There’s a quality of wish-fulfillment to all these games. In GTA III, you get to fire a rocket launcher and run red lights. In Vice City, you’re flying around in a military helicopter and waving a chainsaw. But then you get to the final act of Red Dead Redemption, where you have a series of very spare missions, teaching your son very basic things like hunting and cattle-ranching. How do you balance these games between letting players be demi-gods and forcing them to operate within a realistic world?
There’s no intrinsic reason why pressing a button to make someone sweep a floor should be more or less boring than pressing a button to make someone fly a helicopter. It’s still a mechanic. We look upon it as: If you make the peripheral stuff — the characterization, the dialogue — interesting, you can make seemingly the most boring mechanic fun. Making Table Tennis was a huge technical challenge, but also really fun.
You can make anything fun, or anything boring. Particularly in the high-definition era, it may be more about making random things seem fun, and putting a weird variety of things in there. Games aren’t supposed to be reality. They’re supposed to be the reality if reality was what you see on TV, and listen to, and how advertising is. It’s the reality of the media, not the reality of the reality.
You’ve brought that up before — the notion that the GTA games are examinations of consumerism and the media. Was that always present in the conception of the Grand Theft Auto series? That they were kind of a Paul Verhoeven-esque cockeyed look at the American media system?
It’s completely in the DNA of what the games are. At one level, the games were, and still are, homages to crime fiction in all its guises. But crime fiction is indivisible from consumerism, and images of things, and the way those things are presented, and the way those things are sold as being important. They can acquire this sort of metaphysical importance advertising gives them. The series, apart from anything, [started from ] looking at American movies and American consumerism from Britain — some British guys here, some Scottish guys in Scotland — looking at everything from the perspective of outsiders. It was about the madness of the wider American media as much as it was about the madness of American crime films.
You’ve talked a lot about Rockstar’s initial influences in creating GTA III and the other games of its generation, like crime films or Miami Vice. Is there anything you’ve read or seen on TV or on film in the last ten years that you think has equally influenced you going forward? Thinking about how the media has changed in the last decade, GTA III came out right around the time that Sopranos was opening up this notion of what TV could do.
I didn’t watch much Sopranos, because it was too similar to what we were doing. The same with The Wire and Sons of Anarchy. Everyone steals from everywhere, but you want to be bringing in random and abstract ideas from different sources, rather than something that’s treading over the exact same ground that you’re treading over.
I think in general what they’ve done with those long-form TV shows in the last 10, 12 years has made them far more interesting a storytelling medium than movies. You have the short story of the episode, and the long story of the season, and the even longer story of the whole five, ten seasons, whatever it is. I think it’s an amazing form of storytelling — putting you in a world, and letting you learn about a character — that probably is quite close to what we’re doing in the games, in some ways. The games, the length they are, are more akin to a season of a TV show than a single movie.
What kind of TV do you watch, if not the crime series?
Loads of rubbish. Of those kind of shows, my favorite is definitely Mad Men. I work in an office, and it made it seem like it was exciting. [Laughs] That was a good challenge. They took something that was nominally very boring — office life — and found a way of depicting it that’s horrific, but incredibly engaging. From a technical standpoint, I admired that, because it’s one of the challenges we set ourselves: How do we make this interesting and engaging, no matter what it is?
That’s the one major modern TV drama where there’s never really the threat of death for any of the characters.
The odd character dies in it, but no one’s getting murdered. That guy got ran over by a tractor. Even though they’re arguing about advertising contracts — which is incredibly banal at a certain level — they still make it seem like it’s life and death.
Thinking about something like Mad Men, can you conceive working on a game where the main character never holds a gun?
I think we took a big step in that direction with L.A. Noire. Obviously you did hold a gun and you were a detective, but I think the core mechanics were not the same as the core mechanics in GTA or Red Dead. We are always interested in exploring new ways of making interactivity interesting. You are still dealing with a medium which is hopefully exciting and vibrant, but still in infancy.
Games are 35 years old. Movies, when they were still 35 years old, were nowhere near as sophisticated. Admittedly, they were about to go on a ten-year golden era, but they were nowhere near as sophisticated as games are now. The evolution of games from 20, 30, 30-plus years ago is amazing. We, hopefully, are one of the companies at the vanguard of pushing that stuff forward.
At this point in movie history, sound had just been introduced. GTA III also represented a huge generational leap forward. Technologically speaking, are there any gigantic evolutionary steps, comparable to the move from 2D to 3D worlds?
I suppose A.I., when you can make the non-player characters seem even more alive than they do currently. That’s probably the biggest hurdle to making the worlds seem like they’re alive. That will be iterative. It won’t be like turning the sound on. It will be something that happens step-by-step-step. I think that’s probably the biggest single weakness in games or where games are the least lifelike. The characters all look as close to lifelike as you’re gonna need them. There’s thousands of little graphics innovations and narrative innovations and design tweaks you can do, but you’ve kind of got very interesting bare-bones there to evolve around.
The post-GTA III games show a real interest in American history that I don’t think people often associate with videogames. GTA has explored the ’90s, the ’80s, London in the ’60s. LA Noire is set in the post-war era, and Red Dead is a western. Is the long-term goal to do some full sweep of American history? Are we gonna see the Revolutionary War at some point along the way?
Pretty much any era can be made interesting. You can find interesting aspects to it, interesting things that were going on, debates that people were having, things that either resonate or appall a modern audience. That’s obviously a massive part of the pleasure of watching Mad Men. They make a world not that long ago seem barbaric in some ways, and far more sophisticated in other ways. The problem is there’s too many things we find interesting. Here, in Britain, in the world, there’s so many things you can do that would be interesting.