Hats off at Borkowski towers to the pixies behind the GTA V launch, one of the most staggering, captivating launches I’ve laid eyes on for years. The game has shifted £500m worth of units in 24 hours, and analysts are putting good money on its hitting a billion within the year. The petty crime ‘em up has joined the ranks of Modern Warfare 2, World of Warcraft and Wii Sports: games which have proven beyond all doubt that videogaming is now at the very centre of mainstream entertainment culture. Yet GTA V perhaps brings something new – this isn’t just a mass-market phenomenon, it’s a bonafide cultural milestone.
The series has always struck a chord with the commentariat. A billion years ago, I worked on the launch of previous installment GTA II. Its isometric top-down rampaging looks pretty tame to even the uninitiated eye nowadays, but back then it was dangerous. I coaxed the brilliant but publicity-shy Rockstar Games co-founder Sam Houser into the limelight for his first broadsheet interview, a breathless profile in the Telegraph mag.
Even then, a media which largely ignored or feared games could see that this was a man, and a company, with a real sense for the predilections of a generation. The writer of the Telegraph piece, David Thomas, was ahead of the curve. He picked up on characteristic features of the emerging technological-cultural complex which others wouldn’t notice until Silicon Valley’s second boom. “Rockstar represents a completely different cultural hierarchy, one in which good looks are an irrelevance, in which nerds rule, in which… even the spotty guy at the back has a great time,” he concluded.
The media today hasn’t quite got GTA – or games – right. James Delingpole’s hatchet job in the Mail was an enjoyable romp, and as an increasingly cynical baby boomer his fears about the decadence of modern culture resonated with me, but he fails to account for the fact that crime rates continue to fall even as he and his ilk prophecy the death of society. Guy Adams’s profile of Houser and his brother made for an entertaining bit of hypebusting, but his dismissal of gamers as ‘sore thumbed couch potatoes’ sounded more like old media abyss-yelling than a scathing put down.
Still, we’re getting there: GTA’s launch prompted appraisals of the state of games in such lofty places as the FT (where you get a higher standard of commenter response than ‘fk u’ or ‘u get paid 4 this?’). Of them all, I think only the Guardian went slightly over the top (what? never!) when Keith Stuart’s review predicted a future in which games became the preferred form of mass, culturally meaningful entertainment. I think we’re heading towards a multimedia future, emphasis on the ‘multi,’ and no one form will become dominant, but only a fool would deny games a prominent place in what’s to come.
From the beginning, the Houser brothers understood that every generation needed heroes, antiheroes and its own social network. He also understood the suits, and knew that they could be his friend. Best of all, he knew how to play one off against the other, including boy-pleasing hype as critic-pleasing satire with suit-pleasing consequences. Rockstar were always going to be a big deal, but they’ve kept ahead at every turn to become our time’s great British export. Well played.