Tracing The Getaway: How Team Soho's virtual London compares and contrasts with the modern city

Video game developers and publishers have a long track record of recreating the real world within their titles. As we’ve already highlighted on the 30 years of play blog (and as we’ve seen across the video game media), simulations or riffs on reality have proven an effective way to provide a solid grounding for successful games.

But how useful can these games be when it comes to attempting to understand the locations that they’re set in? And specifically, what role can games that simulate or recreate parts of the world that they’re set in act as a route for historians into the era?

To find out, we decided to compare a recreation of London in 2002 Playstation 2 open world adventure game The Getaway against the real thing. Over the course of one chilly morning in January, we compared and contrasted the in game capital against the physical streets it was based on by going on a good old fashioned walk.

And in doing so, we were able to learn something important. We learned that the London forged in The Getaway provides a partially accurate representation of the city it was set in. But more importantly than that, the limitations set on it, the areas it didn’t choose to represent and the buildings it couldn’t possibly represent showed it had value as a historical source - giving something for future historians to cling onto in the future.

Figuring out the Frightener

The Getaway represents a lot of London for a PS2 video game. Whether you’re up for a jaunt across Old Street, a spin around Soho or fancy a drive around Buckingham Palace, your in game criminal capers spread far and wide.

So rather than analysing the game’s map in its entirety, I decided to analyse a slice of the game to focus the comparison points. Specifically, I selected the Frightener – the game’s opening mission – because its route took the player from the heart of Holborn over to what was considered then the rather grimy back streets of Lambeth.

The first challenge I had to overcome was properly mapping the route. This was not caused by a lack of detail or inaccuracies in the game world. Instead, a lack of information within the game’s user interface - such as a mini-map or pop up street names - made it hard to discern a clear route from the Youtube play throughs of the opener.

The first mission in the game The Getaway. Source: The Getaway Pro.

Fortunately, the game’s mapping of London helped me to achieve this goal to a considerable extent. Because I understood where a handful of key landmarks are located in London – specifically St Clement Danes Church, the IMAX cinema near Waterloo and Borough Market – I was able to work back to where the first mission started and physically draw out the route.

Once that was completed, two things struck me. The first was that both the in game map and the real world map looked at first glance to be remarkably similar. Provided you were willing to commit some minor traffic violations, the route sketched in game would be a viable route for a real world driver to take.

Second, and in contrast to the point above, it was also clear that The Getaway’s in game map was a compression of the city’s streets. In game, it takes the player roughly two minutes to drive from Great Russell Street down to the market. In reality, Google estimates (with traffic) that it’d take about 15 minutes to drive (and 44 minutes to walk).

The Getaway’s version of Zone 1 corresponds well to the modern day map

This suggested that Team Soho’s version of London would be a negotiated one: tapering closely to the real thing where possible, but making sacrifices where it needed. And this analysis was borne out when I walked the route marked out in for me in The Frightener.

Putting The Getaway through its pace

After clambering my way out of Holborn tube station, I headed north on foot to find the starting point of the mission. 

In game, the player is immediately forced into a right turn at the top of Theobalds Road to head down towards the Strand. Standing at the intersection between it and Southampton Row, it’s clear that it is where the game starts and that it is well represented in The Getaway.

However, things started to change when I reached the top of the road and turned right towards High Holborn. While the walk from Theobalds Road to Aldwych aligns with London’s geography, there were notable differences along the way.

The Getaway recreates a junction near High Holborn

For example, the game doesn’t include the junction upon which Holborn tube station sits. It also doesn’t feature side roads such as Sardinia Street, Kemble Street or Portugal Street. It’s also shorter too, allowing players to traverse it much more quickly than down the actual road.

This is further borne out in the next 15-20 seconds of gameplay, which sees players speed around a squeezed version of Aldwych and cut down a side road near to St Clement Danes. It feels authentically like the area, but it is also clearly compressed together to speed up the experience.

A contrasting look from Aldwych towards St Clement Danes church

There’s a good reason for this. Rather than outright simulating London’s geography, Team Soho was forced during development to turn 1000x1000m map cells into 250x250m units. This meant, necessarily, that all of the in game map is a truncated version of the world it seeks to represent.

However, there are times when the difference doesn’t feel especially pronounced. The route to and over Waterloo Bridge sees The Getaway feels like it dovetails more closely with the actual map.

It’s hard to say why exactly. But the quick flash of landmarks - including St Martin’s in the Field and the edges of Somerset House - help contextualise the journey more effectively. Furthermore, the journey over the Thames towards festival hall and the national theatre compares favourably with the view seen from the bridge when walking it today.

