Countdown to GTA V: Courting Controversy Pt. V

GTA SAWell, we’ve made it to the weekend. It’s time to play the last couple of missions on Splinter Cell: Blacklist, get in the final few matches of your digital season on Fifa or, like us, hammer The Last of Us: Factions for a final few hours – because this is it. The last weekend of your life without Grand Theft Auto V. After this weekend, there’ll be just enough time to drift, listlessly through one last day at work, clock watching all the while. Home for a quick shower, maybe a shave (legs or face, depending on your gender), selecting the perfect outfit and matching it up with your shiniest pair of shoes – then out into town to be a good 2 hours early for the midnight launch event in your area.

Make sure you call your parents, spend some time with the Mrs, take your kids to the park over the next two days. We’re sure you’ve already laid the foundations at work. A bit of a cough, complaints of a headache, even squeezing the odd sneeze out if your boss was in the room. You’ve made sure NOT to reference the game at all in front of your colleagues – and whenever anyone else has brought it up – you’ve casually replied with a simple ‘Oh, they’ve made another GTA have they?’

Whatever your symptoms, they’re sure to be a LOT worse on Monday. But you’ll be sure to soldier on – even when your colleagues tell you should go home: ‘I’m alright, it’s just a bit of a cold.’ Come Tuesday though, a different story entirely. Your condition has worsened over night, an old injury has flared up, you’ve fallen down the stairs AND your goldfish died and he’s been your treasured family pet since you were 3. There is NO WAY you can make it in today and they shouldn’t expect you back at all this week!

As you’re all no doubt aware, that’s pretty much the standard guide for a Grand Theft Auto launch (if you’re not aware, then just follow our guide, you’ll be golden!) There is, sadly, at least ONE job were the above action is utterly redundant. And in 2004 when Rockstar launched Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas I found myself in just such a job! So where was I? Promoted to Prime Minister? No, he was playing GTA! Astronaught? Nope, GTA in space is still GTA. Office worker? Of course not! They can just follow the guide!

No, I was in the one place NO-ONE would believe you were ill. Working the San Andreas midnight launch at a popular high street video game store. As one of many workers dressed as an idiot in full gang colours – complete with dyed goatee and plastic dollar sign medallion – the atmosphere was one of extreme excitement-  combined with bitter jealousy – as we sold thousands of the most highly anticipated game of all time (in 2004) to people who were going straight home to play it while we were stuck at work.

When I finally DID get home to play it, tired and groggy from the late shift at work (doors closed around 2am – and I was back in to open with the boss at 7am), I was blown away. Everything I’d though was unbeatable about Vice City, had been stomped into the dirt and accused of being a ‘buster’ (bar the soundtrack, but I’ll get to that in a minute).

GTA Grove street
Grove Street, sunset. Just beautiful!

The city of Los Santos (loosely based on Los Angeles) was somehow simultaneously as vibrant and exciting as Vice City, while bringing in some of the mood and atmosphere of Liberty City. You played as Carl ‘CJ’ Johnson who was returning to San Andreas in the mid-90s after hearing of the death of his mother. He is reunited with his elder brother ‘Sweet’ and the rest of the Grove Street family. The game had story elements that were based heavily on real world events in and around LA. The biggest one being the perpetual rivalry and street-level warfare between the Crips and the Bloods. The gang names changed, but it was clear were the source material was coming from.

Grove Street was CJ’s gang, stemming from the ‘hood’ in which he grew up. Their primary rivals, the Ballers appear early and often in the game. Though a third, smaller gang – the Vaggos – are introduced later in the game. Gang warfare makes up a large part of San Andreas‘ early missions and a lot of the side quests and mini-games later on (one mini game is fighting for control of Los Santos by controlling and acquiring new territory in the city. ‘Acquiring’ is just a nice way of saying ‘killing all other rival gang members on your patch). Understandably, this was one cause of controversy throughout the game’s life – especially in the U.S.A, where gang related crime is rife. Being seen to openly promote this behaviour brought Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas heavy criticism almost immediately.

