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When is a game not a game? The usual response to this question would probably be something along the lines of “when it’s art!”, but I want to put forward an alternate suggestion today. How about when it’s an accidental cultural artefact?
Though it’s natural for games to remind us about a time and a place in our lives, they often accidentally tell us a lot about the period in which they were created. Street Fighter‘s Zangief may have established an archetype of the slow-but-powerful grappler, but the design of Zangief himself – alongside his stage and musical motif – tells us a lot about how Russia was viewed in the immediate post-Soviet era. Desert Strike‘s fictional return to the Middle East also tells us much about the general mistrust of Saddam Hussein that had culminated in the first Gulf War the year before its release.
When The Getaway was released, the actual Return to the Gulf was still, just about, in the future (neat segue, eh?). The winter of 2002 wasn’t a bad time for me personally: I was at university and, courtesy of the Student Loans Company, I had access to the kind of cash supply that no ordinary secondary-school Saturday job could grant you. I felt pretty much indestructible. Which was just as well, really: I was only a few weeks from being involved in a potentially nasty car crash with a lorry.
Still, I didn’t know that at the time. What I did know was that two incredibly exciting open-world games were launching within a few weeks of each other on the PS2. For the first time in my life, I also had the means to acquire both without having to resort to trades, schemes or nefarious plans of any kind.
The first of these needs no introduction. Set in a Scottish reimagining of 1980s Miami, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City managed to both improve on the mechanics of its immediate predecessor and dramatically shift the series’ narrative style, even if Rockstar’s tongue was (for now) still quite firmly in its cheek.
The later release, Team Soho’s The Getaway, was Vice City’s polar opposite in a lot of ways. Where the Rockstar title was largely playing for laughs, The Getaway was deadly serious. Where Team Soho sought to impose realistic rules on the player, Vice Cityallowed them to be nigh-on superhuman. Perhaps most crucially for this article, Vice City was a neon-drenched adventure playground cunningly disguised as a city, while The Getaway featured a lovingly detailed model of contemporary London.
There’s a delicious irony looking back at these two in 2019. Though The Getaway enjoyed revelling in being incredibly contemporary and modern, the fact that Vice City was set in 1986 means that, as of this year, we are now temporally further from the release of Getaway than Vice City was its setting.
The Getaway is an unusual historical artefact. Media containing glimpses of a world gone by are nothing new – old episodes of Doctor Who contain some fantastic shots of manky old London docklands that have subsequently become hugely gentrified and sought after. The Getaway is different because it gives us more than just a glimpse: it’s a living, breathing model that we can visit and interact with at any time.
Now the actual game contained in The Getaway is a pretty interesting one in its own right. Not only is it perhaps the only major video game tribute to the British gangster films of the nineties/noughties, but it completely eschewed traditional onscreen elements in order to force players to count their look to the physical condition of their character to assess damage. It might look a bit hammy today, but it was also one of the first games to take the quality of its acting seriously.
However, I don’t want to delve much more into that; my main interest was, and still is, the “free roam” mode that unlocked once the story was over, offering that gloriously detailed dollop of central London geography. Why does it matter? After all, for many of us the turn of the millennium doesn’t feel like it was that long ago. Is the London of 2002 that much different from the London of today? Let’s go on a trip and find out.
An offer you can’t refuse…
To begin, let’s start where so many of my student era tube journeys ended, emerging from Tottenham Court Road station, on the south side of Oxford Street adjacent to Charing Cross Road. The central University of London library is a short walk north east from here, and this just happened to be my favourite exit from the station. If you can have a favourite exit. Is that a bit weird?
The first thing that greets us is a little note of caution: if we look behind us in The Getaway, we’ll find that the station exit has somehow metamorphosed into a branch of mobile phone shop the Link. Considering so many other tube stations were modelled in painstaking detail, I’m not sure why this one didn’t make the cut. Did they do a deal to feature a certain number of Link branches, I wonder?
