This post was originally published on tumblr on June 7th, 2016.
I’m sure I don’t need to explain the appeal of aimless, nighttime driving to anyone with a reasonable amount of wanderlust, a healthy number of anxieties, and access to a car.
Likewise, I’m sure I don’t need to explain the way that experiences had in a virtual gameworld can create emotional resonances and impart significant meaning in the place of missing “real-world” experiences (or, maybe, in spite of existing-but-less-unsatisfying “real-world” experiences) to anyone who’s ever been deeply engrossed in a great video game.
Here’s the part where I bewilder myself by arguing that Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is a great video game. And five or so years since I last played it, no less.
A game can be great in a lot of different ways, for sure, but here’s one.
For most of my time in college, I rode out a rolling cascade of existential panics, romantic panics, financial panics, pragmatic panics, and artistic panics in my car. Whether it was driving to the woods, driving to another city, or just driving in a circle around town until the gas gauge slipped dangerously close to the point from which the cash in my back pocket would be unable to revive it sufficiently until the next payday, my car was my home-away-from-home, or maybe just my home. I first played San Andreas after I’d moved to Washington for grad school. A different time, a different place. A different car. A car that chose to be reliable on its own terms. A little scary in a new place where getting stuck between towns at night might mean not seeing another car on the road until the next afternoon, or the next next afternoon. Night driving was (mostly) out of the equation. Sort of.
I got a huge kick out of Grand Theft Auto III, the first of the “modern” GTAs*. I loved the neon and narrative of Vice City. I spent a lot of time in both games doing the stereotypical GTA things. Wreaking havoc. Trying to set up daisy chains of exploding cars. Trying to outrun the tanks and helicopters for as long as possible. Ignoring the story missions. Driving the ambulance (for some damn reason, I loved driving the ambulance missions). Listening to the radio, cruising the interstate. It was all good. Then San Andreas hit, and it was so fucking huge. Laughable now, sure, in the face of many current AAA games’ open worlds, but back then it seemed enormous. And it wasn’t just huge; there was so much space.
Coming from the Ohio suburbs, living on the Palouse was strange at first. Surrounded by farmlands and rolling plains, the town just…ended at a certain point. At night, beyond the lights at the edge of Pullman’s limits, there was just darkness and the howls of coyotes. During one of my first days on the WSU campus, I got up high enough on a hill to see out across the campus to where the town ended and Nothingness (the wheat fields) began, and beyond them…space. I had a moment of vertigo and had to sit down with my head between my knees to catch my breath. It was so disorienting I avoided raising my eyes to the horizon at all for days afterward.
My reaction to San Andreas’s space was the complete opposite. The (virtual) world was still bounded by rules, the screen, memory restrictions, and somehow it felt more grounded. Despite there being a lot of things to do in San Andreas, the geographical areas in its world that held a traditional game-y meaning, its places, seemed dwarfed and outnumbered by the amount of spaces in the game that seemed to exist just for you to pass through them, to create distance and time between the “meaningful” areas. So you see immediately what I did, of course. I spent almost all my time in the empty spaces. Cruising along the highways and dirtbike trails (but highways especially) that served as liminal spaces between the three urban hubs that housed most of the game’s ludic content, cranking the expansive soundtrack** through my virtual car’s radio, I unwittingly and perhaps autoimmunologically captured the experience of night driving. And I don’t mean that in a making-the-best-of-a-bad-situation way, I mean it literally. Memories of cruising up and down the highways of San Andreas at night (night both in-game and outside my apartment, simultaneously) are, upon recollection, qualitatively indistinguishable from a lot of the cruising I did around Ohio in my younger days.
Once during my time in Pullman, I flew down to San Francisco for a conference and rented a car for the weekend. Stressed out and overcaffeinated, rocking around in my too-small hotel room at 1am, I decided to risk taking the rental out around the city/island with nothing but an AAA atlas on the passenger seat to guide my way, because a long time ago we didn’t all have GPS and as such were subject to the whims of our more romantic yearnings without a robot to argue us out of them. I ended up on some damn interstate-y road almost immediately, and even though it was a big city, that late at night the roads were nearly empty because in my experience, San Francisco is a city that has the grace to chill the fuck out after about 11pm or so. Anyway, I’m driving the road only occasionally well-lit by a traffic light or the headlights of a passing car, CD player cranked, zoning out and letting anxiety and city bleed away into the space behind me, salt smell from the sea blowing in through my open windows…and amidst this totally sublime experience, my first honest, coherent thought was “Holy shit, I’m in San Fierro!” San Fierro, of course, being the name of the virtual San Francisco from Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.
I’m still not sure if there’s poetry in gameplay, but there certainly can be in gameworlds.
Here's a tune to go out on: one of my favorite cruising songs from the San Andreas soundtrack, it has a droning quality that suits night driving:
* I put “modern” in quotes because even though this is true in some genre-historical sense, I was playing GTA III when the kids who rave about V these days hadn’t yet mastered pooping outside of their pants. Get off my lawn, etc., etc.
** The soundtrack in San Andreas was also an order of magnitude larger than that of the previous games. Okay, not literally. But, this soundtrack was finally large enough and diverse enough, I think, that it stopped the in-game radio from being a novel-but-repetitive virtual-radio gimmick and allowed it instead to function as a part of a virtual world that was for the first time trying (and for the first time, often succeeding) to be a replacement for real rather than just an approximation of it.