I guess we need to talk about this. It was a big deal back in 2005 when the story broke and it got Rockstar Games in a lot of trouble. Since we’re doing this retrospective I figure it’s a good time to revisit what I said way back in 2006. At the time, the thing that infuriated me about the whole story was the fact that nobody reporting on the issue knew what in the world they were talking about from a technological standpoint. On the other hand, back in 2006 I made some assumptions about how this content came to be, and a lot of those assumptions turned out to be incorrect. In a lot of ways, I was giving Rockstar way too much credit.
I’m unhappy with the tone of this post and I’m sort of on the fence if I should leave it up. I feel like it needs a re-write. I could take it down, but I’m not sure that’s the right move either. I don’t like the idea of leaving this up in its current state, but I’m not sure it’s worth re-writing to post again next week. Maybe I should spike the whole thing.
On the other hand, it feels sort of craven to silently delete the post. And if I take it down but leave an announcement that I took it down, then it will drive people crazy because they’ll be even MORE curious what it said.
So I guess I’m leaving it up, but I want to make it clear I don’t really stand by what I’ve written here and I’ve sort of ruined the interesting discussion (talking about adding salacious content at this point in history) to spend half the article arguing with a memo that’s been taken out of some larger context and was never meant for the public anyway.
Sorry. I mess up sometimes.
Disclosure: Nearly all the facts I’m about to share come from this excellent Eurogamer article: Who Spilled Hot Coffee? which details the mechanics of this controversy and how this content wound up in the game. Also, I’ve never downloaded the HC mod myself, so the images below were lifted from Google image search and the Eurogamer article.
Out of the box, GTA: SA has a mini-game where your character has an in-game girlfriend. (Or even several.) You can do things like buy her flowers or take her out on dates. The dates are short missions where you drive her to a place to eat or a dance club. Once there, the game shows a brief scene (with sappy romantic music playing) of the two of you smiling and having dinner together, or you play a little dancing minigame. Once this scene ends, you drive her home. Each time you do this, the “relationship” meter will go up a notch. Once you’ve done this enough times, she will invite your character in for “coffee” at the end of the date. If your character accepts, then the camera stays outside, and muffled sounds hint at what is going on inside. This is silly and juvenile in a PG-13 sort of way.
As it was reported, a user-made download became available where you could access “unlockable” content. If you downloaded this patch, then the camera would go inside when it was time for “coffee”. I’ve never done it myself, but from what I’ve been able to gather the game depicted the characters having sex. Sort of. The whole thing was crude and looked unfinished. It was a button-pressing rhythm game where the participants had sex while still wearing their clothes. The term “hot coffee” was used to refer to both the sex game and the user-made download that makes it accessible. GTA:SA itself does not use the term “hot coffee” in any way.
People called this thing an “unlockable”, but that’s not what unlockable means. Usually “locked” game content is stuff that you cannot access when you start out, but that you can earn at some later point through playing the game. That was never the case with the hot coffee minigame. There was never anything you could do within the game that would lead to unlocking hot coffee. In order to see the content, the user had to go and download other software made by some guy on the internet, and then use that program to modify their copy of Grand Theft Auto.
Accusing Rockstar of making this content “unlockable” is like some guy using an illegal cable box to get the Playboy channel when he’s not paying for it, and then getting outraged at the cable company because they are providing him with pronography. This scandal would never have been such a big deal if people had understood how the technology worked.
How Did This Happen?
I originally theorized that the sex minigame was an early idea that was (sensibly) abandoned halfway through development, which is why the character models are having sex through their clothes. Rockstar started to make a sex minigame, thought better of it, disabled the code, and continued with development.
It turns out that this isn’t really how it went down. Based on emails, it’s become clear that President and co-founder of Rockstar Games Sam Houser felt that this mini-game was a really important part of San Andreas. These things were put in the game, and were very reluctantly removed again once it was clear that the ESRB wouldn’t budge on giving the game an AO (Adults Only) rating with the material included. If this happened, then most retail outfits would refuse to carry Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. At the time, retailers made up about 80% of the Rockstar distribution channelsI wonder what the percentage is today? Steam is a behemoth and they’re not shy about selling adult content. On the other hand, Steam doesn’t exist on the consoles and consoles make up a majority of the market., so losing them would be financially ruinous.
So Rockstar cut the content. At the time Houser said in an internal email:
The cuts are everywhere. It doesn’t feel like we are pushing any boundaries now. Why bother? I really, really do not want to change this stuff. It feels SO wrong at the behest of psychotic, mormon[sic], capitalist retailers.
