A Story From The Growth Of Rockstar’s Agent


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

“And I will always remember, whoever it was on the decision from the Embassy simply actually mentioned, ‘Are you guys silly?'” Gigliotti tells me in a latest interview. “‘No matter possessed you to suppose 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 saved listening to about this Cairo story, however by no means from anybody straight concerned. It was all the time in fragments – somebody vaguely remembered one thing about pornography fees or points with the police – however by no means something full sufficient to publish. In latest calls with Gigliotti and senior setting artist Joe Sanabria, I lastly heard the complete story. It’s a narrative a couple of small group 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 best way.

The entire ordeal begins in Carlsbad, CA, at Rockstar San Diego’s workplace. It begins with the group on Agent not with 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 around the globe. 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 concept was to have one set in Cairo.

When researching the town, nevertheless, the group at San Diego got here up towards one large downside: As Gigliotti and Sanabria inform it, that they had bother discovering any usable reference pictures of Cairo. Wanting up satellite tv for pc pictures of the 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 may go as much as a constructing and take an image of it with a digital digicam after which use that picture as a texture map,” Gigliotti says.

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

Sanabria oversaw planning the journey, researching areas the group 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 setting artist William Kidwell. This was the plan: They’d fly out, spend round two weeks exploring Cairo taking footage, after which come house and put all of it within the recreation. To assist them get round, drivers had been employed who served as transportation and translation, offering normal information in regards to the metropolis, too. Simple plan, proper?

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

In his analysis, Sanabria says he learn warnings in regards to 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 group had making an attempt to make its Cairo degree in San Diego, they determined it was value taking their probabilities.

“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, properly, some individuals 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 difficulty. We simply will not take photographs of presidency buildings, and we needs to be high quality. It is the remainder of the town that must be photographed, so there’s a lot to do.'”

Cairo, Egypt

As soon as in Cairo, a couple of half-hour drive from the pyramids in Giza, the group was arrange on the InterContinental Lodge on the financial institution of the Nile River, which runs via the town. Despite the fact that the group was small, they rented two vans so they might cut up into two teams as wanted, protecting 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 best way. 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 bought an early begin,” Sanabria says. “Begin strolling round on foot and simply primarily blanket a neighborhood. We might have two individuals for every group, two or three. Every considered one of us would have a digicam, and considered one of 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 with 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 with 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. “‘Folks pay hundreds and hundreds of {dollars} for this sort of expertise. We’re doing it for work.” Different experiences he brings up are smoking hookah with their tour guides and driving camels so the group might see the pyramids from the desert at evening, 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 group was operating up towards the precise factor they’d been warned about. In truth, it’s nonetheless unlawful to take photographs of sure buildings, individuals, and automobiles in Egypt. Because the legislation states, “Pictures of, or close to, army official installations is strictly prohibited. […] Don’t {photograph} officers with out their consent.” There are circumstances of journalists and vacationers being accosted, shot, and sentenced to jail for taking photographs in Egypt. A number of instances throughout their journey, the group 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 major road, 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 mentioned that they need us to drag the movie out and go away instantly … You already know, these are digital cameras, so I used to be like, ‘There is no movie, it is a digital digicam.” And so they 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 isn’t any movie. Right here.’ So I confirmed them the picture. The man says like, ‘Effectively, 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 critical encounter got here to a head with one other group member. Like Sanabria, when an Egyptian official seen the group taking photographs out within the metropolis, they, too, stopped to query the group, talking via their information. When a group member made a remark, the Egyptian official proceeded to shove their gun into the ribs of that developer because the dialog grew to become heated, Sanabria and Gigliotti recall. We weren’t in a position to decide which member of the group 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. 

Photograph Credit score: Joseph Sanabria

Joseph Sanabria and William Kidwell taking reference photographs 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 group was in Cairo, they had been spending upwards of 12 to 16 hours with their tour guides. They’d even assist the group sneakily take photographs in a manner 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’d simply preserve strolling,” Sanabria says. “But when it was clear there was no checkpoint, then we’d go and take photographs.” As the 2 events bought extra snug with one another, Sanabria says their guides started opening as much as them in regards to the police in Cairo – particularly a few of the risks the journey was placing them in.

“Ultimately 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 recognize, it is not unusual for the police to seize somebody in the course of the evening and interrogate them. Not as a result of they know one thing, it is simply just because they may know one thing. So primarily 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 taking place, however within the hopes that they may hear one thing within the backseat. They’re most likely the perfect supply of data that they will get ahold of. So if it means torturing any person for an evening, they usually would possibly get some data, properly, they will try this. And it’s normal follow.

“Lastly, you recognize, after a couple of days, that is primarily what occurred. They did not torture our driver, however they grabbed him in the course of the evening to query him [about] what we’re doing and what’s been taking place. After that questioning, quickly thereafter, that is once 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 virtually a decade earlier than the Egyptian Revolution, a two-week protest the place tens of millions marched towards, amongst different issues, elevated police brutality and Egypt’s then-president Hosni Mubarak. Talking about his time in Cairo, Sanabria likens the town to Cuba or the now-dissolved USSR.

