Looking forward with the GTA series, would you want to do another international edition? You’ve been in America since GTA III.
We go backwards and forwards on it. There are very interesting crime stories and other stories you can tell about anyplace in the world. Whether that would work with Grand Theft Auto — when so much about Grand Theft Auto is about the Americana, about the American media — is something I’m not sure about.
Are you looking to the next stage of the GTA franchise?
There is gonna be one? I don’t know. [Smiles] I know nothing about anything after Max Payne 3.
Okay, let’s get theoretical here. You’ve had the ’80s-era game, the ’90s-era game. Say you want to do a Grand Theft Auto that is set in 2001, when Grand Theft Auto III came out. How would the new game be different from GTA III? What kinds of stuff would you want to incorporate into it? What’s your vision of the early 2000s?
I think we got pretty close in some ways. We had things that seemed very important then, like absurd websites. That was just at the end of the first dotcom boom. The bust had happened in early 2000, but the Internet was still hot new news. And things like SUVs… Now, they’re completely acceptable, but that was when suddenly everyone was beginning to drive SUVs, and not worrying about their fuel bills anymore. That was a big issue. Real estate was becoming a big issue. It really hadn’t fully kicked off in 2001.
And that was before 9/11. The game came out about six weeks after 9/11, but was set before 9/11. If my memory serves me correctly, in that particular period — apart from the stock market collapse that was then obscured by the credit bubble — there was very little pain in the world. People were still believing it was a sort of post-historical world. To mine some of that — what now seems like naiveté — you couldn’t not do that now.
When we did Liberty City Stories, that was set in ’98 or ’99, so we did a lot of pre-millennial tension: Y2K, the world’s gonna end! By 2001, that was all over. You had this optimism. But also, people were almost bored. “Democracy’s won, the economy’s gonna boom, we’ve got this amazing technology that’s gonna do incredible things.” I guess [looking back] now, things you were worried about seem stupid because they didn’t come true. And things you weren’t worried about, you should have been worried about, because they did come true. It’s been a very tumultuous decade.
Did 9/11 affect how the series evolved after GTA III? Was that part of the reason the next two games moved into the past?
No, not at all. Did it change the series? No. It just made the world we were depicting in the games seem more like the world on television. The world seemed to move more in that direction, rather than the other way around. In terms of our skills, or complete lack of skills, in depicting America — of course it changed that. Did it impact design decisions? Only in terms of things that would be overtly offensive, like planes that could fly into buildings.
[Our offices] were even further south [in Manhattan] than we are now on the day. I think we were in tune for what would be offensive or inappropriate in that bizarre period.
After its release, there was plenty of controversy surrounding the content of GTA III, and that controversy built up a few years later with San Andreas, when you had Hillary Clinton denouncing the “Hot Coffee” stuff.
Yeah, and Joe Lieberman, and a lot of them.
That all seems to have died down now, though. Do you guys miss being controversial?
I suppose the main thing is, in the intervening 10 years, maybe society has sort of collapsed. But it wasn’t our fault! Time has justified our main theory, which was: If you are completely clinically insane, you probably shouldn’t play this game, or consume any culture, or read the Bible, or do anything. However, if you were normal, the game was a completely valid form of entertainment. There was nothing ever in the games that you couldn’t see in movies, or watch on the news. That was the point of it.
We never really understood [the controversy]. I think that certain people like to vilify convenient enemies, and maybe some of those people have found that their traditional enemies were robust at defeating them — or generous at funding them. So they turned on to some new people, and they particularly focused on videogames, and that rap music. It didn’t really prove a massive winner for them, and they were eventually forced to move on. Whether it will come back to us or not, who knows?
It was games, and it was movies, and it was comics. Maybe everyone has their turn of destroying society, and society rumbles on. Or maybe gets better.
Grand Theft Auto III and all these games are massive, and you’ve described them as a real team effort. But are there any parts of these games that — for you personally, or you and your brother — feel particularly autobiographical?
I hope not. Hopefully it’s all a product of a wonderful communal imagination. The only one that really springs to mind is a character in Bully that was completely this kid I went to school with. The kid Gary, the nasty little bully, the main antagonist. He was exactly a kid I was at junior school with.
I have to tell you, there are some theories online about your connection to Bully. Specifically, that you seem to bear a slight resemblance to the main character.
No, no, I don’t think so. The guy that was doing the character designs [on Bully] couldn’t get the [Jimmy Hopkins, the main character of Bully] right. Then we got Ian McQue, who does the character designs and concept work on GTA. He just did Jimmy in an evening. That young, British, kind of early ‘80s thug look, but moved to America. He worked well, because he looked rough, but he looked like he wasn’t a bad guy. You wanted this guy who could be tough, but was good-hearted.
Not like Gary.
Who was the better-looking guy, and more charming, but really liked punishing people. One of those kids who comes from a very nasty home. There’s probably rich sadistic parents.
One last question for you: Before games like Grand Theft Auto III came along, it felt like players were fundamentally meant to see every part of the game. There were little Easter Eggs or secret levels, but that’s nothing to compare to the size of these open-world games, where even the most devoted player might not see everything. How granular do you feel like you have to get when you’re putting these worlds together? Where does the world-building stop?
I suppose we make it, then just do a bunch of passes on it, and try to find as many different forms of content that can be put in there sensibly, that will reward the player for exploring, if they’re that kind of person. And we build in to it the overall themes that we’re trying to push in the game — the ludicrousness of advertising, whatever it might be.
It’s something that’s hopefully enjoyable for people. It’s a way to experience amusing, entertaining, thought-provoking, idiotic, whatever-they-might-be little bits of content in a non-linear fashion, spread around this map and across all these ways that people are speaking: on the radio, and then in later games on the TV. It’s something that I think is interesting and potentially very powerful, but is totally unique to a game. We who make games, we’re looking for ways that games can do stuff that you can’t do in a movie, or you can’t do in a TV show, you couldn’t do in a book.
And that non-linearity is really key to that. You can actually be. It’s not just about doing the stuff — which obviously is great, working your way through the story as opposed to watching a story — but also the more passive idea of exploring this world, and just being there. Soaking up the stuff. Having your adventure in this place that doesn’t really exist. I think that’s really powerful and fun. We do as much as we have time for and can think of. We go a little bit crazy on that stuff, and are constantly trying to find new little things that people can discover.
You want it to feel like you’ve not seen everything. Like it feels like you’ll never know a city, really.
Follow Darren on Twitter: @EWDarrenFranich