October 26, 2004

To Live and Die in Los Santos

by Andrew Stern · , 7:11 pm

The newest release from Rockstar Games, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, available today for the PS2, has already garnered extremely positive critical reviews, and from what I can tell looks to be a masterpiece. Interactive narrative-wise, the reviews say that like previous GTA3 titles — which in 2001 broke new ground in combining detailed virtual world simulation with freeform gameplay and mission-oriented narrative — San Andreas also has a fairly linear story, but the sheer size and scope of this new action/adventure is larger than ever. Players have three complete cities to play in — takeoffs of LA, SF and Vegas, each their own mini-societies. Furthermore, ~50% of the content is found off of the 100+ quests main storyline, including playing classic arcade games and billiards, working out at the gym if you overeat at Burger Shot, dressing well, dating women, dancing, and joyrides and racing out of the city on winding country roads.

Sounds like one of the richest virtual worlds that’s ever been built. Between San Andreas and Katamari Damacy, I might just have to buy myself a PS2… (My copy of Sims 2 for the PC also still sits on my desk, waiting to be installed…)

6 Responses to “To Live and Die in Los Santos”

  1. Ian Bogost Says:

    Am I the only one who feels overwhelmed just thinking about playing San Andreas? I want to play, yes, but I fear I want to play in the same way that a freshman lit student would want to read Moby Dick. Is there “too much game?” Does this kind of “immersion” risk becoming a kind of apoplexy?

  2. Alan Dennis Says:

    I had to look up what apoplexy meant. If there’s anything to be learned here at Grand Text Auto, it’s certainly obscure vocabulary. ;)

    I’ve been playing San Andreas and, sorry to say, I have so far been unimpressed. While there are plenty of new features and possibilities, I still feel like I’m playing the same old GTA. I think that personally, as a gamer, I have moved beyond this series and I want them to try something different for GTA, rather than just tacking on some new features and moving the setting forwards 10 years. However, my opinions thus far are an initial player (user? heh heh) experience, so it isn’t a fair reflection of the entire game. I’m going to give it some more time, since I have a week long vacation right now… Who knows, maybe I’ll find it to be as great as the first two or even better. Right now, though, I’m not motivated to actually do anything in the game, since I feel like I’ve done it all before.

    As for Ian’s comment: I don’t think immersion risks apoplexy, if done properly. Rockstar has designed GTA in a way that will expose you to various features and options slowly, one at a time, rather than dropping you into the fray without a map. This is an essential aspect of good game design that they have properly implemented. However, I would have appreciated a way to skip the introductory bicycle chase. Riding bicycles was no my idea of exciting, even if I did have a car chasing me…

    A lot of immersive games give the player a defined linear path, to help keep them on the line of learning the game. Unfortunately, I know all too many gamers that decide to ignore that path and then go off and do their own thing. They quickly become exasperated with everything that’s presented to them, then become bored soon after. This happened with Morrowind, for instance. However, when I assured them that it would be more fun if they picked an objective and stuck to it, they tried the game again and had a blast. I think that this says something about narrativism vs ludology… In my opinion, one is not better than the other, that’s like arguing whether water colors are better than acrylics. However, in our industry, mixed medium can create the best looking art.

  3. Kenneth Stein Says:

    The gating factor for the GTA series and for all currently produced video games (if I’m wrong on this please name that game) is the narrative. GTA has a linear narrative. Is there a solution to this fundamental issue? You bet there is!

  4. andrew Says:

    Ian, I don’t feel overwhelmed by the thought of playing San Andreas, or say the Sims 2 for that matter, because I have no intention of getting anywhere close to accomplishing all the given missions or goal-oriented directions. (That would be overwhelming for anyone with a full time job and S.O. / family, let alone their own artmaking on top of that.) Instead, I’m just planning to just screw around, play, do what I want to do in the world for a few hours. If the virtual world lets me do that, and it’s fun, thumbs up from me. That was my favorite thing to do in GTA3, in Shenmue, and hell even in Mario64. I’ll go ahead and do some missions or goals, what I have time for. I’ll try to watch others play who have put the time in to progress far into the (linear) narrative.

    Of course, my hope for freeform fun and exploration will be limited to what’s available to do without requiring lots of accomplished missions to unlock. (If a cheat code to unlock everything immediately becomes available, I’d gladly do that.) (Hey, “FreeFormFun”… sounds like a good name for a startup. I’d better copyright it. “FreeFormFun” (c)2004 Andrew Stern.)

