There aren’t many gold standards in gaming; there aren’t too many titles that I will buy at full price. And not many developers that have my faith. Rockstar is still a gold standard.
Starting in 2001 Rockstar mounted an assault on the video game landscape, shifting opinion, parameters, and the way that people played games. This was the start of their golden age and it fully cemented itself in 2006 with the release of Bully. Looking back over the course of this five-year period, we take a look at the series of games which came to define the company. Those games are:
- Grand Theft Auto 3 (2001)
- Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (2002)
- Manhunt (2003)
- Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (2004)
- The Warriors (2005)
- Bully (2006)
It’s a very real possibility that there was never anything tangible in my love of Rockstar, other than my love for their games. When I was younger the rich blood red of the BBFC 18 certificate was enough to make me want to watch a film; it meant premium content to me. Violence and sex made things vivid and instantly present in a way which attracted me to restricted content. This faded as I grew older of course, but the association I had with the Rockstar games logo is much the same emotion. It meant premium content. Their games were being discussed in media outside of the niche magazines I was buying. They made games about adult subject matter, which didn’t mean their games were intrinsically of a higher quality but it meant that they were more present for me, of higher importance. Neither does this mean that other companies weren’t putting out adult content, or that they weren’t putting out great content. But people weren’t talking about other companies because Rockstar was in the spotlight for games like Manhunt and Grand Theft Auto. They made literal headlines.
Of course it wasn’t just this, it was the games themselves, they were of a higher quality, and they were ahead of the curve. Other studios weren’t able to put out games with the same ‘it factor’. Rockstar made important games not just controversial ones. I was enthralled by Grand Theft Auto 3, my hands didn’t seem capable of putting the controller down, I didn’t sleep much and I got up early to play it before school. I didn’t play through the story back then; I made my own way, exploring Liberty City and creating my own fun. The story and the writing were waiting for me when I was older and more appreciative. Ever since that game, the reassuring shade of orange and the iconic R strike pangs of nostalgia through me. I see that logo on boxes and it transports me back. Let’s look back at the time in which Rockstar established themselves fully as the risk-taking and alternative mainstream studio they are today.
Grand Theft Auto
In 2001 Rockstar released their biggest building block and their most important game. There had been Grand Theft Auto and Grand Theft Auto 2 leading up to this of course, and successful though those games were, they had nothing like the impact of the third. It was forged in the fires of new hardware, and struck a chord with a new generation of gamers. There was no secret to the game’s success, the answers leapt out at the player. A huge fully realized city filled with thousands of pedestrians, the roads littered with cars – all of them ripe for the taking – and a player character completely unrestrained in their actions. On top of this celebrities leant their voices to it, breathing character and personality into the world.
In addition to the freedom afforded to the player, the environment was the star of the show, the first two games were shown from a top-down perspective, and so a 3D update was inevitable. It brought with it a feast for the eyes. Rockstar showed an impeccable ability to capture elements of pop culture and skew them satirically into something both funny and utterly real. The billboards and in-game radio stations are filled with razor-sharp barbs aimed at elements of the real world they wanted to lampoon. It’s this humor and wit that became Rockstar’s trademark; other companies even now haven’t been as funny in their attempts to laugh at the real world. Games like Saints Row and Just Cause either come across as unintelligently crass or over the top, which is fine because it’s what they are and they aren’t trying to be anything else, but they don’t possess the class that Rockstar’s games do.
This flawless sense of space and time was compounded upon in both: Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Both games fit perfectly within their chosen settings; they intimately understood the blending and clashing of fashion and music and visual hue that came together to make the 1980’s, and the early 1990’s respectively. Vice City remains to this day perhaps the perfect example of Rockstar’s minute attention to detail and wholesome understanding of place and time. Speeding down Vice Beach in a white Infernus and listening to ‘Africa’ by Toto remains one of the most individually satisfying and joyous experiences in gaming. Here was a game that didn’t lean heavily on graphical power, or on gimmicky control. It used a blend of music, freedom, the right car, and a sunset to make you feel more a part of it than any other game then…or now for the most part.
For San Andreas there was a feeling of home coming, as if the series was going to end up there at some point. Dan and Sam Houser being huge fans of 90’s rap culture, and falling in love with America in that time, created an experience that was just enough in the past to feel familiar, whilst being coated in the golden hue of nostalgia. San Andreas expanded on the formula in myriad ways. Now the map was an entire state: three cities and rolling countryside in between. The player had access to more cars, more guns, more missions, and even RPG elements like physical fitness came into play. Clothes and haircuts and tattoos arrived. Tiny flourishes like the crucifix cursor on the game’s menu, and larger flourishes like the west coast G-funk theme tune, came together in a fusion of taste of style. The options were dizzying and the world was huge; San Andreas was the jewel in the crown for the Grand Theft Auto series, and from this vantage point the studio was untouchable.
Rockstar, as its name suggests, has a punk rock ethos rooted in rebellion, creativity, and in the desire to be different and challenging. Dan Houser said in an interview with Famitsu: “It’s in our DNA to avoid doing what other companies are doing.”
