Before GTA V: San Andreas And The Power Of Social Satire
‘Satire is a lesson, parody is a game.’ - Vladimir Nabokov, Strong Opinions, 1973 With GTA V on the horizon,...
‘Satire is a lesson, parody is a game.’
- Vladimir Nabokov, Strong Opinions, 1973
With GTA V on the horizon, and details now starting to dribble out in the lead up to its release, I wanted to take a look back at what, to me, remains the crowning jewel in the – well, whatever the GTA franchise has in lieu of a shiny crown. A money-clip, maybe? And so, I want to gushingly voice my affection for GTA: San Andreas, a game that I shamelessly, helplessly love. A game that, despite its mammoth size, I must have played several times over, and that still to this day feels fresh and lively, and with something quite striking to say.*
And yes, although I admit its greater technical achievements, I must admit that even though I quite enjoyed GTA IV, I could never quite love it or invest in it the way I did its predecessor. Indeed, I still can’t. While it does have that wonderful Rockstar quality of feeling like a fully realised world (it’s certainly no Red Dead Redemption, but that environment does breathe); the gunplay is a lot tighter (it’s still GTA so it’s not great); and there is a story to tell with some larger than life characters and exciting set-pieces – once GTA 4′s narrative faded to black there really was nothing else pulling me back in. I just didn’t feel compelled to keep existing in that environment. To people-watch, or goof around.
To me the whole thing just felt a little too dour, and weirdly (for a game that was on a newer generation of consoles), I felt I kept running up against invisible walls that San Andreas always seemed to avoid: Wait, I’m only going to be in this one city? Not a whole state? And there’s almost no buildings for me to enter just to screw around in? …But I can make him eat until he gets obese, right? Right? What about flying a plane? You took what out?!
The Ballad of Gay Tony add-on did inject a bit more of that much needed sense of frivolity and freedom; but honestly I would have appreciated such distraction more in the standard game. Frankly, I think you almost have to play GTA IV with the two additional DLC stories to get the full experience; it works much better as a compendium, with three intersecting narratives (GTA IV, Ballad of Gay Tony, and Lost and the Damned) than the standalone rags-to-slightly-nicer-bloodsoaked-rags tale of Nico Bellic.
But in any case, San Andreas…
There are few games I’ve played that have had such wonderful pacing, and such a gleefully elegant ramp up from piercing social commentary to full-blown campy nonsense. San Andreas really seemed like Rockstar went all out (in all the best possible ways). It felt like they knew it was going to be the last game on that round of consoles, and so they threw everything at it to make it that generation’s videogame opus.
Want a grim portrayal of class structure and the cycles of gang violence and despair that weigh down the disenfranchised? Well, here you go. We’ll start you out on Grove Street, with little more than a singlet and a bicycle to get on with, and let the absorbingly gritty sense of poverty and seething alienation press in upon you…
Want a series of infantile double entendres spewing out of the radio and splayed across billboards to mirror back to you just how little difference there is between this gauche caricature and the real world’s media hysterics? Well here’s a dozen radio stations with wacked out DJs (and some sublime tunes) to spackle fill the atmosphere of that heady ’90s slide into mass-market sludge…
Want to tear-ass around in the countryside in a clapped out pick-up truck literally hunting for yetis with a shotgun? (This is not a mission – I just dare you to stop yourself from doing it.) Welp, there’s a rusty old gun, a rusty old truck, and some rusty pants. Go nuts…
Hey, that building looks base-jumpable – wanna try? If your answer is ‘Whoo-nelly, yes’, then you’ll find a parachute awaiting you at the top of the stairs, sir.
Do you like hearing Samuel L. Jackson and James Woods yell at you? Well switch that volume way up, ’cause they have some questions to pose to you about your life choices…
By the time that you get to Vegas, are flying around on a jet pack and planning to Ocean’s Eleven the biggest casino on the strip you feel as though you have played seventeen (number arrived at randomly) of the biggest games on the market. Train heists; street brawls; dance parties; (very minor) stealthing; chases. It’s a customisable racer; a shooter; a dance game; a flight, real-estate, and dating sim. You get to dress and feed and exercise your player character – customise him (within the framework of his set identity) to your specification. There’s even a primitive (but thoroughly absorbing) territorial gangland warfare RTS thrown in for good measure. Perhaps it’s true to say that the game is a jack of all trades and a master of none, but who gives a damn when the whole package is this much unfiltered joy?**
Ah yes: but the physics could perhaps be a little tighter, you say. Sorry? What was that? I was parachuting out of a 747 as it sank into a death spiral…
But the shooting is still a little janky, you note, and the reticule sticks like glue. Sure, sure. Imma let you finish, but hold on while this tin-foil hat wearing hippie gets me to flamethrower his crop of illegal substances and makes me drive him, my head swirling, away from the FBI.
What about the sneaking, you say; surely I’d agree that the sneaking is pretty rough? Okay, I am currently boarding an army airline carrier to steal an F14 fighter jet (that I’m going to shamelessly exploit for the remainder of the game), and fly away partially fuelled by the giddy rush of glee pumping through my veins. …I’ll reply when my smile wears off.
But why does every Rockstar protagonist have to do so many ‘favours’ for random people, you ask? Yeah… I’d love to respond to that, but I’m a little busy driving this crop harvester off the ‘Vinewood’ hilltop*** in a pimp suit whistling Willie Nelson’s ‘Crazy’…
I rest my case, your honour.
It’s a wondrous grab-bag of comedy, genuine emotional depth, and generous lashings of gameplay; it leaps effortlessly (and somehow organically) from pseudo-realist**** poignant drama to broad satire, from playful heist caper to overwrought action blockbuster; and all without ever forgetting that the player is meant to be invested in the events, and having fun along the way.
It is this sense of dizzying, goofy play that Saints Row 3 seems to have embraced (and blown out whole-heartedly to its most free-associative extreme), and that, unfortunately the GTA 4 base game chose to largely abandon in an effort to root the narrative in a more grounded solemnity.
In contrast, just like in GTA: Vice City, in San Andreas we are left to explore a hyperbolic, but familiar presentation of a recognisable world, one seen through a loving, but satirically distorted lens. Here (in a frankly more revealing manner than GTA IV) we see the glittering modern detritus of faded celebrity, grasping commercialisation, political fear-mongering, skewed class systems, and fantastical conspiracy. As social satire goes, we might be less in Animal Farm territory and more up the Dr. Strangelove end of the pool – but that does not make the statements any less pointed, or the ride any less thrilling.
We take an illuminating journey with CJ up the social strata of a world that has splintered into a chaotic miasma – and if the upcoming GTA V can return even a fraction of that heady, anarchic sprawl, I suspect I will be swept away with irony and joy all over again.
* Indeed, I even very recently repurchased it for PC, but I cannot get my head around the mouse controls… People: that is not how a GTA game is to be experienced!)
** There is a section with David Cross (Tobias from Arrested Development) that may go down as one of the most infuriating missions of anything I have ever played, but that moment of nonsense aside, the game is, to my eyes, sublime.
*** Read: ‘Hollywood’ hilltop.
**** And yes, that is an intentional oxymoron – the game is filled with such impossible collisions that evoke a playful nonsense without ever sacrificing the investment at its core.