It was all anyone could talk about. I think for a time Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas was all we were allowed to talk about. We swapped stories and cheat codes in the playground. Entire maths lessons devolved into little more than screaming matches between 12- and 13-year-old boys about who had gotten the furthest with Denise , C.J.'s Ganton girlfriend, and who had the best completion percentage so far. Spotty, idiot children cussing each other out over who had found the dildo in the police station first.
I remember when I first got it and unwrapped that cellophane. I got a pen and burst through the vulnerable side-section of the tightly wrapped plastic, removing it easily from there. I had made my mum wait in line at Woolworths all morning for it, although I had paid the £1 pre-order fee from my own pocket. I practically ran home from school as soon as the bell went and all the other boys in my class did the same.
The game was fun and weird and bursting with wit and cartoon menace. The visuals were like nothing any of us had seen before – unimaginably huge and vibrant – and the soundtrack became instantly iconic. Plus it had bicycles! Motherfucking bicycles! Those were the coolest and made a wicked thummmm noise when you pedalled on Grove Street's cracked, sun-beaten asphalt.
As the sticky claustrophobia of Los Santos turned into San Fierro, all yoga clubs and upmarket clothes stores, the feeling of the game changed completely. The air was suddenly clean and bright and burnt your eyes, the roads were long and hilly, and the buildings stretched into the sky and loomed over you like flashing obelisks. But it wasn't until you pushed past that city and into the barren expanse of the desert that things really got serious.
In Bone County, dust hung in the air like fog, shade came only from shadows cast by giant dick-and-bollocks-shaped rock formations, and the sun watched ominously over everything like the evil eye in the sky. At night the desert turned blue and even more dangerous. And then there was "Learning to Fly" and that fucking flight school, and James Woods' slick-as-shit government agent Mike Toreno, making things worse.
You'd see the kids in school that had reached that mission, with their telltale sunken eyes and sloped shoulders. They'd been stopped dead in their tracks by a this absolute ballache of a vehicle school set way out at the rundown Verdant Meadows airstrip. You could spot them from how quickly they would change the subject – "Has anyone got up to the mission with..." "Oh my god, are you still talking about San Andreas? It's crap, mate. Rubbish. Piss off." – and how much slower they'd walk home.
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Missions before this had been difficult (shout out to "Wrong Side of the Tracks", you piece of shit) but this was different. A totally separate kind of pain that'd leave you demoralised and wanting to spend time doing something that wouldn't make you feel this terrible. The flight school just outright defeated people.
I remember when I first reached it. I went straight for it and bombed out pretty early in the run – I failed the opening tests a dozen times at least, probably way more. I'd gun for that corona (the tiny red hoops through which we had to fly) and the plane's nose would start to dip and I'd be hurtling towards the ground and then I'd be a plume of red, yellow and orange fire before fading to black with six letters spread across the screen telling me my character – and my time – had been wasted.
Eventually I passed the (admittedly quite simple) first few tasks, but the learning curve for the rest was unreal. It was like teaching a child how to ride a bike then snatching away the two-wheeler and throwing them the keys to your car. Even if you were a quick learner with two four-leafed clovers gaffered to your controller, you're looking at hours and hours and hours learning to do pretty much impossible tricks and stunts that have no actual purpose in the game. I was 13 and stared into the tiny screen of the TV-VCR combo I was playing on and swore like Danny Dyer with his dick shut in a door.
But I was determined to not give up. Until this point, when I was sat in school ignoring my work, head in the crook of my elbow, I would dream about blazing it down a road in the Ballas' territory in a busted Stratum station wagon, blasting "You Dropped a Bomb on Me" by The Gap Band as I sprayed round after round into inch-high pixelated gang-members clad in purple. Now I was haunted by carefully manoeuvring an ungainly PS2 rendering of a World War II aeroplane through the sky at a speed slower than Big Smoke's metabolism. I closed my eyes and saw pulsing red rings on the backs of my eyelids. I was obsessed.
The weight of importance sat heavily on my shoulders. For the first time in my short life, I had to focus and dedicate my life to something. I had to complete this series of meaningless tests of agility and dexterity so I could get on with this fucking game and the rest of my life. I decided to sit there until it was done, hands contorting like Lego claws, day passing into night and then into day again, and I did it. I did the hell out of it.
My school work and behaviour in the years leading up to this had been incredibly erratic – usually ranging from "Really good" to "Not bad" to "You're probably going to be expelled" – but after that things clicked into place and levelled out, just like the wings of C.J.'s plane. I'm not saying that completing the flight school on San Andreas changed my life, but I'm not ruling it out.
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