The true story of Grand Theft Auto is a tale worth telling
Soon after the BBC announced its intention to make a film about Grand Theft Auto, I read a few tweets and comments expressing disappointment about the planned production.
Some are underwhelmed that the film, due in the fall, will tell the story of the making of the GTA games, rather than providing a lurid excursion to its fantasy gangster world.
I take a different view. I’m delighted that the Beeb has decided to go in this docudrama direction. The story of how GTA came to be is vastly more interesting than the somewhat rote narratives of the actual games and their parade of derivative characters.
Grand Theft Auto is the most important video game series in the world. It helped to bridge the divide between abstract gameplay and the richness of Hollywood / HBO productions. Its release coincided with, and contributed to, a massive explosion in gaming.
GTA raises all sorts of questions about violence, crime and drug use in games. For better or worse, it is a focal point for discussions about the portrayal of women and minorities in games, and about the role of games in telling massive stories about the “real” world.
GTA is a case study in both the bravery of artists who want to tell their own kind of stories on new platforms, and the cynicism of impresarios who understand the immense value of notoriety and shock publicity.
I highly recommend David Kushner’s 2012 book Jacked: The Outlaw Story of Grand Theft Auto. It tells the story of how Dan Houser, his brother Sam and close associates, took over an already popular game franchise and turned it into a cultural giant.
It focuses on their skills as marketers and entertainers and their ultimate triumph over a confused and conservative establishment that failed to appreciate how far games had come as storytelling devices, and how much they meant to people.
But the book also shows that the Housers were no angels. They drove their teams hard and, in Kushner’s telling, they don’t seem especially likable. They courted notoriety when it suited them, but didn’t really rise to the occasion when things turned nasty.
The tale of Hot Coffee, a hidden sexual scene in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas revealed by a modder, shows their strengths as well as their weaknesses. They wanted sexual content in the game, but then they canned it under pressure from retailers … but then it got out anyway, and the publisher tried to blame the modder who discovered it. The sexual scenes themselves were embarrassingly bad.
It’s revealing that although Kushner had previously done an excellent job of telling the story of Id Software in Masters of Doom (with the help of John Carmack and John Romero) the Housers didn’t provide any interviews for Jacked.
The BBC’s blurb for its TV show makes me worry that this show will be a hagiography, a tired tale of plucky, cheeky Brits against the vast apparatus of American conservatism.
We are told that the makers of the games are gaming “geniuses.” I know this is the sort of language we have come to expect from publicists, but it actually obscures the Housers’ achievements.
There are some artists and creators who innovate with such originality that “genius” is an entirely fair description. But the Housers do not fit this category. Their skill was in recognizing disparate cultural trends across music, cinema and fashion and pulling them together into something that would fly on the fastest growing entertainment mode of their era.
They could never have created a Tetris or a SimCity, which are genuine works of genius. They created a series of spectacular showpieces that revolve around driving cars and shooting people. They created an interactive orgy of violence that fetishized the wider culture. Their games made a lot of people happy, and this is to be celebrated.
The Beeb also wants to convince us that GTA was “arguably the greatest British coding success story since Bletchley Park,” meaning, the breaking of secret codes in order to defeat the Nazis in WWII. This is too much, even as tongue-in-cheek hyperbole.
The Housers’ main antagonist during the years of GTA’s greatest notoriety was a canting clown named Jack Thompson. He threw himself at this game with all his fury. That the media took this noisy little man seriously at all is testament to how little gravity they really attached to the issue of games as a whole.
GTA positioned itself as a standard bearer for free speech, but really had very little to actually say. Even so, this was a war that was only going to end up with one winner. In the end, the Supreme Court finally addressed the 20-year old question of violence in video games on the side of reason.
It’s great that the BBC is addressing the making of GTA games as a source of inspiration, especially as the show will be part of an effort to interest youngsters in technology and computing. But it’s important that the whole story is told, warts and all.