This take on expression frequently lead Rockstar into the deep waters of controversy, which paradoxically helped and hindered them as a company, giving them the identity that they wear proudly today. In 2003 Manhunt was released to the world, and there could be no more an acute example of the defiant nature of their mission. Manhunt tasked the player with creeping through a rat maze of level is a run-down rust-belt city called Carcer – a murky mock-up of Detroit – and murdering every gang member that stood in their way. Style points were awarded for the more gruesome kills the player pulled off, and it was this particular facet of the game that landed the company in such a furor with the tabloids. The game was linked to the murder of 14-year-old Stefan Pakeerah, as the murder had been carried out in such a fashion that it aped actions that could be carried out in the game. A copy of the game was found in the murderer’s bedroom and of course this dragged back up the argument that violent videogames could cause real-life violence.
Beneath the outrage that was plastered on television news and across newspapers there lurked a very solid stealth game that rewarded patience, stuck to its own rules, had a very good noise and shadow mechanic – better than Splinter Cell in fact – and gave players and absolutely unique environment to traverse. On top of this the game’s oppressive visual style and gritty tone evoked the video nasty craze of the 1980’s, surrounding players with a constant sense of foreboding. Manhunt was a battle cry; on top of being a great game, it pushed against the boundaries of censorship, it let the world know that the company would not be cowed into niceties. It reinforced the notion that they were going to make exactly the kind of games that they wanted to make – no compromises. Where would they go from here? They set their sights on a small, cult film that very few remembered from the 1970’s…
The atmosphere of The Warriors is so palpably eerie and so perfect a capture of its filmic counterpart that it’s easy to become seduced completely, and wonder aimlessly around Coney Island taking in the sights and tagging the walls. To do so would be to overlook its brilliantly written story that dovetails perfectly into the film’s, and to miss it’s fun and well-structured combat.
Rockstar was able to tap into something with The Warriors, it showed an awareness of the cult classic film, and it perfectly accessed the mood and tone of it – able to use this wellspring of nostalgia and actually build upon it, creating both a new experience, and one that felt familiar to fans. To make a game of a film that was released three decades ago and to make it with such confidence and understanding is a rare feat. Easily the best movie game ever released, though the time gap between game and film helps to alleviate the usual trouble with translation. It was the hindsight and understanding that helped this game fully realize what it needed to be. It was executed to perfection.
Manhunt sent out the message that the company was not afraid of controversy; it showed the media that it happily courted it. It sent out shock waves through the industry and made people ask questions about the nature of the medium. Above – or perhaps sadly below – all else, it showed gamers that no genre was out of reach, that the company could make great games in a number of genre’s. Next in line is maybe there strangest game yet….
The ethos of the company holds true with The Warriors; they certainly did something that no other studio did. They didn’t just hearken back to an old and cult film, they hearkened back to the early arcade beat ’em up classics like Streets of Rage, and Double Dragon. This showed an appreciation of the wider cultural landscape, drawing from both video game and film history. This approach is one that trickles down into all of their projects, and it is one that defines the success they have had that others have not been able to emulate. The Warriors came completely out of left field; no one saw it coming. The game’s fun and accessible combat complimented its subject matter perfectly, and the result was the perfect slice of brawling, exploring, vandalizing, thieving, and of course running for your life from the armies of the night.
So, what was next? What wall had yet to be broken down? What ground had they yet to set foot on?
In a move that’s as inevitable as it is subversive, they looked to the one sacred place they had not yet set foot, the one place that, worried parents the world over, concerned lawyers, and journalists had feared their influence was already present: the school yard.
Bully – or Canis Canem Edit (dog eat dog in Latin) as it was known in the UK – was released to perhaps the wildest storm of press coverage, media outcry and public controversy that the company had yet had for one of its games. How dare they take their vile and corrupting games and mock us by setting in the very place we try to insulate? Such was the uproar in the UK that the provocative title was actually changed before its release. In fact a lot was said and decided about Bully before it was actually released, and just like Manhunt before it, the real shame was that a lot of the media attention wasn’t focused on the game itself.
It’s still strange even now that Bully is a BBFC ‘15’ or an ESRB ‘M’ rated game; looking at it objectively, the game doesn’t have any drugs or guns, and the violence that it does have borders on slap stick. Like all good comedy – and like all of Rockstar’s games – the game’s humor came from a place of love. Set in a charmingly realized take on New England, Bully followed the exploits of young ne’er do well Jimmy Hopkins as he set about transforming the average American high school story into a sort of Grand Theft Auto for kids. It had a similar mission structure, free-roaming exploration, and satirical outlook, but it married these familiar elements with mechanics like attending classes to upgrade skills, dating, and riding around on your skateboard to evade jocks.
Whilst it wasn’t anything new in terms of its gameplay, Bully remains one of Rockstar’s smarter and more charming games; its art direction remains the best of any of their games of that period. It’s difficult not to fall under the spell of Bullworth academy as it shifts through the seasons, and to explore the campus and the surrounding town, soaking up the sights. The game was as fun to play as it was to look at.
Bully remains the perfect example of Rockstar as a company: it’s highly controversial – and not always for the right reasons – it drives debate, and it ignites outrage. But underneath all that sound and fury are skilled designers hard at work creating unforgettable experiences with wicked humor and unrestrained vision. The controversy is symbiotic to Rockstar, helping them to sell video games, but often moving the attention away from how good those games are when all is said and done.