(Printed in OC WEEKLY, December 23, 2004)
I was racing my scooter through an alley, taking a shortcut on my way to deliver a pizza, when I pulled over to check out a shotgun I’d spotted near a dumpster. I trotted up a nearby staircase to the roof of a grungy, two-story hotel. On the street below, a homeless man shambled by, muttering to himself. I took aim, fired, and blew his head off with one clean, beautiful shot. Pop! I chortled at the way his suddenly headless body danced for a moment, blood gushing from its neck, before it fell lifeless to the ground.
Next, I took out two hookers, an old lady and an uptight-looking businessman before the cops showed up. First, it was just a few squad cars, crashing into one another and running over pedestrians in their frenzy to take me down. Then there was a great whooshing from above as the police chopper arrived, raining bullets down on me until I collapsed on the rooftop, dead in a pool of my own blood. Three seconds later, I was resurrected across town, back on the streets and ready for mischief.
Video games are the hottest thing going in American entertainment, and the Grand Theft Auto series is the hottest thing going in video games. The series began in the late ’90s with two crude, 2D, almost-diagrammatic titles, and then in 2001, Grand Theft Auto 3 arrived and changed video games forever.
You were now free to explore an entire, 3D, virtual city; you could wander for miles in any direction, following the story as the game presented it or going off to look for trouble on your own. GTA 3 was dozens of games (shooter, racing game, flight simulator, etc.) in one shiny package, but as impressive as its technical features were, its apocalyptic, satirical take on violent, gluttonous, hypocritical, dumb-assed modern America was even more stunning.
The game’s vehicles all played a selection of radio stations, and mixed in with the cool tunes were sharp talk-radio parodies and bogus commercials that were both funnier and smarter than anything Saturday Night Live has done in years. (“I’m a marketing manager who lives in the suburbs and commutes to work on the highway. . . . I live alone, so of course I needed a car that can seat 12 and is equipped to drive across Arctic tundra.”) The black comedy permeated the tiniest detail; newspapers littering the gutters boasted such headlines as “ZOMBIE ELVIS FOUND.”
The characters in the game’s main story sometimes called in to the radio shows, the radio DJs would refer to things you’d just done, and it was all so astonishingly intricate and interactive you could lose months of your life to this thing. Some of us did.
It seemed unlikely any sequel could top it, but 2002’s Grand Theft Auto: Vice City took the franchise to a whole other level—the playing field was bigger, the gameplay more addictive, the satire even more biting. Set in a very Miami Vice/Scarface 1980s, the game featured the perfect ’80s gangster-picture cast (Ray Liotta! Dennis Hopper! Philip Michael Thomas, for crying out loud!) and succeeded as both a savage critique of that long-gone, pastel era and a nostalgic kick in the head.
There were long, quiet moments as you drove to the location of your next atrocity, when the radio would start playing Tears for Fears’ “Pale Shelter” or the Psychedelic Furs’ “Love My Way,” and suddenly you kinda felt like crying for reasons you couldn’t quite explain. It was at such moments you realized you were officially Not Young Anymore, yet there you were, playing a video game at 1 a.m. and having the time of your life.
Like many of my fellow Not Young Anymore gamers, I’ve spent the past year or so giddily awaiting the latest (and possibly last) edition in the series, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Now it’s here, and well, it’s certainly bigger than the earlier games. And they give you even more stuff to do: you can shoot pool, dance, play basketball, play video games within the video game, etc. It’s big. But it was six months or so before real life became more interesting than Vice City, and after just a few days in San Andreas, I was already keenly aware that the hours I was spending there were hours I’d never get back.
The game is unwisely set in a pseudo-California of the early ’90s, recent enough that there’s no way you’d know the game is set in another era unless you’d read it on the box. Besides, that’s a time most of us are happy to forget. Who the hell gets nostalgic for the LA riots, grunge or O.J. hysteria? It was one of the most volatile yet paradoxically least interesting times in our nation’s history. I remember long nights searching the radio for anything listenable; eventually I’d grow so bored with the rap and metal I’d end up stuck with Art Bell’s loony conspiracy theories. It’s an experience San Andreas re-creates with depressing accuracy, right down to a so-so Art Bell parody.
There’s only one talk-radio station in the new game, and the shows are rushed and unmemorable—no comparison to the twisted theater of the mind that was the Vice City dial. While Vice City felt like it was made just for me (apparently, a lot of people felt the same way), San Andreas feels like it was made for those 15-year-old suburban honkies you see copping Eminem poses down at the mall, kids who were just being born in the era when this game is set, come to think of it. Holy crap, am I ever Not Young Anymore.
The Grand Theft Auto games all carry a mature rating (17 years of age and up), but somehow those sneaky kids do manage to get ahold of the things, as do their little brothers. So, while Mommy and Daddy are at work, Junior whiles away the afternoons setting virtual gangbangers on fire and getting blowjobs from virtual whores.
Of course, outraged parents across the land are convinced these games are going to turn their little darlings into psychopaths. But here I must impart the dirtiest little secret of these dirty little games: Grand Theft Auto is only as twisted and evil as the people who play it. It’s true. Yeah, you begin each game as a man with a troubled past, but you essentially have a clean slate and you’re free to go out and earn a respectable living in legal ways. You can drive a cab, you can deliver pizzas, and there are fun mini-games set up for any number of career possibilities. It’s called free will, and if your kid ends up setting people on fire, it’s because your little darling likes setting people on fire.
And sometimes setting people on fire is a fine way to spend an afternoon—within the context of a video game, I mean. The Grand Theft Auto games are real life without the consequences. Some cowboy asshole in an SUV gives you a hard time in traffic? Pull him out of his car, beat his brains in and steal his cash. Why not? Hell, steal his car, too. Drive it off a pier and drown in it, commit suicide. You’ll just re-spawn anyhow. In a world where every damn thing we do has consequences—and those consequences seem to grow more dire all the time—it’s a lovely thing to have an alternate universe where we can fuck up as much as we like and laugh at the horror of it all, knowing that when we push the off button, it all goes away. Pop!