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Tales from the Grove: Storytelling in San Andreas

Recently, Andy and I found out that we had each started new run-throughs of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, a game that both of us have loved since its original release, but neither had ever completed. We took it as an opportunity to play together (even while apart), keeping track of each other’s progress throughout. Now that we’re both done, we thought we’d discuss some of the game’s storytelling and characterization, and what San Andreas can teach writers and gamers looking to tell stories from the more… complicated side of the law. - B

B: It’s appropriate that San Andreas starts with CJ’s return home, since picking the game up again felt a homecoming for both of us. My story (far less exciting and tragic than Carl’s) is that, now that I’m satisfied with my current hardware setup, I’ve been using the PS2 a lot more often, which meant returning to a complete Grand Theft Auto series playthrough I had started some years ago. Thanks to the lockdown freetime, I burned through Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, and was finishing up just about the time Andy was starting up San Andreas. Andy, what inspired your return to the Grove?

A: A while back, I purchased the trilogy on iPhone and began my slow journey back into these games. (Yes, I know how poor they look in comparison to the PS2 version.) I’d given it up after having an issue with save game files being corrupted, but the thing that brought me back was all the in-game radio stations. The music in San Andreas is most excellent, and the DJs add some amazing flavor we’re all missing on modern streaming services. I also, shamefully, never “fully” completed the game on the PS2. CJ got rich and I didn’t see any point in him returning home (plus I had some problems completing one particular mission).

That’s probably one thing lacking in Carl’s predecessors: he has a story arc that actually gives him some real character development. We start out with an unmotivated, adrift 20-something returning home for his mom’s funeral, and build him into a confident business owner who eventually makes peace with his family and rebuilds his neighborhood (with quite a few crimes along the way). I don’t feel like you see that with “Claude” or Tommy Vercetti. I suppose Tommy does go from a former convict to a criminal kingpin, but I don’t really feel like he changes that much - just his position in society. That all changes with CJ. At some point, CJ goes from being ordered around to making his own decisions. He develops goals and motivations. Somewhere I lost that in my first play-thru, and my struggle with it actually gets played out in a conversation between CJ and his brother Sweet in a mission right after the point where I had given up the first time. CJ forgets why he started this path too, and his brother reminds him. This was a welcome surprise and carried me to the very end. What do you think of the character development in San Andreas, Bugsy?

B: The first time through, I experienced some of the dissonance people talk about with Grand Theft Auto IV’s Niko Bellic, where I had trouble reconciling his deep, emotionally-charged backstory with the expected comic chaos and widespread destruction the GTA series is known for. I found myself longing for CJ to be in a more “serious” game. This time, though, our protagonist and his world felt much more cohesive. Maybe it was going in straight from Vice City and thus better able to appreciate that San Andreas is more toned-down than previous games, maybe it’s that I was experiencing it as an older gamer less interested in causing wanton mayhem (and getting more than enough of it from the real world), but I rarely found myself making CJ engage in the kind of senseless violence that had seemed the default for Claude, Tommy, and settings around them. Young Maylay is simply amazing at making the player’s actions natural feel like CJ’s actions through his voice work, rolling with the stranger and more extreme situations with a wry “can you believe this is happening” quality far removed from Ray Liotta’s exaggerated cartoon earnestness (which, to be fair, was entirely appropriate for the cartoony world of Vice City).

The conversation you mentioned with Sweet brings San Andreas’s themes of family and community to the forefront. CJ has something to fight for beyond his own success, as opposed to the self-serving manipulations of Big Smoke and Ryder. When Sweet accuses him of talking like those two, it serves as a subtle comment on previous GTA protagonists, who existed without loyalties or friendships, advancing themselves by playing various groups against each other, regularly changing sides without a twinge of guilt. San Andreas has none of that, Mike Toreno’s post-Cold War spy games notwithstanding. CJ stands by the people he allies himself with, and helps them to build up what they want in the world, whether it’s gaining a foothold in a town of Mafia-run casinos or learning the secret of the ooze mysterious green goo, and finds himself establishing a community along the way. San Andreas feels of a piece with Deadwood, which premiered the same year, in its depiction of a community born from the criminal acts of a few over-the-top characters who help each other first for personal gain, then out of a desire to protect those who have joined them along the way.

