Grand Theft Auto: Cleaning Up The Hot Coffee

By Shamus Posted Friday Aug 3, 2018

Filed under: Retrospectives 76 comments

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.

EDIT: After posting this, I’m really unhappy with the tone and the focus of this post. I wanted to talk about the Hot Coffee controversy, Rockstar’s boundary-pushing, and the 1993 hearings. But then I spent most of this post picking on the content and tone of a short leaked internal memo. That’s not really fair and it’s not meaningfully tied to the intended topic. Also, picking on people for stuff said in private is a dick move.

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.

The Basics

I always took girlfriend Denise to get food. It was close to her house and the romantic music was always hilariously dissonant with both Denise and the location.
I always took girlfriend Denise to get food. It was close to her house and the romantic music was always hilariously dissonant with both Denise and the location.

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?

The Hot Coffee mod in action. Image lifted from original Eurogamer article.
The Hot Coffee mod in action. Image lifted from original Eurogamer article.

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.

The game claimes that "Excitement" is at 50%. I gotta say I'm not feeling it.
The game claimes that "Excitement" is at 50%. I gotta say I'm not feeling it.

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.”

We need to add a Ub warning for games that contain excessive open-world grind.
We need to add a Ub warning for games that contain excessive open-world grind.

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.

The 1993 congressional hearings on videogame violence.
The 1993 congressional hearings on videogame violence.

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…

Ryder was the most annoying character in SA, but I think I like him better than anyone in GTA V.
Ryder was the most annoying character in SA, but I think I like him better than anyone in GTA V.

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.



[1] 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.

[2] 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”.

[3] I don’t mean in terms of red / blue, but just the general age and disposition of individual members.

[4] KOTOR 2 is a famous example where including the cut content was a boon to the fanbase.

From The Archives:

76 thoughts on “Grand Theft Auto: Cleaning Up The Hot Coffee

  1. Redrock says:

    Never understood the controversy myself. Unlocking the sex game was such a hassle that it seemed ludicrous to accuse Rockstar of leaving it in there on purpose.

    Speaking of things I don’t understand, I don’t really see the benefit of reading that much into a random angry email by Houser. Now, I don’t doubt the man is a hypocrite and his sense of satire is debatable at best, but are we really sure he sincerely and deeply believes that the Big Mormon were out to get him? I’m not sure. I mean, I hear a lot of angry drivers hurl homophobic slurs at other drivers, but I don’t think they actually have some deep-seated beliefs about the other person’s sexual life and/or marital status. If Houser’s approach to writing emails is the same as his approach to writing everything else, he probably just wanted to sound clever and crude at the same time and that’s about it.

    1. D-Frame says:

      I couldn’t agree more. It wasn’t an official statement or anything, it was an internal e-mail. The man just had to vent his frustration.

      1. Liessa says:

        I agree that he probably didn’t mean that comment literally, but the ‘capitalist’ thing is still pretty hypocritical. I mean come on, dude, it’s not like you’re doing this for charity. This attitude of “trying to sell stuff is evil except when I’m the one doing it” seems very common, especially among self-proclaimed ‘edgy’ types like the Rockstar devs.

        That said, Shamus’ comment about wanting to appeal to the ‘mass market’ isn’t very fair. The mass market (in videogame terms) was fine with Hot Coffee; the people complaining about it, as with so many other videogame ‘scandals’, were mostly the ones who don’t actually play those games.

        1. Thomas says:

          I can imagine it as the ‘Look how I don’t care about the money’ thing, where they don’t quite click that it’s easy to do that when you already have more than you could want.

      2. Vinsomer says:

        You’re right, but I think it still reveals a lot about what he think of his critics, and why he thinks they say what they do. And it’s not only factually wrong, but mean-spirited.

        Generally speaking, I think there’s a strong reactionary impulse within the gaming community to immediately dismiss, or even attack, any criticism that games might be harmful in any way, but some of the arguments (even the moralistic conservative ones) do have better points than they’re given credit for. And, at risk of going too deep into politics, I’ll leave it there. But suffice it to say that part of the reason gaming lucked out with the ESRB was a willingness to actually engage in points of discussion with critics, rather than indulging the impulse to immediately dismiss them.

    2. Shamus says:

      EDIT: I’ve since edited the original post three times and I’ve even re-written this comment. The point is: You’re right.

