Longtime series writer discusses GTA III's ongoing legacy, why he's not concerned with public outcries, and how "no one gave a crap" about the game at E3 2001.
GS: Despite the mature themes and the crime movie aesthetic that the game embraced, one of the things that really stands out about GTA III is the sense of humor. Do you think GTA gets enough credit for its satire?
DH: I hope so. I mean, it does with fans of the game. But that's the stuff that comes out slowly. You can have an opinion of it from watching someone play it for five minutes--this is mindless filth or it's brilliant, or any point between the two depending on your sensibilities. But you'd never get [the satire] until you've actually sat and played it for several hours, because that's designed to be a slow release. It's lots of little subtle touches. You're hearing it on the radio, you're hearing the way a pedestrian speaks, you're looking at a billboard--it's quite subtle stuff.
I think amongst fans of the game, some obviously don't like it, but large tracks of them love it. For us, the gangster-ness and the cynicism are intertwined. They're the same thing. 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.
"You can't expect games to have the same cultural cachet as an established medium because that's not how things work."
Taking out the humor is no more valid than taking out the carjacking. They've both changed over the years, and will continue to change, but they are what the game is. It's this kind of look at America's media culture and criminality as being somehow intertwined. Does it get credit for it? Well, the games are popular, so I think it gets some credit for it.
GS: How do you think the sense of humor and satirical elements of the game were influenced by the studio being in Scotland and your own background as an Englishman? Can you imagine how the game would be different if you were an American writing about American excess?
DH: Well, I have Lazlow who's definitely American and does a lot of [the humor] with me. And he's more cynical about it than I am. Certainly there is an element of, as you say, an outsider's look at America. But a lot of the most cynical stuff is his [laughs], so it's not exclusively that.
Going back to what I was saying before about what the game was trying to be, it wasn't trying to be reality. It was trying to be the reality of a movie world. And Britain's relationship with America is so odd because you consume so much American entertainment. To someone who grew up here it would seem incredibly banal, but it's stuff that seems exotic when you don't live here. It's set in Hollywood, which is amazing and exotic! Or it's set in New York, which is this boiling cauldron of insanity! But of course, when you actually move there you realize it's not that different from Britain and is less insane in many ways. So the whole concept of the game and the conjecture of the game was definitely based in an outsider's view of America, yes.
GS: Why do you think it is that music has become such a huge part of the GTA series since GTA III?
DH: On the most basic level, because we took it very seriously and put a lot of music into the game. We took a lot of care with the songs. We were obsessed with the music. Sam [Houser] and Craig [Conner], who did the music then and still do the music with us, they'll still bicker about every single song on every single station on every single game. It's an enormous labor of love, so I think that's probably one reason.
On a more structural level, because we found a way of doing music that was unique to the game in that the music was entirely environmental. Not only were you given a choice of what you'd listen to, but you were playing these games for so long you were slowly learning the music and falling in love with it. So the great pleasure for us was introducing songs that people hadn't heard of.
"The whole thing is meant to be America as if it's the way it's presented in the media."
People might begin by going, "I don't even want to listen to that station! I just want to listen to rock!" The rock station and the contemporary hip-hop station always get hit the most [early on], and over the course of playing the game players begin to discover all these weird bits of music we put in there and fall in love, hopefully, with some of the songs. You can look at some of the songs we've used in the games--you look at them on YouTube and realize people are going, "I first heard this music in GTA!"
GS: Looking back on GTA III now, it essentially created a new genre of games--what you might call the modern sandbox action game.
DH: We prefer the phrase "open-world" game.
GS: Why is that?
DH: We're British. We call it a "sandpit." [Laughs] What do you think the word sandbox means?
GS: Obviously, there's that association with children playing, but to me they're interchangeable. Open-world and sandbox.
DH: 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. We gave the player more freedom, but it was just controlled in another way. That's why we prefer "open-world." It's just more descriptive of what we felt we were doing.
GS: So how would you describe GTA III's legacy in terms of the open-world action game?
"…they'll still bicker about every single song on every single station on every single game."
