The Origins of Grand Theft Auto

Everyone loves smashing up cars and robbing Mafia bosses in GTA, but did you know the original game was based on Pacman? The most violent Pacman we've ever seen...
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Everyone loves smashing up cars and robbing Mafia bosses in GTA, but did you know the original game was based on Pacman? The most violent Pacman we've ever seen...

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"POLICE ARE ABOUT TO HAVE A REAL BAD DAY."

Thus predicted the legend on the box of 1997’s 18-certificate Grand Theft Auto, along with a Parental Advisory logo giving notice of ‘EXPLICIT CONTENTS’. It’s safe to say that both warnings were on the money, much as it’s also true that GTA really did change the world. In fact, if the hysterical reactionaries are to be believed, it is directly responsible for the breakdown of society. Arguably the most controversial game of all time, it was debated in Parliament, banned in Brazil, and spawned more tabloid headlines than a fight between Jordan and Posh. And all this for a top-down 2D game that was little more than a glorified version of Pacman.

Eh? Not our analysis but that of GTA creator Dave Jones: “All the pedestrians were the dots, you were going round knocking all the dots over, getting points, and the police cars were the ghosts. So really, the fundamentals of the core game, basically it’s Pacman.”

An interesting correlation, except Pacman didn’t reward you for stealing cars, running over pedestrians and shooting policemen in the face. These are all features that were incorporated during the development of the game, which surprisingly took the best part of four years.

As Dave explains, “Initially I wanted to try and create a city that was as lifelike as possible. Cars would drive around, traffic lights would work, if you ran somebody over an ambulance would come and take them away, if you set fire to car someone would come and put the fire out. So that was the basis, we thought it would be very cool if we could actually create a real breathing city, and that was the whole initial drive. And then we thought about what we could do in this city, and that’s when the weird and crazy ideas came out.”

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NAME GAME

One such idea that was in place for almost the first year of development was the option to play as the police. In fact the original title was Race ‘n’ Chase, not a name that readily lends itself to a game that sold upwards of two million copies. According to Dave, that idea was eventually quashed in favour of somewhat less law-abiding behaviour.

“Basically, once we had everything up and running, nobody wanted to play the police. It just wasn’t much fun, there wasn’t a great deal to do. It then became a case of just adding and adding more and more things, like you could steal cars. And then an ambulance came when you ran somebody over, but wouldn’t it be really cool if you actually stole the ambulance as well? So we did that sort of thing. Obviously the police chasing you, we thought well it’s great fun for about five minutes, but we need a way to make them stop chasing you, so we introduced the spray shops. So it really was an evolutionary process very much.”

That process came to a head in 1997, when the game was finally released. With new-fangled 3D games very much at the forefront, the initial response to a quirky-looking topdown affair was lukewarm to say the least. Enter PR guru Max Clifford, a mention in Parliament, and a series of events that ultimately led to one of the biggest-selling game brands of all time.

LIFE OF BRIAN

Working at DMA Design at the time was Brian Baglow, occupying a fairly broad role that included some PR duties. He takes up the story.

“Somebody had drawn it to the attention of somebody in the House Of Lords first, Lord Campbell Of Croy, and what happened was he raised the question in the House Of Lords which was a bit irrelevant and completely pointless, but it suddenly got out there. And then Nigel Griffiths, who I think was the junior minister or shadow minister for trade and industry or something at this point got involved, and jumped in with ‘It’s outrageous and shocking and shouldn’t be allowed!’ again from a completely uninformed point of view. But that’s what really sparked it off. From there we had everyone from the Police Chief Federation through to RoSPA, the road safety people, complaining that the game was irresponsible. The only people we didn’t have any complaints from were the Hare Krishnas, who probably had more reason to complain than almost anyone else.”

Indeed they did, considering that slewing through a crowd of them in a fast-moving vehicle gave the player extra points, and resulted in some very dead (or at least reincarnated) Krishnas.

READ ALL ABOUT IT

This kind of content fuelled the controversy, helped inestimably by the appointment of one of PR’s best-known figures, tabloid-manipulating spinmeister, Max Clifford.

As Baglow recalls, “BMG Interactive, who were the publisher at the time, they brought in Max Clifford, which from my point of view was great. My first ever PR job and I’m working with The Master, and I mean that in a Dr Who kind of way. It was great, I had my own page in the News Of The World that had a headline like SICK CAR CRIME GAME BOSS IN TOT SLASH SHOCK, and seriously my parents wanted to sue. What happened was that they turned a real-life incident into a news story. I crashed my one litre Metro after hitting a patch of black ice and kind of hit a tree, and that was it. My Metro turned into ‘a high-powered XR2i’ and “I hit a bit of black ice and smacked into a tree damaging the car” turned into ‘“It’s lucky I wasn’t on drugs!” sneered Baglow.’

From a PR point of view, Baglow was naturally more than happy to feature in such a story, and indeed played no little part in its appearance. As he now admits, while nodding vigorously, “It’s entirely possible that somebody may have tipped them off, I’m not at liberty to comment. What happened was they were looking for somebody on the team that had been involved in an accident, but nobody was willing to stand up and stick their head above the parapet. Dave [Jones] wasn’t interested, and they eventually came to me, and I just went ‘Yeah whatever, I wrote the whole game, fine.’ As a little insight into how the tabloids work it was illuminating.”

Clifford certainly earned his corn, and as Dave Jones says, “He was great, the publicity that we got from that was absolutely tremendous.”