      1. Redrock says:

        Wow, didn’t expect that. Well, you were absolutely right in your update in the main post – now I’m extremely curious about the other versions of your comment. Jokes aside, well, I dunno about you, but acknowledging that my text has problems can be extremely hard for me. So it’s always impressive and a bit inspiring to see that level of self-reflection in a fellow journalist. Kudos.

        1. TMC_Sherpa says:

          Don’t worry, I’m working on a patch for your browser so you can unlock the original content.

          1. Cubic says:

            Spoiler: access to original pelvic motion animations.

      2. Mich says:

        At the same time, you’re not wrong, Shamus.

        There is a danger of reading too much into a stray, out of context email, but the broad strokes about how Rockstar produces satire do seem to be on point. When it comes to American pop culture, Rockstar is on the outside looking in, and that insight does inform how they write.

        Simply pointing and saying, “look at the hypocrisy,” would be misleading, but stepping past that and using it as a quick, “state of mind,” litmus test, to say, “I get what’s going on over there, now,” is entirely legitimate.

        EDIT: And I accidentally truncated my name. Yay, sleep deprivation.

  2. DaMage says:

    I remember back in 2006 (so a year after this), the media tried to stir up the same controversy again when Oblivion came out with it’s “modding”. Bethesda left a nude female upperbody model in the gamefiles, that with a really simple modding edit, could be made the default “naked” model. The articles at the time screamed about how Oblivion therefore had nudity in it and should have a higher rating, because it was a file on the disk.

    I don’t remember if Bethesda ever responded to it, but I remember at the time it was actually a bit of a threat to the then developing Oblivion modding scene.

    1. Orillion says:

      That and some bits of gory fluff from the Oblivion maps convinced the ESRP to re-rate the game to an M, from T. I probably still have one of the original T game-boxes, uh, in another country.

    2. Sleeping Dragon says:

      Interesting, I did not know that. I did find the Bethesda mention funny since I know a bunch of people on the net use Skyrim and FO4 (heavily modded with adult content) as essnetially posing studios for porn (the actual mods adding sexual content to the game aside).

      I think Oblivion did not gain traction in this department because the idea of the rotting potato face characters having sex puts most people off (talk about bumping some literal uglies).

  3. Daemian Lucifer says:

    I understand you being upset at the language used,but I think you are reading that statement wrong.Yes,mormons arent that numerous,but he wasnt really talking about the actual mormons.He was using a shorthand* for all the religious people in the country,which are numerous and pretty influential.As for the psychotic part,again it was a harsh word,but he is not wrong in thinking that the attitude of allowing kids and teens to watch/play violence while not wanting them to see/play sex is at least a bit silly.

    *Or more likely,an insult.At least in his mind.

    1. Bubble181 says:

      Yeah, I see “Mormon” more as a shorthand for “uptight religious zealots” – “puritans” or some such would have been more appropriate, but vocabulary in short angry mails can get the short end of the stick sometimes.
      I don’t know where the guy’s from, but being angry at ridiculous American puritan double standards isn’t exactly weird. This game rewards you for mowing down pedestrians, asks you to shoot and kill people by the dozens, cops are throwaway canon fodder…but a nipple is a Demon Force that’ll Corrupt The Youth.

      This is the “public” mind because American culture is constantly bombarded with a message that violence is a choice and can be shown, while sexuality is inherently evil and will destroy your soul. American puritanism and Victorian-era hypocritical mores surrounding women, sex, and sexuality, are a major force in geopolitics, and far more pervasive than most Americans, even left-leaning liberal open-minded ones, realize.

      As a European, I never got the HC controversy…And I agree that having to yank this from games to keep them from being “adult only” is crazy puritanical BS, which is pretty much what the guy intends to say.

      14 year old kids will have seen or done “worse” sexual things than that, on average. I’m certainly not in favor of letting everyone from any age see anything, but the American deliniation is skewed horribly.

      Anyway, too political a post, I guess…

      1. DerJungerLudendorff says:

        The fact that it required a functioning internet connection to get working is pretty telling about how well the complainers understood the actual technology behind it.

        If your kids have the internet connection to download this mod, they have the internet connection to just look for pornography.

  4. Asdasd says:

    I assume that in the use of the word ‘mormon’ Houser was clumsily reaching for something a word like ‘puritanical’, and was making assumptions about Mormon doctrine such that he believed the word would convey a sense of turbo-charged Christian moralism? I admit that it’s a charitable interpretation.

