Have you ever driven properly in Grand Theft Auto? You know what I mean: staying in your lane, stopping at red lights, moving with the rest of the traffic and never even thinking about mounting a kerb. It's a strange, almost trance-like way of playing. My mind soon moves into observer mode, and I experience this world in new ways. I watch the pedestrians navigating the street furniture, the way the cars wait for others to act, and hear the mournful cacophony of honks in a slow-moving jam. I see the police and know that, this time, I'm not the player they're looking for.
One of the joys of this series, in ways big and small, has always been roleplay. Taking on a persona in a given situation or, even better, teaming up with a few buddies and creating your own little scenario. This has always seemed a characteristic of Grand Theft Auto but the sheer scope of GTAV, specifically GTA Online, alongside ever-evolving video production and sharing tools has led to a new breed of production. The game is one hell of a foundation.
I'd been aware of a certain kind of police subculture that had grown up around the game since GTAIV, with various groups having various rules but the core idea being to play the roles 'realistically' (at the most basic level, arresting robbers rather than blowing them away). Some folk, of course, take it even further. A group of players interested in the police roleplay side of GTA Online recently decided to make their own 'reality' police show — a modern TV genre where, say, a camera crew follows Wolverhampton's finest bobbies as they pull over speeders, and there's high drama when a van crashes into a bollard. One of the reasons these shows are enjoyable, for me at least, is the insight into the daily mundanity of being a police officer, as well as the occasional drunk making a clownish cameo. It gives you a bit of respect for what these people put up with.
Perhaps that's why this series, Inside the Constabulary, has such charm to it. As a video game, Grand Theft Auto escalates: it starts with running a red light in front of a patrol car, and ends ten minutes later with hundreds dead and explosions everywhere. But here the infractions are everyday. The villains are graffiti artists, boozehounds, or people withissues. It's funny to see GTA police acting like... well, like police.
Anyone who's seen this kind of show will instantly be at home. Aficionados may note the Ambulance-inspired title sequence, and in terms of police-focused source material there's an endless array of shows available about UK police forces: the Cops UK; The Force North East; Cop Squad; The Met; Police 24/7 to name but a few. Inside the Constabulary is exactly like these, right down to the monotone discussions, constant copper lingo, and awkward excuses.
What impressed me more than anything else about Inside the Constabulary, however, is the camera work. The creators have done an incredible job of replicating the way these shows are filmed, so you have police talking to a camera in their squad car, a dash cam, a camera car, shots that follow the officers as they approach a scene, and shots that transition into squad cars as the operator 'climbs' in. What's happening is the illusion of a real-life person controlling the camera in that world, as if this whole thing really is being produced by people on the scene, following the police. It reminds you how jaw-dropping GTAV's world truly is.
That's not to say it doesn't show off. The second episode begins with Officer Fozzy chatting away to the camera about why he joined the force, before what should be a routine stop becomes a car chase. I think it's easy to watch something like this and pick out imperfections: the lip-syncing animations are terrible, for example, even if the team can hardly be blamed for that. The voice acting isn't going to win an Oscar (though it does fit the 'reality show' concept). To me those wrinkles are so small next to the achievement of producing something like this in a video game. This video starts just as the chase begins:
There's a backbone of authenticity to Inside the Constabulary, which as I looked into these roleplay communities became less surprising. The whole police modding subculture in GTA has also been around for a long time before this, and if you want an origin point it's probably a 2010 singleplayer mod for GTAIV called LCPDFR. This mod, for the first time, let players subvert GTA's usual through-line by playing as a police officer.
When GTAV came to PC, the LCPDFR mod was soon to follow. Inside the Constabulary's producer is Morgan Foster, and he picks up the story. "It brought the GTAIV policing community with it [and] this is the time which I joined the community, around early 2016. The team I primarily work as part of, IGradeGaming, have been together ever since [...] We all had a mutual interest in the police, and it was through youtube that we got to know each other. Since then we've done numerous videos together taking on the format where one of us is a civilian, and the others roleplay as police officers."
Foster highlights the extra level of attention to detail that has emerged in GTAV, thanks to creators who have produced detailed 3D models of a variety of UK police vehicles (he asks we shout-out the work of Bleep999, Raddz Modding, BritishGamer88 and MultiGaming_UK). These are used alongside a multiplayer mod, FiveM, that allows custom servers to be set up perfectly for 'real' policing.
