Friday, December 30, 2005

Year End Roundup: Life In San Andreas


The game was already notorious when, earlier this year, furor erupted over the audacity of developers that would dare to insert hackable sexual content in an ultraviolent M-rated game.

News stories on the series inevitably discuss the merits of propositioning virtual hookers, driving them to a secluded spot for some low-budget shenanigans of the this-car-is-a-rockin variety and then, when the deed is complete, killing said hookers and regaining the money spent. As if that were the core of the game.

If I were to take the same tack toward discussing, say, The Godfather, I would be continually horrified that the movie seemed to concentrate solely on beheading horses. Please, somebody think of the children.


The story of CJ is more than a thin plot wrapped around varying mission types. It filters much of the turbulent 1990s in California through a cynical and satirical lens. Thus we have the corrupt Officers Tenpenny and Pulaski, members of CRASH, the anti-gang task force.

CRASH (Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums) was a real task force in LA. It fell apart amid allegations of wide-ranging misconduct -- falsifying arrests, beating suspects, drinking on the job -- brought up by Officer Rafael Perez, who admitted to personally stealing more than a million dollars worth of cocaine from the evidence locker.

By some accounts it was nothing more than a taxpayer-funded gang in charge of other gangs.

The Tenpenny thread feeds into a much larger plot. Through those missions we get a simplified glimpse into how drugs were introduced into major cities so thoroughly. The cops broker deals with disparate criminal elements possessing different means -- production, shipping, distribution. In return for some measure of protection against prosecution, the criminals give kickbacks to the police, who maintain enough control over the gangs to justify the task force's existence.

The CRASH missions run throughout the entire game, but reach their symbolic peak with the introduction of Toreno.

The character of Toreno is the embodiment of the corrupt government that was exposed during the Iran-Contra Affair of the '80s and continued through the 90s as we trained Osama Bin Laden, funded more "freedom fighters" in South and Central America and armed the Middle East.

Toreno is similar to the CRASH Officers in that he sees himself as keeping a sort of balance by pitting different sets of bad guys against each other -- only for Toreno the bad guys are other governments.

He is the sort of man who would happily sell weapons to Iran and Iraq, confident that such action would keep war confined to that part of the world. And confident, too, that such actions would have no future repercussions. This is more than a "the ends justifies the means" worldview. It sees the present as the only worthwhile place to evaluate -- the past is mere backstory and the future is never here. All that matters is who has the upper hand at the moment.

Toreno's involvement with the drug dealers coincides with the notion that the government itself was crucial in flooding the inner cities with drugs. While many discount the idea as crackpot . . . well, it's not like they asked Ollie North about the cocaine.

Consequently, the Toreno missions hint at a much larger game being played. In the causal chain, street gangs are merely microcosms of statewide gangs, which are merely microcosms of nation-sized gangs. As above, so below.

San Andreas is composed of general algorithms coupled with relatively-linear narrative sequences. That's it, really.

The algorithms determine the colors that wash across the sky. The density and type of traffic in which sections of the state. The density and type of pedestrians. Their local behavior. Whether they will switch lanes or drive fast or try to run you off the road if you sideswipe them.

This is not realism. I don't believe that Rockstar strives for realism.

It seems, instead, that they attempt to capture a feeling, an atmosphere, a mood, a palette. They attempt consistency and connectivity. It serves them better to make a game object reminiscent of a real-world object.

Watch how the traffic comes to a halt at red lights and then zooms off at greens.

Watch a high speed chase not caused by you.

Take a plane out over San Fierro Bay and watch the boats jet here and there.

Los Santos is not LA. But it feels like LA. More than True Crime could muster.

There may be an element of the Uncanny Valley at work, but I'm not sure exactly what to call it. Maybe it is the Uncanny Valley -- seeing LA painstakingly simulated, one gets the impression that it's mostly dead space, boring blocks of nothingness. Which it is.

But by replacing real-world places with their own symbolic conceptualizations, Rockstar manages to capture the general tone of an area with more alacrity than an outright re-creation.


For all of its braggadocio, San Andreas is more nuanced than Vice City.

Vice City was the glamour of 1980s Miami, the tacky bright clothing, the synthesized music, the hyperkinetic rush of cocaine, porn stars, fast cars and mob wars.

San Andreas, on the other hand, is more laid back and ambiguous. CJ commits every crime known to man but refuses to use drugs. He is not the raging ego of Tommy Vercetti or even the nobody of GTA3, but a man torn. You see a character struggling to make some kind of new life while working to save his brother and escape the oppression of the authorities.

CJ ping-pongs between feuding individuals. The game seems to hint that the best way to get ahead is to work for everyone and be loyal to very, very few.

CJ takes Madd Dogg's rhymes, kills his manager, destroys his career in order to help OG Loc -- then later rescues Madd Dogg from suicide.

CJ tries to kill Toreno, only to end up blackmailed into doing government dirty work. He muscles the Sindacco family only to try and save the guy he had tied to a windshield and taken on a joyride -- and then returns to kill all of them in order to back Rosenberg.

When Toreno requests that CJ learn to fly a plane, he balks for a moment. But only for a moment. Then comes acceptance. He will learn to fly a plane because it is necessary to learn. There is never an insistence on lack of aptitude, only brief lack of willingness.

It's almost the Zen insistence on flowing like water. CJ sees, not a larger picture, but the way that currents can feed into a central stream. His goal is to see his brother free and revenge against the former friends that sold out his neighborhood and led to his mother's murder.

So watching him bounce around between the little fish all trying to grow big enough to eat the other fish is not watching a man easily manipulated or directionless -- it's watching someone with the patience to discover and destroy the network that controls Los Santos and with the confidence and intelligence to build a new network to back him when he does finally seek closure.

1 comment:

Patrick Dugan said...

Nice analysis, Zen is always a good conceptual tie-in. Then again, Ray Liotta did a pretty righteous italian mafioso.