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Accidental Brilliance in Grand Theft Auto

11:15 AM on 06.21.2007 // Leigh Alexander

You're looking at a screenshot of my very own neighborhood in Spanish Harlem, New York City. This is "La Calle 116," and it's hoppin' in the summer. This time of year, the streets become so crowded that a fifteen-minute trip to the grocery store stretches to half an hour, owing to the crowds one has to wade through. The music is loud, the police are everywhere, and there's inevitably (further up in Harlem, usually) some kind of violence. Generally, my little ghetto is surprisingly safe, relative to other let's-call-them "low-income urban" city areas, but the more people you cram into one place, the more likely it is that crime will occur there.

In other words, it's a GTA summer in the big city. Rap music, crappy cars -- play San Andreas or something for a few hours and then step outside, and you've almost got a case for those stupid, suspension-of-reality "I thought GTA was real" crime cases.

Lifelike and freeform --  GTA's got everything you need for self-directed, often accidental cinematic moments. I'll explain what I mean (and share an example) right after the jump!

I think GTA IV gets a real bum rap in the media. Sure, there's Hot Coffee; OK, we get that. But revisiting the game this weekend, I also realized it's a story of filial devotion with a strong anti-drug message. The "sandbox" genre in general has enormous potential for all-out delightful happy accidents in moments of cinema so pure they'd be comfortable on the big screen; maybe you find Tommy Vercetti standing on a bridge at sunset, exactly at a plot point where it'd make sense for him to ponder his fate. Or ol' CJ returns to Ganton to find his beloved BMX is still right in his Moms's garage where he left it. Keepin' it real.

In honor of the great big ghetto party here in El Barrio, I thought I'd share one of my all-time favorite GTA cinematic moments. It happened in Vice City, when, bored and embittered, I took Tommy V for a drive through one of the city's seedier areas. Feeling the pull of conflicting allegiances, concerned about the rising costs of property ownership, and, of course, the looming threat of death or arrest as ever over my head, I decided Tommy just needed a good lay. I found a prostitute, pulled over, and summoned her with the sound of my horn.

With her in my passenger seat, I cruised around looking for someplace more private. As I rolled into the area of the cargo docks, where there were few but freight workers and the pier structure might provide some decent privacy, the strains of Foreigner began to make their way onto my radio. I've been waiting for a girl like you to come into my life. It grew dark as I at last found the right spot, pulling over down beside the water where nobody would see us; listening to the haunting strains of the romantic music, the car began to rock softly side to side.

Maybe I'm wrong, won't you tell me if I'm coming on too strong
This heart of mine has been hurt before, this time I wanna be sure

I'm not sure what happened next. Maybe there was an argument over money. Maybe the bitch tried to shank me. Make up your own story for exactly what went down between us in that car that night. Whatever the reason, next thing I know, she's tearing out of my car like a bat out of hell, screaming, and running blindly for the pier.

Baby, don't be like that. Come back here; I'm still talking to you.

Now I know it's right, from the moment I wake up till deep in the night
There's nowhere on earth that I'd rather be than holding you tenderly

As I bust out my chain saw, a steady rain begins to fall.

I chased that girl all over that part of town, her screams sometimes rising in volume enough to break through the ominous humming of my chain saw in the rain. Now, she's getting close to the end of the dock; if she jumps into the water, I can't pursue her. This is GTA III, and Tommy can't swim. But fortunately for me -- not so much for her -- I catch up. I'm sorry, baby. I'm so sorry I have to do this, but I chainsaw her to death. Nobody saw me. Not so much as one star.

I make my way back to the car, trailing the scent of ocean water and the odd rust of blood; they're still playing our song as I pull away from the fateful docks and drive off into the rain-hazed neon night of Vice City.

I've been waiting for a girl like you to come into my life
I've been waiting for a girl like you, your loving will survive

Shame. Even if only for a minute, I loved that girl.


So what about you guys? Chances are you've had an epic moment of cinematic proportions -- accidentally -- while playing a GTA game. Or any other game, for that matter. What are your best "accidental cinema" memories?

By the way, the header image is courtesy of the awesome-in-a-scary way Google Street View-- now everyone can make (badly) Photoshopped GTA screenshots of their home stomping grounds.

Leigh Alexander,
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