PACMAN TO PAXMAN

Further free advertising rapidly followed, with the game’s detractors inadvertently helping to bring it to the masses. As Baglow recalls, “The marketing director of BMG ended up going on Newsnight and debating this with Jeremy Paxman and a guy from the Christian Families Coalition or something, which was scary in itself. Jeremy Paxman sitting there going “Come on Mr Butler, you’re not going to tell me that children play these games, surely.”

Jones also remembers the time fondly, citing “The best one was when it was on Breakfast TV for two hours, they were having a debate about it, showing it, viewers were phoning in.”

And all this for a visually simplistic game that was scarcely above the level of a 2D cartoon.

“I know,” says Jones. “To be honest, a lot of people actually when they heard about it said ‘That’s terrible and disgusting.’ When they saw it they were like ‘Oh what’s all the fuss about?’”

It’s a sentiment echoed by Baglow, who claims “All the controversy was based on the initial premise. Everything that happened happened because people heard that there was this game out there where you could shoot cops and run over people, and that was it. Immediately, it was ‘Dear God! It should be banned! I can’t allow this!’ Not one person who criticised the game had ever played it.”

Free advertising rapidly followed, with the game’s detractors inadvertently helping to bring it to the masses. As Baglow recalls, “The marketing director of BMG ended up going on Newsnight and debating this with Jeremy Paxman and a guy from the Christian Families Coalition or something...

MUSIC SOUNDS BETTER

This is probably just as well, as had the game’s critics delved deeper they would have discovered something that may have sent them off the end of the outrage meter. What wasn’t widely publicised at the time was the fact that the music in Grand Theft Auto contains some of the most disgusting and degrading lyrics ever committed to CD.

The man responsible? Brian Baglow, who remains resolutely proud of his contribution to musical posterity. Having previously written a few lyrics on a non-professional basis, Baglow was asked to come up with the words to a thinly-veiled AC/DC pastiche called 4 Letter Love, which still appears on his CV today. A sample lyric, Brian?

“Well, the chorus is ‘Beat me, bite me, whip me, fuck me, come on wank me, now go down and suck me.’”

Charming, but as he says, “It was an 18-certificate game so we could get away with a fair amount. It was unique, there’s not so many jobs where you can go into your work, come home and go ‘Well today I wrote the lyrics for a really, really incredibly blasphemous, sacrilegious and generally filthy heavy metal song.”

Baglow also came up with The Ballad of Chapped Lip Calquhoun by Hank O’Malley (And The Alabama Bottle Boys) for the themed Country & Western station that you heard if you stole a pick-up truck. Other relevant stations with their own repertoire kicked in depending on the typical owner of the vehicle you took control of. It was a pioneering idea that pushed GTA beyond the realms of a game and into the arena of mainstream entertainment.

“Initially we wanted to really make it like an audio feast,” says Dave Jones. “The first one there was no licensed music, we did absolutely everything ourselves, we created our own songs, our own radio stations and we did everything from country and western to Jazz, a tremendous amount of tracks. The lyrics were absolutely brilliant. If you listen to them, everything relates to the game, they told stories about the game and everything in it. That’s what I think was lost a little bit with Vice City having licensed tracks, but then obviously it made it even more mainstream.”

The leap to 3D was massive in every sense, but what is little known is that GTA 2 could have been the breakthrough title, were it not held back by Sony’s console.

HOUSE MUSIC

Despite all of GTA’s music being recorded in-house - with Baglow making up fictional artist names such as Animal Testing Center and Government Listening Post – the quality was enough to convince experts otherwise, particularly as the box boasted ‘A 60 Minute soundtrack featuring all new music by some of today’s hottest new acts.’

According to Baglow, “We had several magazines actually fully believing that we had got all of these professional but deeply underground bands in on the soundtrack, but it was all internal at DMA. There was a guy up studying chemistry at Dundee University, this big black guy, Johnny, he did all the hip-hop stuff. Craig Connor, who wrote the hip-hop tracks is still at DMA, or Rockstar North. We got a local guy in to do the steel guitar and a couple of local drummers but it was all done in-house.”

It’s a ploy that has stood the test of time, and the soundtrack is still highly listenable today. The game is also reasonably playable, although you can’t help wishing that it was in 3D, something that of course came true with the epochal GTA III. In between came the little-remembered add-on, London 1969, and GTA 2.

According to Dave Jones, “It was just an evolution of GTA One. It went all a bit futuristic which was a bit of a mistake because the cars weren’t quite as recognisable, but there was some nice stuff like three different gang types. If you beat up one of the gang types, you got favour with the other, things like that.”

TAKE THAT

The leap to 3D was massive in every sense, but what is little known is that GTA 2 could have been the breakthrough title, were it not held back by Sony’s console.

As Dave says, “The fact is we always had to do the game on PlayStation One and there was no way it could be done. GTA 2 we actually had up and running in 3D but we couldn’t really release it in 3D on PC and then 2D on PlayStation, it would be a lot of work to do that. It was just a question of getting the timing right and waiting for PlayStation 2. It was tricky, a lot of technical challenges to overcome. Running somebody over and seeing it top-down against seeing them in your windscreen, that was a big difference.”

It’s a difference that Take 2 obviously appreciated. In fact, they liked it so much they bought the company, renaming it Rockstar North, at which point Jones departed. The rest of course is history, with the breakthrough GTA III proving both a critical and commercial hit, selling millions worldwide while offering a dark satire on American consumerist society. The sublime Vice City upped the ante even further, offering 80s-themed shenanigans, followed by landmark titles in the shape of San Andreas, GTA IV, and next year, GTA V, which we think might do ok. It’s all a far cry from Sideways Hank O’ Malley and his Alabama Bottle Boys. And a very long way from Pacman.