    This scandal would never have been such a big deal if people had understood how the technology worked.

    I’d like to believe this, but I’m struggling. Were all commentators at the time in full possession of the facts, I’m sure many would still have embraced a knowing ignorance in order to be able to remain outraged and to spread their outrage to others. The ability to selectively disregard inconvenient truths, or better yet prevent yourself from knowing them in the first place, seems an outright necessity if you want to operate in today’s media or other public discourses.

    Apologies for being so cynical – I really did enjoy the read.

    1. Syal says:

      ‘Mormon’ is one letter off from ‘Moron’, and as such works better rhythmically to imply ‘stupid religious people’ than other religious options that come to mind.

      (The closest alternative I can think of is Dumbdementalists, but that’s both obviously altered and inconveniently long.)

    2. Jabrwock says:

      From an outsider perspective, the Mormon church seemed at the time to have the same level of political power that the Vatican has in predominantly Catholic countries.

      Especially around 2005, when states were legalizing gay marriage, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was front and centre as the leader of the “no” campaign. So if you were going to shorthand American prudishness, it would be like name-dropping the KKK when talking about American racism.

      1. Sabrdance (MatthewH) says:

        The Mormon church has significant population in Utah. There are a lot of them in Idaho. Most people couldn’t tell you the difference between Mormons and Lutherans.

        And while Mormons were opposed to gay marriage, they were neither the largest nor the most prominent. They did punch above their weight, but black protestants and white Evangelicals are a lot more numerous. And it didn’t really come into public knowledge until 2008.

        Unless Hauser lives in Salt Lake City, there is no reason for him to be using “Mormon” as his go to.

      2. Viktor says:

        I wonder if location has anything to do with it. I would never go with Mormons for something like this, since they are not the religious force that’s relevant to my day-to-day life. “Evangelicals” would be my go-to group, with “southern baptists” or “the Vatican” as distant seconds. But the Mormons are active politically in California, so that’s what he went with.

        I also find it interesting that Shamus automatically assumed the guy was talking about Mormons specifically, whereas my default assumption is that any reference to an extremist christian group is the same as a reference to all of them.

  5. Lame Duck says:

    I’m so glad that society has moved on, that artists can now create freely and we all get to fully enjoy uncensored masterpieces such as Ride to Hell: Retribution.

    1. Ander says:

      You forget the RtH was also pulled from retailers. For reasons that, depending on how you look at it, were related to said “uncensored” scenes, albeit not in the same way.

  6. Daemian Lucifer says:

    Sorry. I mess up sometimes.

    For what its worth,I think you made the right choice with this edit.

  7. PPX14 says:

    Did Fahrenheit endure a similar backlash to its in-game explicit content? Or did selling the cut Indigo Prophecy version in regions where it might be an issue avoid this?

    1. Xeorm says:

      No. Fahrenheit wasn’t a game people heard about. GTA being a major seller was big enough to be news to people outside the gaming world.

  8. Syal says:

    No advertiser would want their stuff on a page where “pornography” is that close to the word “children”.

    Welcome back to Let’s Play Yakuza 0. ($20 on Steam right now, it’s practically high-class theft!)

    More on topic, I can absolutely understand being angry about having to pull the sex minigame. Not only has the series prominently featured the option to have sex with hookers to recover health and then kill the hooker to get your money back, without getting an AO rating, but also God of War came out in 2005, and it opens with a sex minigame, with topless women and no AO.

  9. Urthman says:

    What always baffled me was how GTA got all the scandal when God of War was released the same year with much more “adult” (that is to say 13-year-old-kid version of “adult”) content both in terms of sex and violence. It’s got sex mini games, nudity, and gory deaths that make drowning the foreman seem tame (like the puzzle you solve by pushing a caged dude pleading for his life into a gruesome death). Was God of War rated AO when it came out?

    1. Redrock says:

      I think the explicitly fantasy setting has something to do with it? These criteria often don’t make sense, but fantasy and sci-fi are often allowed higher concentrations of violence than realistic settings. Also, God of War’s sex game still was only an implication – there was no on-screen pelvic thrusting or anything of the kind, which also might have been a significant factor. Probably more significant than the fantasy thing, now that I think about it. But I’m too lazy to re-write that comment.

