10 March 2012

Urban warfare

Psychotic flânerie and the history of Grand Theft Auto ((An edited version of this article appeared in the Guardian‘s Weekend magazine on March 10, 2012.))

The fastest-selling cultural product in history was created by people you’ve probably never heard of. While this year’s Oscars honoured films in which the movie business sweetly congratulates itself on its own birth — The Artist, Martin Scorsese’s Hugo — the most rapidly dollar-hoovering entertainment release ever is not a film, still less an album; it’s a videogame. Coming out last autumn, Modern Warfare 3 — a blockbuster military shooter made by a Californian game studio called Infinity Ward, with Bret Robins as creative director — took just 16 days to gross $1bn, beating by one day the previous record set by a film about blue people in space. And it wasn’t a freak accident. Global annual sales of videogames now dwarf cinema box-office and recorded music: in 2010, games grossed $56bn, film tickets $32bn, and music $23bn. (The film industry as a whole still made more, at $87bn.) Even social games on Facebook are enormous business: Zynga, the company behind Farmville and Words with Friends, is responsible for fully 12 per cent of Facebook’s revenue. Hollywood is old-school now. And one company in particular, founded by a gang of Brits, has played a pivotal role in this media revolution over the past decade. They call themselves Rockstar Games.

Rockstar’s banner Grand Theft Auto series has sold a total of 117m copies. And it’s a cute irony of cultural globalization that the most convincing digital simulation of New York yet made was built by a gang of Scots. In 2008, Grand Theft Auto IV (which itself grossed $1bn faster than anything previously had) recreated New York City in spectacular fidelity as the setting for the adventures of Niko Bellic, an Eastern European migrant intent on upward social mobility in the hoodlum underworld. Later this year, Grand Theft Auto V — whose recently released teaser trailer has, like that for a hotly anticipated film, already attracted millions of views and countless pages of badly spelled fan speculation on the internet — will move the action to a virtual Los Angeles. Yet all the main episodes in this monster fun franchise are created in this country by Rockstar North, an Edinburgh-based studio that began as a plucky startup in the bedroom-coding home-computer revolution of the 1980s.

Once upon a time, Rockstar North was DMA Design, founded in 1988 by a group of friends in Dundee. Their first big hit was Lemmings, a puzzle game in which you guide a troupe of the suicidally trusting furry creatures through a series of sadistically booby-trapped levels. Lemmings became a guilty hit in offices around the country, and with sequels and spin-offs had by the early 1990s sold more than 20m. But the cartoonish violence of crushed or sliced lemmings spraying blood after your dishonourable failure to help them transmuted into something much edgier when those perishing were not cuddly rodents in a fantasy dungeon but squealing urban citizens under the wheels of your getaway car. This was what happened in DMA’s next big hit, Grand Theft Auto.

The first GTA began production in 1995 under the working title “Race’n’Chase”. At first you could play either a policeman or a criminal, but the team soon realized that enforcing the law was not as much fun as breaking it. Dave Jones, one of DMA’s founders, now explains: “It was just so much more fun doing all the crazy wrong stuff in the city. There was no way we could get as much fun from being the good guys. Eventually we just dropped the two-sided approach, threw caution to the wind, and fully embraced the dark side.” Visually, GTA was essentially a cartoon, with a vantage point like that of the satellite view of streets you can get today in Google Maps. You drove your car around the city grid, stopping off at payphones to receive instructions (rob this bank, destroy that vehicle), and mowing down cops or civilian pedestrians, whose tiny pixellated forms would squelch bloodily under your tyres. Bonus points were awarded for killing an entire orange-robed conga-line of Hare Krishnas.

Max Clifford was hired to advise on the PR for the game’s 1997 release. Cannily, he advised them to feed the tabloids the most outrageous details possible. “It was quite scary and quite impressive how he laid out his plan to manipulate the media and the politicians,” Jones remembers. “It culminated in a two-hour feature on breakfast TV debating the game. At this point, all of the politicians lambasting the game had not even seen it. I think they were disappointed when they did, given the cartoony look…” The gutter press duly issued calls to ban this sick filth, the British Police Federation called it “sick, deluded and beneath contempt”, and the game became a slow-burning hit. Grand Theft Auto the countercultural phenomenon was born.

At the time, DMA’s games were published by BMG Interactive, a London division of the German music group, where a young Brit called Sam Houser took a close interest. He wanted to build a label that was for videogames what Def Jam had been for music, and was sick of the medium’s pubescent trolls-and-orcs fantasy worlds. When I talked to him on the release of Grand Theft Auto II in 1999, Houser was bullish about the controversy over the first game. He recalled talking to the New York Police Department, who apparently didn’t mind that youngsters were killing cops in GTA: “Well, you know what?” he recalled them saying. “There’s a lot of people out there trying to kill cops and we’d rather they did it in your game than on the street.”

