The biggest entertainment release ever? 0

by Joe Utichi for The Sunday Times Culture Magazine

The creation of two British brothers, Grand Theft Auto V will be the moment when video games come of age as a narrative art form, says Joe Utichi

It’s a tough ticket to get, being one of the first people in the world to be given a hands-on preview of Grand Theft Auto V, the newest chapter in gaming’s most groundbreaking series. In film terms, it’s like asking to flip through the script of the next Star Wars movie. The GTA series has notched up sales in excess of 125m copies, and its last main entry, 2008’s GTA IV, made $500m in its first week alone, on its way to becoming the most lucrative entertainment release of all time — of any kind. GTA V is expected to be more successful still, making George Lucas look like a small businessman.

Critics, too, are itching to heap praise on a series that has gone farther than most to define the nascent, ever more artistic field of interactive entertainment. Rockstar Games, the company behind GTA, is the Aston Martin of game developers, its logo an increasingly reliable indicator that you are in safe hands. Not bad for a couple of brothers from East Sheen. And the Edinburgh-based development studio that has been responsible for every chapter of GTA since the first release in 1998 emerged from a small office up the road from HQ, in Dundee.

This homegrown success story isn’t at all obvious on the surface, as the games are set in the US and steeped in rich Americana. Yet their unique take on the country could only come from outsiders looking in, highlighting the country’s warm optimism as well as the darker side of the American dream.

“I grew up with a real fascination with America,” says Sam Houser, Rockstar’s president, who runs the company’s base in New York with his brother Dan. “When you look at it as a fan, you go at it harder, consume as much as you can lay your hands on and see it slightly differently. It was a lifetime of loving and living for American pop culture.”

The premise is simple enough: in a virtual world of cops and robbers, played out amid satirically fictionalised takes on American cities, you play the robbers. What you do in this world is entirely of your own design. And as I step into Los Santos — GTA V’s twist on LA — I discover that the options are closer to limitless than they have ever been.

I am outside the main city, piloting a helicopter over a glistening lake. The warm haze of the metropolis beyond spreads low over the base of a mountain peak. Hikers study trail maps by the water’s edge as boats skim across the surface. I turn the cyclic and guide my trajectory close over the water, picking up speed as I descend into the city. I weave between the tall buildings of downtown and come to rest in an industrial estate beyond. As I take off on foot, climb into a nearby car and tune into talk radio, I realise I’ve spent half an hour touring Los Santos and the surrounding Blaine County before it ever crosses my mind to indulge in crime. The game might still nudge players towards illicit activity, but either I have matured past such pursuits or — more likely — the world-builders of Rockstar have achieved an ever more distracting beauty here.

Houser knows the feeling. “When I’m away from the game, I’ve got images flashing through my head of exactly what you’re saying there,” he confirms. “When moments are more challenging, it’s these images that inspire me and keep me pushing through the day.”

“Challenging” is an understatement. Rarely a week passes in which the Grand Theft Auto games aren’t accused of corrupting the youth or degrading society. It’s the same sort of hysteria that followed the films of Quentin Tarantino and the music of the Rolling Stones. In 2005, Houser was hauled in front of American lawmakers to defend an unrated game option in a previous GTA title — cut from the final version, but unearthed in the code by enterprising hackers — against accusations that Rockstar was deceiving regulators. He describes sitting in a grey room as investigators pored through a stack of his emails. They found there was no intention to mislead.

“Life ground to a halt,” he admits. “It’s vote-winning, and they don’t care if they ruin your life, because these people are thinking on a macro level. If there’s a bit of collateral damage, it doesn’t really matter, does it?” He remembers Eliot Spitzer, the former New York governor, holding a press conference to decry the fact that there were prostitute characters in the GTA games. “The hypocrisy is so funny, you can’t make it up.” In 2008, Spitzer was embroiled in a prostitution scandal that cost him the governorship.

These political manoeuvrings diminish the real intelligence of the games’ design. GTA V covers topics as diverse as the financial crisis, the divide between rich and poor — and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the failures of government. For the first time in a GTA game, the player switches between three main characters. “Michael” represents wealth and the dissatisfactions it brings. For “Franklin”, it’s the realities of being trapped in an urban environment with no way out. And “Trevor” represents a kind of lunatic fringe whose love of weaponry and warfare is as American as apple pie. They team up to engage in a series of missions and heists whose challenges escalate; the player can swap between them at will to take advantage of their individual skills and specialities.

