When I was growing up, the most creative thing you could do in a videogame was choose which knee to shoot a guard in, but today, in the post-casual era, there are a lot more options. Most popular among the creatively minded is of course Minecraft, a colorful, pleasant LEGO set type thing that lets you piece together anything you can imagine piece by piece. There are also things like LittleBigPlanet and Creatorverse, simplistic scribblepads where you can build your own level and share it online with your pals.
GTA: San Andreas, easily the most fun and diabolical sandbox I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing in.
But although it’s nice to see people doing more with games than contriving gnarlier ways to shatter kneecaps, a lot of these “creativity sims”, with perhaps the exception of the hilarious Garry’s Mod, are quite twee. As the people who watched Media Molecule’s baffling presentation at the PS4 launch last month might have realized, a lot of games and developers have conflated creativity to mean childishness, escapism. And that’s not what creativity necessarily is. Creativity can be something like The Wire; creativity can be used to explore miserable and dark things about the world. The adorable, gentrified doodles produced by LBP players might be a start, I guess, but I’d like to have the creative tools to make something really nasty.
Which is what got me thinking this week about GTA: San Andreas, easily the most fun and diabolical sandbox I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing in. It’s a sprawling, violent bondage dungeon of a game that presents you an infinite loop of fiendish opportunities and a rack of toys to explore them with. I was only fourteen when it came out, but right away I set about creating something.
My original ideas were pretty banal. San Andreas awards you cash money for pulling off mental stunts on a BMX, so for hours at a time I’d park the main story and bike over to the game’s equivalent of the US Bank Tower to backflip off the roof and land God knows how many feet down below on the freeway. It was fun-ish for a while. I’d spend my show money on increasingly preposterous “stuntman” outfits for CJ, decking him out in silly haircuts and big shoes, all the while narrating an ESPN-style commentary to myself. Mis-timing a flip and watching the poor sod crash pompadour-first onto Figueroa Street was a creative kind of thrill, but quickly wore out when I realised there was so much more to this toybox. I wanted to make something else.
Running was my next venture. A porky, indoors kind of kid, I could barely jog the ten yards next door to get myself another Twix from the shop without popping an artery, but I was nevertheless into sports and underdog movies. I liked Chariots of Fire and I also liked Rocky, but better than those two were Raging Bull and Marathon Man, dark, miserable films that put a psychological spin on physical activity. I wanted to create something like that.
I started by racking up a massive debt at the Four Dragons Casino. Gamble yourself into the red in San Andreas, and the game randomly sends black cars of anonymous button men after you until the arrears are paid off. This meant that when I went out training I’d occasionally get jacked by menacing blokes with guns. You know, like Dustin Hoffman.
So, I’d created that one drama, but I needed something else. As I’ve said, Raging Bull was a big influence here so I wanted to fuck with CJ’s love life. One of the in-game girlfriends, Denise, was perfect. Introduced early on in San Andreas, Denise is damn near identical to Vicky LaMotta – she’s young, she’s wild, she knows her way around the guys from the neighborhood. When I wasn’t out running or being shot at, I was parked in front of her house, waiting to see if she went anywhere. I created this narrative in my own head that CJ was really into Denise, but didn’t trust her around her ex-boyfriends, so night after night, he’d/I’d hang out down the alley on the opposite side of the street, trying to work out if she was fucking around behind his/my/our back.
She wasn’t, of course, the game doesn’t work like that, but the tools and the set-up of San Andreas are such that you can create these personal little narratives of your own. It was mostly imagination, but that’s the engine powering any so-called creative game. The only real difference is that instead of painting a pretty picture of a flower or something, I was crouched in the driver’s seat of a Bedford Rascal, polishing a Bowie knife.
Anyone who used to be a teenager will know how, once puberty starts pumping hormones down your veins, your mind can stray into some slightly odd places.
And the ending to this little creation was particularly wonderful, because during the pentathlon I’d been training for, I slipped on the left stick and ran CJ off a high bit of road, splatting him on the ground below and killing him. Over the course of training I’d gathered up enough cash to pay back the loan sharks and was planning to top the story off by hitting up Denise’s place and taking her out for dinner. But I didn’t. Instead, I had an accident and died. And that felt like the most appropriate ending. So far, the running thing had been a pretty murky tale about gambling addiction, sexual envy and carelessness. For it to end – albeit inadvertently – on such a down note, felt right. Thanks to a mix of my imagination and San Andreas‘ beautifully random kind of sandbox, I’d created something that felt like it had meaning. Exactly what meaning I couldn’t say, but certainly something more than the dick-shaped swimming pool I’d built in The Sims.
I created hundreds of moments like this in San Andreas but there’s one, final story I want to share because this is where GTA and the other creativity simulations really divide. It’s a bit mad however, so, you have been warned.
Anyone who used to be a teenager will know how, once puberty starts pumping hormones down your veins, your mind can stray into some slightly odd places. Six months after I’d started experimenting with San Andreas, I split up with my first ever girlfriend. Adding to that, things were going disastrously at home and I was being picked on in school. I needed to vent spleen; I needed to take my revenge on society.
I bought a house in the wealthiest part of San Andreas and decided I’d go on a killing spree. Not a killing rampage, you understand; not like that guy in Lethal Weapon 4 with the metal suit and the flamethrower. This was going to be subtle.
About 8 o’ clock every night I’d ease CJ into the one-piece, all black leather gimp suit that the game lets you have, and go out on the prowl looking for rich suburbanites to slice with my K-BAR. Everyone who’s played a GTA has done something similar to this, a particularly quirky car chase or a shooting spree in a shopping mall, but I was being methodical. Because this went on for weeks. Not San Andreas weeks – actual real-life, going-a-bit-mad-in-my-bedroom-while-growing-ever-distant-from-society, weeks.
Like with the BMX and the running thing, I created a narrative around these murders, imagining CJ as a rich businessman during the day, but a crazed, Pat Bateman-style killer by night. I’d clamber onto rooftops and wait for people to stroll by before shivving them, or crouch behind hedgerows, pouncing on stray cops who’d come over to investigate. Part of my creative palette was a cheat that could lower your wanted level, so as long as I deemed myself silent and unseen, I could rack up the bodies without drawing the attention of the police.
I still ended up getting arrested, though. Like any crazed murderer, or at least, any one from TV, I started to think I was immune to detection and got sloppy with my killings, sometimes not going back to the house until after daybreak and thus risking detection from passersby. Another flourish I added was occasionally taking pictures of the bodies (I know) which, to my imagination, CJ blu-tacked to the wall of his bedroom. This gave the detectives that I pretended were tracking me plenty of evidence to go on, so when I’d finally finished creating this little story, I tapped the raise wanted level cheat in a couple of times and had the feds raid CJ’s house in a messy shootout. Bailing for my pick-up (every killer should have a pick-up) I was bungled onto the sidewalk by a couple of FBI guys and, I imagine, sent to death row. And that was the end of that.
But boisterous and ghoulish though my little kill-scapade might now seem, I think it taps into something so-called creative games haven’t really thought about. As I’ve already complained, a lot of them seem focused on cutesy, harmless, colourful dorbings, rather than permitting the kind of varied emotional expression which, I think, real creativity and real artwork should explore. I mean, what an excellent way San Andreas is for people to express themselves. It’s still creativity, it’s still self-expression, but it’s something more potent, more varied than you can do in a lot of creation based games. It’s like banging a drum kit really hard or making an action painting. It’s a color set that lets you take your imagination to the most pleasant, gentle places as well as the deepest, darkest ones too. And that, to me, is what true creativity is really about.