2022 marks the 25th anniversary of the year that everything happened — 1997. It was an ear-biting, Pierce Brosnan-loving, comet-obsessed world, and we’re here to relive every minute of it. Twice a week over the next 12 months, we will take you back to the winter of sheep cloning and the summer of Con Air. Come for the Chumbawamba, and stay for the return of the Mack. See all of the stories here.
Tuesday May 20, 1997 was a weekday like any other in the U.K.’s grandiose Houses of Parliament. Elected officials from around the country sat perched in their fancy seats, ready to debate prospective new laws and burning social issues. But instead, they found themselves being introduced to a salacious new video game: Grand Theft Auto.
Although it wasn’t due for release until November of that year, a handful of early tabloid reports had begun blasting the gun-slinging, joyriding game as a disgrace. Conservative politicians had heard rumors of “hit-and-run” missions and glorified crime sprees, details of which were leaked to the press by a sleazy, silver-haired publicist named Max Clifford. These pearl-clutching politicians had no idea at the time, but the moral panic they whipped up in those hallowed halls would play right into the hands of Clifford, the man credited with turning Grand Theft Auto into one of the world’s most controversial video games.
The story begins with DMA Design, a Scottish video game developer now known as Rockstar North Limited. Prior to 1997, this upstart studio had created a handful of shooter games, but the company’s best-known release was a cutesy puzzle game, Lemmings, released in 1991. Elements of the game are pretty macabre — you can blow shit up, including your adorable fellow lemmings — but the premise is to get these blue-robed, green-haired critters to safety. The gameplay was straightforward, and it was successful enough to keep DMA afloat, but the team had spent years fleshing out another idea for a game known internally as Race n’ Chase.
Initially, the idea for Race n’ Chase was simple: Players could take control of either cops or criminals in a frenzied, high-speed chase. But as more game designers came on board, a handful of more scandalous ideas were thrown into the mix, based largely on British perceptions of American culture.
Paul Farley, now the CEO of indie game studio Firestoke Games, was one of three designers added to the project. “The biggest influence on the game in terms of U.S. culture was undoubtedly movies,” he tells me. “The theme of Speed was directly translated into game mechanics with the bus bomb mission in [fictional GTA city] Liberty City, and there are lots of other examples.” The idea was to create a tongue-in-cheek commentary on American culture, one rooted in political conflicts and glorified violence. According to a 2015 Guardian interview, designers even debated the idea of adding a church-burning mission, later scrapped, presumably due to the expectation of religious backlash.
Nevertheless, the team was seemingly encouraged to lay all of their most incendiary — in some cases, literally — ideas on the table. “The game gave everyone the opportunity to take a number of different aspects of U.S. culture — from gun crime, gang dynamics, TV and radio formats, politics and so on — and really exaggerate them,” explains Farley. With this freedom to piss people off firmly established, developers started to toy with even more ideas. What if players could ram into other cars? Hijack vehicles? Act out their lawless fantasies in this tiny, animated world? Joyrides, crime sprees and debauchery started to become key selling points of the game, but the developers were at a loss of how best to sell it. Faced with the conundrum of marketing their scrappy, hedonistic upstart, they reached out to Clifford at the beginning of 1997.
Now, a quick Google search of the late publicist — who was jailed in 2014 and indicted for eight counts of assault, and who later passed away in 2017 — reveals a litany of abuse allegations, but in 1997, he was the unparalleled shady tabloid king. Clifford pioneered sleazy PR stunt tactics like the “kiss and tell,” which involved paying spurned lovers hundreds of thousands of dollars to reveal lurid, horny details of their sex sessions with celebrities. He was also big on the fake news — Clifford was a notorious liar, willing to concoct absolute bullshit on the fly to further his career and those of his clients. At one point, he even (falsely) claimed to have been the driving force behind the success of the Beatles.
Clifford’s crowning glory came in 1986, during a PR campaign for the late British comedian Freddie Starr. At a loss of how to drum up interest for Starr’s upcoming tour, Clifford decided to plant what seemed like a ludicrous story to the press. According to the fake news story, Starr had stayed with a friend and demanded his pal’s girlfriend make him a sandwich. When she refused, the story continued, Starr grabbed her pet hamster, shoved it between two slices of bread and began chomping away. Tabloid newspaper The Sun ran with the story, publishing it with the now-iconic headline: “Freddie Starr Ate My Hamster.”
It’s a hilariously dumb myth, but one so memorable that it plagued Starr for life. In his 2001 autobiography, Starr — a vegetarian since his teen years — wrote a frustrated bid to clear his name: “I have never eaten or even nibbled a live hamster, gerbil, guinea pig, mouse, shrew, vole or any other small mammal.”
Clifford’s dubious morals were an open secret even in the 1990s, but the Grand Theft Auto developers knew he could be their ticket to major press coverage, no matter what kind. In his 2012 book Jacked: The Outlaw Story of Grand Theft Auto, journalist David Kushner set about transforming more than a decade of research into the definitive book on Grand Theft Auto, but it wasn’t the controversy that drew him in. “I played the first game when it came out,” he tells me. “I was living in New York when Rockstar first started throwing their parties — and they were crowded, I recall. At the time, it was all about the games and the culture they were creating. The controversy hadn’t really hit yet.”
As Kushner dug deeper, he discovered just how instrumental Clifford was in the game’s early success. In an initial meeting with the game’s developers, the publicist reportedly advised them not only to “own up to the violence,” but to “shove it down the media’s throat.” In a quote published in the book, Clifford says he “knew there would be the wonderful elitist members of the establishment that would take and find something like [Grand Theft Auto] absolutely repulsive.”
