GTA IV: The Background

In this week’s magazine, I write about the upcoming April 29 release of Grand Theft Auto IV in the shadow of Electronic Arts’ (ERTS) heated play for Rockstar Games parent company Take-Two Interactive (TTWO). When I met with Dan Houser, Rockstar’s co-founder, last month the news didn’t seem to have made much of an impact on the team polishing up the blockbuster go-anywhere, commit-any-crime gangster opera. Here are some additional tidbits I found interesting when I spoke to him.

BW: Having made the transition to 3D a while back, how was the transition to high-definition? DH: As many television actresses are finding out with HDTV, you suddenly need a lot more botox. It requires a lot more detail. We’ve been working for three years, almost starting from scratch. The challenge is to tone down the real world because the real world is so ridiculous.

BW: How much “bigger” is this game, if it’s possible to say? DH: It’s about 30% larger than San Andreas. There are between 700 and 800 speaking parts, with 70 named characters. It’s big.

BW: As booming commercial success puts the industry on more peoples’ radars, games are becoming a more acceptable form of media or culture. People often point at that though games are now basically bigger than films, there’s no real games criticism or cultural intuitions to distinguish the high from the low, et cetera. What do you think? DH: One recent interviewer was asking me, “is it art?” And, you know, I don’t care. It’s nice to have the freedom, not to be academicized or institutionalized. No one does that with games, and that’s freeing.

BW: In an industry with its share of nerds and geeks, why are Rockstar’s games cool? DH: What we do is basically curate a bunch of art forms. We take music, movies and drag them into a big pot. That freedom produces amazing results. Ultimately, we have no individual personal desire for fame. That stuff ruins you. Our freedom now is enormous, in a way its freedom from as many responsibilities and that allows you to do interesting things.

BW: Much has been made of the influence of movies from The Godfather to Goodfellas on previous GTA titles. What’s so appealing about these films and how have they influenced the series? DH: Well, the brilliant thing about Goodfellas, for instance, is not just the crime or the action but that the movie shows the characters living, their everyday lives. In a sense all our games do that as well, let you play as these characters. In Bully it was as a kid, in GTA as a gangster, and the same in ManHunt.

BW: So – easy question – did you succeed? DH: [Laughs] We’ve created a tight, beautiful piece of interactive experience.