    2. Sabrdance (MatthewH) says:

      I think some of you forget exactly how much of a PR storm God of War was. I remember it -I remember I stopped playing the game at the “guy in the cage” scene, and I wasn’t the only one in my circle of friends. In the larger -largely religious -community I was part of, God of War didn’t stand out particularly for its obscenity. And Grand Theft Auto had never been approved of -Hot Coffee was just an added reason not to like the game series. It was already getting flak for drive-by’s and having the name “Grand Theft Auto.”

      By the time the third God of War game came out, when the developers did the pseudo-Greek orgy for the launch party, I was rolling my eyes at the transparent attempt to trigger the normies.

      I will add, as with Hollywood, I don’t know you can take anything they say at face value. It’s all marketing, and conflict draws as many eyes as success.

  10. Sartharina says:

    Yeah – as others say “Mormon” was used as a shorthand for “Puritanical”

    Hammer the buttons and wiggle the sticks to murder a guy in various gruesome ways? Just fine, ish. Hammer the buttons and wiggle the sticks to develop a relationship and ultimately consummate it in a way similar to how hundreds of thousands if not millions do every day (And the rest do on other days)? “THIS IS OBSCENE PORN AND SHOULD BE BANNED!”

    1. Sabrdance (MatthewH) says:

      This will be my last time hammering the point, because I don’t want to be a one-note commenter on this topic, but no it wasn’t. There was a long list of grievances against Grand Theft Auto going back to the original GTA III. Hot Coffee was just one more on top of it.

      No, the people complaining about Hot Coffee were not fine with the rampant slaughter and keystone cops antics. No, they were not fine with a game where you played a gang member engaged in a gang war. No, they hated pretty much every part of this game. I know, because they were my friends and family. This was just another entry on the list.

      You wish to defend the artistic merits of the game to them, go ahead. But don’t strawman their actual objections by pretending that this was the only thing they cared about.

  11. Joe Informatico says:

    Another possible explanation for the use of “Mormon” as slur in this case: CleanFlicks was a Salt Lake City, Utah-based company founded in the early 2000s that sold edited copies of popular DVDs and VHS films with “the objectionable content” removed. Mostly, this meant muting profanity or cutting out brief sections of the film. The majority of their customers were conservative Mormons and other conservative Christians.

    In 2002, the Directors Guild of America sued them for copyright infringement, and the case wasn’t resolved until 2006 in the DGA’s favour. I can’t comment on the legal dimension, but I remember a lot of Hollywood directors claiming CleanFlicks was perverting their art and that this was akin to censorship–it was very much cast as a Footloose-esque “freedom-loving artists vs. oppressive theocrats” struggle in much of the entertainment press. San Andreas is released right in the middle of this, so it could have been on Houser’s mind.

    1. Jabrwock says:

      Early 2000’s was also when states started legalizing gay marriage, and the LDS church was one of the bigger entities spearheading and funding the “no” campaigns. Even Americans were complaining about Mormons at the time, usually along the lines of “out of state money/influence”. So I can see it being new shorthand for “American puritanism”, merely because it was becoming the new face of the movement.

      1. Tizzy says:

        Those are two excellent points. Even if I remain under the impression that the memo was written by someone who doesn’t understand American culture nearly as much as he thinks. There’s a chance he was aware of both of those and they were on his mind.

  12. BlueHorus says:

    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.

    Ach, if only they would.

    I don’t really have an opinion on Hot Coffee apart from finding it disappointingly hypocritical in various ways. First – as other have pointed out – attitudes to sex vs attitudes to violence in games are notably inconsistent.
    Second: I think one of the reasons GTA was picked out above other games was its popularity; ‘[WELL-KNOWN GAME] FEATURES SEX MINIGAME’ as a headline gets more attention and coverage than say, RapeLay did, even though the latter is a much worse thing IMO.
    Media outlets care more about grabbing attention than they do about the moral issues they talk about.

    About the article: don’t worry too much. It’s not perfect, but at the end of the day it’s only one piece, on what is now widely considered a historical nontroversy. Certainly better than some of the crap that other people have written about Hot Coffee. Just move on with the GTA series as planned. My 2 cents.

  13. Daemian Lucifer says:

    Guys. You’re the Michael Bay of videogames. And that’s okay. OWN IT.

    Yeah,but even Michael Bay is not owning it.He still thinks of himself as some actual director of good movies,and not a dispenser of schlock.

    1. Thomas says:

      There is the ‘Michael Bay hates people theory’, where he believes we’re all easily manipulated mormons – which is how 99% of the characters in his films behave.

