Rockstar Games is my favourite developer. It has for over two decades, represented innovation and risk-taking within the gaming industry. But, some of Rockstar’s innovation and risk-taking has met with scorn and criticism from different elements of the establishment. There are plenty of controversial moments in the developer’s history, but here are The Grand Theft Auto franchise’s five greatest controversial moments.
5. Full Frontal – GTA: Lost & Damned
Let’s begin with a moment that gained surprisingly little controversy, despite the moment itself being a shock. In the first of two story expansions for GTA IV, Lost and Damned has you playing Johnny Klebitz, an outlaw biker caught up in the diamond heist that ties all three games together. Halfway through the narrative, Johnny meets congressman Thomas Stubbs, a corrupt politician willing to help in return for a few favours.
In the mission “Politics”, Johnny walks in on Stubbs getting a massage. In a moment of exhibitionism, he disrobes and leaves Johnny and us with an eye full. It’s a cringy scene that lays bare an issue within the gaming industry – developers rarely brave male nudity, but think nothing of female nudity. Perhaps the most surprising thing about the cut scene is how unexpected the reveal is. Rockstar implements the usual tricks, keeping anything blue out of shot until the very end. Not as controversial as the others on this list, but it makes an impression.
4. Haitian Gang Depiction – GTA: Vice City
At the heart of the Grand Theft Auto series is crime and gangsterism. How Rockstar portrays these criminal gangs has often come under scrutiny. Take the controversy that surrounded GTA: Vice City and its portrayal of Haitian and gang members. In November 2003, the Haitian Americans for Human Rights staged protests, condemning the characterisation of Haitians as violent thugs and thieves. The thing became so heated that the then-mayor of New York, Mike Bloomberg threatened to take legal action against Take-Two.
Rockstar did acknowledge the concern, releasing a press statement apologising for any offence, but insisting that any portrayal must be seen within the context of the game’s narrative. There were attempts to have the game banned, but, ultimately, Rockstar removed some dialogue that might offend from future copies sold.
3. The Buckner Stepbrothers – GTA III
It’s not hyperbole to say that when GTA III released in the Fall of 2001, the gaming industry and the world as a whole had never seen anything like it. We had seen violent games before, but many saw this game as a crime and murder simulator that taught kids how to kill. Utter nonsense of course, but several people did blame the game for them committing violent acts. In the Summer of 2003, two stepbrothers William and Josh Buckner, shot two individuals. In statements later given to the police, the two blamed their actions on the gameplay of GTA III.
The victim’s families filed a $246 million lawsuit against Rockstar and Take-Two, as well as Sony and Wal-Mart. Take-Two filed a dismissal of the suit, claiming first amendment rights of ideas and concepts. Jack Thompson, the infamous crusader lawyer, took up the cause, but the case was later dropped. This case was Jack Thompson’s first against Rockstar, but it wouldn’t be his last.
2. Drunk Driving – GTA IV
The controversy caused by GTA IV wasn’t Rockstar Game’s first rodeo. Early trailers and gameplay showed the protagonist Niko Bellic getting drunk and then driving a car; a hazy screen portraying apparent drunkenness. Considering that previous controversies included allegations of being a murder simulator, you would think that something like drunk driving would sneak under the radar, but not when Jack Thompson is on the case. The Australian and New Zealand governments (known for their draconian censorship of video games) censored elements of the game.
Several murders and sexual crimes were attributed to the game, though by then the links between video games and real-life violence were widely considered nonsense. This didn’t stop the tenacious Thompson from filling yet another lawsuit against Take-Two, threatening to have the sale of the game banned, despite not having the ability to do so. Much to fan’s delight, Jack Thompson was later disbarred for a litany of offences, including giving false statements at tribunals.
1. Hot Coffee – GTA: San Andreas
GTA: San Andreas is one of the greatest games ever made. It sold 27.5 million copies and was the best selling game on PS2. Its release was an event like few others, and it rightfully caught the attention of the mainstream media. Once the game released on Windows, someone found a yet unreleased part of the original game that allowed the game’s protagonist Carl Johnson to have animated sex with love interests in the game. The backlash was swift. Rating boards around the world upped the age rating, including the ESRB that made the first mass-released game in North America to receive an Adult Only rating.
Rockstar’s parent company was the subject of several suits that claimed consumer fraud and flat-out lying about the content of the game. Take-Two settled several lawsuits out of court for over $20 million over the years between 2005 and 2009. The long-term impact of the controversy was wide-ranging. In 2006, Take-Two was embroiled in an insider trading investigation that would result in $163.3 million loss for the company. In a rush to save the company, shareholders staged a buyout of the shares, ousting the then CEO and replacing him with Strauss Zelnick who holds the remains in that position to this day.
Hot Coffee is now a key term in the annals of gaming history. It’s also remembered as the one time Rockstar lost. Since that time, Rockstar created the most successful entertainment product of all time (GTA V) that rains in millions a year, despite being seven years old. That’s a pretty good way to make a comeback.
Any developer that pushes the boundaries of what’s acceptable is bound to face backlash. Rockstar Games understands this better than anybody in the business and uses it to their advantage. As a company, Rockstar is going through structural changes that may well change the focus of future titles, but one thing is for sure. The future of the developer holds just as much controversy as its past.