'Grand Theft Auto III' anniversary: Co-creator Dan Houser speaks!
On October 22, 2001, everything we ever thought we understood about videogames changed. Gamers were looking ahead to the oncoming arrival of the next generation of consoles. Nintendo was one month away from the North American release of the GameCube, an adorable candy-colored travesty that would usher in a half-decade in the cultural wilderness. Microsoft — still the Evil Empire in those simpler, bygone days — was going to release its own system the same week: A brutal tank-like abomination called the Xbox, which came equipped with a controller that looked like a blunt instrument used by cavemen to crush mammoth skulls.
Sony had already released its own next-generation console one year earlier. The device was called the PlayStation 2. It would become the best-selling videogame console in history. It would initiate a massive shift in how the culture thought about videogames, and how videogame players thought about themselves. And if you want to pinpoint a specific moment when the industry began that massive shift, you could do worse than pointing to October 22, 2001, when Rockstar Games released Grand Theft Auto III into stores.
GTA III was a showcase for the powerhouse PS2. Earlier games in the series were fun, prankishly rude ditties; you played a criminal, and observed the gridlike world from an omniscient, top-down perspective. GTA III created an entire three-dimensional world, setting you at ground level in a city that could be freely explored. It wasn’t the first game to combine different genres into one, but the component parts of GTA III‘s gameplay were well integrated: it was a driving game, a third-person shooter, an RPG-inflected adventure, a crime thriller. The Casual Gamer — a primordial notion, five years pre-Wii — probably thought that GTA III was less a single videogame than an entire entertainment system unto itself.
GTA III kickstarted whole host of changes in the videogame industry. Along with Halo: Combat Evolved, released in November 2001 as an Xbox launch title, it’s a central to the paradigm shift in the early ’00s that transformed videogames either into “a legitimately cool and important cultural force” or “that annoyingly fashionable Hot New Thing that meant Lindsay Lohan attended the launch party of Saints Row The Third” — depending on your perspective. (I’ll never forget watching The O.C. and noticing that Seth Cohen had a Rockstar Games poster up in his bedroom.)
But the most impressive thing about the decade since GTA III was released is the amazing run it kickstarted at Rockstar Games. The developer has continually evolved the GTA III system in madcap new directions. GTA: Vice City practically created the neverending ’80s revival. GTA: San Andreas expanded the open-world experience to a fanatical extent, rebuilding a bizarro-California with Fake Las Vegas thrown in for kicks. (If it’s possible for one of the best-selling games ever to be considered underrated, then I’d say San Andreas counts: The game’s gonzo cocktail of gangster street grit and jetpack absurdity makes it one of videogamery’s great weird entertainments.)
But the GTA series was never just about technological leaps. GTA IV brought branching narratives to the franchise, and also starred its most endearing protagonist: Eastern European immigrant Niko Bellic. And last year’s Red Dead Redemption suggested an entirely new stage in the Rockstar open-world experiment. It was set in a sparse, almost meditative landscape, where GTA always preferred urban environments; it was elegiac, even ruminative, a far cry from the glitzy snark of Vice City; and it featured one of the great endings in videogame narrative history.
Dan Houser — Vice President of Creative at Rockstar Games — has taken central roles in the development of all the games in the GTA series since GTA III, along with his brother, Sam. (Dan is actually credited as a writer or co-writer on every GTA game since II, as well as Red Dead and the prep-school curio Bully.) However, in conversation, Houser is quick to describe all the games as a team effort. “I think one of the reasons, hopefully, that Grand Theft Auto is still innovative and interesting,” he tells EW, “is that it’s it’s still got the same executive producer, producer, writer, art director, lead programmer, audio guys, and a bunch of other guys that have been on it since III, and then a bunch more that came on for Vice. We’ve always worked well together.”
Houser sat down with EW recently to talk about the creation of GTA 3, and the conversation quickly spiraled into a freewheeling discussion about the nature of world-building, the growing possibilities of open-world storytelling in the last decade, the development of the series from GTA III onwards, and the potential next stage of videogame evolution.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Going into Grand Theft Auto III, how did the knowledge that the gameplay was going to evolve from the top-down perspective into this whole new 3-D environment affect your ambitions for the game’s storyline?