CJ does have a sense of morality, based more on his relationship to the people involved than the inherent rightness or wrongness of any particular action, which ultimately makes him a more interesting and complex character than anyone simply out for themselves and willing to do “whatever it takes” to advance. Andy, what do you think makes a “personal morality” like this work, and how can a character express it in settings with stricter definitions of right and wrong than the world of Grand Theft Auto?

A: The common refrain you’ll hear from San Andreas fans is “Grove Street for Life.” It’s a short expression, but fully encapsulates CJ’s morality. He’s about family and friends first. It’s actually hard to remember Tommy’s motivations in Vice City to do missions other than keeping his life and power. CJ’s family mentality and his loyalties are what make San Andreas work as a game. He doesn’t engage in gang wars as insane criminal rampages, he does it to protect Grove street. He doesn’t help Zero just to gain access to his technology, CJ helps Zero because they’ve become friends. Even when Carl is forced to work for the government, completing insane missions like stealing a fighter jet, he isn’t doing it for self-aggrandizement. He’s doing it to protect his family, his friends and for a chance to save his brother Sweet.

Finding personal morality in other games may be more difficult. With many other video games, you may have to pose the question to yourself and set up your own limitations. Looting the bodies of fallen enemies is a very common event in tabletop and digital roleplaying games, to the point of becoming a bit of a trope over the years. You get so used to doing this that often, even near the “end” of some games, you’ll still find yourself looting corpses when you no longer need those paltry quantities of gold and common items. At the beginning of the game, corpse-looting is a matter of survival. By the end, it’s become the act of a cold-hearted, cold-blooded murder-hobo. If the game itself isn’t giving your character enough personality and moral choice, insert some yourself. Would your high-level cleric really be looting the corpse of that dark elf guard you just murdered? Look through the character’s eyes for a bit, or put a bit of yourself into them, and you may end up finding the game more rewarding as a story in those later levels.

In traditional TTRPGs, alignment has fallen out of style in recent times with choices coming down to more natural personal morality. You no longer have to be simply Lawful Good or Chaotic Evil, but you have the liberty to just use those concepts as guidelines for your character’s morality. This isn’t the only way we can compare San Andreas to tabletop games. This installment of the GTA series brought in a number of new elements that hadn’t been seen previously. For the first time, you had skill levels for fighting, transportation and weapons. There is a luck feature, and stats to manage for your physical fitness, love life, and respect within your gang. These aren’t upgraded by a strict “level-up” system where you earn experience and distribute your points. (Although you can reach certain “levels” that give you more ability or access within those skills.) If you use these skills, your proficiency increases. If you don’t use them, it stays static or may even decrease - a “use or lose” approach. Some TTRPGs cover this well, allowing you to level the skills you regularly use, but this is something I’d like to generally see more of in tabletop games. Even a temporary boon to characters that have focused in their efforts in a particular area would be a happy addition. What would you like to see come from San Andreas to our tabletops, Bugsy?

B: The idea of community-building outside the boundaries of the law is a fascinating concept, and something we're starting to see in post-apocalyptic setting with games like The Quiet Year and many Powered By the Apocalypse titles. Most crime-centric games are ultimately about the thrill of the heist or the tension of the ticking clock (as was the case with Tommy Vercetti in Vice City, having to make back stolen money before his Mafia bosses came down on him), which can make for a lot of characters acting out of their own interest, working with the team for only as long as its convenient. Campaigns in  crime games may be a good approach to this, where the characters will have to live with the consequences of their actions and develop connections to those they deal with, rather than simply counting their ill-gotten gains as the credits roll. On the electronic gaming side, you can also see this in the Yakuza games, which, while not about directly committing crimes, are about the bonds and responsibilities that exist in groups outside mainstream society. Tabletop games that run a few hours at a time may be more hard-pressed to present this kind of long-form storytelling than electronic games that easily run into hundreds of playtime hours, but setting a campaign up to address these themes from the beginning (and getting players on board) can help make it possible. 

Ultimately, San Andreas is about people who have been left out and left behind by society, doing what they can for each other, and even when the plots of stories like these center around heinous,brutal actions, the emotional bonds that connecting the characters are what resonates with us. You see it in crime movies, and you hear it in country music and gangsta rap - all of which are present in the complicated tapestry that is San Andreas. These stories are as old as the human condition, and they all  deserve to be told as well as they are here.

(art by Deiv Calviz)

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