Either way, it hammered home the fact that, though relatively unparalleled with its level of detail, The Getaway’s version of London wasn’t perfect or complete by any means. At the time, I chuckled because having bought the game during one of my many sorties up to town, the shop I’d bought it from didn’t exist on the game map. I’m easily amused.
Still, a glance to our north reveals a sight that most definitely was historically accurate: the bright yellow awning of the Virgin Megastore. Originally opened in 1979, the Virgin Megastore on the corner of Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road was a behemoth, with multiple floors of CDs, books, games and – by this era – DVDs.
Both Virgin and the huge HMV just down the road were favourite destinations of mine, but generally only for window shopping: with a branch of (pre-franchise) CeX literally round the corner, and Berwick Street’s vast array of second-hand music shops waiting just a few minutes’ walk to the west, it didn’t make much sense to pay inflated prices for the same products.
In Getaway world, both shops are present and correct, as is a branch of your parents’ favourite clothes shop, C&A, which had closed its doors for the final time shortly before the game launched. Unfortunately, the intervening years haven’t been kind to these retail outlets. Had it existed, our erroneous The Link became an O2 shop following a buyout in 2006. With C&A already gone, Virgin Megastores also fell into difficulties in 2007. Though it briefly lived on as Zavvi following a managerial buyout, the Oxford Street store ended up staying mostly dormant after Zavvi collapsed in 2007, and only recently transformed into a branch of Primark.
Meanwhile, HMV lasted longer, but spent the intervening years retreating westwards along Oxford Street, downsizing into ever-smaller properties before finally leaving the shopping destination for good this year. Even Berwick Street didn’t escape unscathed, losing many of its iconic second-hand record shops and being robbed of the iconic backdrop, as seen on Oasis’ What’s the Story Morning Glory album cover, by reconstruction work on nearby flats.
Get in the mo-taaahhhh!
Anyway, there’s no more time for us to mourn these zombified retail outlets now – we’re going on a trip. But how to get around? Though the accuracy of some of the vehicle selections was, at times a case of wishful thinking – I don’t think I’ve ever seen three Lotus Esprits casually sitting at traffic lights in real life – The Getaway boasted enough glorious period “motahs” for you to get your teeth into.
If your heart desired it you could, for example, hijack a Citroen Saxo. It might be small and slow, but this was a model that any teenager of the time would be familiar with. It was cheap to insure and run, making it the kind of car that the richer of your friends might be gifted on their 17th birthday, or featured as the kind of run-around that would’ve been used by whichever parent was lumbered with the school run. These were an incredibly common sight on the streets of Britain back in 2002, but a quick check online reveals there are just 700 of the 2000 model still on the road today.
Alternatively, you might prefer to hijack something a bit racier – like a first-generation Toyota MR2. With the final model rolled off the production line in 1989 and even in 2002, they were a bit long in the tooth. However, their mid-engine design and Lotus-aping Transformer-like bodywork meant they were still a lot of fun, as I found out when I briefly owned one myself a few years later. Just 277 of the 1989 models are on British roads today.
If you prefer to take public transport, you can always nick a bus. London is, of course, famous for its bright red double-deckers, but if you’ve never visited the capital you might be shocked by the number of different varieties have been in operation over the years. Two of these are featured in The Getaway: the original, classic AEC Routemaster and the single-decker Optare Delta.
With a sleek shape and open rear platform, the Routemaster is the bus featured on most of the capital’s promotional imagery. Originally built in the 50s and 60s, it was having somewhat of a renaissance around the time The Getaway was released, with Transport for London buying back and refurbishing 50 Routemasters that had been sold to operators outside of London. Their presence in the game was justified even if, in reality, you’d have been more likely to board a more modern double-decker on any given journey.
Unfortunately, like the retail chains we’ve seen, things didn’t go particularly well for the Routemaster. Rather chaotically, their reintroduction in 2001 coincided with accessibility legislation that forced most of the bus companies who were running them to retire the model in 2003. Today, they run on a single short heritage route from Tower Hill to Trafalgar Square – and only then on weekends and bank holidays between March and September.