I’ve often looked at Rockstar’s supposed “satire” of American culture and wondered why it seemed so random and scattershot. I guess this explains it. This person has no grasp of the culture they’ve been trying to criticize all these years. I mean… Mormons? That’s where they thought the opposition was coming from? Like, everyone else in the country was just dying to get their hands on his dry-humping minigame if not for the omnipowerful forces of Mormonism?
Psychotic? Really? It’s “psychotic” for a retailer to not want to carry a videogame with this kind of content? Sure, there’s a pretty big double standard going on here. The AO rating in games is roughly equivalent to the NC-17 rating in movies, and retailers aren’t afraid to carry those kinds of movies. Wal-Mart will be happy to sell you Showgirls, for example. So I can understand objecting to the system we have now. But this double standard doesn’t exist because those crazy capitalist Mormons hate videogames, they exist because this is how the public thinks. That’s the attitude of the day. There was actually a law in California that would punish retailers if minors got their hands on a game rated 18+. That law was struck down in 2011, but it was very much a part of the way people thought (and still think) outside of gaming culture.
You might disagree with these attitudes. (I usually do.) Maybe you want to push the medium forward. Advance the way people think about what games are and what they can be about.
I would have a lot more sympathy for Rockstar if they actually were trying to make this daring, resonant, profound game that had important things to say, but were being kept out of the market because the message required salacious content. But this isn’t some highbrow exploration of society, culture, or sexuality. We’re talking about a game where you press a button to spank the girl on the ass or rhythmically thrust the analog stick in time with the animated, fully-clothed humping. This isn’t a bold new frontier in art. This isn’t even Eyes Wide Shut or Basic Instinct. At best this is The Benny Hill Show.
Despite all of Rockstar’s posturing and sneering at excessive, shallow, trashy, consumerist American culture, they’ve apparently never realized that their products are excessive, shallow, trashy, consumerist American culture. And in fact their games are some of the most extreme examples of it.
Guys. You’re the Michael Bay of videogames. And that’s okay. OWN IT.
As it stands the Rockstar position comes off like, “We want to make mass-market products, but we don’t want to constrain ourselves to the tastes and preferences of the mass market.”
Personally I’d be fine with a store where consenting adults can buy whatever sort of material they like without harassment or shame. But if you sell adult content in your store, then sooner or later a kid will buy it. If you’ve got hundreds of stores and employ tens of thousands of people, then eventually some kid is going to slip something by a distracted cashier, and then the headlines will gleefully announce, “STUFF MART SELLS PORNOGRAPHY TO CHILDREN!”Boy am I glad I don’t make my living via advertising these days. No advertiser would want their stuff on a page where “pornography” is that close to the word “children”. That kind of bad press can be catastrophic for a business. They might be willing to take risks on popular, lucrative products, but the market for AO games in 2006 wasn’t very big and there’s no reason to put yourself at risk for so little gain.
Parents are naturally inclined to aggressively protect their children from all threats whether genuine, exaggerated, or wholly imagined. The media is always looking for something salacious and sensationalist to talk about. Politicians are always eager to get in front of cameras and talk about protecting children. Retailers are averse to risk. This is a complex problem and it’s juvenile to boil it down to something as simplistic as “psychotic Mormons”.
In fact, I think Rockstar is part of the problem. They sort of started with the assumption that they wanted to “push boundaries” not because it was a required part of the art they were creating, but because they wanted to be edgy and provocative. That’s fine if you’re a punk rock band or a performance artist and you’re prepared to bear the consequences for deliberately transgressing social and artistic norms. That’s fine if you’ve got something you think is important to say. But Rockstar is just pushing the boundaries for the sake of doing so. They’ve made a hobby of poking bears and now they’re upset about all the fur and biting.
This sort of “boundary pushing” behavior only increases the odds that some dimwit crusader will build their political career on “protecting children” by passing a stupid law that causes problems for everyone down the road.
Keep in mind that GTA San Andreas was developed in 2003, just ten years after the congressional hearings on videogame violence. Those hearings led to the creation of the ESRB. While I’m not a huge fan of the ESRB, I think it’s mostly benign and occasionally useful. Still, things could have been a lot worse. If the exact makeup of congress was just a little differentI don’t mean in terms of red / blue, but just the general age and disposition of individual members., if the hearings hadn’t picked on the ridiculously tame Night Trap, or if the news media’s coverage had been a little more sensationalist, then everything could have turned out differently. Instead of the ESRB, we could have ended up with strict content laws like in Australia. And since this country is where a lot of videogames get made, those laws could have done a lot more damage to the industry as a whole.
