The power of Grand Theft Auto - the greatest gaming franchise ever
One of the biggest games franchises ever launches its latest instalment this week. Archie Bland, a devoted Grand Theft Auto fan, explains its genius – and why, for all its singular brilliance, it is still in thrall to Hollywood
The first Grand Theft Auto game came out in October 1997, just before my 14th birthday. I wanted it very badly. I had spent quite a lot of the preceding summer holiday – during which other, less fatally nerdy boys of my age were getting off with girls – playing football management games, and world domination games, and Lara-Croft-ogling games, and I had enjoyed them all immensely, but it must be said that none of them felt exactly countercultural.
It is hard to see yourself as rebellious when your alternative to actual organised sports is a glorified spreadsheet that simulates organised sports. It is hard to dispute society's view of your chosen pursuit as excruciatingly adolescent when the only notable female character requires a special physics model to avoid falling over face-first under the weight of her breasts.
Grand Theft Auto, on the other hand, immediately promised something different. The box featured a pleasingly scuzzy, italicised font, and a grainy picture of an American police car in front of a skyscraper; more importantly, it was emblazoned with a blood-red 18 certificate, just like the ones you got on films. An 18! Games weren't 18s. Games were for kids. But this one wasn't.
My parents didn't give it to me for my birthday, sensibly enough, probably less because they were concerned about the adult content than because they harboured ambitions to one day see me spend some of my leisure time out of doors. Luckily, my twentysomething brother, not a regular gamer, bought a copy, and on a visit to his flat I was able to swipe it and take it home.
If, as I suspect, he only affected not to notice my 'borrowing', then he did me a favour of the highest brotherly generosity. For Grand Theft Auto, as I was shortly to discover, was not just exciting because it was adult: it was exciting because it was ludicrously, anarchically, narcotically fun. Considering where the series ended up, it was pretty simple, really: you were a low-level gangster on the make, tasked with completing a series of missions and working your way up the criminal ladder.
You would get these missions by picking up a ringing payphone (mobiles being still a figment for your average petty criminal in 1997), and following the instructions issued by the voice on the other end. Your orders would tend to involve hijacking a car and picking someone up in it, or crushing someone under it, or bombing a police station with it. Or you would get out of the car and fire a machine gun or a rocket launcher or a flamethrower at your hapless foes.
That was all deeply satisfying. But it wasn't what made Grand Theft Auto so great. The orders the game gave you were entertaining to follow, but if you didn't pick up the phone for a while, there was far more excitement to be found in the game's three playgrounds, Liberty City, San Andreas, and Vice City. They felt less like levels in a video game than bustling, bleeding metropolises alive in a way that did not rely on your presence.
The cities were so big that the box included a map, and everyone who loves games also loves maps. See a vehicle? You can steal it, whether it's a school bus, a sports car, or a tank. See a pedestrian? If you'd like to, you can squish him. Just want to drive around? Of course you can, but if you want, and I bet you do, you can provoke the cops so much that every squad car in the city will be on your tail.
When you hit the gas, your top-down view of the streets will zoom dizzily outwards, and as you carom through a roadblock, only to see your souped-up convertible explode in a ball of flame just as you get within sight of the respray shop that could have restored your anonymity, you will feel a mixture of agony and admiration. At this point, even if your focus is broken by your mother's attempts to lure you out of your fetid bedroom with a cheese toastie, you will feel as if you're in the middle of a story that you have helped to write.
God, I loved it. And I was not alone. Although the reviews were initially lukewarm, it topped bestseller charts and sold millions of copies on PlayStation and PC; any sense that the howls of disgust prompted by its cheerfully violent metier might be bad news for its publishers, BMG Interactive, would have quickly evaporated for anyone who noticed that the company had hired Max Clifford to look afterf its publicity. ("He designed all the outcry," Mike Dailly, one of the game's co-creators, said much later. "He'd do anything to keep the profile high.")
Looking back from a vantage of 16 years later, what's particularly striking about that hysterical mainstream coverage is how it reflexively treats a video game as an alien form, like rap music, or manga. ("FURY AT 'BLAST A COP' GAME," shrieked the Mirror. "GRAND THEFT AUTO VIDEO GAME CAUSES OUTRAGE.") As the series has progressed through 125 million sales, spiralling critical acclaim, and a cumulative production budget that would be the envy of most Hollywood producers, that attitude has become untenable, because it's not our children playing the game, not even our grown-up children: it's us.
Not all of us, to be sure – video games are still some distance from being covered in the mainstream press without needing a justificatory paragraph of exactly this sort somewhere along the way – but enough that the looks of bewilderment and pity that might once have greeted any journalist who pitched a story on the subject are a thing of the past.
