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GTA is America "viewed only through movies and advertising"

Rockstar's Dan Houser on media, celebrity, and overcoming indifference


With the 10th anniversary of Grand Theft Auto III on the horizon, Rockstar recently invited us to its New York office to sit down with Dan Houser, one of the co-writers of GTAIII, to talk about the legacy of this seminal open-world action game. The result is a fascinating interview in which Houser describes the game's tepid prerelease reaction from the public, explains why they no longer use celebrity voice actors, and discusses a number of other topics. It's also a gargantuan 4,000-word story, so for those of you who'd rather get straight to the choice quotes, we've got you covered:

On the cool response at E3 2001:

"The early part of showing people the game--including E3 2001--was disconcerting because it was incredibly underwhelming … There was enormous excitement around a few other games coming that fall. We went to E3 and everyone was obsessed by State of Emergency, and no one gave a crap really about GTA III … But E3, I think, isn't the best place to show a game anyway, and that's definitely become solidified in our thinking since then."

GTAIII's legacy has been a substantial one.
GTAIII's legacy has been a substantial one.

On the challenge of moving GTA into a 3D world:

"To begin with we were like, this is going to be easy! We'll just take GTA--which was probably a stronger game than GTA2 vibe-wise--fix the bits we didn't like, make it in 3D, and we're done. Which was probably the most naive idea we've ever had."

On moving away from the silent protagonist:

"Once we realized that the stories could be and were as interesting as we hoped, we realized the next step was that the protagonist was going to have to speak. Even by the end of III, he wasn't just an everyman, and he had a personality. He just didn't speak! So that was a little bit disingenuous."

On celebrity voice actors:

"For the PS2-era games, we were aspiring to something that felt like you were in your own movie or your own TV show. Now we're able to get things that feel a bit beyond that, and having the famous people really distracts you."

On games being taken seriously by the mainstream:

"It's still a young, young medium. I don't think in 1925 or 1930 or whenever movies were the equivalent age to where games are now people were taking movies anywhere near as seriously to where people are taking games right now. You can't expect games to have the same cultural cachet as an established medium because that's not how things work."

Rockstar has never shied away from controversy.
Rockstar has never shied away from controversy.

On GTA's representation of American culture:

"The whole thing is meant to be America as if it's the way it's presented in the media. And it's still the case now. It might be done in a slightly more nuanced and different way now, but that's still what the gameworld is supposed to be like--this prism of America as if viewed only through movies and advertising."

On the difference between "sandbox" and "open-world":

"To us, it's more sandbox has this idea of throwing things in without any sense of choice over what's going in there, while we were carefully picking features and controlling the experience in a particular way. It wasn't this total freeform experience."

On why they never made a GTA movie:

"We didn't make a GTA movie for a reason, and the choice was ours. We probably could have got most people to do it, but we had no interest in doing it. One of the points about GTA was, it was the first time where if you thought about moving it into cinema, you were condensing it, not expanding it. It wasn't like how do you find all the things you put into the film? It was how do you streamline this into a cinematic experience? That's something where we never figured out the answer to the question."

Click here to read the full Dan Houser interview.

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