A decade ago, Rockstar Games was trying to be funny. Starting in February 2001, all the way to October 18, just before the most important game release in their company's history, they were trying to make people laugh about Grand Theft Auto III. They did it with a fake online newspaper chronicling the lunacy of Liberty City, the setting for the then-upcoming game. This was Rockstar's Onion or Colbert Report and it mostly hit the mark.
A lot of the jokes hold up. Others are a time capsule of a Rockstar that we haven't seen in a long time.
Fake GTA news started hitting the web in February on a website called the Liberty Tree. You can still view it. The archives of the Tree are still live on Rockstar's site, though they're ill-fitted for modern browsers and require that you allow pop-ups if you want to enjoy the Tree's excellent joke ads.
Sometimes the Tree ran stories that were really promoting the game's signature features, like this article, that was the first to run in the paper...
Others stories were obviously written to have some fun explaining things that weren't in the game...
The Tree was stuffed with jokes. In fact, the very design of the paper was a joke, from the asinine Liberty Tree slogan "Tomorrow's News Today" to the navigation bar that showed that the paper included sections for News, TV Listings, Horoscopes, Classifieds and even Gratuitous Violence.
Sometimes the jokes fell flat as they reached for relevance...
Some were absurdly lewd, calling back to the kind of sex jokes that seemed targeted at the 14-year-old boy in all of us—the kind of humour Rockstar seems to have been drifting from in the last several years...
It's striking how many of Rockstar's targets a decade ago are still worthy targets today (their don't ask/don't tell joke seen atop this story, for example). In an immigration piece, Rockstar's reporters are both promoting a possible character in their game but having fun with America's tolerance for possibly-illegal foreigners. The three-paragraph story ends with this bit:
"This guy is clearly bad news" said Ray Mathers, Head of Immigration at Francis International. "He couldn't even show us where he was from on a map. What kind of idiot can't find where they live on a map? We don't need his kind in our country, thank you very much."
They hit bad weight-loss scams squarely with a fake ad that comes very close to the satirical pitch in the GTA games:
They also ran this excellent ad for a web-game called Pogo. Through the fake review quotes you can feel Rockstar's scorn for video game critics who would blindly praise the cuter video games out there. Remember, in 2001, darker, edgier games were not dominant and in pushing the limits of violence, sexuality and general rebellious attitude, Rockstar had fewer allies and less widespread acceptance.
A decade since the October 22, 2001 release of Grand Theft Auto III Rockstar's old jokes still have bite. That's a credit to what they accomplished. Amid all the controversy back then of what was possible in the game (and what wasn't possible, even though the critics said it was), the idea was mostly lost on the general public that GTA was good, smart satire. A read of The Liberty Tree is a reminder of how clever Rockstar could be — and occasionally how juvenile they could be, too.
On the eve of the release of the first trailer for Grand Theft Auto V, for those looking to experience vintage Rockstar, The Liberty Tree is worth a read.
Liberty Tree [Rockstar Games]