Before we get into my love of carjacking and slaughtering my way up the criminal food-chain of a fictional Los Angeles/San Francisco/Las Vegas tri-city area, I feel that Civilization II is owed a mention. Sid Meier’s siren song was nearly too much for me, luring my younger self into late nights and “just one more turns” that lasted through entire weekends. I wouldn’t call it a love affair, though, so much as an addiction. I wasn’t drawn to it, seduced and enraptured, I was compelled to play it due to some chemical need that somehow leaked into my veins from the computer screen. And so it doesn’t quite belong on this list but does deserve a nod.
GTA: San Andreas, however, was love.
Guilty, guilty love at the start. I resisted for over a year after it was released before dropping the shiny disc into my PS2. Within two days I was feverishly driving, climbing, flying, and swimming through every nook and cranny of the superbly crafted world Rockstar games had created. I languidly made my way through the missions, savoring the plot lines and marveling at how well they flowed together. Considering the amount of freedom a player has in choosing the order in which they play the missions, GTA: SA (and it’s cousins and siblings) has a surprisingly cohesive narrative. A bit of chop here and there, but overall astoundingly well written.
Yeah, yeah, I know. The only words you really hear coming out of people’s mouths when a Grand Theft Auto game comes around are “violence,” “guns,” “sex,” “coffee,” and “won’t someone please think of the children!?” But hardly ever do we see reviews that comment on the sheer craftsmanship that goes into these games. From the scripts to the environments…
OK, I admit it, when you get to the gameplay controls and squirrely driving mechanics GTA doesn’t rank near the top of the list. But where else are you going to find an ersatz Las Vegas that feels so much like the real thing?
I grew up in L.A. and lived for years in S.F. When playing San Andreas I would be tooling around the video neighborhoods and I could tell what areas they were aping. Not just obvious landmarks like the Capitol Records Building, but the actual feel of the architecture and style of real city streets were imitated with uncanny accuracy.
I would have CJ buzzing around downtown San Andreas and be struck by a sense of familiarity so strong I would stop and look around to see if I could pick out the elements that trapped the flavor of the city. This alone kept my attention for months. I scoured the game world for every pick-up, collected every car, and made sure I finished each and every mission. All the while examining the street scenes to see if I could recognize the real-world counterpart. I found the GTA Noe Valley, Compton, West Hollywood, Castro, and dozens of other swaths of L.A. and S.F. that had been homaged in the game.
I’m playing GTA 4 now and it is very good. I like the characters better then those in SA and the writing is even more sophisticated. But I don’t think it’ll manage to grab me like that extended stay in Rockstar’s fake West Coast. I was consumed by and swaddled in its digital embrace, my thirst for narrative was rocked gently and my appreciation for design was kissed sweetly on the head.
And then I would antagonize a rival gang until they came after me with automatic weapons.