke through… reread his name). Both potheads and traitors become CJ’s ultimate nemeses (besides a corrupt cop named Tenpenny, deftly voiced by Samuel L. Jackson) by which the lines of good and evil are drawn through CJs cleaner living and their reckless habit.


Loyalty is, of course, also at question here, and, if two longtime companions are traitors, likewise, Tenpenny, a fellow African American, is similarly a worthy opponent for our noble thug, given his betrayal of his own. Tenpenny becomes the main means of Rockstar’s revision of the LA riots and again allows for a more romantic vision of Southern California ghetto culture to emerge. The LA riots are largely seen as having been racially motivated, given their origins in the verdict following the trial of white police officers charged with the beating of an African American man.


The outcry of the African American community in the wake of the verdict against inequities in the treatment of one of their own becomes a colorless event in the revision of the events in San Andreas. Tenpenny has been charged with the murder of a fellow officer, and it is a verdict in his favor that becomes the catalyst of rioting in Los Santos. The community’s reaction is obviously not racially motivated in Rockstar’s version; instead, it would seem that the citizens of Los Santos have rioted over an injustice in a broader and more romantic sense. Their violence is precipitated not against a police force they see as corrupt because it preys on a particular race in the community, but against a police force they see as merely corrupt.


Rockstar seems conscious of this “deracializing” of these events—for what purpose exactly is unclear; however, its results could hardly be deemed a realistic portrayal of the period that they are historicizing and more an effort to romanticize the gangster as a character. It would appear that their efforts here, though, are largely determined by their desire for a story more easily relatable to a player wishing to fictionalize themselves in the context of this world and allowing that person to remain clean from the stains of a real, scripted history. The “violence” seemingly promoted by this GTA is less a violence to be feared for its realism and one more committed against the dirty realism of history itself.

G. Christopher Williams is a Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. He posts his weekly contribution to the Moving Pixels blog at PopMatters every Wednesday. Besides also serving as Multimedia Editor at PopMatters and writing at his own blog, 8-bit confessional, he has also published essays in journals like Film Criticism, PostScript, and the Popular Culture Review. You won't find him on Twitter, but you can drop him a line with that old fashioned thing called e-mail at williams@popmatters.com.


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