Whenever a media publication runs a Grand Theft Auto related list or ranking of the franchise it's almost certain that either Grand Theft Auto III or Grand Theft Auto: Vice City will take the top spot. Just as certain is that readers will always cry foul about Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas not getting top billing.
As the old saying goes, it is what it is and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas accomplished what other games of the same tone couldn't.
There is a good reason for the outcry.
Taking nothing away from GTA III and Vice City—they were monsters and revolutionized storytelling and gameplay in video games as a whole. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas was responsible for a revolution in its own right, albeit one that isn't as technologically or socially classy as the GTA titles before it. What San Andreas accomplished was that it successfully created an African-American anti-hero who wasn't a cornball. The title also portrayed gang banging in the most realistic and cartoon-less way in a video game.
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is now available for iOS for $7 (buy it here). It'll be out for Android, Amazon Kindle and Windows Mobile soon.
Know that this isn't a glorification of the problem plaguing cities all over the country, but a statement of fact. Because of its sensitive nature, the art-from-life approach that San Andreas took is often glazed over out of the fear of sounding like an advocate of gang life or street violence. As the old saying goes, it is what it is and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas accomplished what other games of the same tone couldn't.
Back in the early to mid 2000s, video game companies were rushing out titles that fed off of inner-city street culture. From a business perspective, who could really blame them. The 90s and early 2000s saw the most lucrative years of rap music where artists were churning out albums that sold millions of copies around the globe. Just do the knowledge on Bad Boy Records, Death Row Records, No Limit Records and Cash Money Records. In Hollywood, movies set in the hood like Boyz in the Hood, and Menace II Society were raking in cash from box office and home video sales. There was gold in them there hoods and the missing piece of electronic entertainment was yet to be tapped.
It wouldn't be long before video games would ramp up urban street memes as the backdrop of their storytelling. Ubisoft had 187 Ride or Die, Eidos Interactive dropped 25 to Life (the title was inspired by Eminem's song from the Recover album in 2010) and the now defunct THQ had Saint's Row—which in its infancy was titled Bling Bling (after rapper BG of Cash Money's hit song in 1999). Everyone was looking to cash in on the rachetry of the hood and they all had one thing in common; they weren't doing it right.
Most of the hood-inspired video games at that time utilized tired, stereotypes that included tatted-up Mexican-American vatos, sassy black hoochies and black guys with an affinity for bandannas and tank tops. Characters had insane voice over phrases like, "hell yeah" and "move this motherfuckin'whip" in faux west coast accents that made matters even worse. The west coast wasn't even using the term "whip" for cars either. That was an east coast thing. The disconnection of video game developers from the world they were trying to mimic was obvious.
The discussion of gangs remains only fodder for rap mix tapes and worldstarthiphop.com videos.
After a torturous decade of trying to fake it, video game companies took financial losses and eventually gave up on gamifying the hood. In 2004, word got around that Rockstar's newest Grand Theft Auto title was going to be set in a Los Angeles-like city during the 80s and 90s gang epidemic. Those familiar with real street culture collectively raised eyebrows in wonder of how the Rockstar was going to screw it up. The only ray of hope was that Rockstar wasn't just a video game company; they had a knack for character crafting and were aces when it came to cultural subtleties--even if they were being satirical. The bold move turned out to be a powerful one but it didn't come without a long and meticulous process.
Rockstar had researched California's most notorious gang banging era by working with people who lived it. The company brought in Mexican-American and African-American OGs to help them construct the complex psychology of the characters. Hours and hours of work went into the one thing that gamers were going to scrutinize the most. Authenticity.
Nailing the criminal element wasn't the only destination, the in-game world was built to show both side of the tracks. In addition to San Andreas' broken down streets, driving through the rest of Los Santos would grant a tour through the obscenely affluent parts of town like Mulholland and Rodeo. This mimicked the same blatant social and economic divide as the city it's based on. From the block's gloom to the corrupt politics, this was a video game that made players feel like they were living the two-decade long experience on a 70 hour game disc.
What came out in late 2004, was a Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas that sold over 28 million copies. It was also, the highest selling PS2 game in 2005. San Andreas struck a chord with players who knew the culture first-hand as well those far removed from it. The title successfully blended Rockstar's signature, twisted tale-telling with street credible accuracy for the win and now remains a classic video game in and outside of Rockstar's catalog.
Since the release of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, there has yet to be another video game to dedicate so much work into capturing the unfiltered image of street culture. No one has even attempted it. Not to say that everyone else is afraid of stepping on Rockstar's turf but it's a different world. The hot button topics of today are based mostly on terrorism, government big brotherhood and technology. Gang banging--which at one point was the top news story in the mainstream media--has been replaced by celebrity obsession and international fear mongering. The discussion of gangs remains only fodder for rap mix tapes and worldstarthiphop.com videos. Rockstar revisited hood gang culture in Grand Theft Auto V but it's only an element to a bigger story about the ills of American pop culture.
Today, Grand Theft Auto San Andreas is out on mobile phones and tablets. One of the same things that has taken over the world's ever-shifting attention. Now that's irony for your ass.