A Story From The Growth Of Rockstar’s Agent


Throughout the growth of Rockstar’s now long-missing spy sport Agent, Rockstar San Diego venture chief Luis Gigliotti needed to do one thing far exterior his typical job description: Name the USA Embassy in Cairo, Egypt. He wanted assist. A small staff of artists – his fellow coworkers at Rockstar – had been being held below home arrest in Cairo. Not solely that, however the Egyptian authorities had been additionally making an attempt to pin the group with false costs of capturing pornography – a criminal offense within the nation. He wanted help in getting them residence secure.

“And I will always remember, whoever it was on the decision from the Embassy simply actually stated, ‘Are you guys silly?'” Gigliotti tells me in a latest interview. “‘No matter possessed you to assume this was a good suggestion?'”

In 2019, for Polygon, I reported on the event of Agent, speaking to builders at Rockstar San Diego who labored on an early model of the sport earlier than it was moved to Rockstar North. Throughout that course of, I stored listening to about this Cairo story, however by no means from anybody instantly concerned. It was at all times in fragments – somebody vaguely remembered one thing about pornography costs or points with the police – however by no means something full sufficient to publish. In latest calls with Gigliotti and senior atmosphere artist Joe Sanabria, I lastly heard the total story. It’s a narrative a few small staff of artists who had been despatched to seize some reference materials for a online game however ended up in the course of a small worldwide disaster – with machine weapons to the ribs and daring escapes alongside the way in which.

The entire ordeal begins in Carlsbad, CA, at Rockstar San Diego’s workplace. It begins with the staff on Agent not having the ability to discover what it is on the lookout for.



Throughout its growth at Rockstar San Diego within the early 2000s, Agent was set in numerous cities world wide. There was Washington, D.C., which might be an open-world hub just like the settings of many different Rockstar video games. On high of the open world had been smaller, extra linear ranges. The thought was to have one set in Cairo.

When researching town, nonetheless, the staff at San Diego got here up in opposition to one large downside: As Gigliotti and Sanabria inform it, that they had hassle discovering any usable reference pictures of Cairo. Wanting up satellite tv for pc pictures of town to construct maps turned up no outcomes, both. The answer, they thought, was easy: In the event that they could not discover pictures on-line, they might go to Cairo themselves and take their very own footage. “You gotta bear in mind, that is again within the day when you might go as much as a constructing and take an image of it with a digital digital camera after which use that picture as a texture map,” Gigliotti says.

Moreover, really going to Cairo themselves was a time-saver for the venture. As Sanabria tells it, despite the fact that it was going to be costly to ship a staff to Egypt, the time it’d save in growth was sufficient to justify the funding.

Sanabria oversaw planning the journey, researching places the staff wanted to {photograph} and what gear they need to convey with them. Becoming a member of him was Agent’s artwork director Charles Morrow, lead artist Darrell Gallagher, and fellow atmosphere artist William Kidwell. This was the plan: They’d fly out, spend round two weeks exploring Cairo taking footage, after which come residence and put all of it within the sport. To assist them get round, drivers had been employed who served as transportation and translation, offering common data concerning the metropolis, too. Simple plan, proper?

“Properly, there is a purpose why you could not get satellite tv for pc imagery of Cairo,” Gigliotti says, laughing.

In his analysis, Sanabria says he learn warnings concerning the authorized problems with taking footage in and round Cairo – tales of individuals being arrested or having their cameras confiscated for unknowingly taking footage of presidency buildings or officers. However given all of the roadblocks the staff had making an attempt to make its Cairo degree in San Diego, they determined it was value taking their possibilities.

“I imply, it wasn’t a negotiable factor so far as saying, like, ‘We’re not going to do this location, we’re gonna do one thing else,'” Sanabria says. “In the long run, it simply appeared like, ‘Okay, effectively, some folks have warned about it.’ However I suppose it wasn’t apparent, at the moment, that it was that excessive … It is like, ‘Yeah, it is a problem. We simply will not take images of presidency buildings, and we needs to be fantastic. It is the remainder of town that must be photographed, so there’s a lot to do.'”

Cairo, Egypt

As soon as in Cairo, a few half-hour drive from the pyramids in Giza, the staff was arrange on the InterContinental Lodge on the financial institution of the Nile River, which runs by way of town. Despite the fact that the staff was small, they rented two vans so they might break up into two teams as wanted, masking extra floor. Together with their drivers, the builders would go round Cairo, getting a really feel for the completely different neighborhoods, streets, buildings, and layouts, taking upwards of 12,000 footage alongside the way in which. At dinner, they’d go over their footage, assessing the place to go subsequent and what they wanted to hit the next morning.