DAN HOUSER: As we were making GTA III, new problems would constantly present themselves. Not problems, but challenges.On the story side, one of our main challenges was that the top-down games had had really no narrative at all. They’d been based around the idea of freedom. You could do what you wanted, when you wanted. We wanted to keep that idea of freedom and expand on that, and also put in what could be seen to be a somewhat contradictory idea, which was narrative.
The real challenge was figuring out a way to structure the game that combined freedom — freedom to do seemingly anything at any time, to do a mission, not do a mission, to do something else, to work multiple storylines at once — but also have some kind of coherent narrative that brought it all together.
All of Rockstar’s open-world games graft the non-linearity of the gameplay onto one overarching plotline. In Vice City, it’s the rise of Tommy Vercetti. In Red Dead, it’s John Marston’s quest to save his family. Would you ever want to do a GTA more in the style of Fallout, where the player can go in any number of different directions, and there’s not necessarily that single overarching plotline as a backbone?
The differences between us and a Fallout are not that pronounced. GTA started out as an action-adventure game. Games like that started out as RPGs. But if you looked at them now — where they all ended up — to a layperson, the differences are much less profound than the similarities.
But in terms of your core question, that’s sort of an interesting dilemma. You’re constantly balancing freedom, the ability for people to generate stuff themselves. Making it too complicated takes it away from a large part of the audience. People also love narrative, and removing strong narrative removes a lot of their guidance through the game. The sense of accomplishment, the sense of finality with the game: That is important.
It’s interesting to see how that storytelling has developed. The main character of GTA III doesn’t speak — he doesn’t even have a name. Vice City‘s Tommy Vercetti has a shady past. San Andreas‘ CJ has a whole family unit.
You try not to make the stories always the same “Rise and Fall and Rise Again of a Superhero Bad Guy.” We try to make it more nuanced and interesting than that. In Grand Theft Auto III, we had so many problems to solve. No one had ever streamed in data for disc. No one had ever done motion-capture cutscenes in the way we were doing them. No one had ever had this seamlessness between the modes. In those days you had a driving game or a shooting game. If you had a level-based game, you might have a driving level and a shooting level. And we were suddenly saying it was all of this. All of these genres were gonna be combined in a completely seamless way.
We had so many things that we were doing for the first time in that game, that we had no kind of rulebook to follow. The way we were trying to tell the story — to give you the sense of being in this world yourself — it just seemed simpler to say, “Well, he’s not going to speak, everyone else will speak to him.” Partly, because of the way that we were doing animation, we didn’t know if we could have more than one person speak! It was so limited. No on had ever done stuff that people now take for granted. It was brand new then.
In GTA III, you begin in the lower-class corner of Liberty City, a kind of Brooklyn/Queens area. Over the course of the game, you expand into the Manhattan-ish downtown, and then finally into the wealthy suburbs. When did you hit on that as the progression for the game?
That Liberty City was not particularly meant to be New York. That was meant to be a hybrid of a generic American city: Chicago, Pittsburgh, Detroit, New York, Philly. An old, post-industrial American city. [GTA III] was America, whereas Vice City was clearly Miami.
In terms of flow, you wanted to start out feeling poor and work to being richer. That made logical sense. You also wanted to start in the underworld, so it had to be the roughest, ramshackle bit of the map. Rundown docks, that kind of stuff. And then, if you’re gonna meet rich guys and gang bosses, they were gonna be suburban, or in the downtown high-rises. That made sense for later in the game.
We always wanted to end with that big suburban scene around the dam, which obviously doesn’t fit into any particular movie, but seemed like it would be a kind of iconic way to end the game.
I have a purely technical question: What’s the initial process of putting these games together? Does it start with you and your co-writers drafting out a structure? Is there one single room somewhere where it springs out of from?