Houser is now president of the New York-based game-publishing powerhouse Rockstar Games, which he founded in 1998 along with his brother Dan and others. DMA Design became its wholly owned subsidiary Rockstar North, one of several Rockstar studios around the world. (Max Payne 3, due out in May, is created by Rockstar Vancouver.) And Sam Houser himself has been the GTA games’ executive producer since the third outing, 2001’s Grand Theft Auto III, which was a technical revolution for the series. It no longer offered a flat, aerial vista of the city, but a perspectival, street-level point of view. The carjacking, shooting and running-over was close-up and visceral, and yet the game was also very funny, and had a rare depth beneath the lurid mischief. “It is a beautifully designed game with glorious cascading systems,” reflects Ste Curran, creative director at British game studio Echo Peak and host of the videogames radio show One Life Left. “The location is playful and fun — it looks like a city, feels like a playground — and events unfold differently on every replay. That’s what keeps the game interesting.”

And then, of course, there are the prostitutes. GTA III’s streetwalkers were just provocatively styled vending machines: invite one into your stolen car, and in exchange for some cash you would regain some of your “health”, after a chaste interlude of bouncing suspension. But one designer tried beating the prostitute to death immediately after the transaction. He got his money back, and kept the health increase: win-win. So GTA III was released on a wave of controversy about how it was the game where you killed prostitutes. Some commentators pointed out mildly that you didn’t have to kill prostitutes; but the designers did make it possible — as they did not, for example, make it possible to rescue kittens stuck up trees. But then, that wouldn’t have fit with the game’s swaggering aesthetic, what Ste Curran describes as its “perfectly pitched Molotov cocktail of pop culture and grimy, streetwise theft and thuggery”.

The next game in the series, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (2002), was a milestone in Houser’s ambition to make “cinematic” videogames. Stylistically, it was a loving tribute to the film Scarface and the 1980s TV series Miami Vice: Mister Mister on the car radio, pastel jackets, and wanton murder. Ray Liotta, Peter Fonda, and Dennis Hopper were cast as voice-actors. (A new book on the history of the Grand Theft Auto games, David Kushner’s Jacked, also narrates a fraught recording with Burt Reynolds, whom one Rockstar producer described as “a total cock”.) Vice City was the first successful “period” videogame, showing that the medium had become mature enough to riff on a concrete historical period rather than a pseudo-Tolkein alt-middle ages or a quasi-Blade Runner sci-fi future. Dave Jones, one of GTA’s original creators, had left DMA after the release of the second game (“It was not my company any more”), and is now a creative director working with several studios. So what does he think of how Rockstar brought up his baby? “I thought it was great,” he enthuses. “GTA III, and especially Vice City, for me were the pinnacles of the series. They kept a lot of the non-serious side of the game, which I personally still feel is the best treatment for it.”

The sequel that followed, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (2004), was less whimsically amusing, but even more provocative, set as it was among drug and prostitution gangs in LA during the 1990s. It was progressive in having a black lead character, almost unheard-of in videogames at the time. (You could say it was the videogame analogue of HBO series The Wire.) But San Andreas also became the most notorious game yet of the series. During the game’s development, as Kushner relates in Jacked, Houser had been pushing hard to feature a lot of porny scenes, including representations of “blowjobs”, “dildo sex” and “whipping”. He was eventually convinced by his partners that this would be commercial suicide, since big retailers such as Wal-Mart would refuse to stock it. Right before the game’s launch, it would have been technically tricky to excise the offending parts from the game’s complex code, so instead they were hastily “wrapped”: they would never appear when you played the game, but they were still there, deep in the data on the discs. Inevitably, one enterprising hacker discovered them, and released onto the internet a software patch to let other players unlock them too. This became known as the “Hot Coffee” modification. Moralists on both sides of the Atlantic went wild in ecstatic apoplexy.

One employee at the time, who spoke on condition of anonymity, remembers that, while the atmosphere within Rockstar was playful (“table-tennis tables and beanbags and toys on the desk and all that kind of Generation Y stuff”), the top people were also “very driven”. Their laudable “passion for the games” also led to office shouting matches and a “face-time culture”, with people routinely expected to “stay late even if they’d finished their work”. He vividly recalls the epic all-nighter pulled when Rockstar was scrambling to re-release a new version of San Andreas purged of the sex scenes: “Pretty much the entire company got pulled in to help with the testing process in order to get a new version of the game out as quickly as possible to appease the American censors. That meant we had to work round the clock in shifts, sleeping on sofas to sustain us through the night so we could shoot imaginary gangsters and hoodlums in the head.”

