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Grand Theft Auto IV’s Art Director Aaron Garbut on Copycat Games and the Public Bathrooms of Liberty City

Courtesy of Rockstar Games

The strangest thing about Liberty City, Grand Theft Auto IV’s New York simulacrum, is that it was all dreamt up in the Edinburgh offices of Rockstar Games’ Scottish branch, Rockstar North. Over there, art director Aaron Garbut and his team rebuilt Gotham, pixel by pixel. We spoke to him about cheap GTA knock-offs, scary men in Brighton Beach bathrooms, and how his designers know how much change is in your pockets.

What are some of your favorite, small NYC details?
My personal favorite is our take on the National Club in Brighton Beach. We went there as part of a research trip. Russian karaoke versions of European pop songs, jellied sturgeon under cling film, and lots and lots of vodka. When we left, one of the ex-cops who was looking after us had gotten a little drunk and emotional. He confessed that if shit went down at some point during the week, he’d only be able to save one of our lives, and we should decide amongst ourselves who that should be.

I’m fascinated by the idea of this Scottish design team building another New York.
We’re not trying to be accurate. We are creating a caricature, a dream of New York. It’s a New York people imagine without necessarily having ever been there, or the one they remember when they leave. Liberty is a grotesque echo of the real New York; it’s all the best and worst, exaggerated and distilled into a smaller, denser, dirtier, scarier place.

What kind of research did you do?
We also had videos of various junctions throughout the day, set up to record both the changing light and the typical traffic flow, vehicles, pedestrians and the kind of things they did. We read books detailing New York’s infrastructure, the sewers, subways, garbage disposal, et cetera. We used Census information to decide on the ethnic demographics for each area of the city. We used architectural plans to define the basic layouts of apartments and used satellite imagery to look at the typical ways city blocks were laid out in each area. We looked at sales figures for make and models of cars to decide what would likely be seen, we went through hundreds of thousands of images, making collections of pedestrians up for each area and we had a full-time research team based in New York that constantly fed us information or additional images and video. Most useful, though, was experiencing things first hand.

What do you remember most about your trips here?
We were in Brighton Beach one day, walking around, not hearing a single word of English being spoken. Someone saw a safe smashed open down a side street and went to check it out. There were two big guys in tracksuits standing there and, in really thick Russian accents; they asked what the fuck we were filming. Someone started joking around with them, and the situation diffused, but it made you think how quickly things can go wrong in these areas. We tried to feed this into the way the gangs work in the game. In previous games, they would just attack you; now we get them to come to you and start hassling you in the hope that you initiate a fight.

Brighton Beach, we were blown away by the vibe of the place. The accents, the way no one seemed to be smiling that morning. We wandered down to the boardwalk and went into the public toilet; inside, one guy in a string vest was shaving, and another exceptionally hairy guy had his shirt off and was washing his pits. We put the toilets into the game as a tribute to them. There’s nothing like bumping into a scary guy in a string vest with a cutthroat razor in a public toilet to help set the tone. Or a bunch of us taking photos on 125th Street and being told we were going to be shot if we didn’t put the cameras away. That was relaxing.

What do you think about games like Saints Row and True Crime, which are based on the GTA model?
There have been a lot of games inspired by the GTA formula. Some of them take the idea and go somewhere different with it and it progresses the medium. There are a few titles that are more cynical attempts at carbon copies. I find that reprehensible. It’s a sign of how immature we are an as industry and as an art form that the kind of extreme plagiarism we’re seeing is thought to be acceptable in some way. On a personal level, I think that GTA is made with real passion and has a lot of personality and soul. I couldn’t imagine how soul destroying it would be to make a game by the numbers, sitting with a finished game and ripping it off.

From the outside, it’s hard for us to tell what the toughest parts of developing a game really are. What would you say was the greatest challenge of GTA IV?
The biggest challenge has been to create and integrate all the detail. We have so much stuff in this game, and it doesn’t exist as separate entities, it’s all woven together, interrelating in various ways. I remember finding out part way through the project that the audio team were storing the amount of money in each character’s pocket — each pocket, mind you, that’s left and right — so that they could mix in the right amount of change-jingling noise as they walked past. At the time I thought it was crazy, and it is, but by the end of the project it pretty much fits in with the rest of the game. —Logan Hill

Grand Theft Auto IV’s Art Director Aaron Garbut on Copycat Games and the Public Bathrooms of Liberty City