Sunday, November 01, 2009

Grand Theft Auto (via Gameswipe)

Yes, this was me in 1997Charlie Brooker's Gameswipe, being a BBC overview of computer games history, inevitably got to the point where it mentioned GTA. The programme was a fun once-over by the jaded eye of Brooker and I enjoyed catching all the old games I recognised, with a spark of memory, the ones I was familiar with and being amazed by the new ones since I departed the industry. Although I'd known of the controversy at the time, I hadn't really paid much attention, and seeing it in context was quite enlightening. Just how much passion had flared over this game was put into persective, with archive BBC news clips and talking heads decrying it. All the controversy, all the hype, but not much that I didn't know or was surprised by except for this little nugget: GTA was “directly inspired by” Turbo Esprit, a game for the Spectrum.

Um. What?

That was... different. Quick summary: I worked for DMA Design from 1991 to 1997, and hung around Dave Jones doing freelance graphics work for him before that and attending the same computer club and college as him; all going back to around 1984. Turbo Esprit is a new one on me. And naturally this is just an excuse for me to talk about GTA again and by extension, me. My involvement with GTA was tangential, as at the time my main concern was writing the story and background material for Body Harvest, but it did mean that I was present for a handful of meetings and acted as a kind of low-level disruptive influence. Other than dialogue writing, I play-tested it at my desk within the design department, so I had a fantastic view of the process of creating the most controversial game ever to come out of Scotland. Which is not to say that I necessarily remember all of it!

I've read a number of the “histories” of GTA which are dotted around the web and they all cover pretty much the same ground in not very much detail. GTA IV gets the bulk of the commentary unsurprisingly enough, being the acme of the supposed “murder simulator” genre. Not any of them that I've seen were written by anyone connected with the project. Dave is interviewed, but the origin of GTA isn't given much, if any, space. Indeed it's mentioned in places that if you are familiar with GTA IV, GTA the original will come as a surprise.

Everyone knows, it seems, that the original name was Race 'n' Chase, but no-one knows that one of the suggested names was Freeway, a name that I pointed out was also the name of the dog in Hart to Hart, at which point it got dropped. Mike Dailly coded up the graphics engine that was the basis of GTA. This system was informally called Legovision and I think the engine predated the concept of the game itself, which makes the Turbo Esprit influence nonsensical. No-one had ever mentioned it.

I have a better candidate for the influence of GTA and it dates back to 1990 when Dave had the very first office (I was freelance at the time), and we were taking part in the ITV Telethon. Our goal was writing an entire game in 24 hours, and it was a car racing game with a top down view. Being an amalgam of all the racing games we could think of, we called it Super Off-Road Hot Turbo Buggy Simulator. And at the same time a game we had been playing in the office was a Commodore 64 game where you drove a car around a city, called Siren City... How Dave got the idea for GTA, I can't say for sure, but there were more potent influences than Turbo Esprit.

One of the curious things within the histories is the occasional reference to the low production values of the graphics, especially since this was 1997/98. It's possible I was insulated from the outside world when GTA was being put together, but at the time – and as far as I can see it hasn't changed – all the big name games had the same colour palette. Doom set the template, and for years after it was murky greys, browns and dark greens. Most first person shooters looked the same. Indeed in one of the design documents I wrote at the time – unconnected with GTA – I pasted screenshots from Quake, Unreal and a few others to illustrate at a glance how difficult it was to tell the games apart. One of the other guys in the Design Department, Stewart Graham, was especially keen on not having dowdy visuals. Bright, cartoony graphics were specifically intended to make GTA look unlike other games. As a secondary concern, it fitted the nature of the gameplay which wasn't deadly serious; it was fun. What many people fail to remember is that GTA was in large part a pisstake. You only have to look at the faux adverts around the printed map to see that.

This I the point that I have to introduce Brian Baglow. Brian has, so far in my life, been the only person ever to land me in shit with the management on a charge of blasphemy. As architect-in-chief of our freshly minted intranet, I apparently bore the responsibility for everyone's profile Q&A. Brian's answers were slightly spicy, and not at all respectful of the, say, devout believer in a higher power. I passed them without comment because they were fantastically funny. But a single individual disagreed and I had to carry the can for it. Brian's response was to rewrite them to be as fluffy and cute as you could imagine... and equally funny. Brian's sense of humour drove much of GTA.

At the same time as I was writing never-to-be-used dialogue for the original, I was also throwing around never-to-be-used ideas and occasionally acting as a sounding board for Brian. Which is why for a brief moment, controversial though GTA was, it could have contained a rather different message. At the time, a number of arcade games had a prominent FBI logo stating “Winners Don't Use Drugs”, though quite how FBI jurisdiction extended to the high street of Dundee was never clear. Nevertheless, we both thought it was pretty amusing.

GTA, even before it was released, was obviously a pretty subversive game. In one of those meetings of just myself and Brian, more to get away from the hustle and bustle than a proper meeting, I came up with the idea of subverting our own subversion. When the main character opened the suitcase at the end of the game, the thing would explode and the game would end with a parody of the logo saying “Crime Doesn't Pay”.

We thought it was a funny thing to do, to be able to say “Hey, we're responsible and are conveying a responsible message!” Needless to say it never ended up that way, because it was around that time that the carrot of becoming freelance was once more dangled in front of me and I ended up taking it. It was only ever intended that I'd spend two months on GTA, and I'd like to think that my most lasting effect was inspiring Brian to ever-greater heights of lunacy. And as for Gameswipe, surely there is a case for digging out all those old industry mainstays and the BBC making a full in-depth series about computer games history. I for one would be delighted to contribute.
Images in this post taken from Mike Dailly's Flickr stream, who got much of them from my DMA Design Macintosh (which I had from them as a leaving gift) where I stored them all, packrat style, in the first place!

No comments: