Videogame creators firmly believe that their work will someday become the dominant form of entertainment in the 21st century. So why isn't their message as original as their medium? The vast majority of story-oriented games shamelessly rip off the same set of sources as though they were the Gospels: "Aliens," "Saving Private Ryan," "Band of Brothers," "Black Hawk Down," "The Lord of the Rings" and Dungeons & Dragons. It's as if every Western game designer were cloned from the same DNA; indeed, a recent survey of game creators in English-speaking countries found that the overwhelming majority are straight white males (average age: 31).
The one company that consistently avoids this trap is Rockstar Games. Best known for its controversial hit franchise Grand Theft Auto, the New York City-based publisher is headed by a trio of British expatriates who draw inspiration not from the heroic side of Americana, but from its outlaw side--mob movies, pulp novels, gangsta rap, '80s cop shows and spaghetti Westerns. For its latest trick, Rockstar recently released The Warriors, based on the 1979 urban gang movie, and Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories, which brings its sprawling epic to Sony's PlayStation Portable. "I remember when Rockstar was nothing," says Andrew McNamara, editor in chief of Game Informer magazine. "They came to us and said, 'We're going to build a company around pop culture and youth culture.' We were like, 'Yeah, right.' And they went out and executed on every front." So well, in fact, that Rockstar has even managed to set trends for the larger culture. A year prior to the 2001 movie "The Fast and the Furious," and long before MTV pimped its first ride, Rockstar released Midnight Club, a driving game that replaced exotic cars like Ferraris with souped-up tuner cars, taking racing off the track and onto the streets. Since then, numerous publishers have followed suit with street-racing titles of their own. "We try to take stuff that hasn't been explored yet, and if others choose to follow, that's their business," says Dan Houser, the company's creative leader.
By tapping into pop culture and underground trends instead of the increasingly sclerotic game culture, the company has been rewarded with three of the industry's five best-selling console games, according to the NPD Group, with a billion dollars in worldwide revenue. Few expect its new Mature-rated titles, The Warriors and GTA: Liberty City Stories, to match the company's unprecedented prior commercial successes, and with good reason: the former is based on a cult film, and the latter is being released only for the 11-month-old PSP. But it's clear that creatively, Rockstar remains at the top of its game, making clever artistic choices that define this emerging medium. The movie version of The Warriors takes place over a single night during 90 minutes of screen time; the developers chose to expand it by setting the bulk of the action during the summer that leads up to the events of that fateful night, showing how each of the Warriors came to join the titular gang. As for the gameplay, senior producer Jeronimo Barrera took the "brawler" genre--2-D fighting games like Double Dragon that had become passe--and spectacularly reinvented it by incorporating advances from its more recent titles, most notably the ability to give orders to one's fellow gang members. "You don't just run in and start punching," says Barrera. "We approached it as a sports game, like Madden, where you're running plays." The result is an ominous, thrilling experience that deftly recreates the mood of the movie.
As for GTA: Liberty City Stories, Rockstar has managed to reproduce the massive living city of Grand Theft Auto 3 on Sony's diminutive PSP. Fans loved the Mafia aspect of GTA3 so much that Rockstar chose to return to its Manhattan-inspired setting of Liberty City. The twist is that the game is set in 1998, between the end of GTA San Andreas, which took place in the early '90s, and GTA3, set in 2001. By doing so, the developers show off how much they've improved in making games in the genre that they pioneered. "Our characters now have three dimensions to their personalities, as well as their appearance," says Houser. "Players are pushed through the game by their desire to unlock new features, and they're pulled through the game by the story. The story is a function of the game. But if the game isn't fun, they're going to put it down and do something else." Uh, no need to worry about that, Dan. The game's mission-based structure is surprisingly well suited to a handheld. And fans of the previous game will feel a sense of deja vu as they drive through the mean streets of Liberty City, listening to period music and talk-radio stations that play up America's premillennial tension.
Not everyone will be happy to be on the other end of Rockstar's holiday one-two punch. The company is still facing a Federal Trade Commission investigation as a result of this summer's "Hot Coffee" fiasco, where a sexually themed mini-game was discovered hidden away in-side the code for GTA: San Andreas. But Sony, which has been looking for a killer app for its nascent PSP, may have found it in GTA: Liberty City Stories. "Our users are going to be older and more mature, and this game fits right into that market," says PlayStation senior VP Riley Rus-sell, citing the game's multiplayer features, a first for the GTA franchise. Drive-by meets Wi-Fi--sounds like a winning combination.