These are places where, within wide virtual borders, the player is granted freedom to explore. What makes Los Santos so different is its scale, interactivity and ambitions — here is a digital sandbox so habitable that the game itself comes with a large paper map that, as I explored Los Santos and its surroundings, I referred to as often as I would a map describing a real-world place I’ve never been.Indeed, not unlike a real place that offers too much, I made a small list of places I wanted to visit here and things I wanted to do: haircut, strip club, take in a movie ($20 in Los Santos), maybe ride a bike to the top of a mountain and leap off. All of which you can do. If, like me, you overbook vacations with activities, you will find plenty to do. Conversely, if you’re the kind of traveler who eventually pines for a hotel room to take a nap in after a day of playing tourist, Los Santos offers that, too…
The island itself is Ireland-shaped — curious, considering that the game’s creators are primarily Scottish and British. The north side of the island is Blaine County, with mountains at its east and west coasts and Mount Chiliad to the far north. A desert borders the Alamo Sea in the interior, and salt-water-eaten trailer parks line the northwest oceanfront, the Great Ocean Highway ringing it all. If previous “Grand Theft Auto” games offered riffs on Miami and New York City, this is basically San Francisco mashed against Los Angeles, an alternate reality where Napa Valley is a 10-minute commute from the Paramount backlot.
Tellingly, it also feels as geopolitically accurate and culturally barren as the places it satirizes: a Los Angeles of the mind, where a peek inside studio gates reveals a sci-fi movie being filmed, a bike ride into the forest is greeted by screeching mountain lions and extreme wealth and poverty are never far apart. Conversation with Los Santosians is mostly limited to real estate, celebrity chitchat and random threats, though, generally, your existence is so inconsequential to the day-to-day fabric of Los Santos that you feel like a ghost.
Sounds like a dystopian Los Angeles crossed with a strange island. What more could be needed in a virtual sandbox?
While I’ve seen academics occasionally address virtual worlds – Second Life seemed to prompt some study – it would be interesting to see more full studies of these sprawling virtual worlds that are common in some of the more popular games. Think about games like Skyrim, World of Warcraft, Assassin’s Creed, Minecraft, and others that offer interesting and often realistic settings. Yet, does this space have the same logic as space in the non-virtual realm? What exactly distinguishes these spaces from real spaces?