Mar 27

Just the facts, Jacked


The history of Grand Theft Auto

Shortly to go on general sale is Jacked! the “unauthorised” story of Grand Theft Auto by David Kushner. An extract was printed in Edge, covering some of the time at DMA Design. This led to a lively discussion amongst some of the ex-DMA people on Facebook. Since then, I’ve found a much more sizeable extract on Google Books which ironically, I stumbled across while searching for something else. Naturally I’m interested, since as I tell everyone who can’t get away from me, I was moping around the DMA offices at least for part of the time period covered.

So this is a great chance to apply the ‘calibration test’. In other words, take what has been said in the book, check against my own experiences and judge accordingly. And whether I would wish to buy it. Early indications weren’t positive. The extract from Edge seemed to owe more to novel writing than to journalism, in an attempt to jolly-up the story. Opinion from those members of the GTA team who chipped in, was that at best it got the fact of the existence of GTA correct. Why so harsh a judgement?

There is a fascinating book waiting to be written about DMA Design, but this isn’t it. How did an unassuming Cops and Robbers game come to be so controversial? What decisions were made along the way and where did the inspiration come from in the first place? What thought processes led to it? How did Dave Jones think of GTA? Did he in fact think up GTA?

We’re not going to find out. DMA is skipped over in a few chapters, but it does indeed contain the reason for Dave coming up with Grand Theft Auto. Unfortunately that reason appears to be complete invention, for reasons I’ll explain. It is clear that Kushner had tried to panel-beat the real life events into a coherent and dramatic narrative, something which reality isn’t always good at accommodating, and in this case reality doesn’t. I wonder if it is a hopeful attempt at supplying the raw material for the next The Social Network. Certainly the story as I experienced it firsthand is interesting, but it’s a different, more technical, kind of interest from the bang bang bang look at this material, which tends towards the lurid.

And while the people involved behind the scenes are perfectly ordinary, mostly balanced, individuals with normal life-stories, such details don’t make for good drama. Hence Kushner seems to have moulded the ‘characters’ into the sort of personalities that we might imagine could appear in GTA itself. William Gibson, famously, tells a story about Neuromancer:

Actually, one time I was in New York signing books, there was this godawful huge roar outside the bookstore, and these two huge motorcycles screeched up to the curb, and these two huge guys covered in leather and studs and chains and shit got off, and came into the store. When they got a good look at me in my loafers and buttondown shirt their faces just fell, you know? One of them pulled out this copy of one of my books and said, ‘Well, I guess you can sign it anyway.’

Yeah, that's me. Back against the wall in the Design Department

Drunk in charge of a computer

I suspect that there is something of this going on here too. The GTA team are painted as the bad boys within DMA, noisy, boisterous, rowdy, while the rest of the geeks are ‘toiling away on Lemmings sequels’. The creation of badassery requires one to be badass? Well, no. In truth, none of the teams were that different from each other. In fact much of the technical expertise underlying each game was created by the same guy.

To suit this dramatic narrative, Dundee is required to be the sort of place where Grand Theft Auto could originate, a grim, gritty place that you would reasonably expect to be carjacked if you weren’t careful. Kushner even refers to the Huns and the Shams, real gangs which really did exist in the town. Well, sure, they existed if you were in Dundee in 1975. And is Dundee is a rough town as described? During the 90s Dundee was undergoing a lot of renovation in the town centre. Pedestrianised areas, a new shopping centre and the return home of the RRS Discovery, leading to the current slogan ‘City of Discovery’ and, yes, a measure of optimism and pride. It was nowhere close to being the sort of downbeat place intimated in the book.

DMA is required to be badass in order to create a badass game, a spectacular example of which is the supposed coding during the day and hitting the pubs at night right from when the original ‘team’ moved into the first office. Well the first two employees were Mike Dailly and Gary Timmons. Mike certainly isn’t a big drinker (and I’ve known him almost 30 years now) and Gary… Gary was teetotal. But GTA is required by the new narrative to have risen out of hacker bad boys of the computer games world. Dark hints are made about computers being stolen out of delivery vans from Dundee’s Timex plant into the hands of hackers. Once again, it is a grim place full of outlaws, the description of the newly forming local games industry little but innuendo and supposition. A thing defined by omissions and the space surrounding it and not the thing itself. In both cases, we’re left with an illusion.

There are numerous little niggles in the text. A DMA programmer – it says – learnt how to animate a hundred characters on screen at once and this became Lemmings. That’s plain wrong. Mike, for it was he, animated a lot of characters in an animation to prove how small you could make them whilst still looking good. A minor point? This information exists on the net already and has existed in print. I’ve even written some of it. The Kingsway Amateur Computer Club was described as a coder’s club – it flat out wasn’t: it was for anyone who happened to own a computer. (I was at the KACC too, by the way, that being where I met Dave Jones.) DMA is described as having the most powerful collection of Silicon Graphics computing power in England, despite being located in Scotland. (An obscure technicality of the nature of the KACC I could probably let slide, but the wrong country?) The narrative has Dave driving his Ferrari through the gangs of Dundee, and for that to work you’d have to travel back in time some twenty years and move to the outskirts of the city, not the centre.

But all of that is to belabour the point. If the rest of Jacked! is anything anything like the part of which I have firsthand knowledge, then it’s at best an imperfect representation of the truth. Perhaps all such books end up this way. Some of the ex-staff in that Facebook conversation were a lot less complimentary, and I find it a telling point that Dave said he hadn’t even heard of the book until a few weeks ago. No-one mentioned in Wikipedia as being one of the founding members has been interviewed for Jacked!.

Those who were really there don’t recognise their old workplace.

The sad truth for the narrative, as was pointed out in that Facebook conversation, is that the creation of GTA wasn’t any more or less interesting than creating any other game. You don’t need to be cute and fluffy to create a cute and fluffy game, you don’t need to be crazy to create a crazy one. That would appear to be the fallacy, deliberately or otherwise, right at the heart of Jacked! DMA was after all being run as a business. You are a coder. You are an artist. This is your day job. Important turning points will happen in meetings.

Meetings can’t be exciting? You’re not writing it correctly.

But the story is required to be amped up, in a form more suited to a tabloid than a serious attempt at journalism.

Discovery House - home of DMA Design

DMA Design lived here

Despite this, I find that I’m wanting to read the rest of it, but as someone who enjoys a good story rather than someone wanting to learn or understand. Perhaps I’m being too harsh myself and the sketchiness of the DMA sections were merely down to the unavailability and reliability of anyone wishing to talk, though ex-DMA staff are not exactly hard to track down. A couple of years back, the BBC found me for an interview, easily enough, for one example. For another Mike owns and has material on dmadesign.org which is the second top Google result for DMA Design right after Wikipedia! But as Kushner says, he has worked on the book for ten years, following the Housers and Rockstar North, which would mean that he at least saw that part of the story as it unfolded. He didn’t see the DMA part.

So, has it failed the ‘calibration test’? I think so. The game is given away in the introduction, where it is described as ‘narrative non-fiction’ and contains people he specifically didn’t interview. Maybe Kushner has been reading too much of Rudy Rucker’s ‘transreal’ fiction to present a straight story to us. None of the feel, tone or verisimilitude of working at DMA has been captured and we have the Saturday Morning Cartoon version instead. I’m not unaware of a certain level of irony, given what the original GTA was. An accurate book of those days would have been a delight, and he could have asked, but this was not the route taken. Dave has said on many occasions (and I was there when I think he first said it) that he wished that the games industry was more like Hollywood.

As the last few years – and Jacked! – have proved: mission accomplished.