The excited desire to include the “Hot Coffee” scenes in San Andreas in the first place betrayed, you might think, a rather shambolically teenage idea of “adult” entertainment. But it doesn’t mean that videogames are made by sex-starved geeks, a stereotype the former Rockstar employee is keen to dispel: “I think the ‘spotty bloke’ image is a pretty lazy one, really,” he says. “It sort of suggests that these amazing pieces of art are somehow a happy accident that arises from a dysfunctionally adolescent imagination. I think that does these games a massive disservice. These aren’t random acts of genius produced by idiots savants; they’re the result of a colossal creative endeavour. They’re the output of hundreds of people — men and women — working round the clock, offering up every ounce of creativity they’ve got to make the best art they can.” And the moral outcry over the “Hot Coffee” balls-up was itself self-serving and inconsistent with attitudes to the rest of the media landscape. The core demographic for blockbuster games has for at least a decade been people in their 20s and 30s. Another Rockstar North game, Manhunt, was publicly denounced in 2006, with Keith Vaz MP saying in Parliament: “This is not about adult censorship; it is the protection of young children and young people.” Yet Manhunt — a thoughtful and amusingly disgusting satire on reality TV and media prurience — had, like San Andreas, been rated 18 by the BBFC, the same certification that it awarded last year (after cuts) to the somewhat less intellectually satisfying movie The Human Centipede 2.

When Bobby Kotick, the amiable CEO of rival major publishers Activision Blizzard, was asked at a 2008 industry conference whether games had to be as violent as Grand Theft Auto, he defended Rockstar. “Fifty per cent of the audience that plays games is over the age of 18,” he pointed out. “We’re a broad-based medium today, we’re going to appeal to the broadest possible consumer base, and you’re going to see all sorts of product, and that’s going to include gratuitously violent product.” In any case, violent games have only ever been one part of the wider videogame story. As well as the Call of Duty series of military shooters (which includes the Modern Warfare sub-brand), Activision Blizzard also publishes the elf-bothering online roleplaying game World of Warcraft, while another big publisher, EA, produces The Sims and popular sports games featuring snowboarding or football. Just as with films, different videogames are made for different audiences.

Rockstar in particular want their games to be taken as seriously as films are. They certainly pour a comparable level of resources into production, with development costs billowing in the “arms race” that Ste Curran says GTA III started, pushing games into a “mega-budget era”. For GTA IV, the budget was around $100 million. It took three years to create, and used a cast of 861 actors speaking 80,000 lines of dialogue. Large videogame productions now have staff (like permanent film crews) numbering in the hundreds; they commission symphonic musical scores, and continue to poach Hollywood talent. (The actor Mark Hamill, once a fresh-faced Luke Skywalker, has been playing a blinder as the Joker in the recent Batman games.) A new mini-wave of noir-ish detective games, such as the French designer David Cage’s Heavy Rain or Rockstar’s own LA Noire, is pushing the technique of “motion capture” to new heights, recording actors’ facial expressions as they speak and then applying those movements to digitally created physiognomies. (This is how Gollum in the Lord of the Rings films was created.) For the moment this has the effect of driving videogames even further into what some digital aestheticians call “Uncanny Valley”, that strange no-man’s-land where the more realistic an artificial person looks, the eerier its niggling departures from reality feel. But David Cage, for one, has predicted that fully “photo-realistic” videogame characters will be possible in around six years’ time.

So what kinds of pseudo-films are today’s most successful videogames? If the immensely slick and kinetically satisfying Call of Duty series were a film director, it would be Michael Bay: all ludicrously deafening destruction, prettified catastrophe with a size fetish, and comedy geopolitics. (The last two Modern Warfare games have been predicated on the notion of the Russians mounting a land-based invasion of the US and Europe in the near future.) If Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto series were a film director, it would be Martin Scorsese. Or at least, that’s who it really, really wants to be. But it takes more than an obsessive fan’s line-by-line recall of GoodFellas to make art. Reviewing GTA IV for the Wall Street Journal in 2008, the novelist Junot Díaz, a long-time fan, ridiculed the media hype that had compared it favourably to Coppola’s The Godfather. “Like the pulps that are part of its narrative DNA,” Díaz wrote, “GTA IV operates in broad strokes, crude characterization and over-the-top stereotypes.”

