Grand Theft Axel: How the Game Stole My Heart

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November 20, 2012 by axelordz

Grad Theft Auto: San Andreas

Axel Ordonez

 Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is an action adventure game with sandbox gameplay, developed by Rockstar North in the United Kingdom. I’ve played some of the GTA games before, but this was my first time playing the San Andreas installment of the series.

It seems like no other game can encompasses the idea of “moral panic” than San Andreas. Seconds into playing this game, in the cinematics, I could tell (with the aid of Samuel L. Jackson’s voice) that this game was gritty and in your face about it. It was unapologetic in the way it’s characters appeared, moved, interacted with you, and most importantly, how they talked. But I could tell that San Andreas had more to it than just shock value. The story follows CJ around, playing as him to help him climb up the gang and leading it against the other gangs to reclaim back their territory and street credit. I think that San Andreas had a message: the American dream is out there, but it’s not obtained by hard work, but by opening oneself to America’s corruption and embracing the vices. It’s very Great Gatsby-esque in that way. Granted, it’s a long shot from one of the greatest pieces of American literature, but I think that even though it had the makings of a great narrative, it got swept under the “moral panic”; that is, this form of low brow culture getting criticized for challenging morals. I know there are many controversies over the GTA series, especially San Andreas,  but I think that the fact simple (and usually controversial)  aspects of the game that people take at face-value overshadow the gamification of intense and sharp narratives and story-telling style.

One of these things is race and its portrayal in San Andreas. I found myself at first wondering if what I was seeing was racial stereotyping at it’s nastiest or an ironic (and satirical) use of stereotyping for the use of a rich gameplay experience. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s actually a blend of both. We see that most of the characters in San Andreas are African American, and it’s gotten a lot of criticism for seemingly retreating into the old racist construct that African Americans are hyper violent and morally ambiguous. While I agree on the shallow point that African Americans are the ones committing grand theft auto (and other possible felonies), this argument used by many groups quickly falls on its face. After all, why is race portrayal such a controversy with San Andreas, when there is a whole series? Is it because the game has a cast of mostly African Americans? I won’t pretend like I have all the answers, but I’m wary of dramatic claims; GTA is almost an equal-opportunity offender when it comes to race. Nonetheless, I greatly enjoyed the “gangsta” culture the game immersed the player in as CJ through this hyperreal, stylized rendition of 1990s California. However, I will give some of the earlier claims of stereotyping some credit; I think that even though the portrayal of race is used satirically, I think the game makers indulged on what they think African Americans should like and approve of, which explains the use of such voice actors like Samuel L. Jackson. The game makers were, after all, Scottish residents in the UK whom, though they visited California during the making of the game, were not present for “gangsta” culture of the 90s  and thus probably got their information from television and film.

I think that this GTA game gets all the heat from controversy, but when I played it I realized a vital key tied to the gameplay. Although one has the choice to shoot hookers or commit grand theft auto, one has the choice not to. I think that parents and parent organizations have forgotten that it all boils down to choice; in fact, I feel the game, at times, discourages the random acts of violence through its use of the “warrant level” game mechanic (the star bar at the top right corner of your screen). When you start gunning people down and being a general menace to society, the police (and if it starts getting crazier, the SWAT and FBI) start pursuing you, which frequently ends with a dead CJ (at least in my case). When I played San Andreas in our class, I had to learn this the hard way, as my turn playing consisted of me committing random acts of violence and quickly being gunned down by the police. I came to realize that although the violence is a predominate theme in the game, this game has complex levels of possibility of action in an expansive world with options of play that go beyond just robbing or shooting people.

That’s why I’m also asserting that San Andreas of how kinaesthetic and gameplay are both vital in the pleasure of playing this videogame. This game’s environment is too rich to completely ignore and by submerging one self into it, you can’t help but marvel and relish the great expanse, yet detailed, sandbox. And that’s where gameplay kicks in: the sandbox allows one to interact with this rich environment, whether driving through the streets or mugging a drug dealer. This game not only embraced the weaving of both kinaesthetics and gameplay, but advanced and individualized each, while. For example, one of the things we did while playing was change CJ’s hair and clothes and give him a tattoo. I later figured out that these actually have effect on non-playable characters’ reactions, and his relationship (and level of respect) with any of his girlfriends, fellow recruits, and street friends varies according to his appearance. I found this brilliant!

Despite the cloud of controversy that has surrounded Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, I enjoyed it very much and regard it highly. By observing it’s use of race in a satire, its unique gameplay, and balance of aesthetics with that gameplay, I got a rich narrative and very enjoyable gaming experience. And in the end, isn’t that what video games are all about?

CITATIONS

“Grandmother Sues Maker of ‘Grand Theft Auto'” MSNBC.com. Associated Press, 27 July 2005. Web. <http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/8728577/ns/technology_and_science-games/t/grandmother-sues-maker-grand-theft-auto/#.UKsxrkIX4UU&gt;.

Kato, Matthew. “Widening The Scope: A Look At Racial Diversity in Video Games.” http://Www..com. Game Informer, 8 Feb. 2011. Web. <http://www.gameinformer.com/b/features/archive/2011/02/08/widening-the-scope-a-look-at-racial-diversity-in-video-games.aspx&gt;.

Newman, James. “The Myth of the Ergodic Videogame: Some Thoughts on Player-character Relationships in Videogames.” Game Studies. N.p., July 2002. Web. <http://www.gamestudies.org/0102/newman/&gt;.

 

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2 thoughts on “Grand Theft Axel: How the Game Stole My Heart

  1. zack373 says:

    Good job Axel! I like your post about GTA San Andreas and “moral panic”, interesting connection. I also agree with your interpretation of the game being a satire and not taking it too seriously. I am still shocked at the fact the game was made in the United Kingdom. Before taking this class, I was never aware of that. What do you think the GTA franchise took out in Vice City and what do you see similar in this game apart from the obvious?

    • axelordz says:

      Yeah, it was made by a company based in Scotland (which is part of the UK). According to one of my articles (I forgot which) they visited L.A. before they made their game (in early 20002) and were very surprised, as their only exposure to SoCal life was from movies and music videos.
      I’ve played Vice City for about 5 minutes years ago and I don’t remember much. However, I know that San Andreas added some new feature that allowed for CJ to fatten up if ate too much fast food and slimmed down if he ran more. Also, he could swim and climb buildings, allowing for a more interactive environment and for more realistic gameplay (because honestly, a fence wouldn’t stop me if I was getting chased by the popo).

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