Built between 1989 to 1999, things were a bit rosier for the less-notable single-decker Delta. Though it’s hard to find out how many of these are still running, you can still find them running from time to time – even as simple rail replacement buses.
Seeing the sights
With all this said, protagonist Mark ‘ammond was a bit of a healthy chap, so maybe we could walk around the world of The Getaway instead. Just remember to be on your best behaviour, otherwise we might have an involuntary ride in a police “Jam Sandwich” Vauxhall Vectra (rather than the Hyundais more commonly seen today).
Starting off southward on the west side of Charing Cross Road, let’s take a moment ponder two more casualties to the modern world: multi-level bookshop Borders, which closed its doors for the final time back in 2009, and everyone’s favourite least-favourite gig venue: the Astoria.
Reaching the area where Leicester Square Station should be, hanging a quick right past the bars and cinemas onto the square itself, we can take stock of both the park in the middle of the square – something that’s a lot more open today – alongside the Brosnan-era Bond film boldly advertised on the front of the Odeon.
What to make of our journey? Well, The Getaway‘s erroneously-placed The Link hides the fact that, from the very beginning, we were surrounded by change. Over the last couple of years, both that particular entrance to Tottenham Court Road and the station itself have been drastically remodelled in preparation for the arrival of Crossrail, an ambitious scheme to dig a new underground railway line linking one side of London to the other. Along with the rebuilding of Tottenham Court Road, Crossrail has been responsible for closing plenty of businesses in the area, alongside a huge reworking of the junction between Oxford Street, Charing Cross Road and Tottenham Court Road.
Though this journey wasn’t particularly long, these works were present throughout: not only had the park in the middle of Leicester Square been re-landscaped in the years between the release of The Getaway and today, but the road system around Trafalgar Square has been completely remodelled as well.
When The Getaway was released, Nelson stood on an island surrounded by open top tour buses and black cabs. With the north side of the square now completely pedestrianised, it’s more of a cape-like outcropping.
Now, you might be thinking that this was a set-up: that we’ve deliberately followed a route that exaggerates the differences between then and now. However, if we’d wandered in other directions we’d have seen the same thing.
Going north up Tottenham Court Road or west along Oxford Street, we’d have witnessed significant changes favouring pedestrians. If we’d headed east to Covent Garden rather than broken westward into Leicester Square, we’d have seen that the iconic Rock Garden restaurant and music venue had been replaced with the sleek glass frontage and wooden furniture of an Apple store. If we’d wandered along Oxford Circus and down Regent Street towards Piccadilly Circus we’d have seen that the Trocadero – once home to a Sega World – is no longer there. Change might have been silent, creeping and gradual, but its evidence is everywhere.
A cleaner, greener future
To finish our journey, let’s head southeast along Northumberland Avenue, finally finishing up on the Embankment where we can ponder the gentle grey waters of the Thames. Though this area still shows some area of development (the Golden Jubilee Bridges finished in the same year as The Getaway was released, so didn’t make the cut), the most important change we can see here is really political.
When The Getaway was released, local politics in London was going through something of a renaissance, with its first mayor being elected just a couple of years before the game was released. As transport was (and always will be) an issue important to Londoners, it was an area that saw dramatic changes in that period: cycling infrastructure in the capital started seeing dramatic improvement, the Oyster card system began to replace the thousands of paper tickets that were printed every day and, most controversially of all, drivers faced a £5 charge to bring their vehicles into the city.
In 2019, we’re currently on our third mayor – with both Ken Livingston and Boris Johnson having served two four-year terms each – and The Getaway‘s city is an interesting fossil of pre-mayoral London. If we look opposite the Playhouse Theatre, for example, we don’t see the long stands of official Transport For London hire bikes that stand ready for use today. If we cross onto the Embankment itself, we see how it looked before it was recently rebuilt to include a cycle lane. If we hijack a vehicle and follow the road eastwards to Tower Hill (where The Getaway‘s world makes a sudden and abrupt end) we won’t see the tell-tale “C” markings on the road that highlight the start of the congestion zone.
