A broad-shouldered goon bursts from the restaurant kitchen and blindly opens fire. The target, a man dressed in a smart pinstripe suit, ducks left, hugs the wall, then puts two bullets in his aggressor's head. The third to the chest is a courtesy, staining his dark green bomber jacket red, before the suave shooter steps over the body and makes his way into the alleyway. By the time he climbs the fire escape to confront Mikhail Faustin, dead gang members snake from the restaurant to the rooftop. A shot to the knee slows Faustin down. A shot to the heart sends him falling to his doom. "You betrayed yourself, Mr Faustin," says Niko Bellic. And at this point I'm half expecting the HBO logo to flash across my screen, followed by an inexplicably long title sequence.
I'm not watching a prestige television drama, though. What I am watching is Grand Theft Auto 4's cut scenes spliced together with meticulous care, with its freeroam gunfights drawn out in order to bridge the gap to the next cinematic. What I'm watching is 'The Soviet Connection', a fan-made tribute to the 2008 crime sim that transforms Bellic's Liberty City adventure into a multi-part TV-style crime show. What I'm watching is pretty amazing. "I've always thought that the GTA 4 storyline would look great on TV if it was adapted," says Hazem Tameem, who goes by the pseudonym, Zuma.
I love LC
Despite the then unrivalled scope of GTA: San Andreas, its cartoon-like visuals and often comedic storytelling echoed everything we expected from the series upon release in 2004. It was brash and offensive, it was often on the nose, it took satirical swipes at every turn, and it planted us in the shoes of a protagonist who understood their environment; who was well-intentioned despite committing a litany of crimes from beginning to end. When GTA 4 rolled around in 2008, most of this still applied, and yet things were markedly different.
Sure, there was virtual murder, drug deals, car theft, bank heists, digs at pop culture conventions, and a coming-of-age, rags to riches tale that encompassed all of the above. But GTA 4's narrative was darker. It gave us an anti-hero who did not understand their surroundings at all, who was an immigrant in pursuit of the perceived American Dream, and whose place in this world was uncertain. Penned by English and Australian writers, and developed predominantly by a studio headquartered on the east coast of Scotland, GTA 4 was, truly, an outsider's take on modern life inside the wealthiest country in the world.
The visual leap the series was able to make between the PS2/Xbox and PS3/Xbox 360 console generations only served to galvanise GTA 4's more serious approach. Which, as far as Zuma is concerned, makes it ripe for a television adaptation. "It really is a dark story with an interesting character development arc for Niko Bellic and the people around him," says Zuma. "And it's not just the cutscenes. I'm also editing the gameplay sections in between the cinematics to make it look like what we usually see on TV."
"How the story of GTA 4 plays out, the seriousness, the thoughtfulness and, again, the darkness of it all are what makes it so special. I don't think any other GTA could give the same results if it was turned into something similar. Although GTA 5 has better tools for creating similar projects, I wanted to work on GTA 4's story because, in my opinion, the plot itself is more complex and is more interesting compared to GTA 5. It's just perfect TV material."
At the time of writing, Zuma has finished five full episodes of The Soviet Connection, whose runtimes stretch between 25 and 40 minutes a piece. He's even folding in the cut-scenes and gameplay footage from GTA 4's two timeline-overlapping story-pack DLCs – The Lost and Damned and the Ballad of Gay Tony – and as such reckons the project in its entirety will span 15 or so full episodes.
In practice, it all flows well – so much so, I wholeheartedly agree with Zuma when he says GTA 4 would make for a great TV crime drama. Perhaps the biggest compliment I can pay to his work, in fact, is that, despite an increasingly daunting backlog of games I should be playing, I now really want to return to Liberty City as it appears in Grand Theft Auto 4. Despite the prestige of the end product, though, streamlining its scenes is far from straightforward.
"All told, it's really challenging. The game itself is old, over 13 years old now, and the built-in clip editor can be difficult to deal with at times," adds Zuma. "For starters, I have to press a button every 20-30 seconds to save a clip, because it can't record long clips of gameplay. The length of the recorded clip varies and there's no indicator that the whole segment has been captured or not. I often end up with missing parts in between clips, so I'm forced to go back and redo the whole segment again from the start."
"Sometimes, the parts that the game allows me to record aren't enough. I create my own scenes using a mod called Native Trainer to fill the gaps in the scenes. This takes a lot of time and effort, but I enjoy working on these episodes, especially when I see the end product."
Are we there yet?
On top of technical hurdles wrought by dated in-game features, Zuma says keeping car scenes interesting is over and above the hardest part of his project. The character animations in GTA 4 aren't as sharp as we're used to in 2021, says Zuma, thus keeping things interesting on the road can be tricky – something overcome by mixing up camera ranges while rolling, and drawing focus to organic moments within the active sandbox, such as random police chases and NPCs fighting with one another.
Further subtleties, such as ensuring Nico is wearing new clothes on every new in-game day, helps maintain the world's credibility, and Zuma keenly listens to feedback from his peers as he goes.
"So far, it's been received well overall. Some people didn't like that I've used graphics mods and vehicle mods to update the game's looks a little bit, but it was my decision to give everything a new lick of paint, so that it would look interesting to someone who hasn't played the game before. I don't think that's unreasonable."
"But I've had very constructive feedback from people on Reddit, where I promote my content. They gave feedback about video editing, camera movement, colour grading and things like that. I find that feedback really helpful and I take them into consideration moving forward in the following episodes."
Zuma still has a ways to go in completing his project, but I for one am already hooked and can't wait to see the rest of it unfold. I'm a sucker for folk using video games in different ways than they're primarily intended, and while there's an entire community dedicated to machinima-making in GTA 5, I love what Zuma is doing here in Liberty City.
The big question is: who would play Nico and Roman and the rest of the GTA 4 gang in an actual TV adaptation?
"Ultimately, I'm no professional film maker. I changed the software I'm using after episode 2 because it was too primitive and I'm slowly learning what I need in the new software," says Zuma. "Also, my experience in directing scenes has increased with time. I've learned a lot about pacing the episodes, how to arrange the story and what to remove from it as it offers nothing to the plot. I'm also now mixing the music in the scenes using assets from the games too. I think I have improved a lot by time."
"I think GTA 4 would make a great TV show in real life. Seeing the story being portrayed with real actors on TV would be very interesting. As for who'd play them, well, I'll leave that to the imaginations of your readers and my viewers!"
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