The beginning thought is the place, and the time period. Which will really be a conversation between Sam, myself, Leslie Benzies, who’s the producer, and Aaron Garbut, who’s the art director. We’ll start discussing some broad ideas for the protagonist: He’s gonna be a gang kid, he’s gonna be an older guy who just got out of prison, he’s gonna be white, black, Yugoslavian, whatever it might be. Just sort of loose ideas for that.
From there, we’ll begin working on a story outline, a feature set, and some early missions, all at the same time. The story and the missions are the same thing, hopefully, by the time the game comes out. The missions tell the story, and the story shows off the features that the missions unlock. The combination of the cutscene and the action moves the story forward. The next bit of story unlocks the next core mechanic for you to play with. The experience of playing the game is also the same as going through the story. They’re not separate things.
The rest of it — the games are sort of big. There’s so many bits you have to be working on at once. You get the map guys working as soon as humanly possible, because the design guys can’t really do anything till there’s bits of map made to do it in. You have to work everything in parallel. Map-building, interior-building, character-building, writing, game design, animation: You want them all moving as soon as possible.
Thinking about how massive San Andreas was — I can’t imagine how many hours I spent playing it, but probably several dozen — is there any point where you’re looking at an actual massive script for a game like that? Or is it a more fluid process?
Mercifully, it’s sufficiently ramshackle-slash-organized in some abstract way, that we’re not looking at a massive pile of script. We did print out the script for GTA IV. I’m a bad record-keeper, so for once I wanted to print out all the scripts and keep them somewhere. It piled up about five feet high. Maybe more. The pedestrians, there’s thousands of pages just of them, and they’ve each got ten pages each just to speak. Even the main game script — just the missions and the cutscenes and the bits of mission dialogue for the main game — is thousands of pages long. Again, it helps to bite it off in chunks. We want it to feel integrated between design and story. You want to know what’s going to be fun about each mission. We want to really show off this rocket launcher in GTA III. [In Vice City], you want to show off a speedboat, a helicopter.
Looking at how the storytelling evolved in the Rockstar games after GTA III, Vice City and San Andreas feel to me like they’re a little bit more satirical. Then you get to GTA IV and Red Dead, and the storytelling seems to adopt a more realistic, even tragic note. Is that evolution something that’s been on your guys’ minds?
I think Red Dead’s a little bit different, because we wanted it to have its own tone. You still wanted to cast a somewhat knowing look at society at that time, because it would be odd not to. It’s still kind of the birth of consumer culture and that kind of stuff, it’s quite interesting to look at in the periphery of the game. The theme of what we were trying to explore in the game, I guess, was what it meant to be an outlaw in the days [when] outlaws were coming to an end. So that is probably [in] it’s nature [a] sort of tragic, somewhat romantic concept. You can’t make too cynical. It still hopefully had some humor in there.
In some ways, San Andreas was stepping into that direction as well. With GTA IV, I still think that it’s more than Red Dead, it’s still halfway between a tragedy and a black comedy. The world is still comic. [Niko’s] naïveté — he’s a tough guy, but equally sort of country bumpkin naïveté — is in some ways comic and in some ways tragic.
[MASSIVE SPOILER AHEAD FOR RED DEAD REDEMPTION. Click here for the next page]
In Red Dead Redemption, the average person plays the main story game for dozens of hours. One of protagonist John Marston’s main goals is to build a better life for his son — to ensure his son isn’t an outlaw, like him. And then, in the end, Marston is killed, and the player takes control of Jack, who becomes an outlaw like his father! Was that always the plan? Or did it come later in the development process?
It’s sort of back to that discussion we were having earlier, about the challenge of balancing story in an open world game. Mentally, the game is a series of mechanics. I can ride, I can shoot, I can speak to people. The gamble — and the argument, and the sort of complex thing for us to follow through on — was to kill John Marston. We figured, it’s gonna annoy people, but it’s gonna annoy people in the way that they want to be annoyed: They just don’t really realize it. It’s gonna make the experience have a lot more weight. It’s gonna make the whole theme of the game make sense.
From a technical standpoint, what do you do with all the stuff you haven’t done? Well, you’ll carry those on as the son. But then the son’s all wrapped up in them. He’s essentially become the father. Maybe that’s the point.
