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Have You Played... Grand Theft Auto?

Before Rockstar

Have You Played? is an endless stream of game retrospectives. One a day, every day of the year, perhaps for all time.

Y'know, the original one. Before 3D. Before Rockstar. Before the world changed.

I had played games - or seen games played - in front of a crowd before. Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat in the arcade, primarily, and occasional early-teenage house parties which were primarily framed around taking turns to play Streets of Rage. Grand Theft Auto (not GTA yet, and not for a long time still) was nonetheless a first. A guy I didn't even like (the feeling very mutual), a drunken, bullying idiot, unexpectedly knocked on my door in university halls, brandishing a CD. The dynamic: he was the guy with the controversial videogame, I was the only guy he knew with a PC. I had to install it. I had to be the gateway to what, even for this career lout, was a whole new breed of misanthropy.

He brought a crowd with him: almost every one on our floor of the halls, male and female. All had heard about this ultra-modern bete noir, this next generation of video nasty, and all wished to see what it was. I was treated as if some kind of magician as I installed and configured it. Breath was held then exhaled with mingled horror and delight as I drove over the first pedestrian.

The fool took control soon, and giggled cruelly as he mowed down civilian after civilian, as we all did. His interest waned soon enough, for despite all the headlines, this was just another videogame, a passing distracting compared to booze and pills girls and setting off fire alarms and smashing doors and shouting racist insults at Welsh people. Most of the crowd filtered out before long too, because really what this was was a little toy car speeding around a little pretend city, making pixels turn another colour.

But a few remained, and they became my friends, because we had a shared wonder at this thing. Not at the killing, though we continued to hoot at new feats of comic murder, but at the size of the space it offered, how far we could drive, how much we were allowed to do, how unpredictable each willing foray into chaos was. This was not just some throwaway exercise in sadism: it was a furthering of what we believed games could do.

I hesitate to in any way describe GTA as a formative game, because I am increasingly uncomfortable about its ongoing shift from barrier-pushing to unabashed mean-spiritedness, but I suppose it was. It seemed like a jump. A world rather than a level. After GTA, games and I seemed to become intertwined in a way they never had before. And here I am.

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