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Roadside Architecture and Mid-Century Design in “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas”

13 October 2010 Stories and Appreciations 53,090 views 8 CommentsPrint This Post Print This Post Email This Post Email This Post

The “Grand Theft Auto” series of video games is known for a lot of things, but sightseeing rarely makes the list. In “GTA: San Andreas,” the 2004 installment of the franchise, the gameplay takes place in fictionalized, yet highly accurate re-creations of Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Las Vegas. The cities are connected by a vast landscape of woodland hills and desert plains dotted with hick towns and depictions of real landmarks like the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Area 51, and the Hoover Dam. For most players the scenery is but a backdrop to a grizzly, albeit cartoonish tale of gang warfare, but when committing heinous crimes starts to grow stale there’s a diverse countryside just begging for a road trip.

The game is actually quite tourist-friendly. On the edge of any given town Winnebagos and touring motorcycles are conveniently provided for thieving. The highways are stocked with cheap motels and greasy spoons, and there’s even a bike rental shop at the foot of colossal Mount Chiliad which requires a hefty chunk of real time to explore. All vehicles are equipped with radios that receive a diverse variety of stations. Listening to country, oldies, or the latest news can make the miles melt away. Despite the now-archaic graphics, the combination of these elements can actually give me tinges of that all-too-rare sensation of being on vacation.

Your character is even equipped with a camera (zoom lens included) that stores digital snapshots on your hard drive. During my real life travels, I take every opportunity to seek out offbeat roadside attractions and to document vintage signs and structures on film. So naturally, I’ve trained my avatar to curb his bloodlust long enough to appreciate the aesthetics of the open road.

What follows is an exhibit of in-game photography taken by me and my digital carjacker.


This is what I’m talking about: A traveler’s oasis nestled in a desert valley under dusk’s first star. Incidentally, moments after I took this photo, I fell to my death. Those teepee-shaped motel units are probably based on the Wigwam Motel in San Bernadino.


The Theme Building at the Los Santos Airport beautifully exemplifies the Mid-Century Modern school of design. It’s really sturdy; I’ve landed planes directly on top of it.


Ring King is comparable to the world famous Randy’s Donuts which got its start in the 1950s. The biggest difference is that this one gets robbed hundreds of times daily.


Even with a six-star wanted level I’ll gladly slow down to appreciate a hand-lettered typeface like this one. I managed to find L.A.’s real Bahamas apartment building with Google’s street view.


The Chemosphere house of Los Angeles is a modernist masterpiece designed by John Lautner. In real life, it is owned by German publisher Benedikt Taschen. Better yet, the Simpsons’ Troy McClure once lived there. You may remember him from such films as “‘P’ is for Psycho” and “The President’s Neck is Missing.”


My avatar and I agree: There must be a scientific correlation between upswept rooflines and good breakfast food.


These are the would-be Watts Towers, except Watts doesn’t exist in the game. The real towers were built between 1921 and 1954 by Sabato Rodia in his spare time. Makes me wonder what I could accomplish in a world without video games.


This abandoned drive-in was in remarkably nice shape. I was so tempted to take one of those neat old metal speakers, you know, to use as a decoration. But my conscience got the best of me.


Add a letter ‘h’ to the sign and this is the defunct La Concha Motel of Las Vegas, which opened in 1961. The Lobby has since been relocated to the Las Vegas Neon Museum. The design is by Paul Williams, an architect who also worked on LAX’s Theme Building. Gamer Tip: It’s nearly impossible for police to scale the concrete shell.


Unfortunately, this gorgeous example of Googie architecture is on our rival gang’s turf. Little-known fact: Most gang warfare is driven by a desire to control retro signage.


It took over an hour of Googling A-frame churches in the L.A. area before I located the St. Michael and All Angels Church of the University of California, Santa Barbara. I think I deserve a prize — specifically, that hour of my life back.


This beauty is based on the Candlelight Wedding Chapel (built in 1966) which was once a staple of the Las Vegas Strip. The real structure is now an exhibit at Neveda’s Clark County Museum. In real life, I’m a family man; in the game I’m still searching for a girl just like my wife. But finding a woman in Los Santos with a conservative upbringing, an appreciation for film, and a degree in Psychology has proven difficult to say the least.


Here we have an obvious homage to the Capitol Records Tower which opened in 1956. Its designer, Welton Becket, was yet another contributor to LAX’s Theme Building, as well as the Cinerama Dome. Man, learnin’ stuff can be so dope.


This is a replica of the World’s Largest Gift Shop in Vegas. I have them to thank for my drinking bird, my clock with dice for numbers, and my first Martian Popping Thing. (Coincidentally, they offer a full line of Archie McPhee products.)


I was just about to order a hot dog, but then I realized that the owner sleeps in that van. No thanks.


Fort Carson (derived from the real life community of Rachel, Nevada) has got some charming little establishments, but this town was dead. No, I mean literally— there was a horrible shootout.


