Rockstar Games' Red Dead Redemption married the company's peerless open-world game design with the Old West to spectacular results earlier this year. Since the game's release, Rockstar has released an assortment of downloadable content packs that have enhanced the game's competitive and cooperative multiplayer modes. The latest DLC, Undead Nightmare, is due for release on October 26 and promises a change of pace from what has come before. The upcoming content pack features an all-new single-player experience focused around main character John Marston's handling of a zombie plague that's wreaking havoc. We picked the brains of the VP of creative at Rockstar, Dan Houser, about the upcoming content pack to find out how you drop zombies in the Old West.
GameSpot: One of Red Dead Redemption's biggest strengths was its instantly relatable story of one man trying to reunite with his family. It's probably fair to say that a zombie outbreak doesn't carry that same real-world familiarity. Why the decision to move in a more fantastical direction with Undead Nightmare?
Dan Houser: Personally, I spend far too little time racing around the country on a horse killing former business associates, so I don't know how much of Marston's story I could relate to in that way. Finding something that people can relate to is vital in any "quest"-type story, whatever the setting. The challenge with red Dead Redemption, from a narrative standpoint was to take the myths and motifs of the Wild West and arrange them in a way that felt like they did resonate with a contemporary audience, while still being very much part of the Wild West tradition, and one of the key ways we did that was, as you say, through Marston's family.
With Undead Nightmare, we have long wanted to find a way to make zombies interesting, and one of the ways that we thought we could do that was by putting zombies into an existing universe, so the player gets to see how characters they already know respond to the madness of a zombie outbreak. This is, we believe, more interesting than creating a world that people do not know and using it purely for zombies. So, the fantastical direction was something we wanted to impose on an existing nonfantastical world, and because of their shared American cinematic heritage, the beautiful landscape, and our love for the character set, we felt Red Dead was a perfect candidate for that. And, as this adventure comes together, we are really pleased with the results: zombies obviously add a new dimension to the world, and at the same time, the familiar world of Red Dead Redemption adds something from a narrative perspective to a zombie experience. It gives it context and depth it would otherwise lack.
GS: Compared to the frequently irreverent world of Grand Theft Auto, Red Dead felt a lot more straight-laced and consistently serious (though we did get some of that eccentricity with characters like Seth and Irish). Was that much of an influence on the decision to go a little more "out there" with this DLC? A creative change of pace, so to speak?
DH: That's an interesting question. We definitely take the tone of a game very seriously. For Red Dead, the goal was not particularly seriousness, but to make a Western that was not cheesy or camp, as Westerns have a habit of becoming cheesy or camp if played remotely for laughs. We wanted a game that had some humor in it, however, and I hope we managed that. Certainly, at the end of the game, we liked the characters and the mood of the world, and wanted to make more content for it. But I think as to why we chose to do a zombie game for Red Dead not GTA, the answer is a combination of factors--partly mechanical (we love the shooting mechanic and dead eye in Red Dead, and zombies lend themselves well to a world of dead eye headshots!), partly environmental (we wanted to see zombies running over the plains--it feels like a 1970s horror film), and partly narrative--for whatever ludicrous reason, it felt and still feels right using John Marston as a zombie hunter more than, say, Niko or CJ. Why that should be the case, it is hard to know, but it is. We wanted the gameworld to feel like a 1970s movie set in which by day people shot a serious revisionist Western, and by night some maniacs invaded the studio and filmed a somewhat insane horror movie using the same sets and cast.
GS: A lot of people are probably wondering how Undead Nightmare fits into the overall narrative of Red Dead Redemption. Should we read this as Red Dead canon, or more of an alternate reality or dream sequence scenario? Can you explain the reasoning behind that decision?
DH: The Undead Nightmare story takes place during the "home" period of the main game, while John is trying to rebuild his ranch but before the end of the game--a period that we imagined took several months. (If you've played the game to the end, please don't put spoilers in the comments.) You play Undead Nightmare as John, and it is an entirely stand-alone game that runs separately from Red Dead Redemption's main story and not part of any Red Dead Redemption canon, if such a thing exists. Red Dead Revolver is also its own universe, but the world of Red Dead Redemption was always meant to be a world in which the myths and realities of the American frontier collide. As for whether it's literally a nightmare or not--you are going to have to play the game and find out for yourself.
GS: What were the lessons you learned from The Lost and Damned and The Ballad of Gay Tony that you applied to this first proper single-player expansion of Red Dead?
DH: The underlying goal with both The Lost and Damned and The Ballad of Gay Tony was to make two games that felt very different from each other and from the main GTA4 experience--that changed the gameplay experience as much as possible, while providing different, intersecting narratives. We still believe in that approach; i.e. a story should be entirely separate, with overlap perhaps but not a direct continuation of a game's story, and the mechanics should be altered as much as possible to provide a new gameplay experience. We just used that same philosophy to do very different things this time (make a different genre of game within a world the player already knows), to turn a Western into a survival horror game. DLC and game expansions remain very much areas of experimentation for us, but we have enjoyed working both the interlinked urban narrative approach in GTA and the "change the world" approach for Red Dead.
GS: On the subject of those earlier expansions, why did you elect to stick with John Marston as the protagonist instead of shifting the focus to a previously minor character? Is that still something you're aiming to do with future Red Dead DLC?
DH: Without wishing to go into story spoiler territory here, because we loved John Marston as a character. And because, as I mentioned above, we felt a zombie plague was most interesting when imposed on a known world, a world and character set the player is already familiar with. At the moment, we are solely focused on Undead Nightmare.
GS: The world of zombie fiction spans a pretty wide gulf, from the humorous (Shaun of the Dead) to the legitimately scary (28 Days Later). Tell us about the type of tone and atmosphere you guys ultimately settled on with Undead Nightmare and how you arrived there.
DH: It's difficult because zombies are inherently ridiculous, but they also have to be frightening or the game would be very boring, so we tried to find a tone that was legitimately terrifying at times and somewhat silly or self-aware at other times. Again, using the character set and landscape from Red Dead Redemption made both easier. Using known characters gives you a shorthand for both humor and fear as players already know about the characters and their relationships and helps us mine them for satire, social commentary, or pathos, while the American countryside and its landscape is as much part of horror iconography as it is for the Wild West.
GS: Red Dead was a terrific hit on all fronts, but the Internet wouldn't be the Internet without some criticism of the game. How much did postrelease feedback on Red Dead factor into the development of Undead Nightmare?
DH: Not that much in the case of this pack. We used the other DLC to put into the game things people felt were missing (like minigames into free roam, for example) or title updates to fix bugs and make smaller changes. As a result of fan feedback, we will be releasing a title update at the time of release that lets all players play multiplayer free roam without friendly fire, should they wish. But of all the various bits of feedback we saw online, I don't think we ever saw the phrase "what this game is missing is the super natural," and that is part of what attracted us--it simply was not what people expected, and we felt we could make something that was interesting for us and would be very fun for fans. An open-world zombie game that we could sell for 10 dollars, and that we felt really transformed and enhanced the single-player experience in an interesting way.
GS: Thanks for your time.