Other stories in the game mimicked the 1992 LA riots, the 90s crack epidemic (that was the subject of a lot of movies at the time too) and the LAPD Rampart Scandal (this was the special unit set up to tackle gang crime, but resulted in unprovoked shootings and beatings, planting evidence, framing suspects, covering up evidence – as well as stealing and dealing the crack they were supposed to be taking off the streets. Essentially the C.R.A.S.H unit of the LAPD became another gang).

GTA SA driveby
Big Smoke and his Grove Street homies doing what they do best.

Dealing with issues such as gangs, crack, police brutality and street shootings – combined with CJ being the first African-American protagonist – led to inevitable controversy and criticism. Accusations of racism and racial stereotyping were thrown at the game. Which, if you think about it, was pretty odd. Even if we JUST look at the 3D era of GTA (from GTA III to San Andreas), two thirds of the drug dealing, pedestrian killing, car stealing protagonists were white guys. They all engaged in much the same activity, but only when the game was given an African-American protagonist was colour a problem?!

Of the three, CJ is the only one who seems remotely interested in a life OUTSIDE of crime. Both Claude in GTA III and certainly Tommy Vercetti in Vice City embrace a life of crime. CJ, on the other hand, returns to San Andreas due to circumstances beyond his control and then pulled back into the life of gangs and crime he’d tried to escape. Even the other members of the Grove Street Family are not portrayed as ‘bad’ people, just people struggling to survive and determined to protect their corner. it was actually one of the more human stories in the Grand Theft Auto series.

One of the best parts of the game was the ever increasing presence of Officer Tenpenny – the game’s antagonist. Tenpenny, also African-American- was a corrupt cop (superbly voiced by Samuel L. Jackson) that embodied the Rampart Scandal in the game. Constantly riding CJ and the Grove Street families, the story was more about overcoming the corrupt police than it was surviving gang battles. The assumption was that Tenpenny cast as an African American to AVOID any flack from the press accusing the game of trying to incite more hatred and racist accusations relating to the, already uneasy, relationship between African American youths and the police force.

Samuel L. as Officer Tenpenny of the LSPD is the most memorable baddie the series has seen so far.
Samuel L. as Officer Tenpenny of the LSPD is the most memorable baddie the series has seen so far.

The game world itself was HUGE. Not only did it have a fully realised Los Angles-esque, Los Santos, but it ALSO had a location called San Fierro (another large cirt in the San Francisco mould) AND Las Venturas (Las Vegas) that was complete with casinos, bright lights and big hotels! There was a large amount of real estate in between each area (seriously, it took ages just to get around), which could be covered in the widest variety of vehicles yet. Push bikes, motorbikes, saloon cars, sports cars, speed boats, helicopters, propeller planes, jet – packs and even a fighter jet were all methods of transport available throughout the game.

No expense was spared when it came to voice casting with San Andreas. Along with the incredible talents of Samuel L. Jackson, the game featured James Woods, David Cross, Andy Dick, Chris Penn, Danny Dyer, Ice T, Chuck D, Wil Wheaton (from Star Trek and now The Big bang Theory),William Fichtner had a cameo reprising his role from Vice city and Britains’ own Shaun Ryder made an appearance. The most interesting casting choice was the relatively unknown rapper, Young Maylay as protagonist, CJ. It made for a hugely entertaining and memorable cast of characters performing the Dan Houser and James Worrall script.

There is a huge argument for saying that the GTA: San Andreas soundtrack is the best – and when I say that the Vice City soundtrack is better, I should make it clear that, as a child of the 80s, I’m speaking PURELY from personal preference. I wouldn’t question anyone arguing for San Andreas, it’s a very close call.

