This piece was originally published ahead of the release of GTA:V on 13 Sep 2013, but has been republished ahead of the broadcast of The Gamechangers, the drama about how Grand Theft Auto was created.
Down the end of the King’s Road, up a glass-and-steel staircase behind an unmarked door at the back of an office building, Rockstar Games are about to show me Grand Theft Auto V, the most expensive video game of all time. Ensconced in a squashy sofa, controller in hand, I listen as the publicist takes me through the details of this new benchmark in gaming history: the years of research, the enormous cast of characters, the giant open world , the gritty storyline that bears comparison with the biggest US television series. Then he introduces me to one of the characters I’ll be playing, Mike, a 40-something ex-mafia hood living in an enormous virtual city modelled on Los Angeles . There Mike stands in the centre of the screen, shifting and jiggling in crisp shirtsleeves under the blazing Malibu sun.
I apply myself to the controls. Coolly Mike saunters past four gleaming sports cars to a shiny red mini, wrenches open the door (setting off the car’s alarm in the process) and pulls out into the afternoon traffic. But perhaps Mike’s reflexes have atrophied from his life of leisure, or perhaps he just isn’t used to driving himself around. In any case, it’s only a few tyre-squealing, teeth-gritting, eye-averting minutes before his new mini is upside down and – oh yes – on fire. Mike crawls out from one of the broken windows and trudges to the hard shoulder, traffic screeching to a halt around him. He pauses to inspect the texture of the walls on a clapboard house next to the highway. He grinds his body suggestively against its locked door. He falls off its balcony into the water. In the publicist’s eyes, benevolence is beginning to compete visibly with a kind of anthropological fascination. “Well, all part of the fun,” he observes gamely. “Have you played this before?”
I have, of course; or rather, like the 25 million adults around the world who bought its last installment, I’ve played something very like it. The Grand Theft Auto series has been running since 1997 when a game created by a small team in Dundee first loosed its players into a satirical 2D cityscape in which any car could be hijacked, any pedestrian squelched and any weapon gainfully, or not-so-gainfully, redeployed. In the past 16 years, however, it has grown from these cartoonish origins into the industry’s most titanic example of video game ambition and excess, a densely interactive satire on American crime and consumerism conceived by a pair of British brothers and developed by a team in Edinburgh.
Rockstar Games, a company whose name announces the lofty ambition of its directors, Sam and Dan Houser, releases an installment in the GTA series every four to five years. By any standards, these games are entertainment behemoths. The fourth, released in 2008, had a budget of $100 million (£63.7 million) and set a temporary record for an entertainment launch in any medium, selling 3.6 million copies in its first day. The fifth (in whose world, I notice, I am temporarily unable to extract Mike the mafioso from the precincts of a tennis court) is said to have cost $256 million (£163 million) to make, a figure that dwarfs the budgets of all but a handful of Hollywood movies. GTA V, as it is known, will be released this Tuesday, and lines may already be forming outside shops for the midnight release. And employers may be pardoned a little nervousness: in 2009, a quarter of the UK residents surveyed in an online poll admitted having called in sick for the release of a video game.
The GTA series has always been controversial. Critics cite the remorseless emphasis on crime and violence and question the subtlety of its satire, while fans praise the staggeringly comprehensive game world that allows players freedom of movement and action in meticulously recreated versions of America’s greatest cities, and hail the writers’ lethally funny intolerance for American political and social exceptionalism. But whatever you think of Rockstar’s approach to the material, it’s difficult to fault its hard work. For previous GTA games, it has flown teams of designers from Edinburgh to Miami and New York to take hours of video and sound tape, analyze traffic patterns and consult with ex-gangsters, Mafiosi and law enforcement officers. Some dialogue for the new game was even recorded by ex-gangsters, one of whom, a Rockstar writer boasted, “literally got out of prison the day before”.
When GTA V is unveiled, its creators promise, it will feature a 1,000-page script set across 49 square miles of metropolis and wilderness in Los Santos, the game’s equivalent of Los Angeles. Players will be able to explore this vast area in hundreds of vehicles (the last game had 130 separate models) and in the person of three separate characters, each with their own plots and intrigues to discover. Equally, I’m assured, one can take a push-bike up a canyon, park by the beach, watch the sunset over the mountains or photograph the wildlife. In my brief time with the game I don’t manage to encounter any of the sharks or mountain lions that lurk in far corners of the map, though the publicist assures me the thump from under the car as Mike careens recklessly across another watercourse is the sound of an expiring coyote.
Dan Houser, lead writer on the games, summed up the approach in an interview last year. “Books tell you something,” he said. “Movies show you something. Games let you do something.” The new game also hopes to move away from the controversy that has dogged the series since its outset, though news that one playable character is the “worst psychopath” in the series to date may yet promise trouble down the road. But then again, we might never have heard of the franchise had it not been for a producer’s decision, back in 1997, to have the publicist Max Clifford present its new game to the media.