The Lil’ Probe Inn parodies the Little A’Le’Inn of Rachel, Nevada which is located near Area 51. Before you make reservations, I recommend a visit to TripAdvisor.


The origin of this Polynesian motel has me stumped. It’s in Las Venturas (Vegas) so my first guess was that it was inspired by the former Aku Aku restaurant which opened in 1960, but that was a part of the Stardust Casino and it was gone by the early 1990s when the game takes place. Any suggestions? My in-game character is no help, he just thinks it’s a good place to load parked cars with remote explosives.


Oops, how did that get in there?


Judging by the roof, my theory is that this generic steakhouse may be loosely based the Peppermill Lounge of Las Vegas. Funny, I’ve never pictured myself making theories on video game locations based on roof-related judgments.


Here we find examples of the food and lodging available in the town of Angel Pine in Whetstone, a region of Flint County in San Andreas. Remember, if you’re bored with geography there are still plenty of fake counties, regions and towns left to memorize.


Speaking of Angel Pine, here’s a sneak preview of a social documentary project I’ve been working on.


This is likely modeled after the Methodist Church in the ghost town of Bodie State Park, California. I hesitated to include this photo because people will be hounding me to produce poster size prints of it. I’m cursed with a really good eye for this stuff.


This piece is entitled “Airstream of Broken Dreams.” That’s right, I’m calling it art. Feel free to debate me but remember, my guy carries a rocket launcher plus ten other weapons you can’t even see.


There’s a geyser in Calistoga California that’s called “Old Faithful.” Hey, California — way to copy a geyser name!


A giant plaster chicken, a 1960s-era information center, and a desert mesa under a full moon — pure vacationland magic.


The majestic Mount Chiliad provided this view of a misty sunrise. It’s the kind of day that makes a guy want to take a break from all the rote burglary and killings.


I’ve always Admired the “Vegas Vic” neon cowboy sign for the Pioneer Club on Fremont street. Thanks to virtual reality, I can fly up to it with my jet pack and sit on his hat. It’s a good place to rethink my poor life choices. I mean, um, my character’s choices.


The real life counterpart to this hotel/casino is Treasure Island is Las Vegas — although now, they call it “TI” and their giant Jolly Roger rests in peace in the Vegas Neon Sign Graveyard. In an epic stroke of dismal timing, the resort decided to tone down their pirate theme the same year the mega-hit “Pirates of the Caribbean” brought buccaneers back into vogue.


“We’re going to be up five hundy by midnight!” That’s a line from the movie “Swingers.” I must have said it out loud while I snapped this photo because I woke my wife. She told me it was after 4 a.m. Yes, I take my time on Earth for granted.

Kirk Demarais

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  1. this is great stuff, Kirk. I played the ever living hell out of San Andreas when it was released, and I’m also a CA resident, this was nostalgic in two ways, and just a really cool project. I love it when people treat games like this.

    good show.

  2. That wonderful tiki motel sign was inspired by a long-gone sign in Anaheim, California. The Pitcairn’s tiki god and neon torches are no more, sad to say.
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/1314185560/

  3. EPIC. You have outdone yourself, m’boy.

  4. I loved the screenshots and the oft-incongruous commentary they’re captioned with. Had I captured them I would only half-jokingly refer to them as art. I had no idea so much attention to design had gone into a game where one could kill hookers in order to avoid paying for their services. Nor did I realize that players were provided with a camera to commemorate their crime scenes with, although even a cursory viewing of CSI would indicate that this is not a good idea.

  5. krome- Thanks so much! I’m glad it took you back. Fond memories of playing video games are such a funny phenomenon, and it happened to me a lot as I revisited this game. Yes, I was feeling nostalgic about sitting on a couch of yesteryear (on beautiful Autumn days nonetheless). Even my wife said that seeing me play again (and especially hearing the soundtrack) was causing her to pleasantly reminisce. Ah, modern times.

    Lynxwiler- Wow, you nailed it!! And you were amazingly fast! Boy, the real sign is such a beauty. I’m in awe. Such a shame to discover something like that and then find out that it’s gone one sentence later. Well, thanks so much for the info. I celebrate your tiki knowledge!

    Jamey- I thank you my good man! And truth is, I did indeed outdo my own record for ‘time spent on a Monkey Goggles article.’ Hundreds of photos and countless hours clocked on my trusty jet pack.

  6. cirocco- So glad you enjoyed the article!

    Oddly, the ugliness is what makes the game popular enough to afford the lavish production values and attention to detail.

    For the record, I’ve never grown comfortable with the premise. This series is a guilty pleasure in the truest sense. It’s the artistry that I can’t resist.

    Ha, and you have a very good point about the camera.

  7. New level for your humor…. I mean whatever it is your call what you do…

  8. Great stuff! You have successfully added to the GTA mythos. Very enjoyable commentary!

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