DH: When it turned up on PS2, it created something that felt very radically new. It was this combination of an environment that was full of content that you accessed through geography as much as timeline. And now what seems incredibly obvious but at the time was incredibly progressive, but seamlessness between mechanics or modes. You were driving because you got into a car, not because you entered the driving mode. You were shooting because you pulled out a gun, not because you entered the shooting bit. You can do anything, anywhere, within reason--reason based on logic rather than mechanical limitations, if that makes sense. That's been its biggest legacy.
Games, as a medium, show off space very well. Better than a film can, better than a book can. So we used that as a strength rather than a weakness. That's definitely been a legacy of GTA III. And as you said, it made a genre--whether it's called this or called that doesn't really matter--that's one of the most vibrant genres today. It's a large section of action games. We're doing something totally different with Max Payne 3, so it's not the only kind we think is any good, but it's certainly a kind that we think is very good.
GS: It seems like one of the genres that has embraced this style most wholeheartedly is role-playing games.
DH: Yeah, I think they've become the same thing in some ways. There's a large amount converging. If you look at some of the American RPGs and what we're doing, the differences are a lot smaller now than the similarities. The difference is, we're putting role-playing elements into an action game so we came out of very tight mechanics, and they've maybe come out of more of a role-playing and stat-based system and are trying to impose [action] mechanics on top of that. Whether one approach is better than another, who's to say? But clearly from a consumer standpoint, or a philosophical standpoint, there aren't really radical differences anymore. I don't know if that's a good thing or a problem. I think it probably shows that the direction both have gone in is clearly an interesting one, because they've kind of ended up in a very similar place.
GS: When you were working on the game, did you consider GTA III an RPG?
DH: You know, we took what the genre was and tried to take it down to the most base level. We considered it an open-world action adventure game. We looked at what "open-world" meant and did that. We looked at what "action" meant and did that. And we looked at what "adventure" means--not an adventure game, but what adventure means. We wanted the game to feel like an adventure, and I guess in some ways that's what an RPG is trying to be.
In the core [essence] of a role-playing game, we want you to play the role of being a gangster in this world. We definitely wanted that. By San Andreas we put some very limited role-playing bits in there, and we still kind of include some of those under the hood now, so obviously we find that stuff very interesting.
"If you look at some of the American RPGs and what we're doing, the differences are a lot smaller now than the similarities."
We try not to get bogged down in the genre stuff, because then you'll get really obsessed by what you don't do in these genres. But what's the interesting experience? We definitely take from everywhere and try to make an overall experience that's fun and coherent.
GS: Finally, if you could pick one film director to do a Grand Theft Auto III movie, who would it be and why?
DH: 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. It was something that didn't exist in 50 different media. It was a game property, and that was something to cherish and not be embarrassed by.
So if the question is simply who do we think makes great films or has made great films and would be one that we would be most influenced by? Then, I would probably say--without putting words in other people's mouths--for me it would be Hitchcock, for Sam it would be Sam Peckinpah, and I guess a lot of people at Rockstar would go those two or Scorsese. Those are sort of all our favorite directors.
But no, we never remotely actively pursued a movie. Because we thought in games we could do something that was maybe limited in lots of ways, but in scope and ambition was beyond movies. Games are trying to, hopefully, aspire to do something that movies can't do. That's what's exciting about them. We're not trying to be like the film industry; we're trying to get past the film industry.
GS: Thanks for your time.
Thank you Houser brothers for giving us gamers a brand that pushed the gaming industry from the crossroads towards a mature form of media! Peace \m/
This game was great, mainly because at the time games didnt give you freedom. I used to spend hours just lamely running around on foot in driver 2 and having fun thinking how awesome that was. Then GTA3 came out it was the perfect game to me at the time. Now a days a game has to give you freedom and exploration for people to be happy, boundries anger people these days were 10 years ago it was still the status quo.
Good times, I remember playing this game when I I was 6. I jumped of a building, then my mum walked in as his body splat on the ground and a pool of blood poured out. I was banned for years. What a game.
Loved this game. About the time I used "the protagonist" to kill that first mob boss by barricading his car in the driveway and then setting it alight with a flamethrower, I thought "this is incredible--no game thus far has been this fun." I might have given up on games as having been too formulaic. The PS2 was just kinda boring until GTA 3 came along. And by the time I had finished San Andreas (which I believe was the holy grail of video gaming, it really was), I knew gaming was on the rise again.
