The year is 2001 and I am in the bedroom of my twin-friends, Gareth and Greg. Twins have the buying power to multiply their own birthday presents and that means Gareth and Greg got a PS2 and Grand Theft Auto III for their birthday, whereas I still have a Sega Saturn and Daytona USA. I come to Gareth and Greg’s house because their mum buys name-brand Coke. I come to Gareth and Greg’s house to gaze at the future.
Technically this is illegal, what we are doing here, which is playing an 18-rated game as mere 14-year-olds, but we’re in the midst of a puerile cultural moment – South Park! Jackass! It’s Goin’ Down by The X-Ecutioners feat. Mike Shinoda! – that does not really concern itself with this.
I am gazing at the greatest 3D engine ever built in my lifetime, on a CRT TV screen Gareth and Greg have mounted on a wall at a special angle so they can both see it from their bunkbed. It’s two o’clock in the afternoon but the curtains are drawn so we can better see the grimy blues-and-greys that make up Liberty City.
When it’s Gareth’s turn on the controller, he patrols the Cochrane Dam area in a doomed bid for 100 percent completion, hoping to score a Mr. Whoopee truck he read about in the back of Official PlayStation Magazine. When it’s Greg’s turn, he parks up in an unnoticed spot and we listen rapt on a loop to Chatterbox FM’s Lazlow, who we revere with the same holy sanctity our dad’s did with Derek and Clive.
When it’s my turn I drive, and drive, and drive and drive, head spinning at how huge a city can be, how alive a game can feel, unless I get more than one star and then a police chase ensues and then I have to give the controller back to Gareth for another 40-minute search for an ice-cream van.
The year is 2002 and I am in the front room of my friend, Chris, who has set up the PS2 downstairs because his mum is away this weekend. I am sat on a sofa cushion I have taken off from the sofa and flopped onto the floor, as 15-year-olds are for some reason compelled to do. Chris is kneeling really close to the TV, in a doomed bid for 100 percent completion, hoping to see the Hidden Packages better from a greyscale map he printed off at school. On the floor is an opened multi-pack of crisps and some two-litre bottles of Dr. Pepper. Later we might walk to a petrol station and score a Rustler’s burger and some Cadbury Crunchie Rocks.
It smells insane in here. It smells horrendous. “Have you seen Scarface?” Chris says, pointing to a playable weapon that revs like a chainsaw. “Apparently this is based on a bit in Scarface.” Neither of us have seen Scarface. We are playing an entire 3D pastiche of the film Scarface. In three years I’ll watch Scarface and be blown away at how many Grand Theft Auto references it makes. I shoot a motorcycle over a ramp by a strip club in an attempt to score a stunt bonus but biff it into the water, dying immediately. I hand the controller back to Chris and he hogs it for over an hour.
The year is 2004 and I am at my friend Paul’s house, and we both have two of the worst haircuts anyone has ever had. This is how it works: His dad picks him up from school every day and I get the lift with him even though his house is slightly more out of my way, because he has GTA: San Andreas on PS2 and has already unlocked huge swathes of the map.
He boots up a new game and lets me marvel at the first mission, where you buzz around downtown Los Santos on a BMX, and I gaze in wonder at what I am convinced is the best 3D engine I will ever play in my lifetime. Everybody at school has this game – bought for them by older brothers, cool uncles, chaotic dads – and as a result, the quad buzzes with braggadocio and rumour every break time.
“There’s a Bigfoot in the game, you know”, “If you use cheat codes you won’t be able to ever finish the game”, “They made a game the size of LA. If you boot up the code, it is the size of LA.” A mate of a mate stole a Hydra and flew across the map and it took 25 minutes. A mate’s brother stole a Hydra and carefully, somehow, backed it into his garage even though he hadn’t done all the flight school training yet. A mate of a mate swears, right, swears he got a seven-star rating even though the game only supports six.
I gaze through the yellow fog of downtown San Andreas as jankily rendered on another boy’s PS2. “There’s no way they’ll ever make a game better-looking than this,” I say, in wonder. “There’s no way a game will ever be this big again.”
Later, San Andreas gets an Xbox release, and I have saved up enough money to buy it with odd cleanings jobs over the summer and I am legally allowed to purchase it even though my only form of ID is a National Insurance card. I’m able now to shape the world for myself.
Other kids show me the businesses they’ve bought, the cars they’ve pimped out, how easily they can break in to the army base, but I choose to just live in the world once I complete all the story missions. I make a mix CD of my favourite songs, hack together some interstitial DJ announcements with the Windows text-to-voice tool, and load it onto my Xbox hard-drive as a custom radio station.
I can do anything here: often I cruise around the spaghetti highways of Las Venturas in an unshowy low-rider, watching as day transforms into night, and the casinos light up around me. I go on my own doomed bid for 100 percent completion, collecting oysters underwater, scrubbing out rival gang graffiti and taking snapshots of a game that feels huge like a state. I have millions of dollars in the bank and the freedom of a world that lets me do whatever I want to, which is frequently going to Ammu-Nation, buying the maximum amount of ammo for a rocket launcher, stealing a tank and blasting the cannon backwards into traffic so I can go at a higher speed, then boot from save when I inevitably die.
I am playing this on a 14” TV in the lime-green chaos of my childhood bedroom but it feels, somehow, like I’m there. Walk down the street and pedestrians have a million things they can say to you. Total your vehicle in the middle of the countryside and feel true misery as you tap “A” through a rainstorm to try and find the only road for miles. Use a cheat code to spawn a Hydra and fly across the map in perfect airborne gymnastics.