Then in 2009, Rockstar released an add-on pack to GTA IV entitled “The Ballad of Gay Tony”, a rather winning episode of street-level havoc plus Fight Club-esque underground brawling and even nightclub-management. It’s one of the provocations that redound to Rockstar’s credit — you still don’t get many gay characters in videogames — but a season of The Sopranos it ain’t. “Videogames tell stories badly,” says the game designer and critic Ian Bogost, a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology. (He designed the Facebook game Cow Clicker, a satire on Farmville-style games that itself became a surprise hit.) Even so, Bogost says, bad game stories are “charming”, and perhaps even necessarily bad: “Maybe videogames are meant to help us shed our obsession with storytelling, making LA Noire and Heavy Rain transitional works. Or maybe they’re meant to show us all the things between the story, like wandering around virtual space and exploring it like virtual tourists.”

Virtual tourism is, indeed, the aspect of the Grand Theft Auto games that has been much more influential for the medium as a whole than their gangster-movie envy. They made popular and compelling an “open-world” style. If you want to progress through the game’s scripted narrative, you must accept specific missions of telegenic spatter-mayhem; but that is not all you can do in the digital world. It is possible, like Herman Melville’s character Bartleby the scrivener, to respond, shruggingly: “I would prefer not to.” Instead you may just wander around and soak up the sights, which these days are wildly impressive. (The real star of GTA IV is not Niko Bellic but the city itself.) It’s true that the limited possibilities of interaction in the game (driving, shooting, battering) steer the player towards a kind of psychotic flânerie, like Baudelaire with wheels and a sawn-off shotgun. But at least that is an alternative to following orders.

When a game affords such possibilities, it’s “extremely appealing,” Dave Jones explains, “to have and see a multitude of reactions to your own actions. It’s like your own chemistry set. You want to see how far you can push the simulation, and how much it can recognize and respond to.” Such compelling freedom can be transplanted to many different genres — as, for instance, with Rockstar’s own Red Dead Redemption (2010), which is basically GTA as a Western. Here the psychotic flâneur, perched on a horse, may terrorize whole wooden towns or mercilessly scour the landscape of four-legged wildlife, collecting pelts as he goes. Ian Bogost suspects that such behaviour simply offers welcome relief from these games’ often “arduous and boring” missions. “Maybe the players are just lazy,” he muses. “Maybe they’re relaxing, as if in a videogame Club Med.”

That videogames now provide a place where you can go to relax — call it a Fourth Place, assuming Starbucks has permanent dibs on the Third — is itself a sign of their rapidly burgeoning capacity for rich simulation. “We have all been born 100 years too early,” Dave Jones laments wryly. “I would love to build and play in the kind of environments we see in movies like The Matrix and Inception.” But, he notes, we are still in “the stone age of gaming technology”. Jones’s own most recent project, APBReloaded, is like a networked GTA: the other people in the city are not scripted artifical characters, but human beings playing over the internet. His vision for the future is like this, only more so: “I want to be playing in an even more realistic GTA-style environment,” Jones says, “with 1,000 other real players in the city.” And so the impish simulation of anti-social behaviour promises to become ever more sociable.

You might not have played a Grand Theft Auto game yourself, or even seen someone else playing one, but you can hardly pass the day in a modern city without seeing someone playing a videogame, on Facebook or on their smartphone. And Rockstar have played a crucial part in gaining mass cultural acceptance for the medium, ever since they inspired other game-makers, according to Ste Curran, to emulate GTA’s “potent, lucrative blend of mainstream cool and commercial success”. Now videogames have indeed become as mainstream as music and the movies. We live in an age of ambient play. And perhaps it is not just a coincidence that the recent videogame trend of repurposing cities as zones of anarchic fun has coincided with developments in the wealthy rich world such as urban riots and the Occupy movement. If so, roll on Grand Theft Auto V: we can still reclaim the virtual streets, if not the real ones.

  • AJ

    Part of the reason video games gross so much higher than movies is that the per-unit cost is several times higher than movies. Sure, the profit is impressive, but how many people have had contact with GTA compared with Avatar?

  • Well that’s another way to quantify it, I guess. But you could also argue that the smaller number of people who’ve had contact with GTA have had a more substantial interaction than Cameron’s movie by dint of time invested.

    Avatar’s two and a half hours long (tho it feels longer) but GTAs are played for dozens of hours (tho it feels much less)… That’s some pretty impressive contact.

  • I’d actually be surprised if, over the life of the GTA series and 120m copies sold, fewer people had seen it in action than have seen Avatar.

  • Smoked

    As a sprawling, detailed sandbox it can certainly grapple with a wider set of maturities. Like the man says, given it time and it’ll soak you with its sheer scope of interactivity. If you talk about cultural impact – yeah, both GTA and Avatar grab us while we’re in our formatives, but what’s a two hour blockbuster vs a lumbering AAA game title like that these days?