David Kushner has already hit it out of the park once when it comes to a video game history lesson with Masters of Doom, his portrait of the early days of id Software. His latest book, Jacked: The Outlaw Story of Grand Theft Auto, is another behind-the-scenes look at the genesis of a controversial franchise and the people behind it: Rockstar Games and its founders, Sam and Dan Houser.
Author: David Kushner
Release Date: March 27, 2012
Try as I might, I couldn’t help but compare Jacked to Masters of Doom, and it quickly became apparent that the outsized personalities of Romero and Carmack were a major part of the appeal of that book. The Houser brothers display their own brand of hyperactivity throughout the narrative, but it mostly boils down to saying “the F word” a lot. Jacked just felt very different from Masters of Doom and I finally figured out the fundamental reason why when this gangland tale shifted towards the development of Grand Theft Auto III: the Houser brothers were suits.
By suits I mean they were executives that cared more about marketing their brand and being big shots than in the actual creation of the game. All of that work was being done an ocean away (at Rockstar North, then DMA Design, in Scotland) and its absence was a big hole in explaining the beginnings of GTA. Pretend for a second that the book was about Jaws instead of a gangster game series. If you used the same structure as Jacked, instead of following Spielberg and a mechanical shark out onto the ocean, it would tell the story of the movie studio stooge who optioned the rights to the novel from Peter Benchley.
Describing the development of Grand Theft Auto, Kushner continuously mentioned that nothing like it had ever been done before… while mentioning a bunch of games that were doing very similar things around the same time (Tomb Raider, Carmageddon, Driver) or earlier (Mortal Kombat, Doom). This was compounded by Sam Houser’s habit of referring to every other game on the market as starring “magic elves.” Not only was he wrong, but it had the distinct whiff of “the nerdy thing I love is so much cooler than the nerdy thing you love.”
But in a way, the focus on the founders allowed Kushner to shine a light on the insular world of Rockstar Games. The Rockstars (as they referred to themselves) lived in their own little bubble and didn’t seem to understand what was going on in the gaming industry or the world at large. One chapter even shows the Rockstar inner circle hiding in their offices and completely ignoring their employees. For all their attempts at cultivating a hypercool image, these chapters revealed a chaos at Rockstar that most people never would have guessed.
Of course, all of this is just a prelude to the book’s main selling point: an in-depth probe of the “Hot Coffee” scandal. Kushner pushed the Rockstars hard about the development of San Andreas and reprinted internal emails, quoted conversations between company executives, and really tried to answer the question of “why.” Jacked takes us from the very start of San Andreas’s development all the way to the aftermath of the scandal and it was gripping every step of the way. It also accounts for the longest section of book (over 100 pages), and even taken by themselves, those chapters are well worth the price of admission.
Finally, the book attempts to humanize Jack Thompson and actually confirms something I’ve long suspected; his son is a voracious gamer. But it was hard to take the Thompson sections seriously as the Rockstars, unnamed media members, and former ESA President Doug Lowenstein constantly referred to his antics as “clownish.” As a gamer who knows how Thompson’s story ends, it’s hard not to agree with them. Thompson treated the courts like a circus, showing the world that he actually was a clown, so the tension Kushner tries to build over Thompson possibly “winning” falls flat.
Between the jerkish behavior of the Rockstars and the distance between the developers that actually made GTA and the marketers that Jacked followed, it was hard to connect with most of what Kushner wrote. But it’s still an interesting look at the evolution of one of gaming’s biggest franchises. And if you ever wanted to know exactly what went into Rockstar’s “Hot Coffee,” then Jacked is worth a trip to your local library.
Review Disclosure: A review copy of Jacked: The Outlaw Story of Grand Theft Auto was provided by Wiley for the purposes of this review.