My poor immortal soul. The erosion began in 1997, when I was only 19 years old. Which seems... weird actually. The GTA games are only 13 years old? Surely the original came out in about '93?
But no, it wasn't until the late 90s that Dave Jones began his corruption of the masses via this hardcore murder simulator.
It's coincidence, but perhaps poignant coincidence, that I'm writing about the first Grand Theft Auto at the end of a week that's seen tumultuous times at Dave Jones' post-DMA company, Realtime Worlds. His creation spawned an empire, double-underlining the man's impact on the games industry after the radically different Lemmings made him a known name.
To play GTA now, which is easily done since it's available free from Rockstar's site, the contained controversy seems in keeping with a series that even if you've never played, you've heard of. But to imagine it in isolation, to remember playing it when it first came out, is extraordinary.
It's not like gaming had been an innocent pursuit until 1997. Obviously not. But it was the year that things got noticeably controversial. (The same year also offered us another chance to mow down innocents with Carmageddon.) And when a mainstream game from DMA - who had entertained us with suicidal green and purple rodents - contains lines like, "My brother knows I'm bangin' his wife. Waste the sonofabitch before he finds me," it comes as quite a surprise. To go from Christmas Lemmings to people shouting about "getting pussy"... it's like your gran revealing she used to be a porn star.
Viewed from the top down, your little sprite of a character can steal any car he fancies, and then speeds off around the city to commit various crimes. The goal is not to progress your way through a narrative, but rather to score enough points to open up the next section of the game. Significant points are accrued by successfully completing chains of missions, or smaller bits and pieces can be picked up when stealing cars, performing side quests, or of course running over the innocent.
The thought that the game came out earlier than '97 is compounded by its having some truly dodgy graphics. Despite being in 3D, the top-down view looks like something that could have appeared on the Amiga, and its presentation is peculiarly primitive. Without a mini-map, and the only map available the one printed on paper that came with the game, the navigation is shocking. It will only occasionally tell you where you are, and then you have to translate the tiny square of visible roads onto the flapping paper map, and attempt to reason a method for getting yourself to the next location, without disappearing into one of its thousands of dead ends.
It's a big world to navigate too. The original GTA in fact contains all three cities that have gone on to be more fully realised since. You begin in Liberty City, make your way to San Andreas, and then explore Vice City. Each is made up of 10 to 20 districts, throughout which are scattered bomb shops, respraying mechanics, police stations, train stations, and so on.
I had imagined the cutesy cartoon graphics, and comparatively primitive game, would mean the shock factor would be amusingly diluted. We could look back on it and "awwww" at how innocent we used to be. But really, the game remains impressively unsavoury still.
While you're not watching the ragdoll physics of a realistic-looking human crumpling on the bonnet of your shiny car, there's something remarkably brutal about seeing those happy-go-lucky pedestrians smooshed into a growing puddle of blood. In the meantime someone's shouting (well, the text seems cross) "This s--t's bent Tony Dio's. He wants it back."
There's also an excellent degree of life to the city. More so, you could argue, than some sandbox games today successfully offer. They're small details, but they make a big difference, like seeing an ambulance turn up to scrape your victims from the tarmac. Often times you'll stumble upon a road incident that happened off screen, implying that you're not the only person having an impact on this world. And there are of course those escalating police chases.
If you get caught or reported for a crime, you start off with just the one policeman chasing you. But this soon climbs, eventually leading to roadblocks and heavy responses. At this point your goal is to try to fathom whereabouts in the city you are, and get yourself to a mechanics for a respray. The police, they can't cope with new plates, and even if they're waiting for you right outside will immediately abandon the chase. "Oh, sorry, exactly the same man we were just chasing. Your car has a different licence plate and therefore you're unrecognisable."
I realise that I keep making reference to getting lost. And I also know there will be some people who scream, "What are you talking about, you over-inflated buffoon! You just learn your way around!" Which means I want to speak up for those of us for whom such a goal isn't possible. You can tell who we are: we're the ones, when playing a GTA IV or Saints Row 2, will be looking almost exclusively at the mini-map everywhere we go, almost oblivious to the rest of the screen.
Look, I can get lost going up a flight of stairs. Getting back from someone's bathroom to their lounge requires intervening aid from a St. Bernard and eventually a MEDEVAC team. I spent a year driving back and forth through Bristol twice a week, along two different shortcuts a friend had taught me. A year. A full year before I realised it was the same shortcut on the same roads. I want you to understand why there are mini-maps. They're for people like me, with the geographical awareness of a wheelbarrow.
But a difficulty that perhaps affects a larger proportion of players of GTA, and possibly the most surprising aspect of the game looking back, is the finality of failing a mission.
You've got to get to 1,000,000 points to clear Liberty City. There's only about a dozen missions to get there with. So you pick up a mission to steal truck, bomb a building, then answer a phone to get the next stage. But take too long getting to that phone and you'll miss the call. This doesn't prompt a message saying, "Mission Failed" and then put you back at the start, forcing you to repeat the whole truck bombing section again. It just says "Mission Failed". And leaves you where you are.
Should you run out of available tasks without the full amount, you'll have to resort to scraping together the scraps of points available for various street crimes. Or more likely, start over. You've also got a limited number of lives, and die too often and you'll find your attempt over. No helpful checkpoint, unless you've cleared a full city area. It makes for a much more imposing challenge than those of the modern Rockstar games. Not a more difficult challenge, certainly, but the stakes are so much higher here.
The game remains extraordinary. Playing it with anything other than a keyboard still isn't really an option. While it will support controllers, including a 360 pad, they're so berserk that you'll have little fun. And it really does take some getting used to before you'll be able to control the cars at any speed. But you do get there. And then you're having quite so much fun.
There's a few things to know, though. For an awful lot of people, me included, the version created to run on modern systems has a bug that corrupts a key file every time you close it. To get it to load again you'll need GTAFixer.exe. This will also fix a silly mistake where audio files were misnamed, meaning you'd listen to police chatter on foot. And at the same link you'll find scans of the maps, and the instruction booklet. What you won't find even in there is that hitting F7 will replay your last pager message. And don't forget that F11 will let you upgrade the graphics to 1024x768.
Play in commiseration with Realtime Worlds, whose attempt to update the franchise to an online world sadly didn't work well enough. Or play because you get to squish innocent people, and thus be brainwashed as a crazed sociopath, so the tabloids have something fun to write about.