The history of Grand Theft Auto
Shortly to go on general sale is Jacked! the “unauthorised” story of Grand Theft Auto by David Kushner. An extract was printed in Edge, covering some of the time at DMA Design. This led to a lively discussion amongst some of the ex-DMA people on Facebook. Since then, I’ve found a much more sizeable extract on Google Books which ironically, I stumbled across while searching for something else. Naturally I’m interested, since as I tell everyone who can’t get away from me, I was moping around the DMA offices at least for part of the time period covered.
So this is a great chance to apply the ‘calibration test’. In other words, take what has been said in the book, check against my own experiences and judge accordingly. And whether I would wish to buy it. Early indications weren’t positive. The extract from Edge seemed to owe more to novel writing than to journalism, in an attempt to jolly-up the story. Opinion from those members of the GTA team who chipped in, was that at best it got the fact of the existence of GTA correct. Why so harsh a judgement?
There is a fascinating book waiting to be written about DMA Design, but this isn’t it. How did an unassuming Cops and Robbers game come to be so controversial? What decisions were made along the way and where did the inspiration come from in the first place? What thought processes led to it? How did Dave Jones think of GTA? Did he in fact think up GTA?
We’re not going to find out. DMA is skipped over in a few chapters, but it does indeed contain the reason for Dave coming up with Grand Theft Auto. Unfortunately that reason appears to be complete invention, for reasons I’ll explain. It is clear that Kushner had tried to panel-beat the real life events into a coherent and dramatic narrative, something which reality isn’t always good at accommodating, and in this case reality doesn’t. I wonder if it is a hopeful attempt at supplying the raw material for the next The Social Network. Certainly the story as I experienced it firsthand is interesting, but it’s a different, more technical, kind of interest from the bang bang bang look at this material, which tends towards the lurid.
And while the people involved behind the scenes are perfectly ordinary, mostly balanced, individuals with normal life-stories, such details don’t make for good drama. Hence Kushner seems to have moulded the ‘characters’ into the sort of personalities that we might imagine could appear in GTA itself. William Gibson, famously, tells a story about Neuromancer:
Actually, one time I was in New York signing books, there was this godawful huge roar outside the bookstore, and these two huge motorcycles screeched up to the curb, and these two huge guys covered in leather and studs and chains and shit got off, and came into the store. When they got a good look at me in my loafers and buttondown shirt their faces just fell, you know? One of them pulled out this copy of one of my books and said, ‘Well, I guess you can sign it anyway.’
Drunk in charge of a computer
I suspect that there is something of this going on here too. The GTA team are painted as the bad boys within DMA, noisy, boisterous, rowdy, while the rest of the geeks are ‘toiling away on Lemmings sequels’. The creation of badassery requires one to be badass? Well, no. In truth, none of the teams were that different from each other. In fact much of the technical expertise underlying each game was created by the same guy.
To suit this dramatic narrative, Dundee is required to be the sort of place where Grand Theft Auto could originate, a grim, gritty place that you would reasonably expect to be carjacked if you weren’t careful. Kushner even refers to the Huns and the Shams, real gangs which really did exist in the town. Well, sure, they existed if you were in Dundee in 1975. And is Dundee is a rough town as described? During the 90s Dundee was undergoing a lot of renovation in the town centre. Pedestrianised areas, a new shopping centre and the return home of the RRS Discovery, leading to the current slogan ‘City of Discovery’ and, yes, a measure of optimism and pride. It was nowhere close to being the sort of downbeat place intimated in the book.