This week, after delays to the release date that have left some devotees sufficiently wild-eyed that they may, by now, be looking for some non-virtual cars to hijack, Grand Theft Auto V will finally go on sale. For years, obsessive fan sites have parsed every word to come out of the title's creators, Rockstar Games, with all the devotion and anxiety of Cold War Kremlinologists; a video previewing some of the gameplay has been watched 24 million times in two months; pre-orders are pushing three million in the US alone. It is not a controversial statement to say that it will be the biggest entertainment launch in history.
I have my copy reserved, and if at all possible I plan to take the day off and not leave the sofa for some hours. Visually, the comparison with the quaint, two-dimensional car-chase game that I enjoyed as a teenager could hardly be starker, and I don't need my elder brother's complicity any more, but otherwise not all that much has changed. As my 30th birthday approaches, it's strange, having taken such illicit pleasure in the original game as a 14-year-old, to think that I've done the same with every incarnation since; I presume I will likewise be competing with my children for access to the console when I'm pushing 50.
Presumably 14-year-olds who played Space Invaders did not have the same expectation. But the history of Grand Theft Auto is also the history of how video games have launched an irresistible onslaught on the cultural mainstream. As a new generation of consoles emerges, that may embed gaming in most family homes as irretrievably as DVDs and the internet, and as profits continue to dwarf those made by albums and cinema tickets, there isn't much doubt that this process is complete. What is still unclear, despite endless attempts by devotees to make their case, is whether games are worthy of a more serious kind of critical engagement than they tend to elicit today. That they are thumb-blisteringly fun is not in doubt. The question is: are they anything else?
It wasn't obvious from the series' second instalment, which was an essentially procedural update on the same two-dimensional car chase, that the game would one day be such a behemoth. But Grand Theft Auto III was a new departure. It imposed a far richer storyline on the game's basic structure, and offered the player many more things to do, if they chose to. It imagined its world in lovingly precise detail. It was frequently very funny. And, above all, it took its camera down to street level, reconfiguring everything in three dimensions from a point of view a few feet behind your miscreant avatar. In the process, a cartoon became an action movie.
When the game came out in late 2001, I was just 18, and making my devotional purchase legally seemed nearly as significant a milestone as my first legitimate pint. Grand Theft Auto, too, was coming of age, with all the fearlessness and false bravado that implies. The franchise had passed into the direct control of Sam and Dan Houser, the young brothers who had spotted its potential at BMG as a rather less blood-soaked game called Race'N'Chase. After BMG had left the business, the duo had formed a new publisher in New York, Rockstar Games; today, Sam executive produces the titles, while Dan co-writes.
Most production still takes place in the home of the original studio that produced the very first title in Edinburgh. The Houser team gave GTAIII a swaggering wit and confidence that made it a game that you were happy to play with other people around, people who didn't like games: even sceptics would quickly be drawn in. I remember one student friend, whose interest in consoles was limited to their status as evidence for the theories of Marshall McLuhan, sitting down beside me, laughing at a cut scene, and quickly finding herself bellowing that I should plough through a gaggle of pedestrians in the hope of evading the cops.
The game became the biggest hit of its time, and spawned legions of imitators that tried, but universally failed, to match the variety and freedom found on its streets. Inevitably, it broke through into the mainstream, not for the meticulous ambition of its construction, but for the seediness of its subject matter: many commentators, quite reasonably, saw something hatefully misogynist in the player's ability to have sex with a prostitute and then kill her to take back his money.
This is obviously pretty ugly, and I am often disappointed by the series' persistently teenage view of gender relations (most of all in the total absence of a single playable female character); but it must be said that this specific objection is based on a revealing misconception. It is true that you can kill a prostitute and take her money, but this is not specific to prostitutes. In Grand Theft Auto III, you can kill anyone and take their money. There is no doubt that plenty of idiot men spent more time trying out this particular process than could ever be justified by its impact on their points tally, and this is troubling in itself. Still, the game gives no special rewards for misogyny. It simply makes it possible.
Possibly the most interesting aspect of this controversy, then, is in the intersection of the game's mechanics and our reading of what they mean. The game allows you to have sex with prostitutes (that is, it shows your car rocking back and forth as your health gradually replenishes), and it offers them no special protection from your violence. The (sensible) interpretation of this sequence of events as being reprehensible is, in a sense, an external judgement. And this goes to the heart of something that made Grand Theft Auto III so interesting: it allowed you to do so many things, provided you with such a rich game world, that its programmed routines would give rise – often accidentally – to real-life reactions and emotions.
