I’m well aware of the regularity of opening a blog post by saying how much I loved David Kushner’s Masters of Doom; the story of id Software’s struggles to produce landmark games against a backdrop of censorship and developing technologies in the 1990s, so when I found a book by the same author about the minds which brought you the Grand Theft Auto series, I was ready for another great exploration of seminal games creators and their biggest detractors.
Jacked: The Unauthorised Behind-The-Scenes Story of Grand Theft Auto was the opener in my week’s worth of happy holiday reading by the pool, and sadly for me it’s found lacking when compared to that previous work.
Through interviews with the industry’s major players, those involved at DMA Design who created the first games and a few of its biggest critics, Jacked aims to tell the story of Rockstar Games’ trials and tribulations in releasing some of the best-selling titles of all time: the GTA series.
It’s somewhere between quite likely and downright obvious to all but me that the title ‘Jacked’ serves as both a reference to the jacking of one’s car in the GTA games and Jack Thompson, but for me the two narratives served up in this book – Rockstar’s rise to the top and battles against censorship, and Jack Thompson’s moral crusade to see games of this ilk handled more responsibly – are in no danger of ever clashing as such an eponymously-placed pun would suggest they do.
That to me is the book’s biggest weakness; aside from one minor scene setup in this narrative combining both stories, opposing key players like Thompson and Rockstar’s Sam Houser are on completely different trajectories with no – literal or metaphorical – collision in sight. To me it’s like painstakingly setting up a Rocky film, but having both Rocky and Drago each fight someone else when the plot reaches boiling point.
Kushner employs a lot of dramatic licence in his work; it worked to great effect in Masters because the main men behind id Software were there to tell their side of the story. Aside from the early days of GTA games at DMA Design, whose key employees were involved during the research for this book, and the full timeline of Thompson’s attempts (of varying degrees of success) to shut down the industry’s worst offenders, there’s precious little here from the main protagonists – actual Rockstar employees – to corroborate how the story goes.
Nowhere is this more obvious than during the section about the ‘Hot Coffee’ scandal – an apparent mini-game in San Andreas which…well, you all know what it is. In taking such great pains to spell out Rockstar’s reluctance to comment on their PR gaffe during the event, it’s made obvious that the company still chooses not to join any ongoing gaming discussion…including the one between these covers. Kushner instead relies on the testimony of the Dutch hacker who discovered the hidden code alongside other non-Rockstar bodies who had to bear the brunt of the authorities’ crackdown.
The attempt to shape a narrative around and about its subject has been known to work (and does so to brilliant effect, for example, in Disgusting Bliss about its equally silent subject, Chris Morris) but when it’s applied to an entire company that would rather see the myth than the truth printed in the first place, and stay well away from the lines of communication in general, there’s just one too many holes in the same wall that so neatly fits, again for example, the shape of Morris in Bliss for me to really recommend this book.