Since its introduction 16 years ago, the wildly popular video game franchise GrandTheft Auto has been set in some of the most recognizable cities in the United States. There were New York, Miami and San Francisco, and in the fifth installment, released to great fanfare this month, Los Angeles.
Yet the roots of the game can be traced directly back to Dundee, a former shipbuilding city in Scotland, better known as the humble home of jam and jute, a vegetable fiber used to make rope and burlap. It is a city that has, instead of the raw urbanity celebrated in the video game, a quaint coastline, as well as a population that prizes irreverence and wit.
“There’s a cultural aspect in the U.K. of not taking other people too seriously,” said Brian Baglow, a writer for the series’ first installment and the head of the Scottish Games Network. “That’s a very large part of why G.T.A. works the way it does.”
He added: “Basically, we’re all just sarcastic. There’s a strong tradition of satire here, which is centuries old. I think that in an American studio, you would run the risk of being entirely serious and straight-faced, whereas there is subversion in G.T.A. all the way through. It’s black humor.”
Grand Theft Auto was created in 1995 by four friends — David Jones, Russell Kay, Steve Hammond and Mike Dailly — in a two-room office above a small shop in Dundee that sold baby clothes.
Mr. Dailly, a programmer, had been toying with the idea of creating a “virtual 3-D city” that would allow players to roam freely and choose their actions. The team initially intended the protagonist to be a police officer, but it quickly scrapped the idea in favor of inhabiting a criminal.
“You just can’t go around running over people if you’re a cop — nobody liked playing the cop,” said Mr. Baglow, an early member of the team.
Fascinated by American gangster films like “Goodfellas” and “Scarface,” the four, who ran a company called DMA Design, based the narratives on their vision of the United States. (At the time, none of them had been there.)
“In the 1980s, Dundee was a shadow of its former self — it wasn’t the nicest of places,” said Mr. Kay, who rewrote the game for consoles. “We didn’t think it would be exciting if the games were set in Dundee.”
Creating the game was a form of escapism, he said: “We made a lot of inside jokes.”
And while the game — which has sold more than 125 million units worldwide since its debut in 1997 — satirizes much of American culture, it is also peppered with Scottish references. San Fierro, a fictional city, features a wealthy district called Calton Heights, after the dilapidated Calton area of Glasgow. San Fierro is also home to the Hippy Shopper chain, a twist on Happy Shopper, a grocery chain with stores in Scotland and Britain. In another city, a Saltire, the blue-and-white national flag, flies over a building. And a racehorse named Scotland Nil alludes to the long, humiliating history of goal-less matches by Scotland’s national soccer team.
DMA Design was eventually sold, through a series of complicated takeovers, to Rockstar Games, a label of the American game publisher Take-TwoInteractive Software, and the Dundee connection was broken. Rockstar Games has eight studios, including Rockstar North, based in Edinburgh, which is responsible for the creative content of Grand Theft Auto. Rockstar North is one of the biggest game developers in Britain, employing 300 people.
Scotland is now the biggest hub for game developers in Britain and among the biggest in Europe, with around 80 developers huddled around Dundee.
While some consider the game Scotland’s greatest cultural export since “Auld Lang Syne,” the game’s louche tone does not resonate with everyone. David Paterson, a councilor for the Scottish town of Hawick, said recently that he was “absolutelydisgusted” at the use of the town’s name for a “druggie hipster” district in its latest installment.
“It is going to destroy the good reputation of this town,” he said.
Still, for those who were there at the game’s beginnings, its sly references to their home bring smiles to their faces.
“These little inside jokes are very clever,” said Mr. Baglow, who is Scottish. “It makes me very happy.”