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Issue 31: Gangsta’s Paradise

Issue 31: Gangsta’s Paradise

With everyone going ape shit for the newly-released “Grand Theft Auto V,” we decided to pay homage in our own special, not so wait-in-line-at-midnight way. We’ve dug out our very special “Grand The Theft Auto: San Andreas” cover story from Issue 31. The in-depth piece pretty much discloses all of the work and research that went into making the GTA franchise as rich, extensive, and true to the streets as possible. Yea, it’s also the reason behind why so many folks will be hibernating and playing their game consoles well into 2014 for this new edition.

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Words by Jimmy Buckets

VIDEO GAMES ARE EVERYTHING! WE ARE NOTHING WITHOUT VIDEO GAMES! VIDEO GAMES ALLOW US TO KILL PEOPLE WITHOUT HAVING TO KILL PEOPLE! ONE FIENDISH PLAYA TALKS ABOUT HIS LOVE FOR ONE PARTICULAR GAME. ONE LOVE, LOC.

Freedom. While our grand notion was built on this principle, too much freedom scares the ca-ca out of the lot of us (I mean YOU Middle Americans…). Case in point–Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas has more than enough of it– “it” being freedom– to have the religious right squirming in their church pews. Granted, the first thing you will probably do in the game is murder some ‘ho, but once that initial bloody murder spree runs dry, you’ll find that you’re in the middle of playing the most painstakingly detailed game in gaming history. This grown-ass man has been a gamer since the beginning, owning practically every console–from Atari to Amiga– and even I’m still coming to grips with the latest and greatest Grand Theft Auto. Not to sound like some late night infomercial or some numb-nuts who’s totally on their jock, but I can’t explain how hard it is to sit and write this article with the game sitting in the living room, waiting to be devoured. Fuck a job. Fuck a girlfriend. My mindset has been stuck in the I’d-better-get-comfortable-and-order-some-food mode for a minute now. Pathetic, but I know you know where I’m coming from.

Look this ain’t no infomercial ’cause a lot of you have copped the game by now; some of y’all are probably just getting off the phone with the Chinese delivery dudes. I just think it’s amazing how street culture–both fantasy and reality–has merged with neon culture. How thug characters from movies have now infiltrated the world of interactive cinema. We’ve all become pawns like peeps from that old school movie Tron [Walt Disney Pictures, '82]. We are the ghosts in the machine! I ain’t never scared, though. Anyways, for those of you grown-ass kids who don’t know how it goes down, here’s a quick sonning:

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Set in the gang-violence-ridden West Coast of the early 1990’s, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is the fictional story of reformed gang member Carl Johnson. Carl returns to Los Santos, San Andreas (the GTA-world version of LA) after living on the East Coast for five years. And there’s  a problem: his momma has been murdered. To top it off, his old gang and hood is in serious disarray. The story then follows CJ on his quest to bring respect back to his Orange Grove posse and avenge his mother’s death. He, of course, winds up searching for answers all across the state of San Andreas, from thug infested Los Santos (LA), to hippied-out San Fierro (San Francisco), to the glitzy Las Venturas (Las Vegas). It’s a story line that progresses well out of stereotyped gang-life adventures with every new corner turned.

“Books tell you something; movies show you something; videogames let you do it,” says Dan Houser, Rockstar Games’ VP of Creative. “You, the player, have the freedom to choose: do you want to run around and be a lunatic , or do you want to be cool in this world?” This is what the GTA series has always been about: freedom to do whatever in a vast, responsive dominion. Granted, the bulk of the GTA excursion have all been trips into the life of a con, working his way to the top through violence and general law-bashing villainy…But it’s addictive. It’s fucked up. But most importantly, it’s undeniably fun. You cant front on that.

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Decency and order in the GTA universe is held together by your own ability to keep your violent impulses in check. Personal anger management. In Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, punching a cop in the face makes you feel good because you know that in reality it’s an impossibility (unless you’re willing to drastically change the course of your life; have officers piss in your soup while bidding it up). Thats why GTA freedom is so much fun. You really get to act out on your most basic barbaric desires and only have action-packed, hilarious video game police chases to worry about.

Which is not to say that you can’t follow the rules if you actually want to. You can obey traffic lights. Go to the gym. Take a girl on a date. Go to bed. But you can do that shit in regular life. It’s only fun to do these everyday mundane things in GTA because it’s ha-ha funny. I mean, you’re tired, so why not take a break from all the killings and take your lady out into the night? The awesome truth about this little diversion is you’re still going to be murdering people while your date is in the bathroom. Genius.

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Hey, all of this is such a far cry from the knights, princesses, and monkeys on springs that made up th evideo games we all grew up with. But it was just this particular image of video games as being nerdy and childish that led a bunch of Brits (Sam Houser, his brother Dan Houser, Terry Donovan, Jamie King and Gary Foreman) to found Rockstar games in 1998. The first Grand Theft Auto, which, in its primitive form, was played from a bird’s-eye-view of city blocks with small cars and pedestrian dots walking around had been produced by Sam Houser working with developer  DMA before Rockstar was founded. The first two GTA titles on the newly formed Rockstar label kept this same top-down view and gained somewhat of a cult following on the PC. In fact, the inspiration for this top down view came from watching classic US TV shows like COPS and World’s Scariest Police Chases, where a helicopter’s gyroscopic camera showed all the action that England was missing out on. It wasn’t until Grand Theft Auto III that they finally had the ability to take the camera out of the sky and bring it down into a living, breathing, three-dimensional, crime-ridden digital world.