A city frozen in time
The Getaway is a strange game to return to on the eve of a new decade. I know it’s a bit of a journalistic cliché to say that an old game has the ability to transport you to a different time, but people generally don’t mean it quite as literally as I do when I say The Getaway takes me back to the London of my university years.
I suppose the weirdest thing about returning is the way so much change has happened without me really acknowledging it. One part of the problem is a lack of solid, indisputable end dates; while the newspapers made a fuss when the Routemasters were eventually retired, or when it was formally announced that the north side of Trafalgar Square would exclude all traffic, no one really noticed when vehicles like 90s Nissan Micra or the original Toyota MR2 switched from being relatively common to being very obscure, or when under-used side streets round the back of Oxford Street had road markings altered and pavements re-laid.
On top of this, the technology we carry with us may have changed, but culturally speaking, the last 19 years seem to have remained relatively static when compared to previous eras. That’s not to say that we haven’t seen any new trends over the last 20 years – TV binge culture and ever-increasing collaboration in the music industry are two recent ones that immediately spring to mind – but most of these feel like additions to existing fashions, rather the markings of a new epoch which has replaced all that came before.
Take the style of Getaway protagonist Mark Hammond, for example. If we came across him in the street, and we could look past the fact he was weirdly polygonal, we wouldn’t bat an eye at his clothes or haircut. However, back in 2002, we could definitely say that the wide-collared pastel suits and lavish haircuts seen in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City would have been a lot more conspicuous.
The same can be said of the music, too. Though The Getaway’s score was more cinematic than Vice City’s licensed radio stations, a number of the songs that might potentially have been licensed back in 2002 wouldn’t seem out of date today. Though Daniel Bedingfield’s Gotta Get Thru This is dated to the extent that it was linked to the UK garage movement, both the composition and production wouldn’t need a drastic amount of work to be released as a contemporary single in 2019. The same can’t be said of the biggest hits of 1986, which needed a degree of rehabilitation work to work as a stand-alone single in 2002.
If the speed of cultural change has slowed, the pace of change in my own life has gone in the opposite direction. In the last 20 years I’ve gone from being a student at the business-end of my schooling, who resided in my native East London, to being a South London-based married father of two with a surprisingly responsible job for someone whose main hobby is poking things in the direction of a Sega Mega Drive’s sound chip.
Because of this, I suppose I’ve always looked at the city as some kind of immovable constant. Whatever has been going on in my own life, it’s always been reassuring to know that the light on top of Canary Wharf will blink its endless warning to low-flying aircraft, or that Central Line trains will always stop at Liverpool Street.
What returning to The Getaway pushes into sharp focus is that this is an illusion. With every road that gets repainted, every cycle hire stand that’s built, or every building that gets renovated or condemned, the city is irrevocably changed – taking a little piece of the place I grew up in with it.
And you know what? I think I’m OK with that. I’ve made use of recently-built cycling infrastructure and changes in tube ticketing to get to my job on time. I’ve enjoyed events in the more pedestrian-friendly Trafalgar Square. Had earlier governments been quicker at taking the recent steps towards cleaning the city’s air quality, I may not have grown up as an asthmatic. I wish I could be a grumpy old man and say it was better in the good old days, but unless you like your shops to be shut all day on Sunday (they were finally allowed to open from six hours in 1994), they frequently weren’t.
Still, despite all this, I still find myself pining – from time to time – for the city we left behind. I want to see Trafalgar Square as it was when my grandparents took me on my first open top bus ride. I want to revisit the Tottenham Court Road l stalked along, hunting for game-related bargains. When this feeling takes hold, I consider myself lucky: while generations older than I have to make do with flat photographs or with short snippets of life captured in old TV programs and films, The Getaway gifts a three dimensional model of my home city frozen at the moment in my life when it was at its most meaningful and exciting.
Though the game underpinning The Getaway has quirks that make it tricky to return to in 2019, who cares when the snapshot it offers is worth more than several GTA clones? It’s one of gaming’s great tragedies that, after a brief return for sequel Black Monday on the PS2, Team Soho were never given the opportunity to update their vision of London for the next generation of hardware.