Game makers have long had a term for this kind of process: 'emergence', defined by the theorist Jesper Juul as "a small number of rules that combine and yield large numbers of game variations, which the players then design strategies for dealing with" – that is, when the game has a car knock you over just as you're aiming your sniper rifle, prompting you to take yourself to the rooftops. But Grand Theft Auto III – and bear with me here – was radically emergent. It didn't just test your rote button pressing skills in unpredictable ways. It got into your head without, apparently, intending to.
This is a fundamental aspect of games. (If I score a sublime, match-winning goal in Fifa 13 and run around the room with my shirt over my head, my joy will exceed the in-game commentator's reaction because he doesn't understand how generally limited a player I am.) But it comes up more often in Grand Theft Auto than in just about any other title because the world that your avatar inhabits is so extraordinarily deep.
If that variety was remarkable, the next title, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, which appeared just a year later, was almost a miracle. For all the sophistication of its successors, it remains my favourite of the series for its obsessional, giddy commitment to its hilarious world, a vision of 1980s Florida swiped unapologetically from Miami Vice, which Sam Houser says he watched on ancient eBayed VHS tapes every lunchtime for a year. That game ramped the series' commitment to good music up to the point that it became a major feature, with a series of radio stations available in every vehicle and 103 songs of the era available to accompany your itinerary of mayhem. It's the first and only time I have bought a video game's soundtrack, and I do not recommend listening to it while driving.
The internet is replete with discussions of players' favourite moments from the game. Here's mine: racing away in an ice-cream van from a phalanx of police cars that have busted me trying to sell drugs disguised as Mr Whippy, and heading off a ramp into the sunset as Kim Wilde's "Kids in America" plays in the background. There is nothing especially sophisticated here, it's true, but the memory lodges all the same, with its accompanying sense that such moments are not guaranteed, are fun precisely because they are serendipitous, because you have found and made them yourself.
After Vice City Stories, an add-on mostly notable for a mission in which you had to protect Phil Collins (as himself) from assassination so that he might play a gig, came San Andreas, another colossally ambitious sequel that plonked the player in the middle of a world that was really too big to properly explore, and made you responsible for your character CJ's wellbeing to the extent that you had to work out to stop him getting fat. Any sense that the game's increasing designs on the mainstream had deprived it of its capacity to shock was dissolved by the hullaballoo over the so-called 'Hot Coffee' modification, a hacker's discovery that buried in the game's code was a subgame that allowed CJ, a remorseful Los Angeleno gangbanger, to have sex with his girlfriend. The game was re-rated in America, prompting a frantic round-the-clock effort at Rockstar to produce a new edition with the offending code cut out. Even Hillary Clinton weighed in.
If the game's early success was in part founded on seeking out such rows – and whatever else, the 'Hot Coffee' affair cemented the title in the minds of even the most console-averse consumers as the pre-eminent game of its era – the Housers claim to be sick of it; so much evidence-free tosh is talked about the impact of such scenes (which do seem to me to be rather less troubling than the game's now generally accepted mechanic of running over innocent bystanders for no reason) that you can easily believe them.
Latterly, as games have moved towards the mainstream and the mainstream has moved towards games, such tabloid teacup-storms have become harder to imagine having any credibility. When the Daily Star made the laughable claim that the game's manufacturers were planning a reboot based on Raoul Moat's violent rampage, entitled GTA Rothbury, for example, it was forced to issue a grovelling apology and pay significant damages. And in Grand Theft Auto IV, Rockstar made a claim on maturity that the series' advocates would say put such nonsense to rest for good.
The game, released in 2008, centres on one Niko Bellic, a veteran of the Balkans conflict who was involved in a war crime. He has made his way to New York, reconfigured as Liberty City. In this classic immigrant tale – in which, as the American writer and gamer Tom Bissell points out, "it is left interpretatively open as to whether Niko is corrupted by America or whether he and his ilk … are themselves bacterial agents of corruption" – the Housers and their cohorts try very hard to tell a story that will stick with you. I don't remember very much about the lives of his predecessors, but, as Niko, I was faced with a number of truly f uncomfortable decisions that left me wracked with angst as I jacked my next car.
This will seem like a limited ambition. When enthusiasts write pieces insisting that games should be viewed as art, I am often bemused by the terribly low bar they set: any blood-and-thunder title that makes you care a single jot for its characters is praised to the rooftops, when such achievements are considered basic for even the most dismal Vin Diesel-vehicle of a film. In part, it's true, this is because you are complicit in games in a way that you never are in a movie, and so fairly simple plot points can have rather more complicated effects. But it also suggests the way that mainstream gaming (there are plenty of uncommercial titles doing more interesting things) remains a fundamentally unconfident form, stuck in the thrall of its big brother in Hollywood – even after a growth spurt that you might expect to invert the relationship.
