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The 3 Merits of San Andreas

I was listening to the radio the other day whilst working away on some news posts when the hourly news report came on. Apparently, some California lawyer who clearly missed his ride on the bandwagon, was attempting to sue Rockstar Games for not declaring the unused Hot Coffee code when presenting San Andreas to the ESRB. You see, unused code is left in games all of the time. Heck, raunchy extra footage from movie outtakes are left on the cutting room floor. I'm sure that even writers are occasionally struck with the urge to suddenly type up something really nasty in their word processors. The point is that once content is created, it becomes part of reality. Digital content more so, considering that, even if it is deleted from a computer, some remnants of its existence will remain deep within the bowels of the hard drive on which it was created forever.

So, Hot Coffee is nothing new. For a game with the scope of GTA: San Andreas, wholly deleting the code itself may have caused other things to break or perhaps the development team was just so crunched for time that they simply disabled it instead of trying to remove it. I'd even wager that there is a lot of other unused code on each and every disc out there, just none so racy as ugly, simply-modeled polygons thrusting their rhombi together. Unused code is a fact of video game development.

And yet, we have those who would come running headlong into the “debate” over such things with only their public character or re-election campaign on their minds. At this point, Jack Thompson seems to be no more than a gigantic yelling head who is periodically let loose from the little box he's kept in, like Jambi from Pee Wee's Playhouse. That brings me back to the beginning. It was not so much that the lawyer in California came off as Mr. Thompson's stunt double as it was the same lack of context they, the media, and politicians seems to take into consideration when discussing these matters. You see, the sticking point – what really got me – was the way in which the news anchor described San Andreas: “a game in which your goals are to steal cars, beat up police officers, and make drug deals.” Perfect for a soundbyte, but without doing justice to the rest of the game. It seems to be the case that, for these people, there is no such thing as context. I hope to provide some of that as I go over the 3 Merits of San Andreas and give some credence to those aspects of the game which other people go out of their way to ignore.

CJ, for short, Carl Johnson is a step forward for player characters in video games. I'd rather not go into the touchy territory of his ethnicity, as it seems all too cliché, but it does need repeating since it plays a factor in the way the media typifies San Andreas: CJ is black! But he's much more than that, at the same time. GTA III's main character really had no personality (and San Andreas pokes fun at this fact at one point) and even Vice City's Tommy Vercetti was a little rough around the edges in the morality department, but CJ is perhaps the most fully-realized of the series' anti-heroes. It is clear from the get-go that Mr. Johnson has a healthy respect for his family, his roots, and his neighborhood. The plot of the game hinges on this very fact, as just about all of CJ's actions work towards the ultimate goal of protecting everything he holds dear – avenging the brutal death of his “moms,” freeing his framed brother Sweet from prison, protecting his sister, and ridding his turf and his home, Grove Street, of the crack head menace that threatens to engulf it.

Are those not noble goals? At the very least, they constitute a lot more than “stealing cars, beating up police officers, and making drug deals.” Sure, CJ occasionally needs to do something of the sort, but it's never for the sake of doing it. Rather, it is usually a favor for a friend or loyal ally, if not for the benefit of getting closer to his ultimate, more noble goals. The game starts off with Carl's old pals (and brother) chiding him for being away for so long; for leaving Grove Street behind and forgetting about his family. As it turns out, though, with a few exceptions, almost all of these characters end up betraying the cause. So, the game is ultimately about staying loyal to your roots at all cost, even when the world is falling apart around you.

These peripheral characters, though, are the ones most often subject to the bad behavior that has solidified San Andreas' reputation in the media. They are flamboyant, crazy, delusional, or just drunk on power most of the time and they are the ones that push CJ to commit crimes or do things he otherwise wouldn't. So what drives CJ to go along with all of that? Well, he's a forward-thinking individual with an entrepreneurial spirit. Life's given him lemons, so the only way he can find happiness is to make lemonade, and that dictates that he's going to have to juice a few fruits along the way. OK, so that analogy doesn't exactly work, but CJ's a good guy. Even though he always goes through with things, he often expresses his doubts. Not to mention that, ironically, though he is sometimes offered and other characters do it regularly, Carl never actually uses drugs.

Ultimately, CJ is quite a likable character with a good personality and some noble end goals. He gets his hands dirty on the way there, but it isn't far fetched to say that everybody has to at some time in their life. Carl's actions are more extreme, of course, but hey, that's what video games are for.

Perhaps those who would attack video games never recognize this merit because they are the ones being skewered. The Grand Theft Auto series has always been home to some great writing and San Andreas is no different. Whether it is some wayward comment or movie reference in a cutscene, a commercial on one of the radio stations, or just the name of a fast food joint, almost everything in the game is taking a stab at pop culture – and a good one, at that! While the potty humor of a restaurant named Cluckin' Bell may seem too low-brow, I've always felt that if a creator can show humor with an intelligence, then he's earned a free pass to all the fart jokes he/she wants.

