Greetings from Los Santos

Tool around 'Grand Theft Auto V's' virtual California and ask yourself: Am I lost?

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LOS SANTOS, U.S.A. — Toward the end of my first whirlwind afternoon here — on the southern end of this geographically discombobulated island somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, a place so lush, seedy and complex that carjacking is a form of public transportation and the city seal includes an owl and a Bigfoot — I found myself at the corner of Eclipse Boulevard and Strangeways Drive.You know, on the north side of Vinewood? Not far from the tourists being mugged on Vinewood's Walk of Fame?

From there I could see the brown brick dome of the Galileo Observatory cresting the Vinewood Hills, just west of the large white beckoning letters of the Vinewood sign. Which reminded me so much of the Griffith Observatory and iconic Hollywood sign in Los Angeles that at first I wondered if Southern California itself would consider a copyright-infringement suit against Los Santos. My second thought was: Though I had traveled light — having arrived with nothing but a phone and a handgun — that trip into the hills looked like a hike.

So, casually, I dragged a hipster out of his electric-gas hybrid and drove the half mile, up into Baytree Canyon.

Momentarily distracted — a frequent consideration when you visit Los Santos, which exists only in the new video game "Grand Theft Auto V" (though try telling that to my visceral memories of the place) — I veered down a dirt lane behind the Vinewoood sign, climbed the giant "I," lost my footing and fell to the ground in an ugly heap.

Recuperating, and frankly exhausted from a long day of stealing cars, I made my way to the observatory to see the skyline. Ironically, the lens on the $1-per-view telescope here was smudgy. Better to admire the view without it. From here, the smog and fading sunlight cast a purplish glow over the sprawl below — the sky itself still looked warm. After a few minutes of peace, I climbed back into my stolen car to head downtown.

But then, as I pulled away from the Galileo complex, a cop car whizzed past and screeched to a halt, pulling over a speeder. I inched by but was so nervous that I gently bumped into the fender of the police cruiser, hard enough for the officer to order me to the side of the road. I panicked and drove off. The police car pursued me down harrowingly steep lanes, the front end of my car slamming into pavement at the bottom of every hill. Sirens wailing, the pursuit lasted for miles, through the tony streets of Rockford Hills, the narrow alleys of Little Seoul, onto the white sands of Vespucci Beach, where I managed to slip away and hid behind a hot dog stand.

I crouched for so long, behind a kitschy sign showing a beagle inside a bun, that eventually the sky lightened.

I've had worse vacations.

You know that feeling you have on vacation when, briefly, deliriously, you consider quitting work and selling the house and never moving back to where you came from? That would be so easy with Los Santos.

Though you will not find Los Santos on Orbitz, and no major airline offers service there, I have been there. Or rather, so immersive and detailed is this place that I feel as though I have been there. There's no there there, and yet, after a 12-hour stretch of riding the subway, golfing, off-roading, shopping and wading in ocean surf, it's hard not to feel as though there is a there there. And, judging from the record-breaking $800 million "Grand Theft Auto V" reportedly pulled in for developer Rockstar Games on last Tuesday alone, I am not the only one who will be booking additional visits to Los Santos in the months ahead. It is the city of the future, the first digital location that seriously forces you to consider what it means to tool around a virtual metropolis — the first virtual place I have been where you visit just to visit, not to actually follow the itinerary (i.e., the game) laid out before you.

One morning, taking a break from driving too fast up a coastal highway, I noticed a sign for Cape Catfish. At the end of a trail, I found a bed and a breakfast with a pumpkin on the porch, and, just offshore, a lighthouse.

I swam to the lighthouse.

"Grand Theft Auto V" is, in the jargon of the gaming world, a "sandbox," offering free rein to wander wherever you feel.

A virtual traveler as a child, this is not the first video-game world I have spent too much time visiting: There were the restrictive jungle landscapes of Atari's "Pitfall!" that recurred with the cheap-looking frequency of a "Flintstones" backdrop; the wintery airstrips in the James Bond game "GoldenEye"; any number of pixelated castles. Older games, however, for the most part, existed "on rails," the player only being allowed to venture where gameplay dictated. More recently, though, there's noirish Arkham City in a popular series of Batman games; Revolutionary War-era New England in "Assassin's Creed III"; a pseudo-Medieval land in "The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim"; the equally vast pseudo Texas-Mexico borderlands of Rockstar's "Red Dead Redemption." For those without the stomach for such century-tripping imagination, the upcoming "Watch Dogs," developed for the next generation of gaming consoles, promises an intricately mapped Chicago of the near future.

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.

Kind of: One night, looking for a place to detox, I broke into the backyard of a modernist home, swam a few laps in the owner's swimming pool and settled against a balcony rail as I organized my travel to-dos.

It is overwhelming — you really never do experience that moment that happens to Jim Carrey in "The Truman Show" when, sailing toward a point in the distance, his boat abruptly punches through a painted backdrop. If you see a place in "Grand Theft Auto V," if you notice a light in the distance, you can go there.

And there are a lot of lights in the distance here: Los Santos is the city that anchors the County of Los Santos. It was founded in 1781; its chief industries seem to be film production and oil. It has a boardwalk area with amusements to the south, a rougher low-income neighborhood along the freeways in the southeast, rich families in the Vinewood foothills on the outskirts of the city and Asian communities that abut the beach areas to the west.

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.

After 12 hours — which, in Los Santos time, is many days — you start to notice how friction-less the place can be. Tooling around a virtual world is exhausting. Walking and driving feel like a meta-chore. Eager after a while to escape Los Santos' David Hockney backyards and the vague, Canadian-sounding brand names, I stole a dirt bike. I drove past vineyards, military bases and oceanfront estates. I punched a cow, stole a Harley and, driving to the top of Mount Chiliad, saw a herd of deer scurry away from my headlights.

On the mountaintop, I took a selfie and stayed until dawn. Then, as with any vacation — back to reality.

cborrelli@tribune.com

Twitter @borrelli

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