“Each morning we received an early begin,” Sanabria says. “Begin strolling round on foot and simply basically blanket a neighborhood. We would have two folks for every group, two or three. Every one in all us would have a digital camera, and one in all us would shoot one facet of the road and the opposite one would shoot the opposite facet of the road.”

On the one hand, Sanabria says it was thrilling having the ability to go to Egypt for work, seeing and exploring one of many world’s oldest cities on Rockstar’s dime. One particular second he recollects is having access to one of many tombs within the strip subsequent to the pyramids and having the ability to {photograph} and see the traditional hieroglyphics all by himself. “It is the type of factor that you just see, like, Josh Gates go into,” he says, referencing the travel-show host. “‘Individuals pay hundreds and hundreds of {dollars} for this type of expertise. We’re doing it for work.” Different experiences he brings up are smoking hookah with their tour guides and using camels so the staff may see the pyramids from the desert at night time, one thing he captured a photograph of that he nonetheless shares on social media to recollect the second.

Then again, all through the journey, the staff was working up in opposition to the precise factor they’d been warned about. The truth is, it’s nonetheless unlawful to take images of sure buildings, folks, and autos in Egypt. Because the regulation states, “Pictures of, or close to, navy official installations is strictly prohibited. […] Don’t {photograph} officers with out their consent.” There are instances of journalists and vacationers being accosted, shot, and sentenced to jail for taking images in Egypt. A number of occasions throughout their journey, the staff from Rockstar was stopped and questioned by police, which as Sanabria recollects, had been positioned at each main intersection within the metropolis.

“One encounter that I had, I used to be taking a photograph close to a essential avenue, and all of the sudden their model of secret police got here out and had been yelling at me, however I could not perceive what they had been saying,” Sanabria says. “Our man stated that they need us to drag the movie out and depart instantly … , these are digital cameras, so I used to be like, ‘There is no movie, it is a digital digital camera.” They usually had been like, ‘Simply take the movie out, we do not care.’ And so I used to be making an attempt to indicate them, it is like, ‘It is digital, there is not any movie. Right here.’ So I confirmed them the photograph. The man says like, ‘Properly, simply inform them you are deleting it.’ I used to be like, ‘Yeah, see, I am deleting it. It is not there anymore.'”

A extra severe encounter got here to a head with one other staff member. Like Sanabria, when an Egyptian official observed the staff taking images out within the metropolis, they, too, stopped to query the group, talking by way of their information. When a staff member made a remark, the Egyptian official proceeded to shove their gun into the ribs of that developer because the dialog turned heated, Sanabria and Gigliotti recall. We weren’t capable of decide which member of the staff this was, although, as we heard two completely different solutions. Morrow, Gallagher, and Kidwell didn’t reply to our interview requests. Rockstar declined to remark for this text. 

Picture Credit score: Joseph Sanabria

Joseph Sanabria and William Kidwell taking reference images in Cairo, Egypt

For all intents and functions, this run-in with police served because the second issues began getting extra dire for the Rockstar builders. “They ended up taking the ID of that tour information and advised him, ‘If there’s any occasion that occurs within the subsequent few weeks, we are going to know who to go search for,'” Sanabria says.

Over the course of the 2 weeks that the staff was in Cairo, they had been spending upwards of 12 to 16 hours with their tour guides. They’d even assist the staff sneakily take images in a approach that will hopefully keep away from police suspicion. “What we’d do is we’d have the tour information stroll up a block prematurely, and if he noticed one thing, he would give us a sign, type of give us the look that was like, ‘No, not right here,’ and we might simply maintain strolling,” Sanabria says. “But when it was clear there was no checkpoint, then we’d go and take images.” As the 2 events received extra snug with one another, Sanabria says their guides started opening as much as them concerning the police in Cairo – particularly among the risks the journey was placing them in.

“Finally they begin speaking about how the police conduct themselves within the metropolis and what does that imply for them,” Sanabria says. “One of many issues they had been speaking about was, you understand, it is not unusual for the police to seize somebody in the course of the night time and interrogate them. Not as a result of they know one thing, it is simply just because they may know one thing. So basically what they do is they aim the cab drivers. As a result of it is not that they’re concerned with … the questionable ongoings that is occurring, however within the hopes that they may hear one thing within the backseat. They’re in all probability one of the best supply of knowledge that they will get ahold of. So if it means torturing any individual for an evening, they usually would possibly get some info, effectively, they will do this. And it’s normal apply.

