The Grand Theft Auto series of video games is a rare cultural phenomenon: incredibly popular (the last version sold more than 25 million copies globally), widely condemned (by politicians like Hillary Rodham Clinton and Joseph I. Lieberman) and adored by the highbrow (Junot Díaz is a huge fan). Yet its creators at Rockstar Games have been able to shroud themselves in relative mystery for more than a decade, even after a Federal Trade Commission investigation in 2005, when copies of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas were yanked from store shelves after a fan unlocked some sexual content that had been hidden in the game’s code.
With Grand Theft Auto V, the first major title in the series in five years, coming out next spring, Rockstar seems more eager than it has been in the past to talk about itself and the maturation of its work. Rather than being inspired solely by gangster films and TV shows like “Miami Vice,” the Grand Theft Auto games now try to capture, albeit in heightened form, aspects of contemporary life. The new game, set in a fictionalized Los Angeles called Los Santos, tackles the aftermath of the credit crunch and the housing crisis for three criminals, each of whom is playable. (Previously, the games focused on a protagonist.) Yet it’s still Grand Theft Auto: In a demo version one character pours a ring of gasoline around a truck and lights it on fire.
During a recent conversation in SoHo, Dan Houser, Rockstar’s head writer and vice president for creative — as well as the brother of the studio president, Sam Houser — spoke about what he and Rockstar are trying to achieve with Grand Theft Auto V, how his Englishman-in-New-York status informs his writing, and whether he thinks the studio has changed with time. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Q. What do you want people to get out of the games that you make?
A. Obviously, we want them to be entertained. We want them to be stimulated, questioned, amused, all of the other higher and lower things one gets from entertainment.
Books tell you something, movies show you something, games let you do something. Open-world games have an enormous strength, creatively. As well as letting you do something — run around, fly a helicopter, be the hero, be the antihero, whatever — they also let you be in the world, passively. So we’ve taken some of the things the director used to control within the movie and handed it to you as the consumer of the medium.
We have a vision for what we think interactive entertainment can become, and each time we get closer to realizing those ambitions.
Q. What is that vision?
A. It’s the stuff we’re trying to realize with this game. It’s a world brought to life, in which you are able to exist and explore and have the benefits of some kind of narrative pull-through, a world that exists and doesn’t exist at the same time. We’ve made something that sort of is Los Angeles and sort of isn’t. And that’s deliberate, that it isn’t an exact replication of it. We wanted this post-crash feeling, because it works thematically in this game about bank robbers. And that seems like it’s going to endure through the next year.
Q. Do you start with a place, or with the qualities and themes you want to address?
A. The longest part of the process of making one of these games is making the world. If this wasn’t the right way to do it, which I think it probably is, anyway, just from a pure production standpoint you have to start building the world as soon as possible. We start with the place, and then the characters come out from the place.
Q. How does the new, three-character structure help you get closer to the ambitions you have for the medium?
A. Just at the conceptual level, the idea was three separate stories that you play in one game. The next bit was, let’s not have the stories intersect once or twice but have them completely interwoven. It felt like it was going to be a real narrative strength: you get to play the protagonist and the antagonist in the same story.
Q. Is it fair to say that your games are satires of American culture?
A. I think it’s fair to say that they are set in a world that is a satire of American media culture.
Q. Does your Britishness give you a perspective on this country that illuminates your satire?
A. I don’t think anyone in America really understands what growing up in Britain in the ’70s and ’80s was like. Eighty percent of the television was American. Every movie you saw was American. Even though there are all these great British pop stars, 95 percent of them sing in American accents, and they all sing in an American idiom. So there was a great love of America, and maybe some junior-partner resentments for it. But it’s a very different relationship compared to America’s contemporary relationship with Britain, where a few small things are cherry-picked and told how wonderful they are.
My brother and I have a certain perspective as people from London who then moved to New York. But the guys in Scotland at our Rockstar North studio, they have a different perspective, as people who never lived here. And then Lazlow Jones, who writes a lot of the satire with me, is a good ol’ boy from Oklahoma. The games have always been, in some ways, a British response to Americana, rather than America. But it’s not just that.
Q. You’re now 39. Has growing older changed your approach to video games?
A. In terms of whether we’re too old to be prancing around in allegorical spandex, no, I don’t think so. I suppose our reputation as a company was that we’re profoundly antisocial, histrionic and looking to be controversial. And we simply never saw it in that light. We saw ourselves as people who were obsessed by quality, obsessed by game design. I would use as Defense A the game called Rockstar Games Presents Table Tennis. For us, that was as important as any game we made, if for no other reason than showing that we could make an interesting game about anything.
Q. I hear the episode when a fan unlocked some hidden code inside Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and ended up prompting a Federal Trade Commission inquiry was traumatic for your company.
A. It’s quite hard having your in-box read by lawyers, in a country where you’re only a resident. It was a really tough time, it shook us to our core, and we found it very, very unpleasant to go through. As anyone would, being told off for stuff when you felt it was the medium you worked in that was under attack, not the nature of the content.
Q. There are people who still aren’t delighted by the treatment of women in your games.
A. Of course. But is their argument that in a game about gangsters and thugs and street life, there are prostitutes and strippers — that that is inappropriate? I don’t think we revel in the mistreatment of women at all. I just think in the world we’re representing, in Grand Theft Auto, that it’s appropriate.
Q. Are there games you play in which you think, “Oh, I’m going to steal that,” or, “I’m going to do that but do it better, do it right”?
A. Anyone who makes 3-D games who says they’ve not borrowed something from Mario or Zelda is lying — from the games on Nintendo 64, not necessarily the ones from today. But I would argue in that regard we’ve certainly been more sinned against than sinning.
Q. I think of you guys as a particularly cinematic studio.
A. I suppose what we’ve borrowed from cinema is cinematography. We haven’t borrowed a lot structurally. We’ve borrowed from TV structurally, we’ve borrowed from long-form novels structurally. Even a short game like Max Payne is 10, 12 hours long. It’s several action movies back to back, in terms of how the story works.
Q. The closest thing to Grand Theft Auto I can think of that someone is doing in a different medium is the work of David Simon, who has tried to capture cities, in “The Wire” but even more so in “Treme.” It’s quite different, but TV is similar in the sense that people spend 30, 40 hours with a show.
A. I haven’t seen “Treme.” I never even saw “The Wire.” One of my weird disciplines is that I don’t really watch a lot of those shows, if they relate to what we do. I only watched a tiny bit of “The Sopranos.” No “Boardwalk Empire.” No “Breaking Bad.” Wherever it’s too close to crime, gangster, underbelly fiction, and it’s supercontemporary, I decided, for professional reasons, I have to avoid it.
Q. At this stage in the process, what’s left to do with Grand Theft Auto V?
A. We are editing, fixing, removing, replacing, adding, avidly. It’s the equivalent of, if you wrote a book, and you had two million spelling mistakes. And you had to do them by hand, in a language you didn’t understand. But once it’s working, you can sit there and watch the world go by. I still find that magical about them. You don’t get that with anything else. The life might be fake, but it’s still the closest we’ve come to a living artwork. I think that’s the core appeal of them.