      Luckily, we proved him wrong by making him one of the most financially successful directors of all time.

  14. BlueBlazeSpear says:

    This game seemed to be happening around a time where video games as a whole were starting to cross that gap from cartoon-y sprites and blocky polygons to more realistic (in relative terms) characters and environments. The gaming landscape seemed to be ripe for another moral panic. We were suddenly embodying characters that looked more-or-less like people and we were killing characters that looked more-or-less human by the bus load. I think that some moral panic types were already on edge with this sort of shift, but when you add sexual shenanigans to the mix, now it’s time for some good old-fashioned outrage. We essentially fetishize gun violence here in the US, but some fully clothed dry-humping? That’s beyond the pale.

    In that environment, I don’t know that it even matters what the developer’s intent was, or what they ultimately did and that people had to go through a bit of outside effort to make it available in the game. There have always been people looking to cash in on moral outrage as a form of social currency, especially for people who haven’t even engaged with the product that they’re decrying as the fall of civilization. I just happen to think that this particular form of social currency just doesn’t have the same value that it had back when this was happening.

    I remember when the original Mass Effect came out in 2007, there was some superficial moral throat-clearing about how the game had a sex scene in it. Of course, these people didn’t know that it was optional end-game content that was more PG than what you’d see at any average public beach. But I think that the outrage about this particular subject was already on the decline because nothing really came of it. Dragon Age: Origins came out in 2009 and had sex all over it and I don’t think it caused so much as a raised eyebrow. Though someone in Bioware must’ve been spooked because it wasn’t until 2014’s Dragon Age: Inquisition that they had the stones to approach sex in a more adult way instead of the cartoon-y clothes-on sex scenes they were doing up until that point. Either that, or they really did envision a future where Samantha Traynor would shower with clothes on.

    1. Cubic says:

      I remember the last Saint’s Row game (except for Gat Out of Hell), where you back at the space ship merrily had sex with men, women and at least one spheric robot (the funniest scene). I guess we’re over it by now.

      1. BlueHorus says:

        ‘Hey Kinzie, you wanna fuck-‘
        *SMACK* ‘Let’s go!’
        *Kinzie leaps on your shocked face and romantic music plays as you fall over*

        That feature was great. They knew exactly what they were lampooning and they did it brilliantly.

    2. BlueHorus says:

      Hey, don’t knock Bioware’s underwear-on dry humping! I loved that. It was just a perfect example of their approach to romance: well intentioned, but just too unnatural and clunky to resemble the real thing.

      Also, my lasting memory of Bioware romance is when I picked one of the characters in Dragon Age: Origins and unlocked a humping scene next to the communal campfire.
      All I could think was ‘guys, you do know that that sex-pest Zevran is like 5 feet away, watching you?’ Really killed the mood.

      1. Joshua says:

        My experience with it was going into a brothel and talking with the dog character, so you can have the prostitute character saying “come here big boy” or something to that effect. I seem to recall it switching to your main character for the deed though.

  15. Pax says:

    I remember being mad about Hot Coffee, because I wanted to mod San Andreas (and not for Hot Coffee), but Rockstar pulled the original versions and the rerelease was much more locked down and harder to modify. As a consummate modder, I was very worried that this was a trend that was going to ripple throughout the industry, and pretty much end modding as we knew it. It didn’t, really, but the increasing complexity of games and the difficulty of getting the tools into the hands of users has made it become less common over time. At least we still have Bethesda.

    And also, parents are so often amazing lazy when determining what’s appropriate for their children. My friends who worked at Gamestop would constantly tell me of mothers who bought their children GTA, and when told it was a “no, seriously, it’s a really adult title,” would wave away their advice and buy it for their little goblins anyway. The kids sure knew what they were getting, even if their parents didn’t.

    1. Syal says:

      Only laziness if the parents come back and complain. Plenty of people don’t think censoring childhood is in their children’s interest.

  16. baud says:

    You’ve copied a lot of your older article, but without the EULA mentions. Perhaps because nowaday everyone has signed a lot of them without reading and they are unenforceable?

    Also you should have added that Rockstar North is from Scotland, which would help understand why their satire fall flat. Perhaps for right-pondians, it’s really funny since it fits with the other satire they’ve seen (Simpsons, South Park…)?

    1. Raygereio says:

      they are unenforceable?