The view across Waterloo Bridge

In fact, the major discrepancies between in the scene depicted in The Getaway and the modern London skyline are the developments in the city itself.  The presence of newly constructed flats and office blocks – with their correspondingly modern architectural design – changes the landscape more than any design decisions made by Team Soho, showing that some inaccuracies are the result of a different type of development taking place.

This contrast between the fixed landscape of The Getaway and the changing landscape of London characterises much of the final drive from the IMAX cinema at Waterloo roundabout to Borough Market. 

As with the Kingsway, Stamford Road is both compressed to reduce drive time and removes all but one of the side streets. This means that while it is possible to identify some landmarks - like the two rail bridges running above the road – the combination of the squeezed landscape and few discernible landmarks makes it hard to get a sense of the street in game.

When video game development is superseded by architectural development

That said, it is possible to compare the feeling of both the physical and digital streets. In The Getaway, Stamford Road has the sense of a place with dirt beneath the fingertips. The buildings feel far from prestigious, it lacks the gleaming architecture visible now from Waterloo Bridge and there are construction sites visible up the road. The team included it as one of the settings for the “sleaziest” parts of London and its visual appearance reflected that to some extent.

But the modern day Stamford Road feels rather different. It has developed significantly since The Getaway was created with a range of modern buildings, hipster coffee shops and new developments changing the feel of the area.

And there is no clearer indication of this than the Shard. The building dominates the landscape in Lambeth, drawing both the eye and visitors to it on a daily basis.

The Getaway’s world now conspicuously lacks one of London’s defining landmarks: The Shard

Yet in the world of The Getaway, it doesn’t exist. Work on it did not begin until March 2009, meaning that it was barely an idea when The Getaway landed on shelves.

This creates dissonance between the virtual and physical world, making it harder to contextualise Stamford Road and the surrounding areas in game when compared against the reality of the city today.

The Getaway as a primary source

In short, the London depicted in The Getaway is not the London that exists today. While it retains the feel, the character and many of the defining features of the modern capital city, it is reasonable to say that Team Soho’s digital version no longer represents the city it sought to recreate in the early 2000s.

However, this statement can also be seen to be unfair for two reasons. The first is that its representation of Central London remains true to form. The route I took matched neatly with my geographical – if not spatial – expectations and the many landmarks it did include remain in place.

But the second reason that stating it isn’t an accurate representation of modern London now is that it is no longer The Getaway’s purpose. Instead, the question is what can The Getaway tell us as a primary source about the historical context surrounding its creation.

And the answer to that question is that it is able to tell us a lot in a number of different ways.

Obviously, it depicts the London that its development team knew and wanted to show the world.

 In a piece for Gamasutra– likely a transcript from a presentation at GDC – Sam Coates from Team Soho said “The Getaway is under construction by people who live and work in London…and we hope that it shows.” 

 Similarly, Brendan McNamara, director of the game, said to IGN that the team chose to set the game in London because “it’s outside the window for us”. This marks The Getaway as a representation of the capital city anchored to the late 1990s and early 2000s.

 But equally, The Getaway can be analysed for what it doesn’t – or couldn’t – show about the city. Returning to Coates’ presentation, he outlined how much of London the team recreated from Ordinance Survey Maps (roughly 50 square kilometres centred around Zone 1 on the Tube map) to bring the game world to life. This allows us to see the city through their eyes and, importantly, understand where major changes to the landscape took place in the intervening years.

However, Coates also indicates where compromises had to be made in the world to bring it to life. In particular, he talks in detail about how the team had to turn 1000x1000m Ordnance Survey Grids into 250x250m grids in game because of technical and workload limitations.

 As a result, the forced compromises made to bring The Getaway to life –from the truncated roads, the reduced numbers of side streets and the choices on what to represent – also made Team Soho choose what was needed in game to represent the city as authentically as they could.

For example, the only side street located off Stamford Road in The Getaway corresponds to the back road that links to the Tate Modern Museum. The other roads that link to residential areas, however, are cut. In these decisions – where tech limitations shape production decisions – it is possible to see what the studio felt it had to keep to represent London and what it didn’t.

The biggest conclusion from my walking tour is that a game like The Getaway does have a role to play as a source in shaping historical memory. 

 As with all historical sources, the agendas, limitations and decisions of its initial creator prevent us from seeing that period of time with the clarity of an eyewitness.

But by acknowledging that, we’re also able to unearth more detail about the time, about the priorities of its creators and use that to generate a deeper understanding of the world and time it was made in.

And that is a role that The Getaway can fulfil. When historians do begin to turn their gaze towards the late 1990s and early 2000s, Team Soho’s digital recreation of London could become a meaningful source of information.  

George Osborn