It never rains in this city. No clouds, no hail, no snow, just sun. That’s good driving weather and today you feel like exploring. You see, you’ve come to realise that the sirens and gunshots and midday traffic fanfare of Liberty City too often hems you in. But this city is huge: Hackenslash to Kings, Brix to Brocklyn. Today you’ll see it all. Today you’ve nowhere to be.
Unless...is that them? That sound. The sound of a procession. The sound of a group of revellers. Of tambourines and of drums. You accelerate round the corner. You spot them. You close in. You’ve got one shot to get this right. You line it up. Bang. Seven marchers downed. They fall like dominos. Job done.
If you played DMA Design’s - now Rockstar North - sprawling sandbox Grand Theft Auto in 1997, you’ll undoubtedly hold this scene close to your heart. Ploughing through the seven-strong team of jubilant Hare Krishnas - having the ‘Be Happy’ axiom hang on your screen for the few seconds that followed impact - ascended comical distraction. Silencing their incomprehensible rabble as you toured around the faux-NYC cityscape was a rite of passage.
“It wasn’t really intentional,” explains the game’s writer Brian Baglow. “When we were in the middle of development, one of our programmers was looking at the pedestrian behaviour and trying to make it look as natural as it could for a top-down game. He basically made an algorithm that made several of the characters follow each other so you’d get a little line of them going down the street. Being top-down, we couldn’t do anything visually apart from change the colour of their clothes..
“What could we do with a line of people walking down the street, then? I’ve no idea who it was that suggested Hare Krishnas but they had the chanting and the tambourines. Okay, so now what do we do with them? Well, let’s run them all over. What happens when you run them all over? Well, you call it Gouranga - be happy. It was really cheap ways of getting the most bang for your buck with an engine that really wasn’t capable of any level of sophistication.”
Four years prior, Grand Theft Auto began life as a cops and robbers-type racer named Race and Chase. Mike Dailly - DMA’s first employee after the company was formed by David Jones in 1989 - had worked on breakout hit Lemmings in 1991, and its success had raised the Dundee-based outfit’s profile to global level. They began working on several titles concurrently across a number of platforms and grew considerably in numbers, bringing in several new faces who’d never worked in the videogames industry before. Baglow was one such individual when he signed up in ‘94.
The newbies would be assigned to Race and Chase, a game that the higher ups didn’t expect much from, that’d be run on a sandbox engine - an underutilised concept due to technical constraints at the time - that Dailly had been tinkering with. It became clear very early on, though, that it couldn’t work in its current state. Assuming the role of the police in this ambitious playground, it turned out, was incredibly dull and what made it fun - knocking over pedestrians, running red lights, tearing up public parks, generally breaking the law - could only be justified on the other side of the divide: that of the criminals.
“Just that mindset alone,” says Baglow, “without changing the game in any way, all of sudden made you go, ‘oh yeah, that’s quite interesting’. This was one of loads of ideas that were thrown out there at the time but this was the one that made all the crucial difference.”
This distinct change in direction would have a profound knock on effect on the game’s development process. Suddenly, the renamed Grand Theft Auto posed so much potential in its mission, size and scope as aimed to realise its potential. Baglow describes the team’s ethos at the time as one of unity and togetherness but also one which at times lacked structure.
In search of inspiration they pored over their favourite gangster movies and gritty television crime dramas and came up with ideas on how to translate these influences into the game. They mapped out their criminal overworld on A0 graph paper. If an idea sounded cool, it was thrown in with little thought or concern for how it might further complicate things down the line.
It’s fair to say this would’ve challenged even the most experienced development team, but for a group of what was in essence beginners, albeit capable ones, it led them into trouble. Deadlines were delayed, milestones were missed and communication between departments became an overly complicated process.
“The hardest thing, even more so than the non-linear aspects of the game,” tells Baglow, “was just trying to show the player why the crap you were doing all of these varied tasks.” The designers, he recalls, worked independently from the writers creating levels before passing them over to be scripted.
What this meant was that Baglow would receive a working section of the game - say, an entire mission - with the task of factoring in scrip, story and context afterwards. He might receive a segment that sees the player working through a series of tasks - “go here, jump in this car, drive it to this point, drive to a building, run out on foot, get on a motorbike, shoot a guy and so on” - and it’d be up to him to glue it all together.