Please do not walk on the grass

On how role-playing in “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas” can be difficult

Before you starting spamming the comment function with enlightening comments such as “GTA is not a RPG you idiot!”, let me explain what I mean with role-playing in a game like Grand Theft Auto (GTA);

It is correct that GTA is not marketed as a RPG, but in it you play the role of Carl Johnson ((or just plain CJ among friends)) in his quest for correcting all the wrongdoings that has come upon him and his family. This, in itself, does not really constitute GTA as a RPG, since then all games would more or less be RPGs, but the sheer size of the game world and the freedom to roam around in this, creates a narrative vacuum that the player has to fill out by him/herself, very similar to “normal” RPGs. Furthermore you, as a player, are free to dress up Carl in more or less any way you find suitable and “pimp his ride” in various ways. On top of that you have the element of the fitness and sex appeal of CJ. These elements are clearly added into the game in order for the players to identify more with CJ, e.g. that they share the same goals and behave in a way you would prefer etc.

The overall story arc of the game is very well constructed but in some cases the narrative that the player is creating (though his/her (inter)actions) clashes very hard with the narrative that Rockstar Games has put into the game.

When I first loaded the game on my PS2, I was expecting the grandeur of the two previous games in the series, GTA III and GTA: Vice City, and Rockstar delivered. The game is bigger, prettier, sounds better and driving around in the game is just a fun as it was in the others. It has a great and better written story than the previous game. But this is also where GTA: SA goes down an unfamiliar path for the series.

In GTA III the protagonist was an unnamed guy with a gritty past, the plot was familiar in sense of “Goodfellas” kind of way. And again with GTA: VC the setting was instantly recognizable, everything from the Miami Vice inspired intro, the Don Johnson and “that other Guy“, the pink flamingos and everything in between.

These two games worked perfectly, because the story was loose and the setting geared towards only one kind of storyline, so there was little difference in the story that Rockstar had put into the game and the story that the player developed while playing.

I would argue that the focus on a better and stronger story proved to be San Andreas’ Achilles’ heel. As I said, the story is better, no need to argue about that, but it is also tighter and more confined, therefore limiting in the way the players act out their “inner criminal”.

An example of this is in the first part of the game. Here you take on the “Doberman” mission, a mission that involves taking over some gang territory from competing gangs in Los Santos (the first of three cities in the state of San Andreas). The game explain very clearly how the game mechanics works in connection with this and before long you and your recruited gang members are out cruising in pimped-up lowriders looking for drive-by action ((note the deliberate use of “you” and “your”)). Within minutes full-blown gang war is happening in downtown Los Santos.

The gang war gameplay element of SA is a nice little (mini) game in itself, but wear out after some time. And this is where the real trouble kicks in.

After I’d have taken over more or less the entire city of Los Santos and in the process developed my own story of CJ as being this “don’t-you-look-at-me-or-I?ll-shoot-you” kind of guy, that doesn’t take any crap from anyone (yes, really living out my inner criminal here) I decided to take on a mission I was more or less certain that would progress the story line of the game. And the mission did indeed progress the story, but in a whole other direction than the one I wanted.

The mission starts with a cutscene where a crocket cop named Tenpenny (brilliantly voice-acted by Samuel L. Jackson) back-stabs CJ. Since it was a cut-scene there was nothing I could do, even though my view of CJ had now become this before mentioned hard-boiled gangster that would blow the head of anyone trying to cheat him, even cops.

So there I was, thrown out of town, with no guns, no homies to protect me, no nothing. Just seconds ago I was the king of town, I was the guy with homies on every street corner looking out for me, I was the one everyone feared and few had live to tell the tale of. CJ and I were one, but no more. The bond between me, as the player of the game, and Carl Johnson was lost the minute he sat foot in the hillbilly town of Angle Pine… never to be found again.

I kept on playing the game, but CJ was no longer an important part of the game for me, now I was just looking for quick ways to complete the missions, earn money to buy property and scouting for nice cars to drive around.

After this “incident” I played the game in the way Rockstar properly wanted me to play it. The problem was that they had open up this huge game world for me and told me that I could do anything I wanted in. But in really they wanted me to act in a very specific way in it, and not walk on the pretty grass even though I could.

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