“Lastly, you understand, after a couple of days, that is basically what occurred. They did not torture our driver, however they grabbed him in the course of the night time to query him [about] what we’re doing and what’s been occurring. After that questioning, quickly thereafter, that is after they advised us, like, ‘You guys aren’t allowed to go away your rooms anymore.'”

One factor to notice about this journey is that it was nearly a decade earlier than the Egyptian Revolution, a two-week protest the place tens of millions marched in opposition to, amongst different issues, elevated police brutality and Egypt’s then-president Hosni Mubarak. Talking about his time in Cairo, Sanabria likens town to Cuba or the now-dissolved USSR.

“I bear in mind considering, ‘Oh s—, what did we get ourselves into?” Gigliotti, who was again residence in San Diego, says when he heard concerning the scenario in Cairo.

Not sure of what to do, Gigliotti received on the cellphone with folks on the U.S. Embassy, who had been dumbfounded to listen to what the staff was as much as.

The Eagle

The Eagle

As Sanabria tells it, the story the staff in Cairo heard whereas caught of their lodge was that to be able to do what they had been doing, they wanted to be escorted by armed guards, which in addition they wanted paperwork for. They clearly had neither of these items, and they also had been barred from leaving the InterContinental for the previous couple of days of the journey.

Whereas taking images of presidency buildings is against the law, strolling round Cairo and taking footage of its landmarks is just not. Tourism is an integral a part of Egypt’s economic system, and snapping images of the pyramids is just not going to land somebody in jail. Like a number of cities, the vacationer hotspots in Cairo are solely a small a part of the general metropolis, however it’s the place vacationers primarily follow. Within the case of the Rockstar builders, nonetheless, since they had been researching the completely different districts of Cairo, they had been venturing far past the place vacationers normally go and capturing images of every thing round them. Contemplating that terrorist assaults on vacationers have been an issue in Egypt for many years, it is smart {that a} bunch of People strolling round components of Cairo that vacationers by no means go would increase eyebrows – if solely out of concern for his or her security.

What makes much less sense is what occurred when Darrell Gallagher needed to fly residence a pair days earlier than the remainder of the staff. As soon as on the airport, ready in his terminal, as Sanabria recollects, Gallagher was grabbed by native authorities and pulled right into a room for questioning. “They maintain the airplane, they usually stated, ‘Look, we have acquired a tip that you just guys are within the nation filming pornography,'” Sanabria recollects. “‘We have to see the images you have been taking. We have to see your laptop computer.'”

After all, Rockstar had not been in Cairo capturing pornography. However the truth remained the identical: They had been now being investigated for it (the possession and distribution of porn is against the law in Egypt).

“At that time we knew, okay, we probably may be in hassle as a result of we hadn’t taken something that was unlawful, however we had taken at that time in all probability 12,000 images,” Sanabria says. If any of their images contained something unlawful, even accidentally, the staff was potential jail time.

Picture Credit score: Joseph Sanabria

The pyramids of Giza at night time

An ocean aside and never understanding precisely what to do on this scenario, Gigliotti referred to as the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. After strolling them by way of the scenario, he needed to face the arduous fact that there wasn’t a ton the Embassy may do for them at that second. If the builders had damaged the regulation, they’d damaged the regulation – even when they did not understand it.

“[Gigliotti] finally ends up getting related to the top of safety on the Embassy,” Sanabria says. “He is like, ‘Okay, clarify to me what is going on on and why they’re there.’ So he explains to him the entire scenario.

“He is like, ‘So that they’re taking images?’

“He is like, ‘Sure.’

“He is like, ‘Oh my God.'”

“I am like, ‘Oh, you do not perceive. We make video video games,'” Gigliotti says. “We’re simply making an attempt to get texture maps for our cool online game demo!’ The man was like, ‘Properly, I am sorry, but when your guys get arrested, they might get in deep trouble.’ What occurred was, he advised me that the Egyptian authorities had determined that the way in which to detain these artwork guys was to principally trump up faux costs that they had been Western pornographers and that they might confiscate their digital tools. I will always remember, the man from the Embassy stated, ‘In the event that they obtain one even remotely soiled image on any a kind of laptops, that is a capital offense.’ And that is when it was now not humorous, proper?”

As Sanabria recollects, the previous couple of days in Cairo had been tense. To verify their journey wasn’t in useless, he FedEx’d burnt DVDs with the images the staff had taken again to the studio in California, ensuring to delete something questionable, solely sending footage of “the pyramids, the museum, stuff like that.” After which the group ready to attempt to get themselves to the airport, by way of customs, on a airplane, and at last residence.

