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Rockstar Games’ Dan Houser on Grand Theft Auto IV and Digitally Degentrifying New York

Courtesy of Rockstar Games

As we’re sure you’re aware, this week sees the release of Grand Theft Auto IV, the highly anticipated latest iteration of the popular violence-based, sandbox-style video game series. This time, the action is set in Liberty City, a living, breathing replica of New York. Dan Houser, Vice President of Rockstar Games and co-writer of GTA IV, spoke to Vulture about building a nuttier, dirtier Gotham.

So the gaming industry has changed a lot since the last GTA …
Yeah, fuck all this stuff about casual gaming. I think people still want games that are groundbreaking. The Wii is doing something totally different, which is fantastic. We’re hopefully going to prove that there’s also a very big audience for people who want entertainment in another form, who think of games as being a narrative device that can challenge movies. We always said: We’re not going release a large number of games. They’re going to have the production values of movies. They’re gonna be about themes that interest us whatever the medium, instead of the weird, special video game–only themes that too many people make — orcs and elves, or monsters, or space. We felt you could make a good game and have it be about something we could actually relate to. Or aspire to.

When it comes to designing New York, where do you even start? With the map?
It’s not just getting the roads laid out sensibly, which we do, or picking all the landmarks — it’s also the more subtle details of dirt, or lighting. We had people out photographing on rooftops on time-lapse cameras so we could get the lighting as close as we can. We had guys looking at Census data; this part of Queens should be more Chinese. The [pedestrians] can go up and speak to each other now, so we got them speaking Russian, Spanish, Chinese. It seemed we’d set a high bar in the past and wanted to take it to a new place, where you feel less like a video game and more like this weird digital fantasy world.

How do you do that?
We’re doing things in this that other people would think is insane. Here’s a simple example: pedestrians, the guys that walk around, it’s a massive-scale production to do that. We ended up with 660 speaking parts. 80,000 lines of dialogue, it’s ridiculous.

Can you give us an example of something in the game we wouldn’t notice right away?
I think one of the things we try to capture in the game is that New York is the world leader in walking around meeting insane people. [Rockstar Games president] Sam [Houser] and I were walking home and we just met this absolutely crazy homeless guy, who was telling us how he recently killed someone, and drifted into insanity. After 30 seconds of this guy’s life, we both thought — he’s brilliant! [In the game] you meet freaky characters, and then you can do little random interactive things with them.

Who are a few of your favorites?
We go for that full range of classic New York archetypes. You’ve got the angry sleeping-pill-popping sort of Sex and the City type woman, you know, whose looks are just beginning to fade — a career woman who works in fashion. The guy who’s like, “Yo, buy my record.” There’s the kid who’s like the overconfident cokehead, and then you see him later and he becomes a crackhead, and he’s a real mess. And then you see him a while later and he’s fresh out of rehab.

So all the pedestrians fit the neighborhoods?
The people in Soho are expensively dressed and into shopping and vacuous in their own way. People in Noho are slightly different, people in Harlem are different. We give them a little character, maybe a two-sentence description — usually a cynical take on a classic New York persona: an English guy living over here, who thinks he’s a real hot shot, but he’s a complete phony, which is why he’s come to New York. If he gets pushed when he’s on his cell phone, he runs away from you.

We’re trying to pick up personalities that are worth of spoofing. We’re not trying to go after every single black person, or every 25-year-old Hispanic kid. We’re saying, this is the neurotic guy who wants to be hard. This is the hard guy who wants to be a poet. And this is the angry guy who’s trying to go to anger management class. We’re just trying to get male personas and fix them to any race.

On the fashion side, we’re literally doing fashion shoots and taking the photographs and turning them into the models. We have street stylists to help us dress them. It’s got to look right.

How realistic did you want to go with this?
We try to get the essence of the place, not a photo-realistic, digital tourist guide. We wanted a kind of spiritual tourist guide that feels like New York, but a blown-out, larger-than-life version. We want it to feel you’re the star of your own movie or TV show. We wanted an element of the classic New York of the seventies and eighties too.

It’s got a bit of that bad, good old days feel.
We’re not at all aspiring to virtual reality — what we are aspiring to is what feels like you’re living in your own world, halfway between 3-D cartoon and action movies. Aaron [Gorbut] in Scotland, the art director, the thing that he’s a genius at, and his main guys are brilliant at pulling off, is making the worlds look lived-in in a way no one else can. They don’t just think, “How do I make a beautiful model for this house and the sidewalk?” They worry about, “How do I seam them together and put a nice dirt between them?” You never notice that as a consumer, but you do notice that it looks really believable. Other games look so rigid.

How did you pick which areas of New York to feature?
We went from maybe doing the whole of New York State. And then it was just Manhattan, then it expanded out again and was going to be a bunch of suburbs, maybe like Westchester or out to Long Island with woods so you could go bury people. We made lists of what must we keep, what can we drop, what’s got to be there, what can we smash in together. Like how we don’t do Staten Island and do New Jersey: we would all vote on it. We didn’t want to offend anyone in Staten Island, but you get the same suburban neighborhoods in Jersey, plus some factories and stuff.

What kind of research did you do?
We started videoing a lot of neighborhoods, and then the videos were sent off to North [Rockstar’s studio in Scotland, where most programming is done] and put on plasma TVs around their office, so while they worked they could look up and there was New York.

Did the guys from Scotland come over here?
In March or April of 2005 we had 60 or 70 of the guys here for a week and a half, driving around in SUVs in the rough parts of town. We’d have cops who used to work the beat driving us around Washington Heights, and saying it used to be great because it was really different then and you could shoot people all the time.

How have the radio stations in the game improved?
We went basically from about eight or nine stations in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas to eighteen different radio stations this time. We wanted [the news station] to feel like 1010 WINS, so we got one of the main voices [John Montone] to be our news reader. Problem is, in New York now, you can’t find seventeen radio stations you want to listen to. We tried to get stuff that would feel like what you would want to hear if you came to New York. Not necessarily what you do find here, but what you ought to hear if it was like the way you’d imagined it.

It seems like the video game–violence issue might finally be dying down. Do you foresee any problems with GTA IV?
If you don’t like any violent content in your entertainment, then I apologize because I do. And I’ve unfortunately been exposed to it my entire life. I agree that the world would be a greater place if all of the guns and all of the bombs disappeared, but that certainly is not in the agenda. If we equally got rid of a lot of books that talk about violence, okay. But if we don’t like these games because they’ve got content that we’re happy to see in movies and TV shows, then what you’re saying is you don’t like the medium because we don’t have a George Clooney type sticking his face in front of the camera. There is nothing in the game you would not see in a TV show, or a movie a hundred times over, so I don’t understand what the conversation is about. We set out to make games that felt like they could culturally exist alongside the movies we were watching and the books we were reading, and hopefully we’re getting close to those goals.

I thought you might back away from the sex, but you can still pick up girls, right?
We wanted it to feel like a gangster film. And you can’t do that if you can’t use bad language, or have a hooker on the corner, or a strip club, or all the other things that are part of that world. —Logan Hill

Related: Grand Theft Auto IV’s Art Director Aaron Garbut on Copycat Games and the Public Bathrooms of Liberty City
Why Critics Want Grand Theft Auto IV to Be the ‘Godfather’ of Video Games
Grand Theft Auto IV: So, How’s the Culture in Liberty City?

Rockstar Games’ Dan Houser on Grand Theft Auto IV and Digitally Degentrifying New York