Vice City had the best music and the best atmosphere, while San Andreas had the best diversions. GTA IV was a let down for me in a lot of ways because there was so little to do outside of the story. The bowling and darts and pool were okay at first but after a few hours, I was like, "where's all the fun?" It seemed like they stripped away a lot of what made GTA great in favor of a more realistic story and character. I did enjoy GTA IV. I did like Nico Bellic's story. But, looking at the series as a whole, I invested way more time into the other GTA games (that's including the first top down version on PSOne) than I did in GTA IV. I don't know, it seemed like the magic was lacking in IV.
Really hope GTA V will be more like San Andreas gameplay wise and Vice City environment wise or they could just make them HD and put then on Steam, PSN and XBL, and just make GTA in Europe. :D
I'm surprised he said nobody gave a crap at E3 because the first screenshots of the game Gamespot ever put out, i linked to my then "blog" and wrote a whole post about how this looked to me to be the game I had been waiting for all these years. I had no doubt it was gonna be a hit. I'd have been surprised if it would have turned out otherwise. While the series has evolved and in all fairness, San Andreas is the best one, at number 2 I have to put GTA III...the memories...oh...the memories.
I liked the original GTA, I never got anywhere with that game as far as missions went, I just drove around messing with the cops and doing my own thing..... I also liked GTA 2 for much the same reasons, I did try though to get through the missions and I got kinda far before the game was stolen from me Arg.... GTA III and Vice City are the best in the series, I actually beat both games with and without cheats...I liked GTA3 because it so different from the originals and it was fun, Vice City was just enjoyable in all it's eighties wannabe Miami Vice glory lol.... I liked GTASA but really I just liked the advancements in the engine and combat, I didn't care much for the missions or story, the PSP GTa's sucked, the humor was so immature I was turned off by them...... GTA4 was okay but too realistic, I like Nico a lot and I like some of the characters from the game and I do like the way combat feels but overall I can't say I enjoyed the game....
this is PURE honestly coming from me: i actually loved Grand Theft Auto III and every game after that.. what i didn't like though is the first and second GTAs because it was like looking at the game from a bird's eye view which i thought was a little bad. no disrespects to Rockstars and other who works for them because i love ROCKSTAR and when i heard that they were making another GTA, i almost did a triple backflip in my chair i was so damn excited... but i flooded my room with my own drowl though.... hahahah :)
Steam is totally capitalizing on this right now. And i couldn't say no. On topic i'm happy with the love this game got because as a young gamer of this generation i've learned to really appreciate what they've done and i really enjoy Rockstar and especially GTA as a whole. Thanks Dan!
Hah hah! an excellent interview right up until the last question- Gamespot managed to end the interview on exactly the WRONG question. Way to go, Dan Houser.
cant wait for android version, controls work for gangstar and im sure rockstar can improve upon it, i would love nothing more than to have one of my all time favourite games on my phone.............who would have thought that a few years ago.....gta 3.....on a phone.....naaaaaaaaaaaah, i remember when snake was mind bending for a phone
I heard on GTA 3 Pedestrian: I'm gonna get a gun. Pedestrian: Guns don't kill people. Pedestrian: People kill people. Pedestrian: Guns help though.
Was I the only one that could fly the dodo plane in this game. I swear everyone that I talked to about it said I was a damn fool.
"I know a place in the Red Light District where we can lay low but my hands are all messed up...so you better drive brother!"
I remember when i bought GTA3, i hadn't heard anything about it, never knew they were making a third one. Then one day in GAME, i came across it, remembered how i enjoyed playing GTA1 and bought it on impulse... Needless to say i was blown away with how much it had come on since GTA1+2. I miss times like those where a game would surprise you in ways you didn't imagine it could.
GTA III was a great game for so many reasons. But mainly for me it was a game that I enjoyed when playing it with other people, having a group of friends together taking turns at the controller and watching each other's crazy stunts, coming up with suggestions of what they could try next. Hell, even my sister loves this game. And it's all because of the freedom they gave the player within the game world. Keep on rockin' Rockstar.
Great to read Dan Houser's last comment. The idea that games should be trying to be more like movies is stupid. Games are better than movies!