Grand Theft Auto. The name conjures up the worst types of violence that videogames have to offer. Carjacking, beating hookers to death, drive-bys, molotov cocktails, chainsaws, cop-killing, multiple car pileups, factory explosions. Pretty much all the bases covered.
And goddamn if I don't love it all.
Having played through the most recent GTA: San Andreas, a sprawling, gorgeous masterpiece, I sat back and delighted in my accomplishments. Violence on a grand scale, beautiful, operatic violence, brilliant set-pieces of destruction and random sprees of chaos. My character had been cold and vicious, never breaking a sweat while mowing down pedestrians or flinching even an inch when launching rockets at police choppers.
It was a bright, clear day in San Fierro when my version of CJ traded his wife-beater and bandanna for a sweater and beret and said goodbye to the tempting yet shallow criminal world.
San Fierro was a beautiful city, and CJ drank it in. He began searching for snapshots that would net him a nice bit of bonus cash from the local paper. In the park he met a nice girl practicing martial arts and she agreed to go out with him. He took pleasure in driving his pimped-out ride down by the waterfront, or up and down the rolling streets. CJ began to forget about the petty thugishness of his youth. He even started to lose the memories of more recent events: Mama's death, Sweet's incarceration, those crooked cops framing him up, the feds pulling his strings, the Venturas casino heist. Crazy times. Hopefully, with the car dealership up and running, and Kendl working her real-estate deals, he could start to dream about settling down for good.
So what had happened to the game? Why was I shirking violence?
The great thing about San Andreas is that it allows these flights of fancy. There is a perverse pleasure, of course, in causing mad destruction; But, because the world is so convincing, so consistent, there is also joy in creating your own elaborate stories.
Hopefully there will be more games that create this sort of atmosphere. What it comes down to is creating a great deal of freedom and making the different parts of a world interesting. True Crime failed for me because, while they definitely made a fairly accurate map of LA, the random crimes were repetitive and dull and there was nothing else to do. There was never any reason for me to explore. San Andreas, on the other hand, offers plenty of reasons to explore: surprise vehicles (like the riding lawnmower), crazy downhill mountain bike races, base jumping off a radio tower. Even walking around reading the ridiculous store names was a blast.
I hope in the future we can figure out a way for a game to generate truly creative content that is not either too boilerplate or overly random. Combine that with the beautifully realized world of San Andreas and you'd have a virtual reality I'd happily get lost in.