One of the more satisfying parts of any open world game with a car is jamming to the licensed music, commercials, and DJ banter in the fake radio stations. Imagine how dull video game road trips and drive-by shootings would be without that mobile soundtrack. We have Grand Theft Auto to thank for that innovation. PC Gamer has a look back at what it took to get those radio stations into the series, and how it almost didn’t become a thing at all.
Back when it was made by DMA Design, the first game almost didn’t have the stations we now take for granted. The game was going to have a simple MIDI-based soundtrack due to storage limitations on Nintendo 64 carts. Thankfully, that N64 version was canceled, allowing the audio team to get more adventurous for the PC and PlayStation.
Colin Anderson, a member of the audio team, explained that the first game’s original music was part of the design. The game took place in an alternate version of this world. Tunes were familiar-sounding, but not specific. It was only after their (at the time) publisher Rockstar had another studio create Grand Theft Auto: London 1961 and the 1969 expansion pack that licensed music was used and became part of the GTA series’ vocabulary.
“That essentially broke the purity of the creative vision,” says Anderson. “I was kind of upset about that at the time, because I didn’t know anything about those products. They appeared from nowhere.”
Rockstar heads Sam Houser and Terry Donovan pushed for more licensed music going forward, whereas Colin Anderson and others wanted to feature original music by relatively unknown artists. Discrete radio stations allowed a mix of both familiar tunes and new songs, but licensed music became the norm.
That in-car radio station feature would eventually give us one of the best moments in gaming: The Take On Me sing-along in Saints Row 2.