Video games peaked at GTA San Andreas

All we had to do was follow the damn train CJ

Do you remember what you were doing the first time you felt truly free? Can you recall what made you realise the infinite scope of the world and the endless opportunities it contains? Because I can. I was 14 years old and as I heard the familiar spray can intro and I gunned my lime green Sanchez up the side of Mt. Chiliad, I thought to myself, I can do anything, I can be anyone, the world is my oyster.

To middle-class teenagers all over the world, GTA San Andreas became an escape from boring suburban lives. A chance to live out the wildest desires of their puerile, hedonistic dreams. It dropped in 2004, when me and my friends were 10. There was no way that we should have been allowed anywhere near a game where fucks, prostitutes and violent crime were littered with reckless abandon across a huge hellish expanse.

But, everyone I knew still managed to get hold of it. Smuggled in old SSX Tricky boxes, through older brothers, cool uncles, and guilty divorced dads, copies made their way into bedrooms into average towns all over the UK.

Playing San Andreas quickly became an almost religious experience. It was one of the few games which, when you went round Mike’s house, you didn’t even mind that he hogged the controller and demanded to be Player one. Because even watching it was a pleasant experience. The puns were crammed into every available space, from Cluckin’ Bell to Juank Air and the writing of even the most minor details was so carefully, deliberately taking the piss, it was as if your mates in the playground had made it.

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It was the life simulator that everyone had been begging for since The Sims first came out. Its most boring parts were the things that people loved, the raw thrill of eating till you were sick in Well Stacked Pizza, getting your head shaved then changing your mind to get an afro and picking your first green Grove Street hoodie.

Saturday mornings became Sunday afternoons and time blurred as you sat in your nice, normal living room, with nothing but 12 pages of cheats (Flying cars was your favourite and you still know the combination for the third weapons bundle) some corner shop energy drinks and a deeply held desire to find a jetpack to keep you company.The cutscenes felt like a gritty LA gangster film told in four minute chunks. The voice actors were real actors too – Samuel L. Jackson, James Woods even Axl Rose had a cameo. The end result was something that felt like The Wire in a Californian parallel universe.

And the world of San Andreas, with its huge range of cars to steal, random strangers to assault and hookers to pick up kept you busy, and six hours deep you didn’t even care that you had been stuck on the mission where you have to follow the train for two weeks.

Fuck this mission

Fuck this mission

But it wasn’t just about the fact that the map was fucking massive, it went far beyond that. It was the masterful way you slowly transitioned from Los Santos, to the countryside, to San Fierro, to the other bit of countryside to Las Venturas and then back to Los Santos as the city burned in Big Smoke’s drug wars. The reasons that you couldn’t move between the islands may have been bullshit (why was the bridge always closed?) but you didn’t care.

You had arguments with your mates about what radio station was the best – I still say Playback – and some songs to you will always be GTA songs. I was in a pickup outside that massive military base when I first heard “Horse with no name” and I think it’ll stay with me forever.

Since then, gaming has descended into either a multiplayer hellscape where 15-year-olds from Missouri repeatedly tell you they’re going to fuck your mum or a Japanese animator’s wet dream where enemies bleed glitter and stars. Sure, the graphics are better across the board and every year GTA adds more weird stuff you can do and more things to drive, but it’s not the same.

Games have moved to polar ends of the spectrum, endlessly twee or violently realistic. San Andreas sat in the middle, riddled with the puns and dad-jokes of its British creators, but had an intense playability that made it one of the best selling games of all time.

GTA San Andreas had no achievements, no mass multiplayer, no ability to chat with your mates or even update. But in its simplicity lay it’s beauty. And that beauty has never been matched since.