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Stephen Bliss - Defining Rockstar

Words:

Edd Norval
April 28, 2021

Grand Theft Auto is one of the most iconic video games of all time. Known for its detail, humour, extensive narrative and controversy - the series also has one of the strongest artistic identities in entertainment. That’s thanks to Stephen Bliss.

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One of the most iconic aspects of the GTA franchise is the accompanying art - from covers to loading screens. Encapsulating all of the series’ defining characteristics, the artist’s portrait style sits somewhere between Warhol’s pop-art and 80s cult movie poster. The game is highly stylised, in the sense that it merges the gritty gangster realism of Scarface with Tarantino’s off-the-wall graphic content and scripts.


To populate such a world, you must have big characters. This goes for their other games like Bully, Red Dead Redemption and The Warriors. Each of them create a sort of ‘cult’ around the protagonists, who become instantly recognisable archetypes of a very particular set of physical and personal traits. Essentially, what you see is what you get - always with a twist. 


Thanks to the style of Bliss, this has consistently been the case across all of the Rockstar IP’s he has worked on. Being with the company from 2001 to 2016, he has played a crucial role in how GTA has transcended video game culture and become a cornerstone of contemporary culture at large, with the game being heavily referenced and influential for subsequent games, films, music and art.

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Bliss has drawn influences from a storied career in illustration. Initially working in Japan with clothing brand Hysteric Glamour, he moved onto London after four years in the East to work on comic books and commercial illustration for a plethora of brands. Creating a referential language full of dark humour and irreverence, it was through his t-shirt brand Steroids that he ended up at Rockstar.


Being developed by Rockstar North in Scotland, Grand Theft Auto 3 - the first three-dimensional entry in the series - was Bliss’ first task. Actually, his very first task, on his very first day in the office was to design the now iconic cover. From there he moved to Rockstar’s US offices to work on the following titles, Vice City, San Andreas and IV. 


With the latest edition, GTA V, becoming the second highest selling video game of all time with 140,000,000 units sold, the art style has become a cultural phenomenon, ubiquitous in the early 00s zeitgeist. It speaks volumes that Bliss has departed by this point, yet his work has been continued by Anthony Macbain and Roxie Vizcarra, artists who have put their own spin onto Bliss' characterisation.

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Up there with the most memorable film posters and album covers of all time, the artwork of Rockstar’s leading IPs, designed by Bliss, show what consistency of style can achieve across various different titles whilst remaining committed to a particular aesthetic. Rather than giving each game its own completely unique style, Rockstar became an auteur of video games. As Bliss says, he was with them when they elevated gaming to art and it's hard to imagine that could've been done without his artistic vision.

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