I originally wrote this post for Crunchable.net.
The night I unlocked the second city of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, I dreamed of being a year younger, going to my sister’s college graduation. But it was in Baltimore City this time, and I wandered onto the streets into an apartment building just because it looked interesting to me.
Inside, there was a man who was a painter, and he had three children to take care of — somehow I knew that none of them were biologically his, though I didn’t know how he had acquired these kids. He was kind of fat in that friendly sort of way, and had a beard, too. He seemed like he had never even thought of being worried about life. His painting was too important. He was teaching his oldest the beginnings of his craft; he gave him a bucket of red paint and let him do what we wanted to his studio walls.
He took me to a room with a mirror and said: “This is what we call the otherworld.” And then the mirror was not a mirror anymore. It was a window.
When you buy a video game, you are buying a world to live in. A separate one. People who are afraid of the concept call it escapism. But do you think the world could be better than it is right now? Do you think about how it could be better? (Do you already know?) Then you’re an escapist.
What puzzles me sometimes is the worlds people choose to escape into. Counter-Strike, for instance — probably the most popular game people play online — is like a recurring nightmare. Either you are a terrorist without an ideal, just a desire to blow things up or hold people hostage, or you are a counter-terrorist that has at most 20 minutes (usually, anyway — it is up to God, should anyone choose to take that role actively, to decide) to prevent all these terrible things from happening. And your reward for saving the world, for being a hero? Better guns, being able to kill people more easily.
The beginning of GTA: San Andreas could be called a nightmare too. You don’t realize it until you’ve left it behind, but the city you start in, Los Santos (a pastiche of Los Angeles), is permanently plagued by an awful orange filter. Smog. Buy yourself a bright red T-shirt, and it becomes the color of dried blood outside. You are brought here by your mother’s death. She was an innocent caught in the crossfire of a random gang shooting — or so you believe. Only two members of your family are still alive: your brother Sweet and your sister Kendl. The gang your brother runs has fallen on hard times — barely has enough territory to call home.
The city is at war. Gang members are on nearly every street corner, and unless they are your blood brothers, they hate you. The beginning of the game is training in how to survive this war, and how to begin to fight back. Spending hours at a gym so that you can kill people quickly with your bare hands. Making contact with an old crazy guy who will outfit you with guns for free. Killing a gang member who has defected to your gang’s rival.
You become used to the brutality of it. You embrace it, even. You plot how to take the block of town that contains both the gym and a fast food place from your enemies, because these things take on value to you. You lay traps, you stockpile weapons — you do drive-bys without any sense of irony. You own a beach house in the southwest corner of the city, away from the turf wars, but you don’t visit it very often. You can’t find a reason to.
And then you are exiled, and then you are free in San Fierro. It’s meant to be a take-off on San Francisco: the hills are steep and the streets are, for the most part, laid out logically. Fast-food workers are polite and probably high as kites, and the prostitutes who wander the streets at night, the ones anti-escapists pin their hatred upon, look like Britney Spears. There seem to be gangs on the street — by now you have been trained in how to pick them out at a distance — but they don’t know who you are, and so they are happy to let you be an ordinary citizen.
“I don’t know why I never came here before,” Carl, the person you become inside GTA: San Andreas, says. You are thinking the same exact thing.
The GTA series has always been a mirror. But it isn’t a mirror of the real world. That’s what the anti-escapists never figure out. It’s a mirror of your own self. You can kill prostitutes in this game. You can kill cops in this game. You can kill innocent old women just walking to the market. You can point guns at people and just wait as they stare at you, their hands in their air — and for no reason at all, you shoot them in the head, maybe take their money. You can rob people’s homes as they sleep. You can steal a car and improvise a roadblock on the highway. Wait for a bunch of cars to show up, all honking their horns at a driver they can’t see isn’t there. Toss a grenade into the middle and watch the mayhem.
But it’s your choice to do all this.
If you want, you can be a policeman. You can be a paramedic. You can even work as a valet, if you want, or a taxi cab driver. You can observe stop lights. You can run a triathlon. You can find mysterious things going on in the countryside. And — in the weirdest turn in the series so far — you can get a girlfriend whose trust must be earned slowly. You can take driving lessons, even.
GTA: San Andreas has taken the series beyond the mirror: it is an otherworld. You can play it as a game, with missions to complete and secrets to catalog, but its true achievement is that you can be happy just playing, not worrying about points or progress. Just existing inside it is fascinating.