“I did not sleep for more often than not I used to be there,” Sanabria recollects. “I might simply be up on a regular basis. Simply because it was such a high-stress scenario. We knew we had been making an attempt to get one thing performed, it was necessary, the entire staff was relying on us. However on the similar time, like, it is a online game. It is not like a ‘We’re doing this to save lots of lives’ type of factor.”

Earlier than the staff began on their approach, there was one final challenge: the contents of Morrow’s laptop computer. Extra particularly, the contents of Morrow’s father’s work laptop computer, which he had borrowed for the journey. Morrow’s father was a gynecological oncologist, Sanabria says, and so his laptop computer had images of feminine reproductive organs on it. Whereas not pornographic given the context, this revelation didn’t assist anybody’s nerves.

“Basically he had images of girls’s vaginas as a part of his medical research,” Sanabria says, laughing. “Charles was like, ‘I can not delete these items, that is my father’s work.’ However he was frightened, it is like, ‘Are they gonna assume that is pornography?’ He was actually freaking out.”

Early within the morning on the day they had been to go away, with little to no sleep, the staff ready themselves to go to the airport. The plan was: As soon as their airplane took off, Sanabria would name Gigliotti to substantiate they had been on their approach residence, who would then name and inform the U.S. Embassy.

The staff left their lodge, made it to the airport, after which lastly arrived at their terminal. After which they waited for one thing to occur or not occur. They placed on their poker faces and tried to play it cool, Sanabria says.

“Probably the most anxious half was ready within the terminal, as a result of we knew that is after they grabbed Darrell simply earlier than they had been boarding,” Sanabria remembers.

“I stated, ‘Name me while you’re in your seat on the airplane and the airplane’s taking off,'” Gigliotti recollects. “I will always remember that cellphone name.”

To everybody’s reduction, they received on the airplane, took their seats, after which the airplane took off. The staff exhaled. And Sanabria referred to as Gigliotti. “And in order quickly as they gave the okay that you might use the telephones, that is once I referred to as Luis,” he says. “I advised him, ‘The eagle has lifted.'”

“We’re all on the workplace, like 45 of us on pins and needles, and the cellphone rings,” Gigliotti says. “I decide it up and it is one in all my artwork leads and he simply goes, ‘We made it. We’re on the runway, we’re taking off.’ We simply cheered.”

Apocalypse Now And Then

Apocalypse Now And Then

After an alcohol-filled layover in England to have fun their escape, the staff lastly made it again to California, secure and sound. How or why the Egyptian authorities determined to not pursue the potential costs is anybody’s guess. As Gigliotti tells it, the staff was planning an analogous reference journey to St. Petersburg, Russia, on the time. After Cairo, they canceled that one. “‘Let’s not go to Russia and do the identical factor,’ proper?” he says.

Whereas there’s a sure poetry to the event staff making Agent, a sport about spies, getting caught up in a small worldwide disaster, their work on the sport by no means reached gamers; Rockstar North took over Agent’s growth when the staff at Rockstar San Diego was moved over to growing the primary Crimson Lifeless Redemption. Nevertheless, Rockstar North’s model of the sport, which was introduced in 2009, additionally by no means launched. As of 2018, Take-Two, Rockstar’s guardian firm, had deserted its trademark for Agent.

Regardless, the journey had an impact on the individuals who had been there. If something, based on Sanabria, it proved how far they had been prepared to go for his or her video games. It additionally proved how far they weren’t prepared to go.

“A number of of us, we ended up beginning a studio referred to as Concrete Video games after that,” Sanabria says, referencing the studio Gigliotti and different former Rockstar San Diego builders fashioned after leaving the corporate throughout Agent’s growth. “In order a staff, like, we had gone by way of loads, simply with the loopy hours, the demos that we would put collectively. After which this journey I suppose in a approach, we type of proved to everyone that we had been actually dedicated [to] making one of the best video games we may, you understand? With that journey behind us, we had been like, ‘Okay, we have type of demonstrated that we’re severe about what we’re doing.’ However then on the similar time, too, we had been additionally a bit sensible within the sense that, ‘Okay, we’re severe however we additionally must be balanced.’ As a result of on the finish of the day, like, these are simply video video games.”

“The issues that we did again then, I look again now and assume, ‘Ah, God, what had been we considering?'” Gigliotti displays. “However I will inform you, what we had been considering was – you understand while you hear about, like, film administrators? You have heard the story about Apocalypse Now, proper? The filming of it and the way everyone was on location and Francis Ford Coppola was like, ‘No, we’ll reside within the jungle.’ That is what it felt like for us. We took what we did so lethal severe on the time. Despite the fact that perhaps from an outdoor perspective it appears silly and foolish, we felt like we had been like that. We had been that severe concerning the authenticity we wished to convey.”

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