Once, I crawled into San Andreas on a broken leg, and left on a jetpack. There was blood everywhere. But you've got to laugh.
Except this one time, I didn't laugh. I... well, I killed two policemen under the expressway in San Fierro. I shot them and stood looking at the bodies, but no one happened by. For some freak reason, there was no response. No Wanted stars. No vengeful authorities. I left their cruiser there with its doors still open, empty and idling. Nobody knew what I'd done. Whether it was a momentary glitch or a deliberate effect because I was entirely out of sight, I don't know, because I never wanted to try it again.
Every time I go past the spot, I think, "That's where I murdered those two men." It tears my brain a little, the guilt. It's not like I haven't whacked hundreds already, but that one time, nobody knew what I'd done. And underneath the strange guilt... a nasty dark little thrill. A rude secret. I am going to digital hell.
This oddity was such an affecting moment precisely because there's always a response in GTA; there's always a reaction. No game has a greater range of cause and effect than GTA, and no GTA has a greater range than San Andreas. That's its genius. Ironically enough, if it really did play the way right-wing ignorati believe it does - a consequence-free "murder simulator" - it would be entirely boring. It's the forces of law and order that make it fun; it's pushing against such a wild resistance that makes it a game. Yes, the aim is to get away with it and you're rewarded with toys and cash, but you can only go so far before you're swatted with overwhelming force. Take the consequences away for any longer than, say, one tawdry little underpass cop double homicide, and all the toys in the world won't thrill. If you don't believe me, try removing the heat with the cheats. It's empty like a lawyer's soul. It's horrible.
San Andreas is bigger than the long clean hair of Jesus, yet Rockstar still managed to find the time to add responses where other games barely have animations. Step off a tall building without a parachute, and Carl either curses his clumsiness or makes a final pronouncement to the effect of "f*ck this for a game of soldiers". Bother to go all the way to the top of the Gant Bridge and you'll find a sign telling you to 'go away.' Walk into someone and they'll complain - and react if you answer back. Hit a car and the driver might just come for you. But you know all this.
You might not know just how huge San Andreas really is, though, how gigantically content-rich and diverse. Did you ever really finish it? Forty or fifty hours in, I was stumbling across things I'd just never seen before. The parked Ferrari-alike down the hill in San Fierro. The coastguard helicopter on the beach in Los Santos. The triathlon just next to it.
The North Shore-style mountain bike run on Mount Chiliad. The armour under the tower opposite the Four Dragons Casino. The E-Type-style Windsor in what's nearly the last mission (I paid $120,000 for the mansion opposite Mad Dogg's, just so I could garage the smoking wreck before it blew); I've only just stumbled on the whole town of Bayside Marina, complete with chopper and float plane. The depressed photographer in Flint who walks into the sea. The ghost cars of Back O' Beyond... the Valantino Rossi homage NRG in San Fierro docks, and another in a multi-storey in East Beach. Yes, the scale is impressive, but it's the sheer amount of stuff within it that's genuinely astonishing.
It has its own urban legends. What other singleplayer game has myths? And player-created myths at that? Despite legions of hopelessly Photoshopped pictures fairly obviously proving otherwise, many still insist there's a Yeti roaming the hick woods of Back O' Beyond. Others claim the ghost of CJ's mom haunts the Johnson House in Grove Street, but it's a less popular belief than the Yeti - and not just because it's easier to disprove. The miles of redneck countryside to the west and the desert to the north are creepy enough by night to host a horror film. Or a horror game. There's plenty of space out there to spark your imagination, and enough details to act as lightning rods for your darker thoughts. Shallow graves, discarded shovels, empty idling cars, 60-year-old fighter planes crashing into lonely hilltops with no sign of a pilot, glowing headstones, abandoned wheelchairs...