There’s a quality of wish-fulfillment to all these games. In GTA III, you get to fire a rocket launcher and run red lights. In Vice City, you’re flying around in a military helicopter and waving a chainsaw. But then you get to the final act of Red Dead Redemption, where you have a series of very spare missions, teaching your son very basic things like hunting and cattle-ranching. How do you balance these games between letting players be demi-gods and forcing them to operate within a realistic world?
There’s no intrinsic reason why pressing a button to make someone sweep a floor should be more or less boring than pressing a button to make someone fly a helicopter. It’s still a mechanic. We look upon it as: If you make the peripheral stuff — the characterization, the dialogue — interesting, you can make seemingly the most boring mechanic fun. Making Table Tennis was a huge technical challenge, but also really fun.
You can make anything fun, or anything boring. Particularly in the high-definition era, it may be more about making random things seem fun, and putting a weird variety of things in there. Games aren’t supposed to be reality. They’re supposed to be the reality if reality was what you see on TV, and listen to, and how advertising is. It’s the reality of the media, not the reality of the reality.
You’ve brought that up before — the notion that the GTA games are examinations of consumerism and the media. Was that always present in the conception of the Grand Theft Auto series? That they were kind of a Paul Verhoeven-esque cockeyed look at the American media system?
It’s completely in the DNA of what the games are. At one level, the games were, and still are, homages to crime fiction in all its guises. But crime fiction is indivisible from consumerism, and images of things, and the way those things are presented, and the way those things are sold as being important. They can acquire this sort of metaphysical importance advertising gives them. The series, apart from anything, [started from ] looking at American movies and American consumerism from Britain — some British guys here, some Scottish guys in Scotland — looking at everything from the perspective of outsiders. It was about the madness of the wider American media as much as it was about the madness of American crime films.
You’ve talked a lot about Rockstar’s initial influences in creating GTA III and the other games of its generation, like crime films or Miami Vice. Is there anything you’ve read or seen on TV or on film in the last ten years that you think has equally influenced you going forward? Thinking about how the media has changed in the last decade, GTA III came out right around the time that Sopranos was opening up this notion of what TV could do.
I didn’t watch much Sopranos, because it was too similar to what we were doing. The same with The Wire and Sons of Anarchy. Everyone steals from everywhere, but you want to be bringing in random and abstract ideas from different sources, rather than something that’s treading over the exact same ground that you’re treading over.
I think in general what they’ve done with those long-form TV shows in the last 10, 12 years has made them far more interesting a storytelling medium than movies. You have the short story of the episode, and the long story of the season, and the even longer story of the whole five, ten seasons, whatever it is. I think it’s an amazing form of storytelling — putting you in a world, and letting you learn about a character — that probably is quite close to what we’re doing in the games, in some ways. The games, the length they are, are more akin to a season of a TV show than a single movie.
What kind of TV do you watch, if not the crime series?
Loads of rubbish. Of those kind of shows, my favorite is definitely Mad Men. I work in an office, and it made it seem like it was exciting. [Laughs] That was a good challenge. They took something that was nominally very boring — office life — and found a way of depicting it that’s horrific, but incredibly engaging. From a technical standpoint, I admired that, because it’s one of the challenges we set ourselves: How do we make this interesting and engaging, no matter what it is?
That’s the one major modern TV drama where there’s never really the threat of death for any of the characters.
The odd character dies in it, but no one’s getting murdered. That guy got ran over by a tractor. Even though they’re arguing about advertising contracts — which is incredibly banal at a certain level — they still make it seem like it’s life and death.
Thinking about something like Mad Men, can you conceive working on a game where the main character never holds a gun?
I think we took a big step in that direction with L.A. Noire. Obviously you did hold a gun and you were a detective, but I think the core mechanics were not the same as the core mechanics in GTA or Red Dead. We are always interested in exploring new ways of making interactivity interesting. You are still dealing with a medium which is hopefully exciting and vibrant, but still in infancy.
