If David Kushner's other book (Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture) is about success and business souring a friendship, then "Jacked: The Outlaw Story of Grand Theft Auto" is about the cold business world destroying wild dreams and ambitions.
Sam Housar is a man who came to America with such wild dreams. The president and co-founder of Rockstar Games wanted to create video games that reminded him of the movies he enjoyed in his youth. Not only that, he wanted to make games immersive and sophisticated - an art form that older generations could no longer stereotype as 'children's toys.' But after the multimillion dollar success of the Playstation 2's "Grand Theft Auto" trilogy, Sam and his rebel crew at Rockstar found themselves caught in the crosshairs of an American culture war fueled by puritanical politicians and parents. Pressure only worsened as Rockstar's parent company, Take-Two Interactive, was struck by fraud investigations. Suddenly, making envelope-pushing video games was no longer a dream job... collided with cold reality, it was hell on earth.
The Hot Coffee scandal in particular really drove the boys to the brink. "Jacked" does a good job of showing the immense amounts of tension and soul-crushing strife in the aftermath that forced many to leave the company and others to view their stressful work environment as a place that wasn't quite so fun anymore.
Meanwhile, behind enemy lines and spearheading the attack on Rockstar (or at least trying to make a name for himself as a crusader for justice) was an embittered Miami lawyer. Having already had moderate success against Two-Live Crew and Howard Stern, Jack Thompson trained his litigating guns on a new scourge that was not only threatening the youth of America in his eyes, but putting his young son in danger on a daily basis: violent video games. And Rockstar made just the type of product that got Thompson's infamous press releases rolling.
"Jacked" fascinated me. I followed the entire controversy and free-for-all between Thompson, politicians and Rockstar Games during my college years, and this book recounts those warring days in perfect detail. I remember the blowup over "Kill All the Haitians," Hot Coffee, the numerous proposed bills, and Thompson's persistent trolling of GamePolitics.com. I was there for it all - and "Jacked" was a wonderful trip back in time as well as a fulfilling journey behind the scenes.
Speaking of Jack Thompson, the book's portrayal of him is surprisingly sympathetic. For gamers, he has come to represent a kind of mustache-twirling supervillain, a destroyer of fun wherever it may be. In stark contrast, the man presented here is a concerned father who only wants to make the world a safer, cleaner place for his son. Of course, if one were to dig up Thompson's lengthy, rambling, bile-filled press releases (which "Jacked" doesn't quite reproduce) they might see a different side of the disbarred lawyer... perhaps a man driven mad by a crusade that has consumed him.
Each chapter is headed by an illustration or quote that makes the story feel like it's straight out of a "Grand Theft Auto" playthrough. As Rockstar gets in larger amounts of trouble, the chapters are illustrated with increasing 'Wanted Level' stars. I loved this little element - it made the book even more of a fun ride.
Perhaps the book could have gone into more detail about some things. For example, Kushner left out any mention of Volition Inc. and how Sam Housar might have felt about the GTA clone "Saints Row" series - especially "Saints Row 2," which some gamers jumped onto as a response to GTA IV's focus on heavy realism and man-dates. The Sam in "Jacked" doesn't strike me as the type of person who would be too happy about that.
All in all, this was not only a great book, but a captivating page turner. I was sad to see it end so quickly. Like "Masters of Doom," "Jacked" has all the right elements for a fantastic movie: drama, humor and heartbreak. If you're like me and you've spent hundreds of hours between "GTAIII," "Vice City" and "San Andreas," you'd be doing yourself a huge favor by reading this book.