Who spilled Hot Coffee?
Not for the first time that month, Patrick Wildenborg was disoriented. With a one year-old baby in the house he was familiar with the fug of a deep sleep cut short by noise. But this awakening was different. It was prompted not by an infant’s wail but the hysteria of a telephone ringing in the night. Eyes still closed, Wildenborg lifted the receiver.
“Hello, Patrick?” The accent on the end of the line was unmistakably New Yorker. “This is Rockstar. The game developer. We want to thank you for what you’ve done.”
On 14th July 2004 Sam Houser, the president and co-founder of Rockstar Games, wrote an email to Jennifer Kolbe, the company’s operations director. At most other firms, its contents would have been considered ‘NSFW’.
“These are some examples of content that will be displayed graphically:
Full sex (multiple positions)
Dildo sex (including being able to kills [sic] someone with a dildo)
Whipping (being whipped)
Masturbation (one of the characters is compulsive; this MUST be kept)
“All of these items are displayed through cut-scenes [a "cut-scene" is a cinematic sequence during which game play stops] and in-game.”
He continued: “In [GTA: San Andreas] we are keen to include new functionality and interaction in line with the ‘vibe’ of the game. To this end, in addition to the violence and bad language, we want to include sexual content, which I understand is questionable to certain people, but pretty natural (more than violence), when you think about it and consider the fact that the game is intended for adults.”
In truth, the sort of sexual content Houser described was already in production at Rockstar North in Scotland. The team was nearing the final phase of development on the company’s forthcoming blockbuster release, a Grand Theft Auto game set in the fictional American state of San Andreas.
Rockstar’s multi-million selling series had been billed as the enfant terrible of the video games industry by media puppet master Max Clifford. But the company’s ambitions were perhaps more straightforward than the public persona suggested. Its aim was to address the darker side of modernity and all of the taboos that cinema had long explored as subject matter: organised crime, gun-running, carjacking, drug-dealing, hustling, trafficking and sex.
All this had been achieved in the company’s previous games, in particular its most recent offering, GTA: Vice City. All this, that is, bar the sex. Sex was the final frontier for video games, still a taboo subject for the medium even as it permeated Hollywood’s output. For years, Houser’s games had encouraged players to act out on-screen violence. Now, sex was the “natural” progression, as he put it to Kolbe, an essential topic for games to cover if they were to claim the creative freedom afforded literature and cinema. Obscuring sex from the world of GTA: San Andreas would be a betrayal of vision, a self-moderating disservice to the game, to the entire medium.
But Houser understood the great contradiction at the heart of Western culture: tolerance towards violence versus intolerance towards sex. Sex: the great American blush. The email to Kolbe sought her blessing as the decision about whether this proposed sexual content was permissible rested on her shoulders. But it was possibly also a way to formalise the argument in Houser’s own mind, a justification as much as a list of demands.
“I know this is a tricky area,” he concluded. “But I want to find a way for this to work.”
Patrick Wildenborg was born into a working-class family in 1969, in a small town in the eastern part of the Netherlands. In 1984 his parents bought him his first home computer, a Commodore 64. Like many 15-year-olds of the time, Wildenborg primarily used the machine to play games, but soon his interest widened to include the way games were made. With the help of books and magazines, he began writing his own software.
A hobby became an education became a vocation, and in 1995 Wildenborg graduated with a masters degree in computer science. The Dutchman met a girl who became his wife and the pair moved around the Netherlands as Wildenborg took up different contracts as a software and systems engineer. In 1999 the couple had their first child and he began to spend more time playing games as a means to relax.
“I was a casual gamer, never dedicated to a particular game or series,” he says today. “I came to Grand Theft Auto relatively late. Some time after the release of Vice City I borrowed the game from a friend. Perhaps it was the setting and the music or perhaps it was the humour and action. Whatever the reason, I found the game hugely attractive. When I finished the regular storyline I didn’t want to stop playing. So I started completing the side-missions, seeking out the hidden packages and so on. It was the first game that I completed to 100 per cent.”
It was while hunting Vice City’s myriad secrets that Wildenborg first came into contact with the game’s wider community of players. “During my quest to uncover all of the game’s secrets I started searching for information on the internet, and that’s when I came in contact with the online fan community,” he says. “They had all the information available that I needed, and on top of that, they were all crazy about the game I’d also come to love.”
As Wildenborg became friends with some of the characters in this community he found a way to combine his love of the game and his vocation. “It was around this time I discovered people made mods for GTA. With my background as software engineer I was especially fascinated by the mods that programmed new features into the game. So I started to experiment a little and try my hand at a few.”
Wildenborg’s first mod addressed one of his primary frustrations in the game – the fact your character can only store four cars in his garage. In a game filled with desirable vehicles this seemed like a cruel restriction to the rookie modder. Wildenborg’s ‘Marine Car Park Mod’ enabled the player to store 40 cars in the garage, creating a veritable parking lot of ill-gotten gains. His work was widely downloaded and its success propelled Wildenborg up the community’s social ladder. This placed him in the top tier of game modders, a group already beginning to discuss the release of San Andreas and all the opportunities for tinkering a new Grand Theft Auto would present.
Read the rest of this feature over at Eurogamer here.