In a sense, the question of whether or not games can be art is a red herring. A better question is: what can they do that nothing else can? To my mind, one significant aspect of their special magic is in their ability to conjure a sense of place, and there is no doubt that GTA IV is a more completely realised world than any I have previously encountered in games. I lived in New York for a year before the game came out, and more than once I found myself smiling in recognition of an obscure street corner, an idiosyncratic building; even after many hours of play, I would hear pedestrians say something I had never heard them say before. (The writers furnished some 80,000 lines of dialogue.)
And yet, although I am lost in admiration for Liberty City as a feat of architecture, and although I had just as much fun as ever, I didn't finish GTA IV. In their bonkers commitment to realism, Rockstar, I increasingly felt, had simply given the player too much to do; whether I was ignoring the call of a friend who I should have been taking ten-pin bowling or answering an email from my mother back in Serbia, I always seemed to be busy. It was like having a job. The 1,000 people and $100m that the game took to put together had left me with a deep anxiety about everything I was missing.
There's another problem, too, with the series' move towards veracity: the closer it cleaves to reality, the more jarring its essential set-up seems to be. You can run over a bystander as you make small talk with your date en route to the funfair, or agonise over an assassination shortly after using a rocket launcher to explode a busy subway train. For many people this won't be a problem. But the dissonance made everything feel weird to me, and I found myself behaving more and more carefully, just so that Niko's wistful tone wouldn't seem quite so out of place.
Cleverly, Rockstar somewhat anticipate this gap, between the story and the world, by making Niko a thoroughly conflicted character, a likeable man who is wracked with guilt by his crimes. And, of course, to be aware of the problem, and interested by it, is also to pay the game an exceptional compliment. For like every other kind of storytelling, the video game, when pushed to its limit, turns out to be unsatisfactory as a representation of our real experience of the world: it turns out, in fact, to be most powerful when it is viewed as a commentary on itself.
I am 30 in three weeks. Am I as excited about the arrival of a new sequel as I was about its predecessors? You bet I am. I have watched that gameplay video several times, pored over fan sites for details of the new title's most thrilling features, groaned in frustration along with everyone else when the release date has been pushed back.
The new game, since you ask, seems like the first time that the technology has really been capable of making the game that the Housers have had in their head all along. It takes place in a vast representation of southern California, bigger than the worlds that housed the previous 3D iterations put together; to get around it without having to spend realistic hours stuck on the freeway, you flip between three central characters, who come together at various points to organise daring robberies. Some of it sounds like an adventure holiday: you can play golf, take a parachute jump, ride a bike, go deepsea diving, fly helicopters, kill pedestrians. As winter draws in, and the spate of weddings and significant birthday parties that I am currently navigating dries up, I know how I am going to be spending my weekends. It will take more than my mother with a toastie to tempt me out.
Although I will defend gaming to the hilt against anyone I hear sneering about it, the truth is that it does still feel a little adolescent to me: I am not quite unapologetic enough to see games as a sensible activity for a man of my age. As I draw the blinds and load it up for the first time, I know I will have an edge of anxiety about being an adult, about the friends I don't see enough of, the DIY I need to get around to, the books I haven't read. But I know that at the moment I get my first view of the new San Andreas, that will pass. And I know that my next thought will be the same one I had when I was 14: what do I get to do first?
GRAND THEFT AUTO (1997)
* Originally called Race'n'Chase – the game, which was almost cancelled in development, was released to mixed reviews.
* Set in three locations, Liberty City, Vice City and San Andreas (all later recreated and expanded) the game is played in a 2D top-down universe with elementary – even for the time – graphics.
* Despite the crude graphics, the game's ability for players to stray from the main plot mission marked it as a quite literal game-changer.
* Allowing players to run over pedestrians led to the first of many political outcries, and a debate in the House of Lords.
GRAND THEFT AUTO V (2013)
* The initial announcement, in 2011, that GTAV was on its way led to shares in parent publisher Take Two Interactive jumping in value by 7 per cent.
* Gameplay takes place across Rockstar Games' fictional version of California – San Andreas and the city of Los Santos (LA). The gameworld, which players can wander freely, as in all GTA games, is bigger than the previous games combined.
* GTAV's radio stations feature 240 songs, including a new track by Tyler, the Creator.
* Stores around the world will open at 12am on Tuesday to sell the game. Sales will be in the millions.
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