Houser, 41, sports a beard that comes and goes, but today it’s long enough to make him look like a young Stanley Kubrick. He wears a Rockstar-branded black sweatshirt, and most of the staff walking the halls of these Lower Manhattan offices wear apparel branded with the company’s distinctive R* logo.

According to Sam, GTA’s cynical edge comes from his brother, who leads the writing of the games, and together they strike the balance that is the series’ greatest strength, played for both comedy and drama. “With this one, we’ve moved it forward, because there’s a lot of material going on in the world to riff on and have fun with. I think that makes it feel very contemporary, which I’m really proud of. It’s a video game that is commenting on all the things that are going on in the world, good, bad and indifferent. If that doesn’t show the emergence of the medium, I don’t know what does.”

Fans of the series, who embrace the games’ labyrinthine storytelling and unbridled entertainment, are wide-ranging. The author and film-maker Alex Garland believes GTA represents some of the best writing in the medium. “The narratives are incredibly strong and [Rockstar] completely severed the bond between video games and film, where sometimes you felt games owed something to film. These games felt like they existed in their own space and didn’t owe anything to anybody.”

The scope of GTA V is greater than anything the company has attempted. Five years is a long time in the ever-evolving world of gaming, and it’s unusual for a developer to wait this long between releases in a popular franchise, a word Houser hates: “It became an industry before it became an art form.” For Rockstar, he says: “It comes back to something at the root of the whole company, which is that if you’re going to take £40 out of someone’s wallet, that’s a lot of money for a piece of entertainment — and you’ve got to justify that.”

Houser is deeply engaging and, like Tarantino, talks with quick-fire enthusiasm about the work of his colleagues and his heroes. We discuss Peckinpah, heavy metal and the Who, and he says he still consumes as much British television as he can get his hands on. He rarely grants interviews, preferring to make the games the stars, and he’s quick to insist that no individual could complete a project on GTA’s scale. “The team is everything, and that’s what I love about making games. It’s the sum of all of these idiosyncratic, unusual parts. When you get 400 people together, with all their different skills, knowledge and baggage, really interesting things can pop out the other side.”

The development process began as soon as GTA IV was complete, and it has come together over those five years. It’s a process that only ever gets more complex. “We’ve all seen Hearts of Darkness,” Houser says, referring to the documentary about the tumultuous production of Francis Ford Coppola’s superlative war film Apocalypse Now, in which a group of soldiers travel up a Vietnamese river to track Marlon Brando’s mysterious Colonel Kurtz. “We’re definitely in that realm of excitement and misery at the same time. It’s not supposed to be easy. Each time, we push everything to its limit. I don’t think it’s conscious, but it’s sort of how it has to be. It has to hurt more. You want to find Kurtz every time.”

Houser is “famously not good”, he says, at letting go once the project is near release, but he reveals that, for the first time, Rockstar will continue to develop updates to GTA V after it is out. “What’s really exciting is that we’re more engaged on what we do with it going forward, so I’m able to calm myself. I can kind of go, ‘It’s not farewell.’”

When anything British is as successful, both critically and commercially, as GTA, commentators are quick to induct its creators into that club so overstuffed with “national treasures”. Now may be the time to start paying similar respect to the talented British contingent at Rockstar Games. As Alex Simmons, the British editor of the video games website IGN, puts it: “They’ve changed the face of video games — and how important and culturally accepted they are — far more than anybody else. They should be celebrated for that.”

Houser believes perceptions of the medium will change with time. “Gamers are growing up, though we are still 10-20 years from all people in governance or authority understanding that it’s the same as any other art form and should not be singled out. We’re evolving. These kinds of things don’t happen overnight.”

My demo ends with a trip to the Vinewood sign, which overlooks the city of Los Santos. As the sun sets, it’s hard to imagine a blockbuster film on Grand Theft Auto’s scale crafting a moment as naturally romantic.

“Even though we’ve done this for quite a long time,” Houser reflects of his 15 years at Rockstar, “I still have to pinch myself and think, ‘How did I get on this train at the right time?’ Nothing else can claim to have the same infinite expansiveness ahead of it that this medium does. The train is still running.”

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