Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas

Released in October of 2004, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is the latest installment in the Grand Theft Auto series of games, developed by Rockstar Games and distributed by Take Two Interactive. This installment outsold its already best selling predecessors (Grand Theft Auto III, and Grand Theft Auto: Vice City respectively), taking place in a fictionalized variant of LA in the early 1990’s. The game’s encouragement and emphasis of in-game violence had already caused a considerable amount of uproar from several advocacy groups, but did not receive its true level of infamy until early July of 2005, when a “mod” was discovered called “hot coffee” that allowed the player to participate in a sexual act, which was construed as a violation of its Mature game rating (instead of Adults Only), and has sparked a flurry of lawsuits, media attention, and reactionary legislation against video games in general.

Before I discuss the game itself, let’s address the Hot Coffee scandal a little more directly. The content within the mod is overtly sexual, though nothing is actually seen beyond the player’s character behind his in-game girlfriend, making sexual movements. Because of this, it is true that the game should have received an Adults Only rating from the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), had the content been available to players. The only way to access this content is through manually altering the code through external means (on the PC, this involves physically altering game files; on the Playstation 2, this involves using another device such as a “Game Shark” to manipulate the game data or downloading and installing a patch on a system that has no direct method of downloading or installing patches). Insisting upon an Adults Only rating because of this content is roughly akin to insisting that a movie be given an NC-17 or even X rating because of a scene that was filmed but then cut from the final version of the film. Given that the game’s rating was already Mature, which has the same requirements for purchase or to watch as an R rated movie (age 17 or higher), this uproar becomes even more ludicrous. It has unfortunately caused a flood of knee-jerk legislation[1] and use as a political tool by those seeking re-election,[2] despite clear first amendment violations within the proposed laws that have already shut down early attempts at similar legislation.[3] The overwhelming amount of bad press and shoddy handling of the situation on the part of Rockstar Games and Take Two Interactive has caused company assets and stock value to plummet, inciting an additional string of lawsuits by the companies’ own stockholders.[4] Regardless of whether or not any of this furor is merited, it may well mean no more Grand Theft Auto games, and potentially hard and restrictive times for the game industry as a whole.

But why the furor? Is the game really as bad as it’s made out to be by the media? Personally, I found the game engaging and a valuable social commentary of living in the ghettoes of early 1990’s Los Angeles. The game more than any other source gave me a better understanding on the motivations and origins of “gangsta rap”, a genre of music that grew out of the time and area depicted within the game. Like the game, gangsta rap is riddled with tales of violence, sex, and drugs, and conveys a message of a hard life doing what it takes to get by. While neither the Grand Theft Auto series nor gangsta rap is to my personal preference, I can still see the validity of it as a source of social commentary and creative expression. If anything, I would say that it is the job of its opponents to prove that it misrepresents that time period and locale in a gross or harmful way, rather than basing their arguments on it simply being “offensive”. There is a considerable amount of art and literature that is offensive to someone; that does not mean it should be destroyed or prohibited.

The game’s controls are slightly less intuitive than its predecessors due in my opinion to the addition of additional gameplay functionality, including role playing elements where you can improve your character’s capabilities through training. Aiming is still not nearly as clean as I would like, and I suspect never will be; the gameplay perspective (3rd person, over the shoulder) isn’t conducive to intuitive aiming. The game mechanics themselves are nothing new compared to the earlier games in the series: you can still mug or kill people, you can still steal cars, there are a variety of mini-games ranging from a taxi game to driving an ambulance, or fire truck, or police car. These have all been mainstays of the series. That’s not to say that the game needs to innovate and reinvent itself every time; I can completely respect the developer’s decision to focus on new content rather than redesigning the game mechanic every time. It’s actually something I’ve been frustrated by in other game franchises, where the developers are constantly reinventing how to play the game when the previous system had nothing wrong with it.

Visually, the game is reasonable but not spectacular. The character models are somewhat simplistic, with character actions being limited to a few poses that serve double or triple duty for various acts, and is far from fluid. Inanimate models, however, are significantly improved from previous games, with a lot of detail going into the cars and other vehicles, as well as decoration and scene setting within buildings and on the streets. The environment itself is improved, with a reasonable range of weather, and an excellent day-night transition that effectively includes dawn, dusk, and twilight.

The story is really where the game shines, however. Largely presented through cut scenes (non-interactive segments of dialogue and events), the story revolves around CJ, a former gang member who has returned to his old home after his mother is killed. The story is fairly straightforward: revenge is the main motivation, unraveling the who and the how and the why behind the murder; as the story unfolds, there is also the additional story arc of reuniting with his former comrades, and re-carving a niche for himself and his companions in the city. The cutscenes are performed by professional actors, and in general well directed and performed, giving a real sense of the drama and moral dilemmas that unfold as CJ goes back to his criminal ways. The story unfortunately thins as it progresses, with extend periods of small jobs and short cutscenes involving side storylines marring the flow of the central narrative. Still, it’s a compelling story, at least as compelling as other media with gang related stories.

The game is essentially a sandbox — a place for players to experiment — with a compelling (if violent and at times troubling) story used to immerse the player within the game more effectively, and provide further backdrop for the player’s actions. While there are moral questions posed within the story, the gameplay itself is inherently amoral: all actions rely on the moral compass of the player, whom often does not consider the moral or ethical choices of what they are doing: it is an imaginary world, and allows a level of amoral experimentation that is not allowed in reality. To say that the game itself is immoral removes responsibility and culpability of the player, who not only chooses how to act within the game, but whether to play the game at all. It’s definitely not for everybody, and despite the media and legislative misconceptions of such, it was never intended to be. For what it is, though, it’s a good game, and worth the experience.

Work Cited:
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Benzies, Leslie. Rockstar Games, Inc., 2004.
Grand Theft Auto III. Benzies, Leslie. Rockstar Games, Inc., 2001.
Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. Benzies, Leslie. Rockstar Games, Inc., 2002.