Despite becoming a major form of the entertainment industry with blockbusters like Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty, there haven’t been a whole lot of great books written about gaming’s ascent — unless you like retro gaming. Yeah, Nolan Bushnell founded Atari, which basically created the home console market. Yeah, Miyamoto was a small-time artist at Nintendo who went to become the company’s creative visionary. But when the world receives a book dedicated to one of gaming’s most influential franchises of the past decade, one hopes that it’s a stellar, out-of-the-park experience, especially when it comes from Masters of Doom author Dave Kushner. Unfortunately, this book hardly doesn’t do the controversial, landmark series any justice at all.
Now I’ve mentioned my indifference toward Grand Theft Auto. I respect that they’re popular, objectively successful games that have made kings of men and platforms, but while I enjoy the idea of Grand Theft Auto, the games feel more like pretentious attempts at ‘art’ than enjoyable games. So when the opportunity arrived to get a real look at what made the series what it is, to really get a chance to see how the sausage is made, I lunged at it. The problem with Jacked is that it isn’t really a book about Grand Theft Auto, its introductions are really just a nest for the 2005 Hot Coffee incident involving Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas’ hidden sex mini-game, a scandal that cost publisher Take Two $45 million and rattled Rockstar to the core.
Jacked begins with an introduction to Sam and Dan Houser – Rockstar’s key figures – and their upbringing in affluent London. Sam, as a uniformed teenager in a boarding school, expresses his counter-culturalist ways by wearing long hair and dreaming of living in New York, working in the music industry under the influence of Def Jam’s guerrilla marketing techniques and A&R pioneered by Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin. Of course, being born into wealth and influence lands him in the mail room for BMG’s music division in New York just out of school. Not long afterward, pushy and opinionated, he finds himself in the gaming wing of BMG’s hyper-extended empire where he signs David Jones’ DMA Design, who’s coming off the incredible success of his Lemmings games.
But this isn’t a book about the guys who make Grand Theft Auto. Scottish DMA Design pitches BMG Interactive a city-driving simulator called Race ‘n’ Chase, which is more a boring tech demo than white hot follow-up to Lemmings. Sam suggests they make pedestrians targets and make outrunning the cops and freeform violence primary goals, turning a once-clinical and realistic driving game into an outrageously comical title that’s quickly villified by conservative politicians and parents in the UK (and eventually the US). Dave Jones, among other DMA Design members at the time, find that BMG’s goal in selling the game as super-controversial for the sake of being controversial, a game now being called Grand Theft Auto, goes against why they make games, so they leave the saga early on. (Jones would found Realtime Worlds, which made Crackdown for Microsoft and MMO flop All Points Bulletin.) DMA is eventually purchased and converted to Rockstar North, referenced only as a group of ‘pasty coders’ throughout the remainder of the book.
But this isn’t a book about Rockstar. When BMG’s empire begins to fail, Houser’s BMG Interactive is sold to nascent game publisher Take Two and, being counter-culturalist!, brand themselves Rockstar Games, throwing precocious ‘anti-elitist elitist’ parties and generally acting like douchebags. Houser assembles a leadership team of his peers that create a culture of excess that nearly mirrors the flameout at John Romero’s Ion Storm (also detailed in Masters of Doom). The difference is that while Ion Storm’s big title was a dreadful, expensive failure, Rockstar’s big title was an average, relatively cheap success. The book does its best to follow the main players over the years, but even Sam Houser’s personal comments on his early life in London shift to a distant third-person as the book moves on to whatever interview source was available to Kushner (the Housers wouldn’t talk to him directly for the book). As for Dan Houser? Jacked doesn’t really know or care what he does.
But this isn’t a book about Grand Theft Auto. After the original GTA does moderately well, Take Two cane Rockstar for building hubris and over-marketing beyond their means. Grand Theft Auto is a C-grade game at best with underwhelming graphics, but it becomes a cult hit. The book spends a few pages describing their bizarre marketing campaign for Grand Theft Auto 2, including fake pills branded with the GTA2 logo, and then failing to mention the game at all, skipping ahead to the landmark Grand Theft Auto III, the series’ first entry in 3D and killer app for the PlayStation 2. It’s upsetting that Jacked isn’t very interested in telling the story about the famous series, only rarely peeking into the Rockstar North’s production. Taking the opposite tack of Masters of Doom, Jacked focuses on the series’ influence on culture over the nitty-gritty details that made those games what they are. There’s no exciting stories of the games’ development or juicy in-fighting that influenced designs except in the broadest possible strokes.
So what’s the book about? Interwoven with these half-baked threads is the story of infamous “moralistic’ lawyer Jack Thompson who made games like Doom and Grand Theft Auto villains for the media. You don’t need much time on the punch card as a gamer to know that Thompson was an irrational character hellbent on convincing the world that these games were murder simulators. Like an ambulance chaser, Thompson would be more than happy to represent anyone accused of murder who listed a video game as an influence.
Meanwhile in New York, Sam wants to push the boundaries of video gaming by including various graphic sex acts in San Andreas, sending his lieutenants off to determine what would be acceptable in various countries. When the results aren’t to his liking, Houser has Rockstar North hide the sex code deep into the game so they can keep the M-rating that will allow their game to stay on store shelves. Rockstar intends to release a patch for PC owners that will grant them full access to the Adults Only-rated content later on. When modders find out about the hidden code and bring it to the public before Rockstar can do it themselves, a whirlwind of epic proportions erupts. Rockstar blames the modders, the industry blames Rockstar, the modders blame Rockstar. At last, Rockstar is held accountable for their actions, ones that ultimately affect the entire industry, Washington’s relationship with gaming publishers through the ESRB ratings system, and even a number of lives as several Rockstar employees commit suicide in the months following the scandal’s outbreak.
It’s unfortunate that Jacked reads far more like a lengthy magazine article than a definitive tome on Grand Theft Auto. The book features far too many story threads that ultimately don’t lead anywhere. At no point do we understand how Houser is turned off by the realistically bland Race ‘n’ Chase early on, but then champions an ultra-realistic simulation and feel in Grand Theft Auto IV. We don’t understand many of the influences in the game’s design and production while we spend more than a few pages read about murders blamed on the franchise. There’s a lot missed opportunity in Jacked because most of what the book covers is something that, as a gaming industry watcher, I already knew about. What few exclusive nuggets the book has simply aren’t worth the admission price. This is not the definitive story about Grand Theft Auto you’re looking for.