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Retrospective: Grand Theft Auto

Real good time world.

Dark blue icons of video game controllers on a light blue background
Image credit: Eurogamer

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.

It's fun to blow stuff up. But it's more fun to set people on fire.

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 wouldn't say that I necessarily failed at creating frenzy. I just died too.

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.