Shifting Westward With Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas
Of all the studios out there, there’s few make an open-world game as good as Rockstar Games. The studio’s abilities to weave an interesting sandbox thick and dense with enjoyable content is only matched by their ability to draw controversy with their games. Rockstar has come to the spotlight time and time again amid the outrage of angry parents, politicians and other outspoken public figures who would see these games buried like E.T.: The Extraterrestrial games in the desert. Nonetheless, controversy has never stopped Rockstar from climbing right back into bed with the taboo, which is incidentally what many people will most remember about Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, released in 2004 today.
With Grand Theft Auto III and Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, Rockstar focused its attentions mostly on east coast and classic mobster influences. The third GTA was based on the Northeastern and Midwestern influences of New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia and Detroit while borrowing from popular Italian Mob-centered entertainment like The Sopranos. Meanwhile, Vice City was centered on Florida and the Southeastern cities like Miami, taking its muse from the likes of Scarface and Miami Vice. For San Andreas, Rockstar finally wanted to shift focus to the West, getting away from the spotlight on traditional organized crime and instead exploring urban gangs.
San Andreas follows the story of Carl “CJ” Johnson, a former San Andreas gang member that had been living in Liberty City until news of his mother’s untimely death brought him back home. In the course of events, CJ finds himself being looped into a conspiracy by crooked police even as he comes to realize that his former gang has lost much of their territory and his hometown streets have become more dangerous as a result. CJ settles in and starts to reunite his former gang in order to drive the other gangs off. All the while, CJ seeks to find out who was behind his mother’s murder and break his ties with the corrupt police trying to ruin him and his friends.
Though San Andreas took some inspiration from films and other entertainment like its predecessors, the San Andreas environment was based on Los Angeles and San Francisco and drew inspiration from a great deal of real-life influences in those cities. Dan Houser and his team studied the African American and Hispanic gang rivalries, 1992 LA riots and various LAPD scandals to inform the story they told with San Andreas. The environments of Grand Theft Auto had always been built upon studying the cities they were meant to lampoon, but San Andreas was first time the studio took such a vast approach to using real-life inspiration to inform the events of their game.
In the end it was a gamble and the spotlight on African American and Hispanic gang violence was not something that went unnoticed. Many would attempt to call San Andreas out for damaging racist overtones, but it didn’t stick very well and that ended up being light in comparison to the controversy that caught everyone’s attention. It was discovered that a sex mini-game was left in the game’s files, found and reinserted into the game in a software mod. Rockstar was used to dealing with backlash on their games, but the “Hot Coffee” mod as it came to be known pushed the ESRB to change the rating on the game from "M for Mature" to "AO for Adults Only," which threatened to damage Rockstar’s sales of the game irreparably. It was the first time Rockstar responded by censoring its own game with a “Cold Coffee” patch which removed the scene altogether.
Despite the bit of self-censorship in order to maintain their product availability, Rockstar managed to hit another home-run with San Andreas in the end. It was widely considered to be the apex product of the era which included Grand Theft Auto III and Vice City in both its massive scope and content. As usual, the controversy the game stirred seemed to simply generate buzz rather than drive consumers away. That said, it’s interesting and notable to think that there was a line even Rockstar was willing to pull back from, if only because it meant hurting sales on its games. Regardless, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas stands above its predecessors as the bookend of what the games could do before the move to HD gaming that came with the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.