This is a long one, but hear me out: it ends in a great story–even if you hate video games.
I’m a big fan of the video game blog Kotaku. Every day it’s a steady stream of news to check out, and they often have articles which are just musings upon what the editors liked about ‘the experience’ of playing a particular game. Often even more interesting is what you find in the comments on these articles; random people chiming in about their individual experiences, which is sometimes like a kaleidescope of perspectives and appreciations for different subtleties, and the stories that accompany them. I find it fascinating, reading about the reasons why people enjoy things, or that transcendent moment that ‘did it’ for them.
One of my favorites was an article published shortly before the release of the fourth Grand Theft Auto entitled “GTA: Rememberances of Cars Jacked” which related lasting memories of experiences in the game and asked commenters what their favorite stories were. At the beginning of the article, Owen Good writes that one of the distinguishing hallmarks of the series is its ability to impart these moments of greatness “that rates the kind of visceral, first-time-ever memories that people usually have of events in the real world.”
My friend Luke once described to me playing GTA: Vice City at a friend’s house. They were playing through the game near the beginning and had just obtained their first uzi submachine gun. Luke had stolen a motorcycle and was riding along the strip in Miami Beach, that famous stretch with all the vintage art deco hotels. Against the backdrop of neon signs, bikini-clad pedestrians, and 50’s-looking cars, he discovered he could shoot the uzi straight forward, something you can’t do in a car. He described finding the set of wooden ramps that lead to a set of daring motorcycle jumps across the rooftops, and taking that first wild jump where the camera suddenly swaps to a dramatic angle and the time goes slow motion. Through some convoluted series of police chases and blasting random cars with his new grip, he wound up back on the strip, looking out at the ocean–when right then the song “Shoot It Up” came on the radio.
It’s one of those moments where you’ve just pulled off the craziest stunt, you can hardly believe you somehow came out unscathed, a bombardment of unexpected insanity ensues requiring deft maneuvers to escape, and then right in the thick of it all, that perfect song comes on and BAM, you’re not just sitting on the couch at a friend’s house–you’re transported. You’re in Miami. You smell the salt of seawater in the air, feel the breeze on your face, listening to the sounds of some song you haven’t heard since forever ago and it takes you back to some strangely-foreign, strangely-familiar place in your childhood. In that moment it really IS the 80s. You are THERE.
Some of the more awesome comments from Kotaku:
“Over the years and through three GTA games, we’d have a playsession once a week where (my friend and I would) each play a ‘turn’ wreaking havoc and trying to survive. When one of us would die in the game, we’d hand the controller over. His very first time playing GTAIII was especially memorable: after having seen me play it, he really wanted to steal an ambulance. So when he got the controller, he immediately popped a pedestrian and waited for the ambulance to arrive. When it did, he killed the EMTs and stole the ambulance, roaring in triumph and raising his fist in the air. I about fell off the bed laughing when, six seconds later, he drove the ambulance off a cliff and into the water (and died).”
“I loved (the radio) so much, I actually bothered to rip the audio from the game discs of GTA3 and Vice City and converted it to play in my real-life car. Uncut, with (fake) commercials and all.” (I actually did the same thing for K-JAH/GTA3 and Radio Esperanto/VC)
“The day I beat Vice City I watched all the Back to the Future movies and sewed all the Homestarrunner patches to a pair of tattered jeans I had. I was flying high and I couldn’t believe that after all the times I’d tried before, I’d finally done it. I was with my first gamer boyfriend (I know!) so for once in my life, playing a game and beating it was an event, something special. I couldn’t wait to tell him that night… then he dumped me. Ah, but I still remember the final firefight in the mansion like it was yesterday… I drove around on a bike in the gray t-shirt from the mall hitting as many pedestrians as possible in a huge victory lap around the city.”
“My first GTA was Vice City for the PC, I didn’t have a PS2 then. I would spend hours cruising just listening to the radio station, I loved Fever. But I knew I was hooked on GTA when I was bummed out for the whole weekend that I had to take out Lance. Then, the first car I jumped in, they are playing “I Just Died In Your Arms” on the radio. It hit me so hard. Almost, almost teared up.”
