Last month the BBC announced the shooting of a TV drama based on the development of (and the controversy surrounding) the original 1997 Grand Theft Auto. As part of a UK wide ‘Make It Digital’ campaign the Beeb wants to celebrate the birth of the global franchise, citing its development as “arguably the greatest British coding success story since Bletchley Park.” No mean feat.
Now with none other than the Hollywood Reporter claiming that Daniel Radcliffe is in talks to play Rockstar founder and boss Sam Houser it’s clear that this is no small indie production. Yet GTA was originally exactly that from Dundee based developers DMA Design. These were the indie devs responsible for Lemmings and the original GTA before the Housers transformed the studio into Rockstar North and made the franchise into the global behemoth it is today.
Also announced by the Hollywood Reporter is the fact that the drama will be based on David Kushner’s book Jacked: The Outlaw Story Of Grand Theft Auto. Jacked, a work of ‘narrative non-fiction’ tells the story of GTA’s development from its top down Dundee-based roots all the way to its clashes with passionate anti-videogame activist Jack Thompson. Kushner researched the book over ten years, speaking to past and present members of the Rockstar team and even visiting Jack Thompson at his home to interview him. But what do the original DMA devs think the drama will include?
“I find it quite telling that no-one from DMA I’ve spoken to so far seems to know anything about it. With Rockstar’s famous reticence to talk to anyone, that makes the only behind the scenes source David Kushner’s book Jacked, which frankly has me a bit worried,” says Steve Hammond, a writer at DMA Design who worked on GTA. “Some of the DMA people had a large Facebook chat about it and my favourite quote was “Well, they got the fact of GTA’s existence correct.” My prediction is that the DMA Design part of the story will be an opening text crawl before the main credits, then skipping directly to GTA III. Otherwise, I wonder if the GTA team will be portrayed as badasses and bad boys compared to the other teams, as per Kushner’s book? In reality, no more or less bad/weird/outsider than any other team.”
Writer and PR for the first GTA, Brian Baglow, is intrigued by what the drama will include. “I'm assuming it may well be based on a grab bag of archive materials, old interviews, maybe David Kushner's exciting novelisation and the screenwriters' ideas of what it's like to work in the white heat of cutting edge game development,” he says. “It's fair to say we're all fairly nervous about that…”
Developed over four years and originally named Race ‘n’ Chase, the creation of the original GTA was a long and drawn out process. “The true experience is a great deal of hard slog, fixing bugs, which doesn’t exactly make dramatic television,” says Hammond. “The biggest hurdle that a drama will have to overcome - possibly by sheer invention - is that there wasn’t a single defined moment when GTA came into being. No singular act of creation, no flash of lightning, no sense of something which was destined to be forged in a mighty act of creativity.”
“The creative process was akin to pouring forty seven varieties of gunk into a cauldron and mixing and mixing until a vaguely GTA-shaped object started to congeal in the centre - and no-one knew it was supposed to be GTA in the first place. Was there a singular moment when Race ’n’ Chase became GTA? I really doubt it. The moment of creation, hardy dramatic, is more likely to have been: Mike figures a neat way to rotate semi-3D maps. Dave says: hmmm, we should do something with that.”
There'll be no need for extra drama to cover the controversy caused by the original game but whether the true story of GTA's Scottish birth will be told accurately is something we'll have to wait until September to find out. The BBC drama is to start shooting on the 20th of April and is directed by Misfits and Black Mirror's Owen Hill.