Hot wired

Music is fine if you want to let the head wander, and TV is a great way to kick back and surf that alpha mind state, but sometimes all that passivity grates on your nerves. Maybe in real life you can’t shoot the shitty driver who cut you off, or shiv the waitress who insulted your date, or kill your worthless boss and assume control of the company. But in the not-so-virtual-reality video game you can.

While plenty of ink is spilled discussing the significance of music, TV (well, cable) and film, video games slink along unacknowledged like the unassuming next-door neighbor who proves to be a millionaire.

Factoid of the day: Sales of game hardware and software have outpaced Hollywood box office receipts the past three years, and it’s been estimated by the time the next generation of game platforms comes out in 2005-2006, software alone will top movie lucre. Globally, game sales have outpaced movie receipts by $10 billion, yet few newspapers feature a video game review section.

More than 40 million of the latest platforms have sold in America, topped by the Sony PlayStation 2, which has sold more than 25 million to date and is closing in on the more than 30 million original PlayStations sold. This hasn’t gone unnoticed in Hollywood. Tie-ins with movies have become a cash-generated matter-of-course, as many of the past year’s best-selling video game titles were from movie franchises: X-Men, James Bond 007: Nightfire, Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers, and Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets.

Games already are attached to forthcoming movies, such as the samurai film Omi (based on a script by the late Akira Kurosawa and directed by his son, Hisao) and Tim Burton’s remake of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. And, of course, the giving goes both ways as Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and the Resident Evil franchises attest.

No longer simple point-and-shoot exercises, today’s games feature realistically rendered movement and backgrounds, interactive video environs, cinematic cut-scenes with movie-quality acting and (to a lesser extent) stories. Jet Li’s voice and acrobatic fight moves star in Rise To Honor, a realistic Hong Kong-style martial arts/action flick; and voice work by actors including Samuel L. Jackson and James Woods highlight the hotly anticipated fifth installment in the Grand Theft Auto series, San Andreas.

Grand Theft Auto, an insidiously addictive game, began as a simple scenario involving carjacking various makes of cars and selling them for cash while avoiding the police. The game has grown increasingly sophisticated. The Titanic of the video gaming industry, the franchise has sold 32 million copies. If San Andreas sells the anticipated 15 million (compared to 13 million already sold of the last installment, GTA: Vice City), it will top the North American box office sales of the aforementioned movie by $100 million.

Just as Vice City was reliant on the depiction of Miami as seen in the Don Johnson TV vehicle and Al Pacino’s Scarface, San Andreas replicates the patina of Los Angeles in the mid-’90s (á la Menace II Society and Boyz N the Hood), from the gangsta garb to the music to the silly nicknames. What distinguishes these games and promises to make San Andreas the best-selling video game ever is not just the fastidious attention to detail but the depth of game play.

San Andreas’ story revolves around Carl Johnson (C.J.) a former banger who returns to Los Angeles to revive his old gang and reclaim territory from local rivals, while dealing with a corrupt cop (Jackson) who tries to pin a murder on him. Whereas videogames, like cheap cartoons, historically have featured static backgrounds, lately they’ve grown far more ingenious in creating real environments. But nothing is quite as “real” as San Andreas.

The possibilities are nearly endless throughout the game’s loose, linear narrative. Step out of your home and breathe in the fresh air. You’re unemployed, but what do you care when there’s money out there to be made? Why worry about pesky car payments when you can yank someone out of their car at any traffic stop and speed away with their ride? Of course, you better hit the gas ’cause many of these citizens can kick your ass and they get irate when you steal their car.

Once you’ve secured the appropriate hooptie, there’s the issue of money. Sometimes the two are intertwined. Steal a fire engine and you can speed around town putting out fires. Take an ambulance and cart the injured to the ER. Cabs, police cars and trucks all offer the possibility of a little independent contracting. You can even grab a pimping ride and take whores to meet their johns. For a percentage, of course.

If you don’t feel like “working” per se, you can nick a moving van and find houses to rob, get involved with street racing, go betting at the track, compete in a barrio low-rider contest, or get your ducats the old-fashioned way, by killing random people on the sidewalk and taking their money.

Don’t worry about the cops, as this could be the Motor City. While San Andreas is certainly rife with uniformed officers, they aren’t particularly concerned about rampant flouting of traffic rules, damage to others’ vehicles or even murder, so long as they don’t witness the crime. Should you draw ire from the police (say, for rear-ending them, and then, say, running the cop over several times), you can always elude them by getting a new paint job.

While you’re in the hood, visit your pals Big Smoke, Sweet, OG Loc and Ryder, to see if you can help the gang. There’s ample opportunity to mack, too, but you had better bring flowers and take her out periodically if you want to keep her. (Once she’s in love with you, the time/date requirements drop precipitously). Beware, though, if you eat too much — you’ll get fat and need to go to the gym to work it off. (Of course, some women in GTA like a big guy.)

Since you spend much of your time driving, there are 10 radio stations to choose from (deejayed by the likes of Chuck D, George Clinton and Axl Rose) with format and era-specific music (everything from Public Enemy, NWA and Snoop to Helmet, Alice in Chains and even Booker T and The MGs). There are also hilarious, cynical commercial messages, which are indicative of the sardonic, tongue-in-cheek wit found throughout the whole series.

But what does it say about us that the best-selling video game involves indiscriminate slaughter of pedestrians, trafficking in drugs and women, and high-speed, acrobatic stunts involving airborne vehicles? Probably nothing that the war in Iraq, Madison Avenue and the success of NASCAR and Dukes of Hazzard haven’t already.

Just as gangsta rap was no more than a very lucrative and often fictional reflection of urban realities, San Andreas is a reminder that just below our pleasant veneer lurks a monster. And what better to bring it out than an eye-singeing game that involves more driving than you’d get living in L.A.?

But criminal homicide isn’t your only gaming choice. The very popular SOCOM: U.S. Navy SEALs franchise involves traveling to exotic lands and killing foreigners in the name of liberty, as do other recent releases such as Conflict: Vietnam and Conflict: Desert Storm II, Back to Baghdad, which also offer socially sanctioned bloodlust.

Our country was founded on a particularly virulent form of rugged individualism. Just ask the Native Americans or look up the phrase “manifest destiny.” From portraying superheroes and soldiers to pimpin’ urban thugs and women, our videogame pastimes mirror a world of predatory capitalism and pre-emptive war, with ill will lurking around every corner, prompting the very natural desire to create some order, even if it’s only by making it your bitch. What joy.

Opposable Thumbs is a new video game review column. It will appear bi-weekly. Chris Parker is a freelance writer. Contact him at [email protected]
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