We're less than two weeks away from the retail release of Rockstar's latest installment in the Grand Theft Auto series, Vice City. Like the previous entry in the series, Vice City will toss some humor out there to counterbalance the serious nature of much of the crime-based gameplay. Fans of GTAIII will remember that much of the game's great sense of humor came from its wide variety of radio stations, complete with hilarious commercials for amusing products. But none packed in the laughs quite as tightly as Chatterbox, the game's talk radio station. Vice City will contain two different talk radio stations, K Chat and Vice City Public Radio. To learn about how Chatterbox came to be and what the new talk radio stations will be all about, we sat down with the minds behind GTAIII's Chatterbox, Dan Houser and Lazlow.
GameSpot: How effective do you feel talk radio is as a means of adding local color to the gameplay experience?
Dan Houser: Well, it adds very little in terms of conventional gameplay, in that you don't interact with it in any way, but it helps enormously in giving the city a sense of life and character and helping to make people fully understand that the gameworlds we are creating--Liberty City or Vice City--are not meant to be taken entirely seriously but do have depth. It also really helps people believe that the city exists on its own, independent of whether you are there or not. That this is a world, not just a game level, and you are entering it.
Lazlow: It definitely makes it a more immersive experience. One of the things about radio is that 95 percent of your listeners never call in. The 5 percent who do call in are often on the fringe, so when listening you say, "This planet is insane!" We took that and bumped it up a notch. The radio in Grand Theft Auto, to me, is icing on the cake of a phenomenal gameplay experience.
GS: What sort of feedback did you get on Chatterbox?
DH: The hardest audiences are the guys at Rockstar in Scotland and New York. All of them are merciless. When we finished Chatterbox we thought it might be a little abstract and too much for some people, but everyone seemed to like it and understand that it really helped bring the city to life and help set the tone for the game.
L: I got flooded with e-mail about Chatterbox. I still do. Dan and I wrote Chatterbox and the music stations as a parody of radio in the United States. People who work in radio e-mailed me happy that there is finally a spoof of what has happened to radio in this country. I get a lot of people saying they would jack a car and then just drive around listening to the radio, or even pull over and sit for an hour listening.
GS: Were there talk radio stations in the Grand Theft Auto games previous to Grand Theft Auto III? If not, why did you decide to do it with that game? It seems like a creative risk that paid off, but a risk nonetheless.
DH: I honestly can't remember why we thought a talk station was a good idea. Someone--either Terry, Sam, or Craig Conner at Rockstar North or me--just added a talk station to the list of radio stations we were putting into Grand Theft Auto III. There hadn't been one in any previous Grand Theft Auto, but the idea of radio stations you could change, depending on which vehicle you were in, has been there since Grand Theft Auto, and got better with each game. The franchise has always been well known both for the quality of the music and the implementation--making a soundtrack part of the city, not above it. With Grand Theft Auto III, we were trying to make audio that supported a 3D city--to make a big leap on the music and all the audio as the game made going from 2D in Grand Theft Auto 2 to 3D. Thanks to the fact we're now on DVD, we had the opportunity to make the audio much bigger and more memorable. That said, with the rest of the radio, even the commercials, we were just developing ideas that had already been there and making it more lifelike. I'd work with Terry and the audio crew in Scotland--Craig, Alan, and Stewart--and we'd figure out how to make it work within the limitations of the game. And then Lazlow [and I] would make assets and send them to Craig, and he'd combine it all together. With Chatterbox, we were trying to see if we could make people enjoy listening to talk radio in a video game about being a gangster and have that station feed into and help add detail to being a gangster. All I really remember from writing and recording it is being asked all the time, "Is this complete rubbish?" as the dialogue got more and more absurd, but it all seemed to sort of work in the end, as we figured out how to tie it into the game and use it to make things seem more real and more ridiculous at the same time.
The Road to Talk Radio
GS: So what is different about the talk radio in Vice City?
L: It's a lot longer, for one. There's about three times as much talk radio in Vice City compared with Grand Theft Auto III. And we decided to take on other genres of radio, specifically public radio and panel discussion shows.
DH: Our aim across the whole of Vice City was better, bigger, more detailed, and more diverse. This is something you'll see across all of the game, the radio and the talk radio. We've moved from one station, Chatterbox, to two, Vice City Public Radio and K Chat. Chatterbox was a completely unstructured phone-in show. The two stations this time are a bit more themed--celebrity interviews and phone-in on K Chat, and a public radio panel show on VCPR. We wanted to get a good contrast between the two shows. One is people arguing violently amongst each other in a typical public radio debate and the other is celebrities and people with things to sell being interviewed by a moron. Unfortunately, Lazlow was already busy on the rock station, so we found someone else. We didn't want to do more Chatterbox, because it would be boring--we always want to surprise people with something new--and because we couldn't have Lazlow host Chatterbox in the '80s when he was on the rock station.
GS: How is the dialogue written? Who comes up with all the chat?
L: Dan and I would meet every week and write and develop characters and write the lines and try to make it as funny as we could.
GS: Where do the commercials come from?
L: Dan pretty much has a concept of where he wants to take the radio, and once we lay out that plan, we come up with ideas for products and services. Over the course of several months, we [flesh out] ideas and scripts.
DH: The commercials take the longest amount of time to produce, and each one is its own idea, so the commercials are the first to be started and the last to be finished. In Grand Theft Auto III it was easy--we'd just write them from watching TV our whole lives and turn on the TV when we ran out of ideas. For Vice City, it was harder, because we had to research 1980s commercials, watching hours of TV and listening to old radio commercials. Because we wanted the commercials in general to be funnier and have a lot more music, we were going to need a lot more of them, so they didn't get repetitive. Stylistically, commercials were a bit different then. Singing was really popular, so we put in some singing commercials. Then we just talked about funny '80s things--the commercials and the radio in general are a really good way of putting people playing the game into the '80s. The types of products, the production style, and the things everyone is interested and worried about help people playing the game get into the fact it is set a few years ago.
GS: So Lazlow is hosting the rock station in Vice City. Who are the new talk radio hosts?
DH: Yes, Lazlow is on the rock show. So fans of his can still enjoy listening to him. The rest of us have been saved the awful prospect of Lazlow on two stations at once. Vice City Public Radio is hosted by Maurice Chavez, a man who believes he is on the way to the top of investigative journalism, thanks to his hard-hitting debate show, Pressing Issues. Chavez is on his way to the top only insofar as he used to be at the very bottom, and he's rebuilding his life after failing to make his way in children's entertainment. K Chat, Vice City's best celebrity interview show, is hosted by Amy Sheckenhausen, a girl who makes your average Valley girl look like Albert Einstein. She's faced with the task of interviewing anyone from an ardent feminist intellectual to a rock star to a former football star on the comeback trail. Luckily, if or when she gets confused, she can always ask, "Who's on the phones?" and get members of the general public to help her out.
GS: Thanks for your time, guys.