      EULAs are enforceable as long as they don’t clash with the law. Specifically the laws of the country (state, whatever applies) where the User resides (some argue that it’s where the User accepts, but let’s not get into weird edge-cases).

      The obvious example is if an EULA says you’re not allowed to make a copy of the disc under any circumstance. I can just laugh at that and make all the copies I want for my own use over here in the Netherlands. While in the US this actually is illegal (*).

      (*): Note, I’m not an expert on US law, but I’m fairly sure that Title 17 of the United States Code prohibits making personal copies. It’s just never been actually tested in a court because it has not been worth it yet for companies to go after that.

      1. Daemian Lucifer says:

        But thats not eula thats enforcing it,its the © symbol.Even without eula,it would still be illegal for you to copy the disc marked with © in the usa.Without it,no amount of eula would make it illegal.

        1. Raygereio says:

          (*)If a work does not carry the copyright symbol, it does not necessarily mean it is not protected by copyright law. In most circumstances, the use of the copyright symbol isn’t mandatory.
          For example in the US, the copyright symbol is only used to inform the User that the work is protected by copyright. Which just means that you can’t claim ignorance if you get sued. An EULA can serve the exact same purpose.
          Mind you, laws do change. Before 1990 (I think?) the use of the copyright symbol was mandatory if you wanted your work protected in the US.

          But let’s avoid silly pedantry: The actual point made in response to baud was that EULAs are technically contracts and as such are as enforceable as the law allows. Which in some cases means that yes it is enforceable, and in cases means it is completely worthless.

          (*): Again, not a lawyer or expert on US law, etc.

  17. Cubic says:

    I never played Hot Coffee, so I can’t add much to the discussion except the PR was probably still worth it.

    The hooker scenes could be viewed by swinging the camera appropriately. The participants primly sat side by side while the car rocked. (I think GTAIV was a bit more explicit.)

    While replaying SA on the ipad recently, I was surprised and delighted by one dating feature I never saw on the PS2 version. After finishing the main game with Millie the card dealer as my main gf, I was out dating in San Andreas and while escorting my date to the car … Millie showed up, looking very suspicious! Wtf Millie, you were supposed to be in Las Venturas! I laid a lot of rubber on the road outside the Clucking Bell and managed to evade her while cackling madly.

  18. GoStu says:

    Re: Article Deletion

    Leave it up. Leave the gold-text comment up too. If you still feel as though you have a second take on this later, maybe insert a second-look alternate-take on it into this series as another article. Co-writing that second-take with another author might flesh out the content to better fill a full article and/or take some more burden off you.

    I think that’d be the best option, because as you mentioned in your take above, simply deleting it on the quiet seems wrong and deleting it and leaving a note will spur curiousity forever. I think you’d be being dishonest with yourself; SOME version of Shamus felt that way, and with a controversial topic maybe it’s good to show that even one man can hold many opinions on it.

  19. Grampy_bone says:

    This post seems fine. I don’t think you’re being overly harsh. No one involved in this really acted appropriately. The media blew everything up and sensationalized it, but you have to wonder what the hell Houser was thinking. Americans will accept excessive violence but we get weird over sex.

    It was a bad business decision in the first place and a bad design move to leave it on the disc.

  20. Thomas says:

    There’s a film dramatisation of this controversy with Daniel Radcliffe that I thought was unexpectedly good.

    It captured the rockstar vibe of game development at the time, when young 20 somethings were making huge waves on the world without necessarily knowing what to do with that.

  21. Thomas says:

    It’s probably worth noting that the people in Rockstar pushing to make the cuts probably weren’t the same people complaining about them. Would they have made the cuts anyway? Probably. But you can bet they had financial advisers and solicitors and business partners lean on them hard.

    Plus it’s hard to be fully level headed when something you’ve built is being taken away.

  22. Olivier FAURE says:

    A third option regarding taking down the article would be to leave it as-is, but make it uncategorized or something so that people don’t need to read it when following the logical flow of the retrospective.

  23. Metheos says:

    A somewhat less publicized but still notable incident occurred in 2008, when Fox News became vaguely aware of Mass Effect’s sex scene with Liara and female Shepard. The segment was titled “SE’XBOX” and described the game as “Luke Skywalker meets Debbie Does Dallas.” It was taken for granted that most of the people playing would be children, and there were statements wondering why games were no longer like Pac-Man. One of the presenters later admitted that she hadn’t properly seen the game, and upon doing so she found that it was less explicit than what you’d see on the show “Lost.” There’s no question that at the time, outdated assumptions about the age of the typical gamer were a major issue.

