GTA games come alive when you turn on the radio

GTA games come alive when you turn on the radio

Something surprising happened when we sat down last week to write about what we wanted to see more of in Grand Theft Auto 6. Two of us, independently, wanted to write about radio stations. If you’ve read the piece you’ll know that Ed wrote a lovely section on his need for an 80s radio station to bring him the perfect Miami vibes. I was going to write about Non-Stop-Pop and its host DJ Cara. (Ed’s piece was so good in the end I found some other bobbins to write about.)

Maybe it’s not surprising that more than one of us wanted to write about the radio. Radio has been a part of GTA since the very beginning, after all. I can remember very clearly sitting in my rented room in the year after university, playing the first GTA on my PC and racing wildly over the city looking for the perfect car – not the perfect car for a crime or a mission, but the perfect car for the selection of tunes it played. Radio stations were broken up by vehicle back then – anyone who scored a pick-up truck and had to listen to the since country song looping will know this intimately. It worked, though, because you felt like you were stealing a car and having to live with the previous owner’s radio presets. You were living with the ghost of their musical taste.

Scroll forward to the present and I can’t imagine GTA without radio. The radio wheel is as important – more important maybe – than the weapon wheel whenever I watch my wife playing. Weapons are fine for changing the balance or approach in a gunfight, sure, but the right radio station dictates the entire mood of a play session. Radio is its own way of being in this world.

DF’s beautiful timelapse of GTA 4. I could pretty much watch this forever.

And we’re back to Non-Stop-Pop. The best tunes, yes, but also the best DJ with that cheery, disarmingly English voice. DJ Cara! I only recently learned that this is Cara Delevigne. She’s great, but DJ Cara will always be her own entity to me. We’ve lived with her in our house for the best part of a decade, it feels. She’s been there as my wife moved from robbing gas stations to pulling off complex heists, to exploring the oceans in her own sub and staging endless attempts to storm that sodding military base. DJ Cara: thank you for your service.

Lots of other open-world games have added radio, of course, but with GTA it hits differently. The tracklisting feels more considered, the span of stations more emblematic of the terrifying wilds of American broadcasting. And it’s not just a soundtrack in GTA, it’s gently place-building. GTA 5 gives you Los Santos in the streets and the skyscrapers, but it also gives it to you in the airwaves. The people you pass in the streets probably know about DJ Cara. The people passing in traffic in their own cars are probably in their own little radio worlds, cocooned with their own choices of DJ and music.

All of my early memories of life in the States include radio. I close my eyes and I can hear my mum searching the dial in her Mazda as we drove through redwoods on Highway 9, inevitably settling on a station playing Baker Street or Daydream Believer. (Highway 9 banks and curves and loops, and I can’t help but think of its dewy, dappled, sinuous tarmac whenever I hear that sax opening to Baker Street.) I always suspect that America’s relationship with the car is in part a relationship with two other crucial elements of the car experience – billboards, which make each journey feel epic, garish, unpredictable, and FM radio, which makes each journey feel shyly internal, as if you’re bubbling through your own bloodstream and checking in on the atomiser bursts of your own synapses even as you ghost between Silverlake and Pasadena.

I’ll leave you with a slightly random anecdote that always comes to mind when we’re tooling through Los Santos with DJ Cara playing. A while back, on the podcast Song Exploder, Lindsey Buckingham was talking about the creation of the track Go Your Own Way. He broke the song down, talked about the multilayered bass part, about the sweet fusion of those three voices that make every classic Fleetwood Mac record, and then he stops near the end to reflect on the first time he ever heard the song on the radio.

He’s in traffic in LA, listening to – I worked it out – KMET, which in a lovely piece of indulgent harmony was my mum’s favourite station. B. Mitchel Reed is the DJ, the fastest mouth on the airwaves, and he announces that he’s got the new Fleetwood Mac single and he’s going to play it. For the next few minutes, Buckingham rocks out in his own car – that special feeling of his song, suddenly out in the world, and out of his control. It’s his own song coming back to him. It’s gorgeous. He couldn’t be happier. The music fades and B comes back on. “That was the new Fleetwood Mac single,” he says. He takes a beat. “Yeah, I don’t know about that one.”

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