Games are 35 years old. Movies, when they were still 35 years old, were nowhere near as sophisticated. Admittedly, they were about to go on a ten-year golden era, but they were nowhere near as sophisticated as games are now. The evolution of games from 20, 30, 30-plus years ago is amazing. We, hopefully, are one of the companies at the vanguard of pushing that stuff forward.
At this point in movie history, sound had just been introduced. GTA III also represented a huge generational leap forward. Technologically speaking, are there any gigantic evolutionary steps, comparable to the move from 2D to 3D worlds?
I suppose A.I., when you can make the non-player characters seem even more alive than they do currently. That’s probably the biggest hurdle to making the worlds seem like they’re alive. That will be iterative. It won’t be like turning the sound on. It will be something that happens step-by-step-step. I think that’s probably the biggest single weakness in games or where games are the least lifelike. The characters all look as close to lifelike as you’re gonna need them. There’s thousands of little graphics innovations and narrative innovations and design tweaks you can do, but you’ve kind of got very interesting bare-bones there to evolve around.
The post-GTA III games show a real interest in American history that I don’t think people often associate with videogames. GTA has explored the ’90s, the ’80s, London in the ’60s. LA Noire is set in the post-war era, and Red Dead is a western. Is the long-term goal to do some full sweep of American history? Are we gonna see the Revolutionary War at some point along the way?
Pretty much any era can be made interesting. You can find interesting aspects to it, interesting things that were going on, debates that people were having, things that either resonate or appall a modern audience. That’s obviously a massive part of the pleasure of watching Mad Men. They make a world not that long ago seem barbaric in some ways, and far more sophisticated in other ways. The problem is there’s too many things we find interesting. Here, in Britain, in the world, there’s so many things you can do that would be interesting.
Looking forward with the GTA series, would you want to do another international edition? You’ve been in America since GTA III.
We go backwards and forwards on it. There are very interesting crime stories and other stories you can tell about anyplace in the world. Whether that would work with Grand Theft Auto — when so much about Grand Theft Auto is about the Americana, about the American media — is something I’m not sure about.
Are you looking to the next stage of the GTA franchise?
There is gonna be one? I don’t know. [Smiles] I know nothing about anything after Max Payne 3.
Okay, let’s get theoretical here. You’ve had the ’80s-era game, the ’90s-era game. Say you want to do a Grand Theft Auto that is set in 2001, when Grand Theft Auto III came out. How would the new game be different from GTA III? What kinds of stuff would you want to incorporate into it? What’s your vision of the early 2000s?
I think we got pretty close in some ways. We had things that seemed very important then, like absurd websites. That was just at the end of the first dotcom boom. The bust had happened in early 2000, but the Internet was still hot new news. And things like SUVs… Now, they’re completely acceptable, but that was when suddenly everyone was beginning to drive SUVs, and not worrying about their fuel bills anymore. That was a big issue. Real estate was becoming a big issue. It really hadn’t fully kicked off in 2001.
And that was before 9/11. The game came out about six weeks after 9/11, but was set before 9/11. If my memory serves me correctly, in that particular period — apart from the stock market collapse that was then obscured by the credit bubble — there was very little pain in the world. People were still believing it was a sort of post-historical world. To mine some of that — what now seems like naiveté — you couldn’t not do that now.
When we did Liberty City Stories, that was set in ’98 or ’99, so we did a lot of pre-millennial tension: Y2K, the world’s gonna end! By 2001, that was all over. You had this optimism. But also, people were almost bored. “Democracy’s won, the economy’s gonna boom, we’ve got this amazing technology that’s gonna do incredible things.” I guess [looking back] now, things you were worried about seem stupid because they didn’t come true. And things you weren’t worried about, you should have been worried about, because they did come true. It’s been a very tumultuous decade.
Did 9/11 affect how the series evolved after GTA III? Was that part of the reason the next two games moved into the past?
No, not at all. Did it change the series? No. It just made the world we were depicting in the games seem more like the world on television. The world seemed to move more in that direction, rather than the other way around. In terms of our skills, or complete lack of skills, in depicting America — of course it changed that. Did it impact design decisions? Only in terms of things that would be overtly offensive, like planes that could fly into buildings.
