Rockstar Speaks: The Art of GTA San Andreas

Rockstar North’s art director, Aaron Garbut, gives the rarest of interviews on the look of the biggest game of all time. Pray silence, for the man in charge of the San Andreas style.

Following yesterday’s spellbinding interview with Rockstar legend Dan Houser from Official PlayStation 2 magazine in the UK, we’ve dug up another rarity from the same issue. Aaron Garbut, Rockstar North’s art director, outlines in this interview what will make San Andreas the definitive game of its generation: its style.

From the buildings to the lighting, from punks hanging in alleys to the half-mile mountain, Garbut rules the look and feel of it all. No pressure, then.

Read all of it. Read every single word.

On the looks of the three cities of San Andreas

"We aimed to make every area feel very different while still belonging to the same cohesive whole. These cities (Los Santos, San Fierro and Las Venturas – Ed) really do sit well together, bringing very diverse elements into the mix. I think it’s very important to make sure every area feel unique, not just the cities, but the districts within them.

"There’s nothing more boring than a game that’s big for the sake of it. We could have made Grand Theft Auto 3 or Vice City much bigger and simply repeated the same stuff for miles on end, padding out what we had, but no one wants to drive through miles of identical buildings. We might as well make the cars drive much slower: it’d have the same effect.

"I want to feel like I can stop at any point and discover new things, I want to feel I can climb onto any roof, I want to get to know the map and recognise where I am, not check an A-Z on the Internet.

"There’s so much depth to the experience of simply sightseeing in this game – there’s so much to see, and all of it is interactive. It’s not a set to race through; it’s a fully realised, compelling world."

On accuracy of the subject matter

"We have a full team of researchers in New York, which is a constant help. There’s the usual Rockstar attention to details which, well, borders on madness. We have various people involved in the project externally who are very clued up in this area. The guys in New York also supplied us with literally thousands of character photographs and also sent across loads of footage from all sorts of sources for us to study. And of course, as always, we obsess over any relevant films."

On the mission for authenticity

"The entire team flew out to each of the cities, armed with cameras. We had a huge road trip, driving across the States in a convoy of Lincoln Town Cars… stopping off in each city and staying there till we had pretty much photographed every inch. It really was epic. The bravest of us were taken in smaller groups into the scarier areas, right into the heart of LA’s gang territory. Some of it really was quite terrifying. But it’s not possible to really capture the feel of somewhere unless you’ve actually experienced it. The areas around bars, clubs and pools are also very well observed.

"Each building in the game is checked over by researchers for architectural or timeline-based errors, then it’s constant refinement until it’s time to stop."

On what goes in

"There are no restraints, as long as something fits into the game world without looking out of place or time and it looks great and plays well, it’s in. We have a lot of fun making the game, and I think it would be pretty odd if some of our twisted personalities didn’t come across in the humour. I think it might say a lot about us, that we tend to obsess on cramming the game with as much innuendo as we can. I think our innuendo per square foot has actually gone up steadily since Grand Theft Auto 3 – possibly our biggest achievement."

From Vice City to San Andreas

"Making Vice City was a very intense process. We went directly from finishing Grand Theft Auto 3 into Vice City, a very short project in a single year. We didn’t have the luxury of a lot of time to take stock. It was very much a case of knowing what we had to do and doing it to the best of our abilities. This time around the extra year gave us that opportunity. We were able to take that step back from Grand Theft Auto 3 and Vice City and really look at what was working and what wasn’t – across the board – not just visually.

"Lighting has always played an important role in the look of our games, and this is one of the main areas we focussed on. We now have a complete different set of lighting for day and night. The entire map slowly shifts from one to the other, neon bleeds onto the streets, streetlights light buildings, the shadows from the sun fade to moonlight. There’s a great deal more richness to the lighting.

"We’ve used various compression techniques to up the detail of all of our models, from the map to the cars and pedestrians. We’ve also made the game a lot sharper, adding to the weather effects and crammed the game with as many special little touches as we could manage, and then added some that we couldn’t…"

On roaming the countryside

"I love the countryside. It feels so refreshing to drive out of the city into rolling fields, past farms and rivers, into the forests, deserts and hills. The mountain is fantastic – it’s nearly half a mile tall and it takes just under a minute to fly from its base to the top in a helicopter… and a good deal longer to cycle down.

"We’re using a lot of procedural techniques for grass and plants, which bring both the mountain and the countryside to life. There’s so much to see. I really don’t think any game has achieved this level of scale before while keeping anything like this level of detail. There’s a sense of scale in this game that dwarfs the previous two while actually adding to the variety and detail."

On shadow and lighting

"With the new lighting system it has been possible for us to get a much more coherent-looking light into the game. There are now obvious areas of shadow – behind buildings, beneath bridges, wherever the radiosity solution places them as it simulates real sunlight. When we had this in place it became very apparent that the lighting for the cars and pedestrians would have to reflect this. This has added loads to the atmosphere – there’s nothing like catching a glimpse of gang members hanging about in a dark alley. There are elements of gameplay that use this – we borrowed from Manhunt, where the player can now hide in the shadows, escaping his enemies then pouncing on them as they run past."

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