The San Andreas soundtrack IS amazing. Boasting over 150 tracks from every genre under the sun. There is more than just ‘something for everyone’ there is a lot of everything for everyone. Acts from Zapp, Fatback Band, The Isley Brothers to Roy Ayers, Soul II Soul, En Vogue (much to my wife’s excitement whenever ‘My Lovin’ (You’re never gonna get it)’ came on CSR 103.9), right through to Rod Stewart, Joe Cocker and The Who. The sounds were diverse and of an extremely high quality. You were particularly spoilt if, like me, you were a fan of hip-hop. Playing as an African-American hood in the early 90s certainly had its perks! Two separate radio stations (Playback FM and Radio Los Santos) were dedicated to old skool and ‘modern’ (read early 90s) hip-hop. From Slick Rick, Big Daddy Kane, Public Enemy and GangStarr, through to West-Coast classics from 2Pac, N.W.A, Dr. Dre, Snoop and Ice Cube. I was always happiest cruising in my low-rider listening to Cypress Hill’s ‘How I could just kill a man’ or Ice Cube’s ‘Today was a good day.’ It certainly wasn’t lacking, whatever your taste in music. Alas, it just never took me to the places Vice City did, though it had a good try and came an incredibly close second.

Despite having already come under fire for racial stereotyping as well as general knee-jerk reactions to the violence, drug use and portrayal of women (all staple complaints of the franchise), it wasn’t until 2005 that San Andreas came under REAL fire. This time, it was all their own doing. At first though, they COULD have been forgiven for getting grief for a crime they didn’t commit.

The Hot Coffee Mod unlocked sex scenes... of sorts.
The Hot Coffee Mod unlocked sex scenes… of sorts.

The ‘Hot Coffee Mod’ first saw light on the PC version of San Andreas. With the modification applied to your game, the ‘romance’ portions of the game became drastically altered. CJ has the option of romancing up to 6 ladies throughout the course of the game, courting them involves taking them on dates and either looking after them well, or exciting them to the point of liking you (usually by shooting at people and driving like a nutter). Once enough of these ‘dates’ had been completed, CJ would be invited in for ‘coffee’. Cue suggestive noises as day turns to night, then back to day – as we get a shot of outside the apartment or house of the lady in question. With the ‘Hot Coffee Mod’, that all changed. Instead of a ‘suggestive’ scene, we got an ‘explicit’ scene. CJ followed the girl into her bedroom and then the player got to perform a ‘simulated sex’ mini-game. Though the characters were fully clothed, it was still explicit material that would have easily had the game rendered as ‘Adult Only’ in the USA rather than ‘M’ for mature which was the rating it had received on release.

Now, this was the PC version of the game and initially, Rockstar claimed this was the work, purely, of a hacker / modder who had got into the games files and ‘reverse engineered’ the game to put scenes into the game – nothing to do with them.

However, when the same coding was discovered in the PS2 and Xbox versions of the game – and was similarly accessible through hacks that simply removed the block on the content – it came to light that Rockstar had been ‘creative with the truth.’

All hell broke loose. Again.

Jack Thompson, once again, went on the attack, publicly condemning Rockstar, GTA and the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) for allowing the game to be released at all, let alone with an ‘M’ rating. Before long, Senator Hilary Clinton added her voice to the complaints claiming the game ‘destroyed family values’ (obviously she skipped the mission were CJ has to rescue his brother – family first, homie). The issue was whether or not Rockstar and publisher / distributor Take Two Interactive had intentionally deceived people with the ‘M’ rating. Possibly one of the few missteps in Rockstar’s vast wealth of experience of dealing with the negative press was lying about it, this would end up costing them and Take Two Interactive over $20 million in settlements.

More than a passing resemblance to NWA.
Grove Street Family, more than a passing resemblance to NWA.

$20 million is a heck of a lot of money. However, when you think the ‘negative’ press also helped GTA: San Andreas sell over 27 million copies of the game world wide, Rockstar and Take Two still managed to find themselves comfortably in the black when they started to develop the next installment in the franchise.

They waited until 2008, the next-generation of consoles, and made the leap to HD in Grand Theft Auto IV.

Return to Twinstick tomorrow for the 6th part of our GTA retrospective, ‘Courting Controversy.’

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