It doesn’t matter what happens to me now, what games I play: I am sat in a beanbag on the ninth or tenth hour of Saturday gameplay, no missions left to do and no characters left to meet, and I am playing, by far, the best game I will ever play in my life. It is 2005 and I am 18 and my wrist is covered from the lurid orange debris of a pipe of Texas BBQ Pringles. If I have a mobile phone, I probably check it one or two times a day. I am in that strange moment of adolescence where I can stay up until 4AM for some reason and never really feel the after effects of it.
In a couple of months, a sheet of A4 will tell me I got just enough A-Levels to do an English degree, but I am absolutely not thinking about that right now. I am wondering if the shop up the road is still open so I can get a Rustlers before bed. I check my phone: no texts, seven minutes until Spar closes. Life will never be better than this is.
Well, OK. The year is 2021, then. That was fast.
We have to discuss the GTA Trilogy: Remastered, which dropped a couple of weeks ago and retails for £60 and absolutely sucks, in every possible way.
There’s the weird bug that keeps happening when, if I reverse my car into another vehicle at the wrong angle, it invisibly winches itself to that vehicle. There’s the semi-crucial country bridge that appears and disappears based on what precise angle you look at it from. A limo driver I’m supposed to assassinate gets stuck running in place behind a tree. Cartel members loom at me with strange long fingers. Sound files seemingly recorded between two cans connected by a string play at odd angles and strange times. Character models are buffed smooth with AI and somehow look worse than they did in 2004, less human than ever.
Yes, these are problems, and yes, this makes the game not worth £60, and yes, this makes the Remaster series a critical failure. But also they’re not really the issue. The issue is, the 2021 version of San Andreas does not in any way match up to the 2004 version of San Andreas that only exists in my mind. No videogame company on earth – even one with billions of dollars of resources, and years to try and make it! – could ever really achieve that.
I went in to the GTA: Remaster naively expecting the old maps remade in the new GTA: V engine and retrofitted with a few up-to-date character models, all in a way that would have perfectly remade my nostalgia in the form of the new world. This would have been really good, but wrong in its own way.
Instead I have been given an almost like-for-like version of the old game, but sharpened as if through a lens at an eye examination. All that is done is pulled into hyper-focus how far gaming has come in the last 17 years, and how distorted my own memories were. The auto-aiming system that made the game such a joy the first time round feels incredibly clunky to a pair of hands that have been playing next-generation versions of the same thing for a decade and a half; the weird menu-choosing drawbacks of the old game now make it achingly slow to flip through CJ’s wardrobe looking for a coat to wear; a city that once felt vibrantly alive is now just a few cars on the road at once and five or six pedestrians saying the same things to each other.
There are other stark realities about it, too: one cherished memory of playing San Andreas was a mission where CJ torches a marijuana farm and, as the bud burns, the screen wobbles and shakes as your character gets more and more high. I remember this wobble as being so vivid and pronounced that I, a 17-year-old who had never taken drugs, felt viscerally high as I played it. Get this, though: The wobble doesn’t happen in the remastered game.
This led me down a very confusing Weed Wobble Truther rabbithole: An old PC record of the game showed no wobble and I started to doubt whether it ever happened at all. It emerged they took the wobble out of the mobile port a few years ago and just never put it back in. I finally found some old footage from the first generation of the game and yes, the wobble is there, but hardly pronounced. Watching it at 34, the screen barely sways at all. I’d cherished the memory for years, but the reality of it was bitterly underwhelming.
The feeling of disappointment with the GTA remaster is as much a disappointment of self. San Andreas used to be bathed in fog and there lived the thrilling possibility of potential: Now they took that draw distance away and I can see exactly how big an island that felt like a state when I was 17 is now that I’ve lived that exact same amount again. Radio stations that I remember as being endlessly funny and creative are exposed to be the same 15-minute loops over and over again. The police are really, really easy to avoid.
The best game I ever played – a world I used to be able to crawl into and live inside for days – is just a load of grey triangles and some 69 jokes. Playing San Andreas now is like reading a masterpiece written in Olde English – clearly still one of the highest forms of art ever made, but in a format that makes experiencing it as much decoding and suffering as it is understanding.
Part of it, I do have to admit, is me. The way I used to find the upper boundary of the potential of a GTA game was by stealing a car, running over a police officer and seeing how long I could spend avoiding the army on six-stars, revelling in the destruction I would cause: Park a car on a motorway and cause enough traffic to explode the vehicles that honk behind the blockage, then shoot down the helicopter that comes to fire at you for doing so; find a flat roof on a three-storey building and fire at SWAT vans with a sniper rifle; hover in a jet just metres above the city and fire missiles into every car driving in your direction.
This is how you would find secret hiding spots, gleaming sports cars holed up in the middle of nowhere, hidden packages, characters you could approach for a race; how you make a game engine feel like an endless sandbox-like plaything. Now, trained on years of online achievement-ified gaming, I spurn chaos and instead churn through the story missions, hoping to get to the one with the jetpack. Finding a white whale of an ice-cream truck isn’t particularly enjoyable for me anymore.
There is no thrill in destruction. I am no longer interested in seeing a friend boot up a file from a translucent unofficial Mad Catz memory card and show me a particularly pimped-out car. When CJ picks up a sex worker, I do not try to look inside the vehicle and see if they are fucking. I haven’t sat on a beanbag for years. I think my body would go to hospital if I ate a Rustlers.
I have changed, but GTA: San Andreas stayed the same, and this, perhaps, is the real issue here. It’s not that the AI gave Kent Paul long fingers. It’s that I have lived an entire other lifetime since the original release of the game, and changed fundamentally as a person in a way that will never return to me. Good luck to any game studio on fixing that bug.
Correction: An early version of this article stated that the screen did not in fact wobble when a weed farm is torched in the game. This has now been updated.