And that seems to be the case in San Andreas. The development team clearly knows going in that the content is controversial and, truthfully, mommy and daddy should know that, too, when they go buying the game as a birthday present for their kid. So, why put any restraints on it? As I just mentioned above, if you can showcase some intelligent humor, then you're allowed to throw in some low-brow stuff, too. That's what ultimately sets a mature game like GTA apart from a “mature” game like BMX XXX (notice the quotation marks there).

Just take a moment to indulge in the talk radio station and you'll see parody of sensationalist news and talking-head pundits just as much as you'll hear Andy Dick blathering on about plants with plenty of sexual innuendo in Gardening with Maurice. San Andreas strikes a nice balance and that is what makes it good. It's all tongue-in-cheek, but that little element of truth in there is what validates the humor in the game. There is that same slight hint of truthiness (to steal a neologism from Stephen Colbert) that keeps Howard Stern and South Park on the air.

Besides that, the GTA series has always just been plain funny. The characters are great and well-acted and just driving around running over things and causing massive interstate pile-ups can provide hours of amusement. In the real world, this would be offensive, dangerous, and shocking, but we must continue to keep in mind that this is a video game . On top of all of that, the action is just very cartoonish. Just because things look realistic doesn't mean they are realistic. Instead, the world of San Andreas lies in a different dimension, just a few inches to the left of reality. It is a parody, a facsimile, of real life, not a carbon copy.

The GTA series, and San Andreas especially, are miracles of game design. Well, OK, that's open to debate, but rarely, if ever, had a world been so fully-realized until GTA III landed on the PS2. A few games like Jak and Daxter had gone for the whole “seamless world” thing before, and although you could see into the distance, the entire world taken as a whole was small and certain elements of the environment strategically obscured others. Early MMO's like Everquest could also be considered, but their worlds were far more segmented than San Andreas' one, contiguous state. It just seems that nothing has quite matched the marriage of scope, population, and interactivity that this series has, in such a satisfying manner. This is all, of course, working on the hopelessly generic Renderware engine.

The good game design, though, brings up another point: the effort clearly put into constructing the game separates it from other games, like the aforementioned BMX XXX, that feature lazy designs in order to get a quick cash-in on the “mature” market out the door. Almost universally, games that cater to this hit the market in remarkably bad shape. But not San Andreas! It is clearly the developer's baby and the wealth of content and design decisions which go into shaping that content must be overwhelming. In other words, there's no fooling around with this series and, yet, it remains one of the best-selling franchises in gaming history despite gunning for a similar demographic as lesser games.

The design itself promotes a lot of exploration and interaction, which is no doubt a feather in its cap. There's no direct line from Point A to Point B and the game regularly calls for creative solutions to different situations. Anytime when you're in a car chasing someone down or being chased yourself, you've got to be quick on your feet considering car choice, possible routes, and what to do in case your first plan fails. On top of that, you'll need good knowledge of your surroundings and where certain roads will take you at any given time. For instance, if you're being chased by the police, you could go for the more stable highways for speed, but an off-road route might afford you a more direct route to your destination. It also comes with the increased risks of rolling your car or plunging into a ravine. These constant decisions are mostly left up to the player, so the game design promotes a high level of thinking and strategy while playing. There are so many nooks and crannies and hidden items throughout the world of San Andreas that exploration is key.

Likewise, the player is given “good” choices to offset the “bad.” The main missions may often require CJ to do something criminal, but there are plenty that simply require him to win a race, help a friend accomplish something, carry injured people to the hospital, put out fires with a fire truck, chase down convicts in a police car, or even park cars at a valet stand. Suffice to say, not everything in the game requires you to engage in criminal acts and, if the player should choose, they can just zip around the environment taking in the sights, going to the gym, buying new clothes, or performing stunts with their vehicles. None of which involves making drug deals or brawling with cops.

I could probably make this list longer than it is and, initially, it was quite lengthy, but I decided to merge many different topics into these three categories. When all is said and done, it's probably just a lot of babbling. The things we really need to remember are: context is key, discipline your kids and make sure they know right from wrong and the importance of actions and their consequences, and, above all, we are dealing with a video game here. There are some loose cannons among the youth out there, but their problems are much broader than the video game which may have triggered pre-existing conditions. I can understand the need for some caution, but sometimes these situations just can't be helped. As tragic as it may be, it is no excuse for using a game as a scape-goat. Parents, treat your kids right, please? A little bit of research and some good discipline can go far in preparing a kid well-rounded enough to have fun with games such as these while, at the same time, being able to handle the more mature content thrown at them. To the talking heads and lawyers: please find a cause more beneficial to the world than harping on a simple video game.

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