[Our offices] were even further south [in Manhattan] than we are now on the day. I think we were in tune for what would be offensive or inappropriate in that bizarre period.
After its release, there was plenty of controversy surrounding the content of GTA III, and that controversy built up a few years later with San Andreas, when you had Hillary Clinton denouncing the “Hot Coffee” stuff.
Yeah, and Joe Lieberman, and a lot of them.
That all seems to have died down now, though. Do you guys miss being controversial?
I suppose the main thing is, in the intervening 10 years, maybe society has sort of collapsed. But it wasn’t our fault! Time has justified our main theory, which was: If you are completely clinically insane, you probably shouldn’t play this game, or consume any culture, or read the Bible, or do anything. However, if you were normal, the game was a completely valid form of entertainment. There was nothing ever in the games that you couldn’t see in movies, or watch on the news. That was the point of it.
We never really understood [the controversy]. I think that certain people like to vilify convenient enemies, and maybe some of those people have found that their traditional enemies were robust at defeating them — or generous at funding them. So they turned on to some new people, and they particularly focused on videogames, and that rap music. It didn’t really prove a massive winner for them, and they were eventually forced to move on. Whether it will come back to us or not, who knows?
It was games, and it was movies, and it was comics. Maybe everyone has their turn of destroying society, and society rumbles on. Or maybe gets better.
Grand Theft Auto III and all these games are massive, and you’ve described them as a real team effort. But are there any parts of these games that — for you personally, or you and your brother — feel particularly autobiographical?
I hope not. Hopefully it’s all a product of a wonderful communal imagination. The only one that really springs to mind is a character in Bully that was completely this kid I went to school with. The kid Gary, the nasty little bully, the main antagonist. He was exactly a kid I was at junior school with.
I have to tell you, there are some theories online about your connection to Bully. Specifically, that you seem to bear a slight resemblance to the main character.
No, no, I don’t think so. The guy that was doing the character designs [on Bully] couldn’t get the [Jimmy Hopkins, the main character of Bully] right. Then we got Ian McQue, who does the character designs and concept work on GTA. He just did Jimmy in an evening. That young, British, kind of early ‘80s thug look, but moved to America. He worked well, because he looked rough, but he looked like he wasn’t a bad guy. You wanted this guy who could be tough, but was good-hearted.
Not like Gary.
Who was the better-looking guy, and more charming, but really liked punishing people. One of those kids who comes from a very nasty home. There’s probably rich sadistic parents.
One last question for you: Before games like Grand Theft Auto III came along, it felt like players were fundamentally meant to see every part of the game. There were little Easter Eggs or secret levels, but that’s nothing to compare to the size of these open-world games, where even the most devoted player might not see everything. How granular do you feel like you have to get when you’re putting these worlds together? Where does the world-building stop?
I suppose we make it, then just do a bunch of passes on it, and try to find as many different forms of content that can be put in there sensibly, that will reward the player for exploring, if they’re that kind of person. And we build in to it the overall themes that we’re trying to push in the game — the ludicrousness of advertising, whatever it might be.
It’s something that’s hopefully enjoyable for people. It’s a way to experience amusing, entertaining, thought-provoking, idiotic, whatever-they-might-be little bits of content in a non-linear fashion, spread around this map and across all these ways that people are speaking: on the radio, and then in later games on the TV. It’s something that I think is interesting and potentially very powerful, but is totally unique to a game. We who make games, we’re looking for ways that games can do stuff that you can’t do in a movie, or you can’t do in a TV show, you couldn’t do in a book.
And that non-linearity is really key to that. You can actually be. It’s not just about doing the stuff — which obviously is great, working your way through the story as opposed to watching a story — but also the more passive idea of exploring this world, and just being there. Soaking up the stuff. Having your adventure in this place that doesn’t really exist. I think that’s really powerful and fun. We do as much as we have time for and can think of. We go a little bit crazy on that stuff, and are constantly trying to find new little things that people can discover.
You want it to feel like you’ve not seen everything. Like it feels like you’ll never know a city, really.
Follow Darren on Twitter: @EWDarrenFranich