Dave Jones, creator of the first GTA game, remembers using the tamest simile in video gaming to describe the anarchic actions of GTA’s protagonist. “The analogy we used to use was that the player was Pac-Man,” he says. “The ghosts were the police, and the little dots that Pac-Man used to run around and munch up were the pedestrians.” Initial builds of Grand Theft Auto even allowed the character to play as a police officer, but that says Jones, “was no fun. It didn’t let your imagination run wild. It was always more fun playing the bad guy and trying to escape.” But the GTA studio was owned by the music publishers BMG, who soon insisted that Clifford step up its rhetoric.
Clifford decided to restrict access to the game itself, instead offering inflated briefings to the public about running over pedestrians and slaughtering policemen. The Police Federation of England and Wales was persuaded to denounce the game as “sick, deluded and beneath contempt”, unleashing a frenzy of outrage in which the British and American media enthusiastically joined. “When people did see the game you could see the deflation in them,” Jones remembers, “as they saw what they’d been campaigning against. But they couldn’t back down at that point. Actually it was very tongue-in-cheek.” No matter. Copies were flying off the presses, and a franchise was born.
“What’s fascinating,” says David Kushner, author of Jacked: the Outlaw Story of Grand Theft Auto, “is how that story, which was basically fabricated, has haunted the franchise. GTA certainly went on to have controversial content, but to a great degree it became a symbol of what an older generation feared in video games: the lack of control, a kind of chaotic medium and world.” Rockstar North set up its headquarters in Edinburgh, with the Houser brothers, who were by then in charge, flitting between there and New York.
The company soon acquired a reputation as the swaggering, hard-partying VIPs of the video games world, with an image more like that of a band than a strait-laced computer company. The Housers were soon able to court their favorite stars – Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Ray Liotta – to do their games’ voice-over work. (The model Cara Delevingne has a cameo in GTA V.) But the notoriety had its downsides, too. In 2010, for example, the spouses of workers at Rockstar’s San Diego studio – a group calling themselves “Rockstar Wives” – took to the internet to complain about working conditions and terrible management that pushed employees “to the brink” of depression and even suicide.
The Rockstar team worked relentlessly on creating a roster of mad advertising slogans, fake radio stations and absurdly-named businesses to flesh out their viciously satirical vision of America. These ranged from the amusingly devious (a cigarette company that advertised by appealing to “the struggle for women’s equality”) to the puerile (the “Poop Deck” seafood chain).
“Ours is the look Walt Disney might have gone for,” noted Rockstar’s art director Aaron Garbut, “if he was more of a psychotic substance abuser with authority issues.” But the Housers’ growing desire to approach serious issues in their narrative – “we have a vision for what interactive entertainment should become”, as Dan Houser said, “and, each time, we get closer to realising those ambitions” – could sometimes sabotage the light touch that made their satire fly. This was most noticeable in the dour and tormented story of GTA IV, which had the player take control of a Serbian war criminal trying to go straight in New York. “I think one problem Rockstar has had,” Kushner observes, “is that they’ve always been trying to be film-makers. If you look at the titles they give themselves, like ‘executive producer’, and their trailers, in a way it can seem like the work of frustrated film-makers. With GTA IV there was a feeling of trying too hard, of being serious despite all the humor.”
“Satire is difficult to manage,” agrees Jones. “For me, the game has always been better the more satirical and tongue-in-cheek it was. I think players warm to that.” He also notes the tension between the game’s “open world” and the story Rockstar attempts to tell within it. “It’s difficult,” he says, “because those things are at odds. Players love great character and story, and to do that, normally, you have to hold their hand for a while and introduce linear elements. But really the game in its foundations was an open-world game, where you just want to throw players in the world and say: go out and do what you want.”
By the end of the hour-and-a-half I spend with GTA V, I’m convinced it’s going to be something pretty special – but I too am hoping to see some hard-hitting writing on release, as I’ve often found the Housers’ obsession with gangster cliché less interesting than the surprises offered by their design team. Still, this world is detailed to a truly astonishing degree, and the game’s setting in California, the traditional home of the American lunatic fringe, offers many reasons to be optimistic about its content.
For now, it’s coming to the end of my allotted time with the game, and poor Mike the mafioso must be cursing the implacable puppet master who has made him fly aircraft through wind farms, abseil precariously down buildings and race family sedans at speed through the Californian desert. In a crowning ecstasy of Wagnerian glory, Mike leaps from a spiraling helicopter above the heart of Los Santos’s business district, opens his parachute at the last possible moment, and sails triumphantly – into the side of a building. There is a sickening crump, a flail of helpless limbs and the screen fades to black. Until Tuesday, at least.