Relearning San Andreas

On my most recent return to the world of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, I’ve played around with the options quite a bit. It’s been sort of vital–I’ve been playing on PC, and with a 360 controller, requiring frequent tweaks of the game’s controls. I also encountered a baffling glitch of the game colors, requiring some forum trolling and game resolution tinkering before that was solved. In playing with the options so much, I also played around with options related to display and sound. One of the best decisions to come of that has been the removal of the minimap, radar blips, and HUD.

Removal of the HUD and other extraneous UI features immediately focuses me on the game world. It’s certainly an aged game, but that game world is still often quite beautiful, bizarre, and fascinating. Plus, I haven’t lost much in the removal of those UI features. Mission-critical information is still displayed as needed; for instance, if a mission is timed, a countdown timer still appears. And I can still quickly switch on the HUD through a quick dive into the options menu if I want to. And there have been a couple occasions when I have wanted to, to check the time or my health bar, but I’ve become less reliant on seeing those hard metrics. I’ve become better able to interpret day and night cycles, I’ve better learned how to navigate the city, I’ve gotten in the groove of taking C.J. for regular meals, and I’ve learned to adjust to working with less information that causes me to focus on what’s actually happening in the game instead of monitoring feedback about it.

It’s lovely to remove the distractions from the minimap. I have to actually learn how to navigate. I actually pay more attention to directions and place names supplied in dialogue. I’ll go into the pause menu to consult the map, but now I’m driving through the city relying on in-game signage, a sense of direction, and a consideration of how the city is actually laid out. What’s so special to me about that experience is that I’m rediscovering a city I used to know so well from hours and hours spent playing in it years and years ago. It’s nostalgic, yet it also makes me very alert about landmarks and streets that feel vaguely familiar. And it puts me more in the shoes of C.J., who is also relearning his city after being away for five years at the start of the story.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle with the absence of the UI overlay is that I am unable to see my health. This was easy enough to adjust to in theory, but in practice it means that I can never be sure if the next gunshot might kill me. This has been an interesting challenge, and I’ve not yet felt cheated by any combat. It just heightens my sense of risk in combat, making every gun battle and car chase more visceral. I have to take more of an effort to avoid damage, as I’m always facing the possibility of death. I can’t play around with the same level of risk once my reliance on an ever-present metagame representation of exactly how many more hits C.J. can take is removed.

Police presence also presents in a very different way. Before, you could always see a clear indication of how much attention the cops had on you. Especially after replaying the HD games, and getting used to the constant feedback of flashing search areas and cones of view on the minimaps, the complete removal of any indicator of police presence or attention is unnerving. Now, it’s only clear that I’m wanted when I’m being chased by the cops. Escape from an immediate chase doesn’t guarantee that the next police encounter won’t renew pursuit. I find that I don’t want to escalate engagements with cops because of the heat that could be brought down on my head. As a result, my fear of cops in the game is increased–I’m never sure when I see a cop walking on a beat if he might choose to try to take me down. This in turn deepens a sense of verisimilitude. This is supposed to be a game about black gang life in the nineties, but of course, it’s a game led by a team of white Brits writing from the perspective of outsiders who are deep fans of hood films and gangster rap, and it’s in a franchise marked by excessive violence, wild parody, and a mocking disregard for taking any subject too seriously. But when you don’t know if you’re wanted, and you can’t always connect why a cop might pursue you with an immediately previous action, the game mechanics almost accidentally create a system in which cops are always a feared enemy out to get you, even if you haven’t done anything. You can’t trust them, and if you fight back, you’re just asking for a world of trouble.

I’ll close with an anecdote. I guided C.J. to a local fast food joint, and while walking back toward his home, he was approached by members of a rival gang. They quickly took to shooting at him, and he fired back in self-defense, taking them out. The gunfire attracted the interest of some nearby cops, and C.J. fled. I remember thinking I’d escaped them all, only to find another beat cop, nightstick at the ready, coming up behind me down an alley. The imagery of running from this cop, hopping fences and hoping to outpace him, stuck with me. It wasn’t the usual bloody and excessive action of the typical GTA experience. And it wasn’t an “authentic” experience. It’s certainly not reflective of anyone’s actual lived experience. But it stuck with me. And it made me feel that I had very briefly slipped into the game’s alternative world. I can’t fully deconstruct what the experience meant to me, but it fascinated me, and if nothing else, it encouraged me to continue the UI-free experiment.

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