    Incidentally, while Bioware mocked the Fox segment in a ME1 DLC, it may have convinced them stick with the oft-mocked PG-13 sex scenes we saw in later games.

  24. Angie says:

    Re: the “mormon” thing, my first thought reading the memo was that he meant “moron” and misspelled it. [shrug] Consider that there’s an error in there either way — if it was supposed to be “Mormon,” then it should’ve taken an initial cap. If it was supposed to be “moron,” then it has an extra letter, but the initial lower case is correct.

    Either way, I agree with Shamus. Rock Star acted correctly (whatever their reasoning), were unjustly punished when they did nothing wrong, and reacted badly.


  25. Decius says:

    The idea of “objectionable content being silently disabled but left in the game” reminds me of something I discovered while trying to learn how to mod Neverwinter Nights.

    In the first chapter of the expansion Shadows of Undrentide, the player has the ability to save a baby from a poor mother, who can’t pay a reward for it. You can get Good Points for giving it back without a reward, or Evil points for shaking the widow down for her wedding ring, or keep the baby.

    The Red Wizard has disabled dialog options to buy it; having the baby in your inventory while talking to him does not display the dialog option, but does set a global variable ChrisIsPissed to 1.

    I never found anything else that cared about that variable, but I felt deeply for the poor writer who felt so strongly about their lore research and attempts to allow evil player characters be negated because text could be so offensive.

    1. Mr. Wolf says:

      ChrisIsPissed = 1

      That sounds familiar…

      Did you ever get chased by a friend-to-all-children bounty hunter called Avellone in NWN?

      1. Pax says:

        Come to think of it, the bounty hunter Avellone also comes after you in Fallout 1 if you’re a child killer

    2. Furo says:

      I heard that the baby story doesn’t have to end there.

      If the protagonist keeps the baby to the end of the game, then in the second expansion, Hordes of the Underdark, there will be an option to mutate him into a special goblin or drider summon. Quite a powerful one, too.

  26. “I feel like it needs a re-write” then do it; I’d rather read a article you are happy with than a article you are unhappy with, regardless of whether I like the article or not.

    May I also suggest a 3rd post on GTA:SA? The previous post did not cover the technical that much (you covered story and writing and plot and setting and the map pretty much).

    But what about music/audio, textures, polygons, game size, the number of songs and stations (which seems to just increase by each game), the physics (in which Rockstar really was proud of the Euphoria physics in GTA IV which was tuned/toned down in GTA V).
    This is probably one of the more known Euphoria demo videos
    Which is awesome, then amusing when you think of GTA’s “solid concrete bushes” that will total your car (why aren’t those noclip?).
    The tech is pretty awesome though (GTA IV demo video)

    Maybe by the end of this article series you can do a comparison chart of some numbers from the games in the series?

    Edit: Story behind Euphoria

  27. RCN says:

    Eh… we’re talking about the same media culture that went apeshit over Mass Effect and called the X-Box aggressively uncleverly the “Sex-Box” because of its 20 times more stiff and agonizingly hilarious sex-scenes than Hot Cofee… on a game that was rated M (hey, look, a side-butt! Oh the children!)

    They’ll make ANYONE lose the battle for doing the “right thing” and appeasing them.

    As far as I’m concerned, we should just drown them in adult content so they’ll get confused even about WHAT to pick and be outraged about. And out of the sea of nudity maybe we’ll even get some genuine commentary!

  28. This might be of interest for peeps for the upcoming GTA IV articles.
    “GTA 4 Beta Version and Removed Content”

  29. Joshua says:

    “it feels sort of craven to silently delete the post. ”

    Is this some kind of jape?

  30. ccesarano says:

    I say leave the article up with comment and the notation, and perhaps add a link to new thoughts on the topic later. Having been writing a blog since my early twenties and considering all the changes I’ve gone through in a decade, there’s a lot of content I’m tempted to go back and delete but even if that’s an inaccurate representation of who I am now, it reflects something of me. Even if this rant wasn’t entirely fair, it reflects your own thought process and leads into other potential interesting topics.