“I bear in mind pondering, ‘Oh s—, what did we get ourselves into?” Gigliotti, who was again house in San Diego, says when he heard in regards to the state of affairs in Cairo.

Uncertain of what to do, Gigliotti bought on the cellphone with individuals on the U.S. Embassy, who had been dumbfounded to listen to what the group was as much as.

The Eagle

The Eagle

As Sanabria tells it, the story the group in Cairo heard whereas caught of their resort was that with a view 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 photographs of presidency buildings is unlawful, strolling round Cairo and taking footage of its landmarks isn’t. Tourism is an integral a part of Egypt’s financial system, and snapping photographs of the pyramids isn’t going to land somebody in jail. Like a variety of cities, the vacationer hotspots in Cairo are solely a small a part of the general metropolis, however it’s the place vacationers primarily persist with. Within the case of the Rockstar builders, nevertheless, since they had been researching the completely different districts of Cairo, they had been venturing far past the place vacationers normally go and capturing photographs of every part round them. Contemplating that terrorist assaults on vacationers have been an issue in Egypt for many years, it is sensible {that a} bunch of Individuals strolling round elements of Cairo that vacationers by no means go would elevate 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 house a pair days earlier than the remainder of the group. 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 mentioned, ‘Look, we have obtained a tip that you just guys are within the nation filming pornography,'” Sanabria recollects. “‘We have to see the photographs you have been taking. We have to see your laptop computer.'”

After all, Rockstar had not been in Cairo taking pictures pornography. However the reality remained the identical: They had been now being investigated for it (the possession and distribution of porn is unlawful in Egypt).

“At that time we knew, okay, we doubtlessly could be in bother as a result of we hadn’t taken something that was unlawful, however we had taken at that time most likely 12,000 photographs,” Sanabria says. If any of their photographs contained something unlawful, even by chance, the group was potential jail time.

Photograph Credit score: Joseph Sanabria

The pyramids of Giza at evening

An ocean aside and never figuring out precisely what to do on this state of affairs, Gigliotti referred to as the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. After strolling them via the state of affairs, he needed to face the onerous reality that there wasn’t a ton the Embassy might do for them at that second. If the builders had damaged the legislation, they’d damaged the legislation – even when they did not comprehend 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 state of affairs.

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

“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, ‘Effectively, 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 best way to detain these artwork guys was to principally trump up pretend fees that they had been Western pornographers and that they might confiscate their digital gear. I will always remember, the man from the Embassy mentioned, ‘In the event that they obtain one even remotely soiled image on any a type of laptops, that is a capital offense.’ And that is when it was not humorous, proper?”

As Sanabria recollects, the previous couple of days in Cairo had been tense. To ensure their journey wasn’t in useless, he FedEx’d burnt DVDs with the photographs the group 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, via customs, on a airplane, and at last house.

“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 state of affairs. We knew we had been making an attempt to get one thing performed, it was necessary, the entire group was relying on us. However on the identical 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 group began on their manner, 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 photographs of feminine reproductive organs on it. Whereas not pornographic given the context, this revelation didn’t assist anybody’s nerves.

“Primarily he had photographs 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 fearful, it is like, ‘Are they gonna suppose 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 group 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 manner house, who would then name and inform the U.S. Embassy.

The group left their resort, 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.

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

“I mentioned, ‘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 aid, they bought on the airplane, took their seats, after which the airplane took off. The group exhaled. And Sanabria referred to as Gigliotti. “And in order quickly as they gave the okay that you may use the telephones, that is after 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 choose it up and it is considered one of 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 group lastly made it again to California, protected and sound. How or why the Egyptian authorities determined to not pursue the potential fees is anybody’s guess. As Gigliotti tells it, the group was planning an identical 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 group making Agent, a recreation 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 group 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 mum or dad firm, had deserted its trademark for Agent.

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

“Just a few 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 group, like, we had gone via lots, simply with the loopy hours, the demos that we might put collectively. After which this journey I suppose in a manner, we type of proved to all people that we had been actually dedicated [to] making the perfect video games we might, you recognize? With that journey behind us, we had been like, ‘Okay, we have type of demonstrated that we’re critical about what we’re doing.’ However then on the identical time, too, we had been additionally a bit sensible within the sense that, ‘Okay, we’re critical 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 suppose, ‘Ah, God, what had been we pondering?'” Gigliotti displays. “However I will let you know, what we had been pondering was – you recognize while you hear about, like, film administrators? You’ve got heard the story about Apocalypse Now, proper? The filming of it and the way all people 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 critical on the time. Despite the fact that perhaps from an out of doors perspective it seems silly and foolish, we felt like we had been like that. We had been that critical in regards to the authenticity we needed to convey.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *