An Unauthorized Look at the Enigma Behind Grand Theft Auto

During the mid-1990s, I spent my summers in L.A. I was still in high school and answering phones at a film agency on Wilshire. And in the mid-1990s, super producer Don Simpson ruled Hollywood. Everyone in the movie business had a Don Simpson story. Along with Jerry Bruckheimer, Simpson was the force behind high-concept hits like Top Gun and Bad Boys, was notorious for his excesses—the hookers, the drug use, and the outbursts. Brash and outspoken, he was a Hollywood rockstar. And, according to an unauthorized account about the makers of Grand Theft Auto, he was Sam Houser's hero.


Houser would go on to co-found one of the most successful video game companies ever, Rockstar Games. With gutsy blockbuster games, the studio was content at ruling the industry with its open-world Grand Theft Auto games. What's more, Rockstar not only aimed to make video games cool, but perceived the same way films were. Rockstar were rebels. No wonder a young Sam Houser hung a Don Simpson poster at the studio's old offices on 575 Broadway or why Rockstar employees wore t-shirts with Simpson's face on the them. But was Houser a wild, outlaw character in his own right?

Going into Jacked: the Outlaw Story of Grand Theft Auto, those old, mind-boggling Don Simpson rumors swirled in the back of my mind—the mountains of cocaine, the endless prescription drugs, or the videotaped S&M sessions with hookers. In comparison, Houser is a choirboy—granted, a shrewd, smart, and extremely driven one. Making video games is stressful. So what if Sam Houser reportedly smashed phones out of frustration or didn't order again from restaurants he gets crap service at? It's all very tame, and Houser comes off as a passionate workaholic, devoting himself to games and taking them to the next level. He's stubborn and cocky, creative and driven—all of which help him push through the ideas he wants to convey in his games. In other industries, these might be bad traits. In the game industry, they're survival skills.

In other industries, these might be bad traits. In the game industry, they're survival skills.

Written by David Kushner, Jacked is a follow-up to Masters of Doom, which chronicled id Software, John Carmack, and John Romero. For Kushner, the book dealt with the birth of the gaming industry as we now know it. "What's the next chapter? The next chapter is GTA," Kushner recently told Kotaku. Grand Theft Auto was not just the logical follow-up, it was something he had been covering for the past decade—interviewing Rockstar's founders or debating notorious game critic Jack Thompson on CNN or at college campuses across the country.

"In the process of writing Jacked, I contacted Rockstar to give them an opportunity to participate, but they declined so we didn't speak about it," Kushner told Kotaku. "While this is an unauthorized book, I worked extremely hard to tell the full, complete story of Grand Theft Auto—just as I did with Masters of Doom before—so in that sense the books are very similar.

"In a way, the game itself is the main character of the book," he continued. "I think that ultimately Jacked confirms the incredible impact that GTA had on gaming and pop culture, and that's what I wanted to explore."

Kushner has long been long been a champion of Grand Theft Auto. Since Rockstar did not cooperate in the creation of Jacked, Kushner drew upon previous interviews he had done with the Houser brothers as well as new interviews with former Rockstar staffers. The story, while non-fiction, is presented in a dramatic, novel-like fashion.

Like any unauthorized work, it's bound to ruffle some feathers. Jacked provides a behind-the-scenes look at Rockstar and Grand Theft Auto, featuring on-the-record and off-the-record interviews that shed light into how things apparently work there. In parts of Jacked, Rockstar comes off as a fraternity. In other parts, very corporate. And in some parts, wound very tight. But most game companies are wound pretty tight! Even within the company, Kushner presents divided camps—a source of friction throughout the book. But the internal workings of Rockstar are not Jacked's central conflict.

In the first chapter, Kushner creates two groups—the players and the haters. The players, of course, are the gamers. The haters are those who do not "get" video games. Yet, Kushner doesn't divide his subjects into two different camps; those in both groups get equal treatment. And both end up feeding off each other in one way or another. For example, Kushner asserts that the British government was in cahoots with the Grand Theft Auto publicity machine to originally drum up controversy for the game.

Some of Kushner's best writing in Jacked is in how he involves what other writers would treat as merely peripheral events—youths who commit acts of violence and then blame Grand Theft Auto. Kushner frames these into small, compelling, mini-narratives that shed light into what actually motivated these crimes and why GTA became the default boogeyman. The way he spins the whole Hot Coffee story is also compelling and dramatic—quite a feat because going into Jacked, I worried that since I already knew so much of it. Yet, Kushner pulled me in. According to Kushner's book, Rockstar was interested on releasing an adults-only patch for the PC game with the Hot Coffee content.

Kushner could've easily created caricatures of not only Rockstar, but also of Grand Theft Auto critic Jack Thompson. The anti-violence game crusader is portrayed sympathetically—just as Rockstar's desire to make intelligent video games for adults is. Thompson becomes a fascinating foil to Houser; both men seem willing to go to the edge for what they believe in. For Houser, it's GTA. For Thompson, it's destroying GTA.

While in many places Jacked sparkles, in others, it comes up short. Reading the book, I still don't have much of a clue who Dan Houser is—well, other than Sam Houser's brother and a brilliant writer. Kushner does a wonderful job at fleshing out Sam and his youth, but Dan just seems to sort of just...appears. This could be because Kushner had less access to Dan. Or perhaps, he was more interested in centering the book on Sam Houser. I also am not sure why Sam retreated from doing press interviews; early in his career, he was far more accessible for face time with the press.

It's a story of people who pushed themselves to their breaking points for their beliefs.

And while the book is centered on Sam, and the ensuing Hot Coffee fallout, at its core, Jacked is about the conflict between the players and the haters. This is a story about the generation who grew up on video games and Def Jam records, became adults, and went on to take on the world. It's a story of people who pushed themselves to their breaking points for their beliefs. And the result was art. It's a great conflict and a well-told yarn.

"When GTA IV came out," Kushner told Kotaku, "people weren't going around anymore, saying that the game will make you kill people." Rather, people evaluated it as they would a film or a book—on its artistic merits. Rockstar had accomplished what it had set out to do.

Sure, this book might be a source of consternation at Rockstar. Or, like Masters of Doom, it might inspire another generation of would-be game creators. No, not might. It will. Sam Houser shouldn't be surprised if one day it's his poster, not Don Simpson's, that goes up in some young, rebellious game designer's office. It wouldn't be for Simpsonesuqe hedonistic excesses, but for Houser's drive to push games where they've never been. Is Houser an outlaw? Yes. And video games are better for it.

Jacked: The Outlaw Story of Grand Theft Auto

Eds note: Prior to this article's publication, Kotaku contacted both Rockstar and Jack Thompson for comment on the book. Rockstar had no comment; Thompson said he had yet to read the book.