Entertainment Weekly Talks with Dan Houser

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Another interview with Dan Houser about Grand Theft Auto III and the series, this time from Entertainment Weekly. The interview is quite long and delves into many aspects of the GTA series (and a little about Red Dead and Bully) straight from Dan himself. Some excerpts below...


"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.


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.


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.


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."

There's much, much more to read in the full interview here.

Thanks to our friends at Rockstar Network for finding this and join us at the Grand Theft Auto V forums!