Inside the Constabulary's camera work, remarkably, was all achieved using GTAV's default Rockstar Editor, alongside vehicles made by the creators above and a mod that allowed character manipulation. "A trainer called Menyoo allowed for me to access the game's animation library," says Foster, "meaning I could animate individual police officers to make their movements look realistic."
I admire the time that so clearly went into Inside the Constabulary, and how well it recreates its inspirations. Foster was the driving force behind a team of around 20 people who worked on the project, so I ask where that kind of commitment came from. "I've always wanted to work in TV or the media," says Foster, "and for now youtube is the closest many people can get to this. I've always loved the post-production side of making videos just as much as the actual recording of them [so] I combined the two to create my own TV-style series that was an accumulation of my interests in post-production, online gaming, emergency services and working with an amazing team. We all saw the idea of the series as something new not just to the British policing community, but to the world of online gaming that would hopefully appeal to audiences far beyond the United Kingdom."
Foster also sourced some quotes from other members of the team, all of which share a similar enthusiasm. "I can't get my head around some of the shots he made," emails AdamPlays, a voice actor in the show. Multigaming_UK, one of the vehicle mod creators mentioned above, emphasises that "The series recreates actual incidents that the police and the other services have to deal with on a regular basis, especially in regards to the final episode which focuses on mental health."
That last point is worth lingering over, because in some ways the most interesting aspect of the GTA policing community is the admiration and respect for the job that the police do, and the judgement calls they have to make every day. Clearly the creators and players involved care a lot about fidelity, getting the job right right. I ask Foster, in the context of Inside the Constabulary featuring West Mercia Police vehicles, if this is his local force.
You only emulate something worth emulating, right?
"I live in the town of Shrewsbury, Shropshire, and so West Mercia Police is my local force," says Foster with a smile. "Also featured are West Midlands Ambulance Service and Shropshire Fire & Rescue, both of which are also my locals. The team who helped on the project though are from all over the UK..."
This last point comes over when you watch the episodes, which feature a smorgasbord of accents from the British Isles including Irish, Scottish and Welsh. I looked up West Midlands RPC, a separate police roleplay community, and came across this fascinating nugget of information: "We have a team of experienced command members, and real life police officers to assist us in the day to day running of the community." This group is not a part of Inside the Constabulary, but gets a special thanks in the credits for giving the team some paramedic vehicles and an ambulance. Foster clarifies the distinction for me, and this kind of detail is why I love his project: "West Midlands is a different force to West Mercia, yet we do share the same ambulance service."
Some members of GTA police communities being real-life officers is not as unusual as it might seem: plenty of pilots enjoy flight simulators. I ask Foster whether it's true that British bobbies are also keeping order on the mean streets of GTA. He says he thinks West Midlands RPC does have members of the emergency services but, as he doesn't know the group well enough, he can't be sure. "One thing I do know is that emergency service personnel do play modded GTA." Under the name ItsFozzy, Morgan Foster continues to produce police-based Grand Theft Auto videos, and can also be found on twitter.
These days I don't play GTAV all that much. But my interest in the game remains undimmed because, while this has always been an amazing series, the way that the latest entry acts as a foundation for players is both remarkable and feels like a fulfilment of some part of the concept. Rockstar president Sam Houser gave an interview to Edge magazine before the launch of GTAIV, the first in the series to include multiplayer, and summed up his thinking not by talking about shootouts, heists or deathmatches. What enraptured Houser was the idea that "I'll meet you in a car and we'll hang and just drive and listen to music, chilling in the car, with your 3D model sat next to me."
It's easy to think about GTA Online and the default experience which, while fun, is chaotic and violent. The whole social side of online gaming is also here, however, flourishing on the margins of this unprecedented virtual world. Police roleplaying communities are one part of it, and if you're not into that then there are art-focused groups, stunt crews, dedicated racing teams, and a thousand other collectives that you may never hear of, but just keep on doing their thing.
The common theme is co-operation: players working together to do something they love, playing their part in a grander production. Making your own stories, even if it's not being recorded and will never be known outside your little group. This is user-generated content, but it's also a testament to the outstanding technical achievement of Rockstar North: GTAV shows that, if the stage is flexible and powerful enough, then players can apply incredible ingenuity to whatever role they wish to inhabit. It shows that open worlds are not about huge explosions and stupid weapons and killing people, but are given meaning by their limitations both in-built and player-authored. Grand Theft Auto has always been an incredible game. In its latest incarnation, and for many years now, it has also become a canvas.