Jacked! The Outlaw Story of Grand Theft Auto
© 2012 David Kushner
Twenty years ago, Grand Theft Auto III released in the United States, to popular and later critical acclaim. The GTA series had already established a name for itself as a cheeky rebel, defying convention and pleasantness by allowing players to assume the role of an unnamed street thug, carrying out missions for various gang leaders and creating urban chaos in their off-time. The games were lauded for their energy, humor, and free-form nature – allowing players to do missions however they liked, or to just blitz through the city at will without ever having answered the first phone. Jacked is a history of the series which focuses on Rockstar’s successful attempt to push that experience into 3D gaming, and the legal storm that brewed when a prominent attorney turned moral guardian, Jack Thompson, attempted to arouse public condemnation and legal barriers to the games’ purchase. Although of interest to the GTA fan hunger for the inside story of the games’ development, the focus here is more on Take-Two/Rockstar’s business history and the legal battle, with the creative element competing for page space besides a legal campaign that ultimately went nowhere. Masters of Doom it isn’t.
Given the goliath which the GTA became, it’s surprising to learn how humble its origins were, beginning as a simple cops-and-robbers game called Chase ‘n’ Race. The designers took special pleasure in creating a simulated city, just as Will Wright did when designing the background for Raid on Bungeling Bay, but they found that playing a law-abiding cop in a city with working traffic lights and law wasn’t particularly fun. When they flipped the table and played as the robber, though – all bets were off! The game became an underworld action story, in which the player did a series of missions of missions for the city’s petty thugs, and the designers deliberately chose to prioritize gameplay over appearance – knowing they’d never compete with other games then in production, like Tomb Raider. The sheer novelty of the game, coupled with its open-world freedom and the thrill of being the baddie for once, won it a growing audience.
Rockstar took seriously its claim to having pushed PC games to become an adult medium, growing with the aging audience to present more interesting stories than plumber-seeks-princess Nintendo games. They began building a brand around themselves – youthful, rebellious, elite, and cool. Their entry into 3D games – GTAIII, GTA Vice City, and GTA San Andreas – would see ever-larger budgets, featuring recognizable voice and movie actors and copious research to make their created worlds come alive. Rockstar’s researchers didn’t just take photos of street scenes to mock them up in a computer world; they studied traffic patterns to ensure that the proportional number of taxis in Liberty City, for instance, were consistent with those in New York City. The storytelling would mature rapidly; the phone-call missions of earlier games replaced by elaborate cinematics.
Rockstar fed on controversy; every politician who scolded them only increased their profile, and each of their games pushed the envelope a little further. It was San Andreas that finally got them into real trouble, however. Sam Houser wanted to introduce a sex element into the games, despite knowing that the industry – blamed for scattered acts of violence in the 1990s by politicians who love pointing fingers and condemning someone, if they can look good on camera doing it — would slap the game with an Adults Only rating, effectively barring it from stores. Houser had the idea: develop the appropriate code, deactivate it so it didn’t display in store copies, but then make a patch available to the buying public so that those who wanted to play a sex mini-game could. Rockstar would go beyond what anyone else had done and satisfy the censors at the same time. Genius! ….unfortunately for Rockstar, modders discovered the concealed code and were able to bring it to life, and in the fracas that ensured, Rockstar blamed the modders for tampering with the source code. Intended to further Rockstar’s reputation as the leader in adult video game entertainment, the whole affair instead burned many employees and fans, and resulted in the PC game being re-released in a crippled form that was unmoddable. That disservice to fans is made worse by Rockstar’s hypocrisy, in blaming the modders for the discovery of material that it had planned to release for its own self-promotion.
Although rabid fans of the original 3D games (facelifted versions of which are being released for sale today) may find some interest here, the story of GTA’s creative development is only one piece of the book; it doesn’t go into as much detail as Master of Doom into the games themselves, and given the animosity between most GTA fans and the attorney who tried to make the game harder to buy, I doubt there’s much interest in reading his side of the story as presented here. The author’s criticism of Rockstar focuses entirely on its business practices, not creative choices; no mention is made of the increasingly schizophrenic design of the games, in which inter-mission freedom exists alongside tightly scripted missions that railroad the player into playing missions One and Only Way. This has continued into the RDR series, which – while phenomenal – is maddening in its practice of frog-marching the player through many areas.