Behind every great story there’s another story; particularly with one as shocking and sinuous as that of Grand Theft Auto, the behemothic mega-franchise that has come to not only define gaming, but also push the boundaries for just how impactful a piece of media can be, in any medium.
Bugzy Malone’s Grandest Game is a new podcast from the BBC, shining light across every colourful facet of the GTA story with the help of the titular rapper. As the series celebrates its 25th anniversary, We sit down with Chris Warburton, BBC Radio 5 Live presenter and co-host of the podcast, as well as Ciaran Tracey, the podcast’s producer, to discuss how they went about telling what is not just a huge Scottish success story, but also a globally-significant saga of games, guns and (cutting-edge) graphic violence.
Moment of Glory
“I’ve always been on the lookout for stories about moments of significant cultural change.” said Warburton, of the series’ inception. “Ciaran and I worked on a podcast called Ecstasy: The Battle of Rave, about the first time ecstasy came to the UK, the impact it had in terms of crime, and the emergence of acid house as a music genre. I wanted to do something similar, but in a different area.”
Keen to explore events that hadn’t received much in-depth coverage before, Warburton turned his eyes to the relatively new world of gaming. He eventually settled on Grand Theft Auto, one of the biggest gaming franchises out there; not just in terms of sales, but in terms of cultural impact, too. Serendipitously, with the schedule they had in mind for the podcast, it would release around the date of the series’ 25th anniversary. The timing couldn’t be better.
Warburton had a personal history with the series as well: “I remember playing the first iteration of GTA in my friend Paul’s bedroom.” He recalls. “It was so basic compared to where we are today, but even at that early stage it had some of the key ingredients we think of when we think of GTA now.”
Tracey, on the other hand, had no previous experience of the series at all. “I knew nothing about the series,” He said. “Which, journalistically, is quite good, since you don’t go in with any preconceived notions.”
Respect is Everything
This idea of coming into the project with fresh eyes was of key importance to the duo; they wanted to tell the story as accurately as possible, without falling into the trap of leaning too heavily into the controversy behind it. “You’ve got to be living in a cave if you don’t know about the kinds of supposed moral panic GTA has caused over the years.” Warburton notes. “You know a debate is there, but it’s understanding how deep and how wide things got, and the implications of that for the company, and for the industry as a whole. We never seek to be sensational about things, we just want to tell the story as accurately as we can.”
This is crucially important because, as much as GTA’s public perception is defined by the myriad controversies the series has caused over the years, the full story goes far beyond that, encompassing a huge number of developers, business figures, and, of course, players. Warburton and Tracey went to great lengths to assemble a lineup of guests for the podcast who could represent this broad spectrum of voices.
“As with any podcast, it’s always about trying to find the best people to tell your story;” Notes Warburton. “Finding people who will be knowledgeable, enthusiastic, and appealing to the target listeners.” And find them they did. In addition to interviewing fans of the series at gaming events, Warburton and Tracey assembled a killer lineup for the podcast, from games industry icon Brianna Wu; to media figures well-versed in the story like Esther Wright and Sherri L. Smith; to developers who worked on the series during its inception at DMA design in Dundee, such as Paul Farley and Brian Baglow.
The latter, original DMA employees, were particularly important inclusions for Warburton, who wanted to avoid simply talking about the more well-known figures in the GTA mythology. “We wanted to give dues to the people who got the ball rolling at the very start. Sometimes, in work like this, DMA get left as a bit of a footnote, but we thought it was very important to focus on the story of how they began and built up, and how they got involved with Sam Houser in the first place.” Tracey echoed this sentiment: “The attraction is to pick out the visionary leaders, But just looking at the credits for GTA 3 alone, it’s vast, and all these people contributed to that magic.”
Of course, there was one final addition to the cast still to be made; that of titular grime artist Bugzy Malone. When deciding who to feature as the ‘main character’ for the podcast, Warburton and Tracey wanted to avoid recent unfortunate trends in the podcast space: “I think there’s a big critique at the moment of celebrity guests on podcasts who aren’t really into it.” Says Tracey. “We wanted to avoid getting someone who was a big name, but who we’d struggle to find truth and authenticity in their telling of the story.”
The pair considered a lot of options, before the perfect choice presented itself to them: “One day me and Chris were just sitting there, and we saw San Andreas Mentality by Bugzy Malone.” The song, which tells the story of Malone’s early life, and how the world of GTA was mirrored in the world he grew up in, was what convinced Warburton and Tracey he was the right man for the job. “It immediately became clear that, not only was he into it, but San Andreas Mentality came out in 2014, so he didn’t get on this train yesterday; it was clear he had a deep-rooted link to the series.”
Beyond his personal links to the series, Malone was an ideal presenter for other reasons as well. “Music is an essential part of the GTA experience, so having a musician as a presenter makes sense.” Said Warburton. “It’s also quite an edgy series, so you want someone who’s got that kind of dynamic to their personality and public profile, and he absolutely ticks that box. Finally, crime is also a central element of the GTA series, and Bugzy Malone has had experience of that world growing up, and understands gang life and being behind bars, so he was willing to be quite open about those experiences with us. With all of those factors together, he was the absolute perfect figure to be involved in the podcast.”
The Neverending Story
With everything in place, Warburton and Tracey were primed to bring the story of GTA to the masses. What they weren’t prepared for was more of the story unfolding around them as they worked on it. “Rockstar dropped the GTA 6 tweet back in February, which brought things screeching into the here and now.” Recalls Tracey. “Then in September there was the leak, which brings it slamming front-and-centre into where we are.”
These events, which represent the latest controversies (in the latter case at least) for the series, couldn’t have been timed better as far as the podcast was concerned; they brought it an up-to-the-minute significance that rounded out their telling of the GTA story beautifully.
With the series turning 25 this week, there’s no better time to explore the history of one of gaming’s most storied franchises. A history which, even when not sensationalised, still manages to shock and amaze at every turn. So grab your good headphones, pour yourself a cup of hot coffee, and enjoy.
You can check out the full series on BBC Sounds here.