We present two excerpts from David Kushner's new book, which tells the unauthorised story behind the GTA series
In this excerpt we pick up with Sam and Dan Houser and the founding members of Rockstar Games shortly after moving to America to establish the business. They had a vision, and they had plenty of attitude. All they needed was a name
One day Sam and the others piled into a car for a road trip to Six Flags Great Adventure, the theme park in Jackson, New Jersey. The guys loved roller coasters almost as much as hip-hop and wanted to celebrate their new move with a day on the rides.
GTA was on its way to selling more than one million copies worldwide. They still weren’t rich, but they were emboldened.
They wanted to brand themselves while they were hot, so that consumers knew they weren’t just buying into a game but a lifestyle. They just needed a name. They would still remain part of Take-Two Interactive but as a branded label.
Grudge Games was Donovan’s favorite, suggested because they were, as Sam once put it, “world-class grudge bearers.”
“Minimum ten years,” Dan said.
When they had run the idea by Brant, though, he balked. “You know, guys,” he said, “I know where you’re going with that, but it’s a little on the negative side.”
During a recent trip to London, Sam had tossed out the name Rockstar. “I like everything, from the Keith Richards it evokes to the campiness it evokes,” he
later said, “and everything in between. . . at the end of the day you can’t fuck with Keith Richards!”
“It’s a nod to the past and a snipe at it at the same time,” [marketing man Terry] Donovan agreed. “And also, in a weird way, a snipe at the lameness of the present.
"In some ways, the golden age of the rock star is done. Not many Keith Richards around now. Now they’re drinking herbal tea!”
Foreman had one concern about calling themselves Rockstar: they had better deliver. “People will make fun of us,” he said.
“We’ll get shit, but then pressure would be on. We’ll have to live up to it. We have to make sure our games are really, really good.”
Yet that, for them, was a given. Now the co-founders of this label simply had to make it official.
Over in the midway at Six Flags, they saw a vendor selling wooden plaques. For a few bucks, visitors could have their own messages burned into the wood, such as “Bon Jovi Rulez!”.
As the acrid smell of sizzling carbon filled the air, they watched the carny etch their new name into the wood: Rockstar Games.
They decided to burn one more sign for good measure. Something they could hang next to this one in the Commune back in New York. A phrase to remind them forever of this day when their mission began. A cheeky message, perhaps, for anyone who might ever try to stop them.
“Fuck Off Cunts,” it read.
Here we join Sam Houser during the development of GTA III, moments before he realises that the game could well reshuffle the pop culture pecking order
It was a grey day inside Liberty City. Rain poured down on the Callahan Bridge, casting the buildings in a wispy haze. Cars streamed up and down the highway – the buses and the police cars, the sentinels and the patriots.
Sam knew just which one he wanted, the blue banshee with the white stripe down the middle. He jogged up beside it, then tapped the triangle button on his controller as he ripped open the door and tossed the driver to the side.
“He’s taking my car!” the driver cried, as Sam held down the X button, flooring it.
Tapping the rectangular button with his left pointer finger, he flipped through the stations. There were nine of them now, one for every mood. Click. The subtitle ‘Double Clef FM’ on top of the screen. The strains of opera. Click.
Flashback 95.6 with Debbie Harry singing Rush, Rush. Click. Game Radio FM, underground hip hop. Royce rapping “I’m the King.” Sam tapped the X button and accelerated.
He wasn’t just playing, he was observing. This was his world and it had to be perfect. His eyes and ears scanned every detail rushing past him in the game.
The hum of the accelerator. The squeal of the tires and little black tire tracks when he took a corner. The splat of pedestrians under the wheel. The way the hood flew up off the front, exposing the metallically intestinal engine, followed by a terrible stream of smoke.
The guys at DMA had coded the physics to let players drive over lampposts, knocking them down to the ground so that nothing would stop their pace. Sam clipped the lampposts like pathetic sprigs, as his wheels jumped a curb for a short-cut through a green, tree-lined park. “I’m an old lady, for Christ’s sake!” shouted a ped as Sam raced by.
Once he hit the highway, that’s when he did it. Tapped the Select button to change the camera view of the action, which the DMA guys had coded for the first time into GTA. Click.
First person POV, as if he were strapped on the hood of the car. Click. Third person, overhead looking down on the ride. Click. His favourite, Cinematic mode. It appeared as if the camera were saddled on the lower left side of the car like a chase from a film.
As Sam tore through the town, the camera automatically switched to other cinematic angles, as if some brilliant invisible William Friedkin was directing.
“This is the future of moviemaking,” Sam believed. “Because here’s my set, I can go anywhere and put my camera anywhere. I can do anything again and again and again from any angle I want.”
The more he played GTA III, though, the more he felt something inside him change. He was twenty-eight now. A man living his childhood fantasy. Long after he first saw Michael Caine and his mom zooming down the streets in Get Carter, he had been fascinated by action films.
Now as a pedestrian flew over the hood of his car, and the sun beamed down in its simulated brilliance, he was the star of his own revolutionarily cinematic game.
He wasn’t merely watching a movie, he was inside it – and this realisation made him feel as if he’d never be able to watch a movie the same way again. Games weren’t about one person’s authorial vision.
They were stories told by a new generation of creators and players in a language all their own. “To me, as a film nut, there was something about GTA III that just drew a line in the sand between games and movies,” Sam recalled, “and it felt like this is us taking over now.”