I believe strongly that you shouldn’t have to make high art in order to be free to show violence and / or nudity and / or scandalous language. But some sort of high artistic aspirations will certainly makes things easier if you’re going to be “pushing boundaries”. If I’m testifying in front of congress about the importance of videogames as a medium, then I can defend the artistic merit of Last of Us, Shadow of the Colossus, Spec Ops The Line, TellTale’s Walking Dead, That Dragon Cancer, Gone Home, Silent Hill 2, and dozens of other games that have said profound things or elicited strong emotions. All of that stuff can play really well when described to a non-gaming audience. But it would be really embarrassing if, in the middle of my testimony, the distinguished Senator from North Yokelton asks me to explain the artistic value of Grand Theft Auto’s creepily awkward stick-waggling sex minigame to this imposing audience of non-gamers.
Sure, Rockstar has the right to make whatever kind of art pleases them. And I happen to like their work. (Basically.) But here they’re deliberately pushing against social norms and then whining when their provocative behavior runs counter to their desires to make hundreds of millions of dollars. It comes off as ridiculously hypocritical, particularly when they’re raging against “capitalists”.
Dude, these people aren’t “psychotic”. They’re refusing to sell the game for exactly the same reason you cut the pelvic-thrusting gameplay: They want to stay in business. Like, you’re free to sell this game via mail-order if you like, but you’re making compromises to put the game on store shelves because that’s what makes you the most money. You’re effectively outraged that retailers aren’t willing to risk financial ruin for your art, when you aren’t willing to take those kinds of risks.
On The Other Hand…
Despite my gripes with their attitude, I think Rockstar was basically in the right here. The game did not contain “secret unlockables” or any other such nonsense. Accessing this content required you to go to the internet, download additional software, and then modify the game itself. If you take all those steps, then certainly the responsibility for what happens falls on you, the user.
Yes, it’s true that the resources used by hot coffee are indeed installed with the game. That is, there are sounds and (I assume) some sort of pelvic-thrusting animations. On top of that, there was certainly game code driving the whole thing. The only reason the hack is possible is that the sound files and game code were available, although they were detached from the rest of the game and you can’t access them without hacking. The thing is, lots of games have cut content lurking in their data filesKOTOR 2 is a famous example where including the cut content was a boon to the fanbase.. If we put developers on the hook for what the community does with the game data after release, then that will just encourage more developers to lock down their games to prevent modding.
If we argue that Rockstar is in the wrong here, then we’re left with a world where all developers are obligated to prevent modifications to the game. On top of ruining Minecraft, Arma 2, Mount & Blade, and everything Bethesda ever made, this would be impossible to enforce.
It’s also pretty unjust how things turned out. Rockstar cut the content, even though they really didn’t want to. But then they wound up with a flood of bad press and having the game pulled from shelves anyway. Rockstar did the “Right thing” according to people that are against the existence of this sort of content, but Rockstar was punished anyway because those same people don’t understand how technology works.
Either way, this entire debacle has provided a really interesting view of the creative thinking that goes into their games. They spend a lot of time (pretty much ALL their time) mocking Good ‘ol ‘MERICUH. But I don’t think Rockstar understands the target of their criticism. I think they only understand this country through the lens of other critical / satirical fiction: Simpsons, South Park, Wall Street, and a hundred other smarter, more incisive works. I think this is why so much of their attempted satire falls flat. They’re not mocking this country, they’re mocking Springfield, Lanford, and Arlen. The criticism usually doesn’t hit home because it’s an exaggerated copy of an exaggerated copy and so it loses the kernel of truth that makes satire work.
I’ll talk more about Rockstar’s satirical ambitions when we get to Grand Theft Auto V. In the meantime, I don’t want to end this entry on a bad note. Despite the unpleasantness of the Hot Coffee controversy, I think San Andreas is easily the best entry in the franchise. I play GTA V because it has more impressive technology and better feeling gameplay here in 2018, but if we’re viewing each game as a product of its own time then San Andreas is the jewel of the series.
 I wonder what the percentage is today? Steam is a behemoth and they’re not shy about selling adult content. On the other hand, Steam doesn’t exist on the consoles and consoles make up a majority of the market.
 Boy am I glad I don’t make my living via advertising these days. No advertiser would want their stuff on a page where “pornography” is that close to the word “children”.
 I don’t mean in terms of red / blue, but just the general age and disposition of individual members.
 KOTOR 2 is a famous example where including the cut content was a boon to the fanbase.
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