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Building Liberty City

Everywhere has a beginning. In GTA III radio host Lazlow tells an irate caller that, at the time the telephone was invented, Liberty City was no more than “a church, a cow pasture and three houses.” The city’s real-world foundations can be traced back to March 1995, and a document prepared by DMA Design for a game tentatively called Race ‘n’ Chase. Even at this early stage, much of what we know as Liberty City was present.

“The game will be set in a present-day world,” the document records. “In each game type, it will be possible to progress to other cities only when certain goals have been attained.”

“The playing world will be very, very large,” it continues. “There will be a number of clear landmarks to ease navigation. The landscape will consist of: roads, pavements, buildings, water hazards, bridges. The landscape will be highly populated: there will be lots of incidental things to see like traffic, pedestrians, etc. It will be possible for cars to cause damage to buildings when they crash.”

From these early beginnings, the crime-ridden echo of New York has become the bedrock of the most recognisable game series in the world. It has been built and torn down three times, reconceptualised with successive hardware generations as something grander and more ambitious, evolving from a top-down moving map to a densely populated 3D metropolis.

In truth the original Liberty City was nothing particularly special. It was one of three cities designed for the game that in the end wasn’t called Race ‘n’ Chase, but Grand Theft Auto, and released in late 1997. But flashes of the creativity and attitude which would mark the later versions of the city are present, particularly an unusually open approach allowing players to roam the city. “We understood what was cool about it was the idea of freedom,” remembers Rockstar president of creative, Dan Houser. “It wasn’t level-based. Games at that time were very very ‘Here’s a tiny corridor to walk down and a very structured puzzle.’ But here was something much more ‘Here’s a world and there’s thing to do or not to do.’”

It wasn’t until DMA were deciding to do with their creation next that things got really interesting.

“At the end of GTA 2 someone from the team popped up with a version of the game which was in what we described as 2.5D,” says Sam Houser. “It was basically the GTA 2 engine but you could play it in 3D, and it was mind-blowing. I was like, ‘Oh, man, if we do this in proper 3D it’s going to be insane.’”

It was around this time that the Houser brothers bought DMA Design, and the studio became Rockstar North. Shifts in personnel meant the team which had just shipped N64 title Space Station Silicon Valley – including producer Leslie Benzies and art director Aaron Garbut – became the core of the new setup. According to Sam Houser, they too had been working on a 3D title. “Their side-project kind of evolved into what GTA III became.”

And what it became was an authentic revelation, a complex, functioning and explorable city, with a working transport infrastructure and vibrant, distinctive neighbourhoods. The Liberty City of GTA III has three boroughs – the grimy starting location of Portland Island, the upscale business district of Staunton Island, and the suburban Shoreside Vale, connected by a road network of bridges and tunnels. A new RenderWare engine created by fellow UK developer Criterion powered what after GTA 2 seemed an impossibly vivid street-level view taking in shopfronts, jackable cars and chattering pedestrians. It was like falling through a 2D surface and funding a hidden world of furious activity underneath.

Aside from the architecture and space, what gave Liberty City its particular sense of place are self-reinforcing levels of detail. Story headlines are delivered through newspapers whose adverts are heard on the in-car radio (“Yesterday’s news, today!”) while billboards display the names of businesses and satirically-named shops which are tied into the player’s quest for revenge. Even the team at Rockstar were surprised by how compelling it proved to be. “We were like ‘Wow, this is really powerful.’” says Dan Houser. “When people postulate games are going to be the next mass form of entertainment, this is the kind of thing they’re going to be able to do. Yes you can have – and we love – strong narrative, but you can have that inter-related to the whole experience in quite a new way.”

It was a hunger for this kind of detail and interconnectness which guided the latest rebuilding of Liberty City, for 2008’s GTA IV. “It’s the biggest city we’ve ever built, but not the biggest area,” Dan Houser says. “If the difference from GTA 2 to GTA III was 2D to 3D, then this time it was low-def to hi-def. What that meant was detail.”

GTA’s long-standing art director Aaron Garbut describes the latest iteration as three times the size of GTA III’s Liberty City, and gives an insight into the preparation required. “We took around a quarter of a million photos and a silly amount of video footage,” he says. “We also had a full-time research team based on New York to handle our numerous little requests for particular details – anything from ethnic breakdowns of particular areas to photos of certain interior types or videos of traffic patterns.”

The result was technically astounding – a beautifully nuanced and intricate environment with a more serious, less cartoonish edge. “The energy we got into that world – whether you’re going for a drink in a bar or seeing a busker when you walk down the street – is, I think, as much as we were capable of at that time,” says Dan Houser. “And we did that by really going to a granular level with everything.” More than anything, a realism underpinned the new Liberty City, which was more consciously based on New York than either of its forbears. “I was away for two weeks in Edinburgh and when I came back it didn’t feel like I’d left,” Sam Houser told Edge before GTA IV’s release. “I’m not saying that to be funny. I remember: I was coming over the bridge on my first day back to work and I’m like ‘Why doesn’t this feel any different? Because I’ve been doing it 50 times a day.’”

This text first appeared in Edge #230

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