“In real life, I was driving down a street that had a cul de sac. It was winter, so the road was snow-covered and slippery. I sped up my car, and did a hand-brake turn at the end, effectively doing a 180. My passenger said “whoa, where did you learn that?” I coolly said “GTA”.”
Which brings me to this: Where things really start to take on a new dimension are the tales where video games and reality begin to overlap. Not for the illusion of invincibility or the reckless audacity it may accompany, but for the feeling of magic, of excitement, and the rediscovery of the sense of wonder, exploration, and experimentation that it brings.
The summer after Grand Theft Auto III came out, I was living in the upstairs apartment of a house in Madison Wisconsin with my friend Rob. We had a slack-off office summer job together and lived one short block from State Street, the buzzing magnet for youth and juvenile shenanigans. The street is closed to traffic, cluttered with skateboarders, bikers, and a mix of student pedestrians from the university at one end and working professionals from the capital square at the other. Strung out in a ring around this area, our map was dotted with pubs to crash, late-night pizza joints to raid, an abundance of odd concrete begging for a freestyle, and endless question marks.
One of the coolest aspects of the GTA series is how it constantly prods you to explore. To jump out of the car and see where that narrow crack between the buildings leads. If you’re lucky, you’ll find a little spot tucked away from view, a winding walkway ending in a fire escape climb, atop of which sits a “hidden package.” A small white box tied up with twine that is a badge of discovery. A bite-size reward, a tour of duty emblem that adds one more number to your score of how far down into obscurity your voyages have taken you and how boldly you sought out the tiny spots waiting to be stumbled upon.
We used to take that idea into real life and go “hidden package hunting” on many a late nite bender. Hidden package hunting wasn’t so much about finding something as it was about looking. We’d take the weirdest shortcuts through people’s back yards, slipping through holes in the fences and squeezing between closely parked cars. If you were to chart our path through the city on a map, it would have been a squiggly line with only the loosest adherence to streets, blocks, or sidewalks. There was one night we went up to the top of a multi-story car park and jumped a medium-sized gap to land inside the neighboring, separate car park, working our way back down and walking past the bored attendant who gave us a funny look on the way out.
As the summer wore on we got more ambitious and mischievous. One night involved the creative repositioning of those blinky, wooden construction markers into a narrow, twisting corridor along some minor sidestreet. Anyone who had to navigate their way through there the next day surely suffered the wrath of our annoying prank. I’m not saying it was considerate, or even a good idea. But I AM saying that it was definitely awesome.
Another night we found this cool little area recessed below street level, filled with furniture and an expansive shallow pool. Having passed right by it many times we both kind of looked at each other and asked, “how did we not know this was here??” One way or another, some of that furniture ended up sitting inside the shallow pool, tables and chairs neatly arranged for leisurely eating cafe food and chatting. We sat in the pool-chairs and giggled over a brief conversation or two, long enough to enjoy the fruits of our little escapade before slipping away into the night to continue our hidden package hunt. Probably the culmination of these adventures was sneaking into the newly built convention center on the lakefront to see if we could make it to the top of the fountain on the roof. We did.
We made hand holds with our feet and knees to hoist each other up and after a series of surprisingly easy clamberings, we dipped our toes in the fountain’s water of triumph, surrounded on one side by city lights and the other by lakewater. It was a sublime moment of victory. We OWNED that city. We laughed and gawked at the expansive view, maybe waxed philosophical a bit, and sat down with our legs hanging off the edge of the fountain to savor the moment. It was a glorious instant in time.
The spell of which was broken by an inquisitive police cruiser pausing far off at the end of the long pedestrian bridge which had led us here. We froze. “Do you think he can see us?” “Nah. It’s pitch black up here.” “But our legs…?” We both looked at each other. Sure it was completely dark up here, but our feet had been hanging off the edge for some time, and the base of the fountain was brightly lit. Shit!
Shoes and socks hastily went back on, and we made the jumps down onto the hard concrete in a frantic escape dash. There was only one way out: straight toward the police cruiser over the pedestrian bridge. Unless… the doors to a glass-enclosed stairway down to a lower level were unlocked. As luck would have it, they were. Mad laughter ensued and we took the stairs at full speed, crashing through the door at the bottom which opened up to the city street. Clean getaway. Zero stars.