He wasn’t wrong. One of the first tabloids to take the bait was the Daily Mail, which, according to the book, splashed around controversial headlines about a “criminal computer game that glorifies hit-and-run thugs.” The right-wing publication has been hot on the franchise’s tail ever since — from stories about stabbings at game launches to a 2014 scoop on a mod that apparently allowed players to virtually “rape” each other, countless yarns have been spun about Grand Theft Auto. Kushner recalls his own amusement at the fact that “some of the early players thought they were supposed to obey traffic laws in the game.” As a result, they were briefly and comically mortified when they mowed down pedestrians — which was kind of the game’s selling point.
Hype was slowly building around this sex-soaked, drug-filled free-for-all, but Clifford understood that more needed to be done. When GTA programmer Brian Baglow crashed his car, the eagle-eyed publicist sniffed an opportunity to spin the news into yet another salacious headline, so he set about messaging his press contacts with the hazy outline of an idea in his mind. Before long, another U.K. tabloid, News of the World, ran a story with the title “Sick Car Game Boss Was Banned From Driving.” This final stunt almost had the game banned for good, but eventually it was released with an “18+” classification by the BBFC (British Board of Film Classification), meaning it could only be bought with an adult ID.
According to Farley, nobody anticipated the scale of the backlash. “We honestly didn’t really understand the fuss,” he tells me. “But on reflection, until that point, the vast majority of games were made for teenagers. The concept of video games as an entertainment medium that can deal with adult content was really rather new. Video games in the 1990s were like rock ‘n roll in the 1960s — the establishment fears what’s new.”
Digging up American reactions to the original Grand Theft Auto game is pretty much impossible, but the game’s satirical take on American exceptionalism, glorified violence and hyper-consumerist culture hasn’t gone unnoticed. As the sequels have kept coming, the game’s international profile has snowballed, making it one of the world’s most popular titles. In 2013, Salon ran a piece on the game’s so-called “hatred” of the U.S., which opened with the line: “Gamers collectively paid $800 million and waited in hours-long queues this Tuesday, all to buy a video game that calls them assholes.” In the r/AskAnAmerican subreddit, users joke about the game’s satire. Far from being offended, they lean into the game’s shit-talking takes on U.S. culture. “Rockstar actually had a hotline where people could call in and rant about what they thought was wrong with America,” one user claims. “That became a radio station in GTA 4.”
The franchise might be beloved now, but what about the original? Surely the gameplay lived up to the hype? At the time, arguably yes. The aerial shots, basic graphics and straightforward plot can’t hold a candle to the expansive, real-world experiences of later games, but Grand Theft Auto had balls. “I think it’s fair to say the game stands up on its own merits,” continues Farley. “It didn’t need the controversy to get people to buy it — although there’s no doubt that it helped! — but the fun gameplay, freedom and innovation kept players’ engagement for the long term. It all helped to spread the word virally that GTA was something special beyond the hype.”
As for co-creators Mike Dailly and David Jones, they’ve given Clifford the credit for the game’s success, which was astronomical. Following its late 1997 release, the original Grand Theft Auto sold three million copies in its first three years alone. “Max made it all happen,” they told The Sunday Times back in 2012. “He designed all the outcry, which pretty much guaranteed MPs would get involved. He told us how he would play [the campaign], who he would target, what those people targeted would say,” they continued. “Every word he said came true.”
In the years immediately following Grand Theft Auto’s release, other game developers tried — and often failed — to mimic Clifford’s strategies. In 2000, a largely-forgotten shooter game named Daikatana led its campaign with the “edgy” slogan: “John Romero’s About to Make You His Bitch. Suck It Down.” In 2002, the marketing team of racing game Burnout 2 offered to pay the speeding tickets of drivers in the U.K. if they went over the national limit, a stunt which, needless to say, was poorly received. Tabloids lapped up these sensationalist stories like catnip, following the breadcrumb trail that Clifford left for other controversy-minded marketing teams.
Decades later, headlines were being written about Clifford himself. Entire documentaries have documented his bullying tactics, numerous assaults and blatant infidelity, aided heavily by recordings leaked by his biographer, Angela Levin. To say she’s not fond of Clifford would be an understatement — when I reach out for an interview about the “book she worked on” with Clifford, Read All About It, she replies: “Just for the record, I didn’t work with Max on the book. I wrote it all. He just had his name on the cover to sell more copies.” He doesn’t exactly come off well in the book, either — he speaks without guilt about fucking countless women while his wife was battling terminal lung cancer — but he still splashed his face across the cover, promoting it as a seedy tell-all. I ask Kushner if he’s surprised by Clifford’s reputational nosedive, to which he replies: “Not really. He played fast and loose, so it’s not surprising it all caught up with him.”
Clifford may be long gone, but his penchant for controversy has colored the game’s development over the last few decades. Since 1997, subsequent versions of Grand Theft Auto have deliberately courted more notoriety. In Grand Theft Auto III, developers added the option to solicit sex workers, mow them down and steal your money back. The follow-up, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, drew the ire of Cuban and Haitian communities due to the storyline inclusion of a Cuban-Haitian gang war. San Andreas came with a buried “hot coffee” modification, an intended in-joke that allowed players to virtually bone in the game, and finally, in 2008, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) campaigned against the added ability to drive drunk in Grand Theft Auto IV.
He may have been a real-life skeeze, but Clifford’s decision to lean into scandal laid the foundation for one of the most gloriously divisive franchises in gaming history. Tongue-in-cheek, shit-talking missions and a wry sense of humor already set Grand Theft Auto apart, but Clifford’s sprinkling of shit-stirring headlines enabled future developers to be as crazy, wacky and explicit as they liked. For better or worse, it was his willingness to scrape the bottom of the barrel of morality that’s made the history of video games a much more wild ride.