Grand Theft Auto is more than a video game. Like Eminem, or skinny Marilyn Manson, or those early episodes of South Park when the animation still made you feel a bit queasy, it's a piece of popular culture whose mention instantly transports an entire generation back to their childhoods. The more devout of us will still have the San Andreas cheat codes punched into our muscle memory.
The entire series of course began with GTA 1, released for Windows in October of 1997, followed up by the mission packs GTA: London 1969 and GTA: London 1961. Today marks the 20-year anniversary of that first game's release on PlayStation, so in lieu of Rockstar apparently never making a GTA London ever again – even though we all want it – let's take a walk down memory lane.
Big Ben's bells soundtrack the start menu, alongside the title music from the superb soundtrack. You watch from above, birds-eye-view, as your little 2D man unleashes a torrent of machine gun shots near Mile End, before doing bits for the "Crisp twins" because they "want a mod scooter for their old dear".
This instalment of the open-world franchise was developed by Rockstar Canada, so I spoke to three people who worked there at the time – artists Ray Larabie and Adam Holbrough; and designer, Blair Renaud – to see what they could remember.
Blair Renaud: Has it been 20 years? I'll have to get some champagne. It makes me feel old! I was about 21 at the time, just excited to be working on video games.
Adam Holbrough: Seems like a lifetime ago. It's crazy how far GTA has come.
Blair: When the original GTA was released, we were all into it, because it was crazy! We’d never seen anything like that before. No-holds-barred, random violence.
Adam: We would get everyone [in the office] to play over the network. There was screaming and laughing. I've only felt that excitement when working on a couple of games. Right place, right time.
Ray Larabie: It had that early GTA lack of precision. I remember shooting out of the car window and the bullets not being that precise. The driving is really "squirly". But I really liked that game, just messing around and getting the cops angry.
Blair: It was our homework to watch old 1960s English movies – anything with a car chase in it, basically – to get a feel. I remember watching Bullet and The Italian Job. You had to immerse yourself in this world and see what ideas would spring up. I learned the entire layout of London to get the map right. I've never been to London, but I feel like I know where everything is.
Ray: I was crazy about Viz magazine, so I was like, "Ah cool, we're doing a London game, we have to have 'dog's eggs' on the sidewalk." I made it so that some of the sidewalk tiles had dog shit on them. If you hit the handbrake on the dirt, you got a big brown skid-mark. That was my big contribution. Nobody questioned it.
Blair: We're Canadian, so we had no idea about this whole Cockney rhyming slang thing at first. I think some of it eventually worked its way into our vernacular in the office.
Ray: We went to a shopping centre in Mississauga and found a shop that just sold Diecast cars. We walked into that place and just cleaned them out of every British car. People working there must have thought it was crazy. We photographed the cars and split the palette, so we could do things like getting the British flag on the Jaguar.
Adam: Ray taking those top-down photos of toy cars, touching them up and putting them into the game was magic. This was the first time I'd experienced a worldwide "modding" frenzy.
ROLES / WORK
Ray: It was like doing a ROM hack – basically taking the existing programming [from the original game] and changing the graphics. There wasn’t much heavy programming to do. It was limited to whatever memory the original game had, and we couldn’t really mess with the code. Kevin [Hoare – Programmer] did the hardest part, switching the driver's side to UK and rebuilding traffic logic. I did the tiles and cars. I made it look more drab than the original game. I just thought it suited 60s London – it had to be pretty grimy. We had to make a spoof of the department store, "Harrobs".
Adam: I made the still image cut scenes between levels. 3D stuff was pretty new. I was rendering a 3D background with shadows and lighting, then Pete Armstrong [artist] would put characters in front, with dialogue.
Blair: I built the maps and in-game sounds. Sergei [Kuprejanov - Designer] did mission design with Greg [Bick – director, who sadly passed away a few years ago]. The guys in London did the voice work for cut scenes and compiled the music – it won a BAFTA for sound!
Ray: As for mission designs, I’m sure that was a collaboration between Dan [Houser – co-founder of Rockstar, Writer/Producer], Greg and Sergei. Dan had a vast knowledge of the London crime wave. He really loved that stuff. Even though Dan's office was in New York, he was over at our studio quite a lot. It was very collaborative. He was a master of tone, and naturally inclined to make hilarious missions. The silliness was right up his alley.
Blair: I remember the voice acting in the cut scenes. Some of the funny crap they said.
Ray: The missions were funny as hell.
Ray: Right off the bat, the marketing Rockstar were doing was different. I knew it would stick around and was going to be big – it was exciting to be a part of it. Rockstar was all these record company people. They would go to DJ sets and throw CDs at crowds. I think they did some stunt where they put GTA games up on a billboard with Velcro, so people could "steal" the game.
Blair: I know people hoped they would set it in London again, but I don't think so [in 2013, Dan Houser told the Guardian it was unlikely another GTA game would be set in London].
Adam: I think they should do it. I'd buy it.
Blair: Every once in a while, I look the game up on YouTube to see if anyone is talking about it, and watch a little bit of the gameplay. It was exciting at the time, but I never really thought this series would be a reference point for so many games in the future.
Ray: My main concern is the availability of the game. I hope people can play it now. It would be fun to play it on something modern.
Blair: There was a fan project to convert one of the newer games, where somebody hacked it and fed the old GTA London map into the new engine, to make a really basic new London game.
Ray: I was a little surprised we didn’t future-proof it. On other games, I made textures maybe four times the size, in anticipation that in future there might be a Playstation 5 and they would want to scale it up. But the cars in GTA London, there’s no way of scaling those up. Someone is going to have to go to that store and buy all those Diecast cars again – expensive!
WORK ENVIRONMENT / CULTURE
Adam: I still have a scar from the hole we worked in! I cut the top of my head open on the low ceiling.
Ray: We were in a basement under a fruit store. It was terrible. Gross.
Adam: We had to move there because we were going to move into a newer building, but then the landlord looked up Rockstar and saw how brutal the game Postal was, so he refused to lease us.
Ray: Working at that place wasn't bad, yet. It was still fun back then. I quit in 2003 because it was bad. We tormented each other a lot. I remember Ed [Zolnieryk – a staff member who didn't work on GTA London] used to whack the back of my chair with a golf club, so I put a rear-view mirror on my monitor.
Blair: Maybe not as much on that game, but eventually the "crunch culture" led me to leave. By the time I was 23 I basically lived in the office, slept on the couch, started to get really bad anxiety and completely shut down, to the point where they fired me. I remember being there until 4AM, then getting in late at 9.30AM and being yelled at. That's what broke me.
[Dan Houser told Vulture that Rockstar staff worked several 100-hour weeks in 2018].
Adam: I don't remember anyone working those kind of hours back then.
Ray: Rockstar just let us do whatever the hell we wanted to. If we had jokes we wanted to put in, they just let us.
Blair: It was a blast.
Ray: Do a pull-quote about the dog's eggs skid-marks, then get hold of a copy of the game and do a big screenshot of someone doing doughnuts through them. They’re my single greatest contribution to video games. In a thousand years, when game players are sliding their virtual tyres through a nest of brown fire snakes, they'll think of GTA: London, 1969.
With ideas from Nick Raymond.