    Alan, it’s a bit discouraging to hear that San Andreas doesn’t feel much different than GTA3. The reviews and Slashdot discussion vary a bit, but most people seem to say it’s more than GTA3.1, perhaps GTA3.5. (I’m in less of a huge rush to play Fable, after reading people’s B+ reviews of it.)

    Your comments about players needing goals to be happy is interesting. There’s truth to that — unmotivated screwing around gets boring after a while — but better that the game allow you to form your own goals, yes?

    Kenneth, you’re preaching to the choir about wanting interactive experiences with truly non-linear narrative, and the belief that progress can be made in this direction. Following the link from your name to your page, your group sounds very intriguing. Let us know when more info is made public about what you’re up to!

    (By the way, when I used the term “masterpiece” in my speculation about San Andreas, I by no means meant to imply I would be anywhere close to satisfied with this game, in the grand scheme of things. I mean to say that for what San Andreas sets out to do, relative to the current state of the art, here in 2004, it looks to be a work with a masterful level of art and craft, and probably Rockstar’s best work to date.)

  5. Alan Dennis Says:


    I’m not convinced that allowing the players to form their own goals is necessarily better. However, I am convinced that it doesn’t work, right out the door. Most casual gamers need a bit of a nudge in the right direction, when they are first starting out with a game. Even The Sims does that, with the goals/aspirations, etc…

    In life, we are born with free will, the ability to form our own goals, etc… However, the world leads us along with pointers and hints as to how to do it, such as school or parents. We’re not just dropped into a big city at the age of 25, ready to go. :) I think the same thing goes for video games. You can’t drop someone in the ocean and tell them to swim. It’s best to start off in the shallow end of the pool… However, you can always give advanced players the option to ignore the shallow end.

    I think Morrowind is a perfect example of this, as I previously stated. It has goals, plenty of them, available for the player and then they make their game out of the plethora of options. Games like the The Sims are the same kind of thing, repackaged. If you drown your sim in the pool, it’s only because the developers, more or less, made that possible…

    I’m not saying that players need to be lead by the hand completely. I am saying that for casual gamers and many hardcore gamers, there needs to be a bit of a ramp up time to a game. Perhaps that is executed through the exposure of a few visible goals, or perhaps it is done through a hard coded linear sequence before the beginning of the real game.

    Also, it comes down to the kind of game being played, as to whether or not such techniques may be effective. In a large scale sim like The Sims, a completely open ended system may be more successful. In a game like GTA, where the world is large and hard to expose and the threat of perceived failure waits for the player around every corner, thusly increasing the challenge of the world significantly, it may be best to hand hold the player a bit more…

    Also, I don’t like saying that a game that lets you define your own goals is necessary “better.” I will definitely agree that it’s different. ;) I think that both approaches create a different gameplay experience, both of which can be a lot of fun. Having predefined goals and a predefined storyline can still produce fantastic games.

    Also, I reviewed Fable and gave it an A, if you go by that scale. I truly thought the game would suck, but for what it is, there’s actually a LOT of fun to be had. The linear storyline aspect is short, but the side quests are plenty and entertaining. The game has completely absorbed all the people that I’ve introduced it to, thus far.

    As for GTA, I’m going to give it some more time soon and try to form another opinion. I might have been harsh on it. I just don’t think it has as much character as Vice City and all the new “features” (eating, working out, etc..) don’t add up to fun gameplay in my book. Heck, I eat fast food in real life and get fat… *sigh* I understand how all these added extras can make the game have more value add, but I don’t really see how it adds to the large scale fun and playability of this particular game. However, I’ll give it a try again and try to see what there is to see. I by no means stan by these opinions, I need to give them another week before I’ll know how I really feel. (Sometimes good games can sneak up on you like a ninja… plus, I’m kind of snobby with my games, at times.)

    My main opinion, right now, is that you should never start a game with a bicycle riding scene. That’s the antithesis of an exciting introduction…

  6. andrew Says:

    Alan, I agree with everything you just said, all well put. Including the part about getting fat in real life when eating fast food. :-)

    Except the part about the bicycle riding. Paperboy is one of my all time favorite games!

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