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.