Knights of the Sandbox City

Knights of the Sandbox City

By Develop

June 26th 2008 at 10:30AM

You might be sick of reading about it and maybe even playing it, but GTA IV still deserves more notice from the top, argues Owain Bennallackâ?¦

Rockstar founders Sam and Dan Houser have faced many challenges over the years. They’ve fought the law, Jack Thompson, and the British tabloids. With their comrades at Edinburgh’s Rockstar North they’ve upped the ante with each successive GTA, creating landmark games with ever more wit, élan, action and emotion. By doing barely any publicity, they make it look effortless. They’ve broken sales records. They’ve made everyone else look bad.

But can they see off the British establishment?

I don’t mean the ‘dark forces’ that the Queen was said to have warned Diana about. I mean the very public way in which the establishment eventually co-opts any superstar bad boys who haven’t died in their own vomit, overdosed on narcotics, outlived their legends or crashed a light aircraft into some Caribbean outcrop.

I mean the inevitable coming of Sir Sam Houser, or Dan Houser OBE.

Grand Theft Auto IV caps a body of work that is culturally and commercially significant enough to warrant official recognition. According to the reviewers, it’s officially the Best Game of All Time, getting full marks across the board. It will without doubt become one of the best-selling games ever, already smashing records all over despite being legally unavailable to half of gaming’s demographic. The genuine fervour amongst gamers that greeted GTA IV makes recent rival launches look about as authentically passionate as the demand for a new version of Windows.

All well-versed superlatives – GTA IV has enjoyed unprecedented media coverage for a video game. But that’s the key: ‘for a video game’. Along with Harry Potter, this is the UK’s most successful creative export for generations. Yet the UK media has been reluctant to celebrate – or is ignorant of – GTA IV’s British heritage. While the Housers’ base their operations, and game, in New York, Grand Theft Auto IV is undoubtedly Best of British through and through.

CARRY ON CARJACKING

The original inventiveness of Grand Theft Auto, while now being refined rather than truly revolutionary, remains a testament to British game design of the old school. The satire – and GTA IV is the funniest game for years – has a savage edge more Sacha Baron Cohen than John Stewart or The Onion. The daunting in-game music library betrays the Catholic taste of a nation that brought the world Peel, Lennon and Radiohead, a world away from the musical ghettoising typical of America. Even the off-the-shelf technology is British-born, with Natural Motion’s euphoria and Image Metrics’ facial animation both making crucial contributions.

Much has been written about Dan Houser’s script, and it’s true this is the first game since the novelty of the early CD-ROM days where I can remember genuinely looking forward to the cut-scenes. MIT’s Henry Jenkins was perhaps the first media heavyweight to start comparing GTA with D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation back with GTA III, but comparisons to cinema’s coming-of-age have made their way into most of the coverage this time around.

We’ll need a few years perspective to know for sure whether GTA IV’s characters, dialogue and staging hints at what games might yet do, or (more likely) reinforces our understanding of the limits. The in-game action remains completely cartoon-ish – about as gritty and ultra-violent as Donkey Kong throwing barrels at Mario. If Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle had wiped the scum off the streets at the rate of a dozen a second in a minute by running them over in a convertible listening to the Smashing Pumpkins while bawling Homer-esque putdowns out of the window, Taxi Driver would have been laughed out of the cinema. A few key moments aside (the executions you’re forced to confront, in particular), harrowing it ain’t.

That isn’t a criticism, by the way. Games are games, not movies, and plot and character are (so far at least) there to provide signposts, not comprise a true narrative; what makes games special isn’t and in my view never will be the story-telling. But it does provide a clue as to why the cultural elite still struggles to truly celebrate the medium. What games do brilliantly just isn’t rated as highly as what other art forms are revered for. In time they – and GTA IV – will be appreciated accordingly, as today’s arbiters of the cannon turn in their graves and a new generation find something else that’s new, popular and superficially dangerous to underestimate.

The playful nature of GTA IV is also why today’s rote moral outrage will eventually be no impediment to the Housers getting their high society dues. It’s hard to appreciate now that rock music once shook society, but it did, and decades later Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney picked up their knighthoods regardless.

Despite the moniker, Rockstar’s founders have (as far as I know) been kittens compared to the grand debauchery of rock’s aristocracy at its height. One would-be tabloid assassination of the Housers found nothing at the bottom of the barrel except for late night PlayStation sessions and a comment from Sam Houser that GTA had got him dates. It’s hardly wet fishes and groupies, never mind Johnny Rotten screaming down the monarchy.

THE EDINBURGH CASTLE
A more sustentative complaint would be that for all the pivotal contributions of the Housers to the series, Grand Theft Auto is a team effort – as the Housers themselves have repeatedly stressed – and so it wouldn’t be fair to single out individuals. True, anyone with a nodding acquaintance of game development will see in GTA IV top-notch work across the board. More than that, the same tight team at Rockstar North has worked on the franchise for just as long as the Housers, and deserves at least as much credit for its excellence. And I’d fully agree. For all the coverage GTA IV has received, it palls compared to the laurels the British press would be casting towards a David Putnam movie or an Oasis album that made this sort of impact. Rockstar North’s staff should be cruising down Princes Street in a tickertape parade.

Nevertheless, I think it’s indisputable that while the Housers didn’t make Grand Theft Auto the game, they made it the game it is. Their record label smarts meets fanboy quest for excellence seemed like posturing a decade ago, but it’s been vindicated and still informs so much of the game; the opening credits are more surprising, stylish and thrilling than the best bits of most rivals. Besides, Sir Norman Foster didn’t build the Gherkin with his bare hands, and Ringo Star never got a knighthood.

Perhaps the only valid question mark – aside from whether they tick the ‘great work for charity’ box, on which point I haven’t a clue – is whether the GTA series is a one-off for the duo. Certainly Manhunt, Bully and others fell short of GTA’s sky-high standards. Few are the developers who excel across different games – Miyamoto, Mizuguchi, Wright and Molyneux are the few – and that’s maybe the sign of true genius. It reinvents itself, rather than repeats its tricks.

EXILES ON MAIN STREET
On balance, GTA is achievement enough to warrant some establishment love. If nothing else, the entire Rockstar project is about the only thing to justify 20 years of public schoolboys identifying each other with salutations appropriated from the streets of South Central.

Would the Housers return the embrace? ‘Sir Sam’ might have a nice ring to it among the hip-hop princes and media mogul circles I idly speculate the Housers move in. And like Jagger the brothers are the progeny of the British establishment, so it’d be more a home coming party than a gate-crashing. On the other hand, Keith Richard’s comment that he didn’t want to take to a stage with Sir Mick in a “coronet and sporting the old ermine” might strike a chord. Then again, a crown and furs is pretty much standard rap star attire these days.

The important point isn’t really the Housers, for all that they deserve an official handshake from UK PLC for what they’ve achieved. It’s that Grand Theft Auto IV is the greatest British cultural artifact of the Twenty First Century so far, and video game development in this country deserves to be recognised routinely, not shoved to one side and occasionally investigated by a government quango with tweezers.

Perhaps the Housers would need to open the RockStar School for Gifted Game Designers in Macclesfield or set GTA IV in Salford to accelerate the process, but GTA’s achievement’s will eventually be recognised by more than gamers, reviewers, and Electronic Arts.