    I sometimes forget all those old controversies that arose in the early 2000’s. When I was working at GameStop in highschool I recall reading about Dave Mirra’s name being dropped from BMX XXX, which I think Polygon might have a good feature on (typing from my phone so can’t check at the moment). Hot Coffee happened. I think it was Rockstar that would again be in the hot seat with Manhunt and its presumably excessive violence, and then shortly around or after it’s release we get the Saw movies becoming Halloween blockbusters. I even remember celebrating the news of Jack Thompson being disbarred.

    I don’t recall exactly when it would have reduced, but games being in the media cross hairs seemed to just diminish. Of course, now a lot of the pressure to change and approach topics of sex and violence are from within the industry and fandom, which… I guess for the other post getting political I will apologize now for any part I played in getting the comments locked and I’d rather not discuss the current state of content debate here. But, I do think in another ten years it will be interesting to look back on how things evolved from concerns of Mortal Kombat, DOOM and Night Trap to Hot Coffee and Manhunt to … however now would be referenced.

    Anyway, point is even if this article isn’t entirely what you wanted to say, I feel like it’s a good starting point for other topics worth discussing. Also, regardless of whether your response was unfair or too much, I at least agree that many in charge of the GTA games have a tendency to lodge their heads far up their own hindquarters.

    1. Nate Winchester says:

      Agreed. Shamus should leave this post up with the note and write a second post with the content he was originally intending. While I understand his point about the memo, I do think he stumbled across an important observation about the sometimes contradictory nature of art and the tradeoffs creators have to make when creating it.

  31. omer says:

    “Their products are excessive, shallow, trashy, consumerist American culture.”
    Isn’t Rockstar writing stuff essentially British? It make sense that they’ll mock american culture from a second hand. Also explain why Rockstar (houser in this case) wouldn’t be very tolerant to american squeamishness about sex…

    1. Cubic says:

      Lots of sex please, we’re British.

  32. LCF says:

    “We need to add a Ub warning for games that contain excessive open-world grind.”

    I’m getting old. I first read that as an “Uwe Boll” warning, wondering about open-world grind.

    1. BlueHorus says:

      ‘Open world grind’ sounds like it should totally be a euphemism.
      Possibly involving maipulating people’s Uwe Bolls…

  33. Nate Winchester says:

    KOTOR 2 is a famous example where including the cut content was a boon to the fanbase.

    I’m curious about this and would like to know more. Would anybody knowledgeable mind filling in this n00b on what Shamus is talking about here?

    1. Raygereio says:

      KotOR2 had a troubled development: The short version is that Obsidian was contracted to deliver the game by Q4 2004. Obsidian met with LucasArts in early 2004 and they agreed to postpone the release to allow Obsidian more time. Because this was Obsidian’s first game and everyone was still new at the whole running-a-development-studio-thing, they failed to get that agreement in writing and update the contract.
      So somewhere early Q3 2004, LucasArts demanded that the game would be delivered on the original date (a demand made most likely due to financial issues of their own). Obsidian in the meantime had increased the scope of the game with more content, areas, etc, because they figured they had more time. Now they suddenly had to scramble and make cuts everyone just to get the game out of the door.
      Obsidian managed to release the game on time, however it was buggy and while it has an ending of sorts, it’s very obvious Obsidian wasn’t able to finish that which they wanted. There are noticable holes all over the place in the story where something was cut, but Obsidian wasn’t able to stetch things together. And the final act of the game was just a mess.

      Thankfully, the game was very modeable. The Odyssey game engine used for KotOR1 & 2 was based of NWN’s Aurora game engine and it shares of things (file formats, scripting language, etc). So modders with a lot of experience were able to dog in (with tools that only needed a little updating) to fix not only bugs, but also check all of the cut content. A lot of the cut scenes were already written and voiced. They were missing the scripting, animation & camera work, which are things a modder could implement given enough time.

      Check out “TSLRCM”. The Sith Lords Restored Content Mod. It’s a massive mod that restores a lot of cut content in the game.

      1. Nate Winchester says:

        Thx for the info. I knew just a bit of that (that KOTOR2 was buggy) but not the rest of the details. That’s really fascinating and awesome of the modders that they were able to help the designers realize their lost vision.

  34. PatPatrick says:

    I strongly disagree Rockstar is Michael Bay of videogames. Maybe their games (partialy) are excessive, shallow and trashy. But Rockstar games sometimes are smart, sarcastic and their jokes hit the spot. Then again “Michael Bay of videogames” name has long been occupied by bus Bethesda Softworks.

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