Almost every aspect of what you could do in the previous titles has been improved and expanded in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. In fact, Rockstar has taken the best elements from other games they’ve made and incorporated them into this game. The new targeting system and stealth-kills have been borrowed from Manhunt. The racing missions’ markers are Midnight Club-esque beacons that you can see from blocks away. As cars reach maximum speed, the screen shakes–another bite from Midnight Club.

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Besides lifting from Rockstar successes, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas incorporates pieces of almost every kind of game that could ever be relevant to this particular story or setting. There are lowrider “bounce off” competitions where the game takes a Dance Dance Revolution twist as you have to hit switches to the beat in the right sequence. There are Sims-esque aspects to the game, such as having a girlfriend (or many girlfriends, playboy) and keeping her happy so you can get in her pants. Like Need For Speed Underground and other street racing games, you can customize cars’ paint jobs, rims, spoilers, hydraulics–you name it. However, all this borrowing from other games is completely warranted, as Grand Theft Auto is the OG of free roaming, crime oriented games. Bow Down. There have been a whole slew of copycat crime story games, (The Getaway, True Crime: Streets Of LA) and even more games that have borrowed on the whole free-roaming game play philosophy, most notable Spider Man 2. If everyone’s going to eat off of what they brought to the table, it’s only right that Rockstar gets first dibs on whatever’s on anyone else’s plate.

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Other additions to this game that expand the whole “freedom-to-do-whatever-you-want” attitude include: riding bikes, swimming, gambling, playing basketball, playing pool and video games, working out, learning martial arts, collecting a wardrobe, getting haircuts, getting tattoos, being able to recruit fellow gang members to perform drive-bys, taking over rival gang turf, and breaking into homes to name a few. In addition to this, your character, CJ, becomes more diesel or fat/scrawny depending on how much and what he eats and how often he works out. Your character’s appearance and “Respect Points” (which you earn through various means) change how other characters in the world view you and interact with you. All of your skills from biking to shooting to gambling improve over time. The amount of thought and effort put into this game is mind boggling, and probably intimidating for most other video game companies.

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“It used to be one programmer sitting in his bedroom,” says Dan Houser. “Now it’s a hundred people ranging from rocket scientists to visual concept guys making this thing that is going to take people hundreds of hours to play.” The damn credits for San Andreas read like movie credits. This is something that Dan Houser stresses over and over–there is no “games guru” at Rockstar–it’s a team effort.

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In writing the game, Houser and co-writer James Worrall enlisted the help of DJ Pooh (co-writer of Friday [New Line, '95] and beatsmith for the likes of Ice Cube, Snoop, and 2Pac). They also enlisted the help of Mass Appeal’s own Estevan Oriol and Mister Cartoon–their consultation helped to ensure that GTA had the look and feel of an early ’90s West Coast. “People try to do it, but it’s never right,” says Oriol. “They always fuck it up somehow. It’s not something any old art department can draw up and have it look authentic. They came to Cartoon and me to get the real deal.” Oriol contributed numerous photos of the people, places, and of course, lowrider cars that he grew up around. Mister Cartoon even supplied Rockstar with tattoo designs that you can get in the game and hipped them to the different tattoo and graffiti cultures that inhabit Los Angeles.

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With the look of the game in place, Rockstar focused on the sound, working with actual West Coast radio programmers to license 150 mid ’90s-era tracks ranging from g-funk to country to new jack swing. Although Rockstar doesn’t like to advertise it, San Andreas has an all-encompassing cast of voice actors ranging from movie stars to local thugs pulled off the streets of Watts. Over 70,000 voice samples and enough cut scenes for two movies are in the game. Although they don’t really publicize it, the first characters you run into in the game are a pair of crooked cops played by Samuel L. Jackson and Chris Penn. I pity the fools who wanna test these dudes.

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While San Andreas is destined to redefine what a Playstation 2 game can be, for some, this fact will be overshadowed by the profanity, violence and drug use in the game. Undoubtedly the boundaries of what’s acceptable on a console game will be pushed (the N-word bomb gets dropped for the first of roughly a billion times within the first minute of playing). The first Grand Theft Auto game was banned in Brazil; Germany and Australia even had to come up with their first ever video game rating system in response to the game. The series has been blamed for youth violence in America. But as the core audience for video games continues to grow up, why aren’t video games allowed to mature?

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So what if you can kill an old lady, steal her money, beat a cop to death, grab his gun and car, and treat pedestrians like Pac-Man dots? “GTA is obviously meant as satire,” says Houser. “Anyone that plays for more than 35 seconds would realize that. All this tabloid sensationalism is pretty boring really. It’s based on this desire to create something in culture that is the enemy–and currently it’s video games.” Word up. Censors are dicks. With so much drama in the LBC, it’s kind of hard being Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Hard as in thug life hard. And hard as in complicated. Guard your grill, ese.

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