Best of a decade: Grand Theft Auto IV released
GTA IV shifted a massive 3.7 million units on the first day of release, and went on to become one of the best-selling games of the decade. Henry Northmore looks at how a Dundee-based games design company produced a worldwide phenomenon
Grand Theft Auto IV is an almost perfect gaming experience: expansive, intelligent and hugely entertaining. Developers Rockstar North made a pivotal change in moving into a 3D environment for GTA III (2001), a change they honed on Vice City (2002) and San Andreas (2004) but only perfected as they graduated to the next generation consoles with IV in 2008.
Scotland can justifiably be very proud of Rockstar North. As the creators of Grand Theft Auto (as well as Manhunt) they punch well above their weight in the international market and produce intelligent, multi-faceted and mature art.
Some may scoff at the term ‘art’ when applied to videogames, but they’d be wrong to do so. Not only do videogames offer a level of interactivity beyond any other medium, but also the character development of protagonists such as Niko Bellic or Carl ‘CJ’ Johnson in GTA IV is as vast and complex as in many novels. Rockstar were innovators in creating a truly interactive environment where heading to the local pool hall, listening to hour upon hour of quality radio or surfing the in-game internet (as seen in GTA IV) is as rewarding as completing mission objectives. And this is just the tip of the iceberg in what is one of the most fully realised artificial environments ever created.
Furthermore, Rockstar created a new (and now much imitated) narrative style of gameplay that gave the player more control over their character’s fate. Their ‘sandbox’ approach to the game world meant that playing was no longer a linear experience but open-ended. The result was that you could script the destiny of your own hood in a wonderfully stylized, gangster movie-influenced setting – an experience of authorship that some politicians and elements of the press confused with the vicarious enjoyment of violence. ‘I think our distance and objectivity is essential to our ability to distort and satirize US culture,’ explains Leslie Benzies, President of Rockstar North, pointing out the many layers of humour and irony within the game.
To their credit, Rockstar North have never treated their gamers as idiots and their commitment to depth and accuracy in building their (admittedly adult) themes was always going to ensure the game’s success both critically and commercially. GTA IV is a truly phenomenal piece of programming – the benchmark for the next generation of videogame art.