'Grand Theft Auto III' turns 10 years old: Rockstar Games' Dan Houser discusses the 'GTA' decade

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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

Read more:
‘Grand Theft Auto IV’ review: The Best One Yet!
‘Super Mario Brothers’ in the style of ‘Grand Theft Auto’
Videogame nudity: Necessary or not?

Comments (40 total) Add your comment
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  • Sam J

    I play the LEAST amount of video games of anyone in my entire generation but I played and defeated GTA III. My younger brother who played dork games like Final Fantasy, always told me GTA was a role playing game b/c you made decisions for a characte,r and developed the character, and blah blah blah. He said that I was a RPGer for playing all the GTAs and I saw he is a dork.

    GTA rules!!!

    • Christine

      Final Fantasy is awesome. It’s not a dork game.
      But GTA is not an RPG, it just has RPG elements.
      They’re both great series’.

    • Justin Poppiti

      How old are you? If you’re in the 20s, then I got you beat.

      • Sam J

        “Got me beat?”
        As in you’ve played LESS video games in your life?
        I haven’t owned a system since the Original Nintendo. My friend loaned me his PS2 when I was sick and I about only played the GTA games and Madden football.

      • Nice Grandpaw

        I’m so proud of my grandson for buying him this game last Christmas. Now he knows all about hoookers, blow, wacking innocent people to take their exotic cars, and get ahead in life just like his old man. Thanks Rockstar videogamer makers for ruining his chances at being a normal human being eventually.

  • Darren Frannich

    Sorry guys I forgot to mention Goldeneye. Won’t happen again.

  • jared4ever

    This game is disgusting. I feel sad for anyone who enjoys playing it.

    • Jeremy Rynek

      Don’t feel bad for me.

    • Jeff

      I feel sad for people who play video games.

      • Nice Grandpaw

        20 points if you can trick her into giving you a bllowjob.

      • Katyo

        I doubt gamers want, or need, your pity. But, um…thanks? Personally, I feel sorry for condescending people who feel themselves superior for not enjoying something. Hey, to each their own.

      • Jeremy Rynek

        I feel bad for you sense you obviously can’t enjoy them

    • Earl

      Manic depressive or something, Jared4ever?

  • Jeremy Rynek

    BEST GAME EVER!!!

  • Sharlin

    That game changed the lives of my brother and I and brought us closer together. he beat that game and Vice City and the endings were so awesome!!!

    • Tina

      Sounds like you and your brother were gay for each other.

      • Nice Grandpaw

        My grandson turned out great after he played this game for hours. Well I remember one time he scored big points humping that hookker on the hood of a car. I”m so proud of him.

      • Katyo

        Your standards seem kinda low. You should only feel pride if he runs the hooker over and gets his money back afterward.

  • jon

    This interview is fascinating and seriously spilling over with interesting insights into the medium of gaming. But that comment about the sophistication of cinema 35 years into its history is pretty obnoxious. We’re taking about the 1930s here, already well past the era of Griffith, Pabst, von Stroheim and Lang (Metropolis…my god!). Please, do your homework before dropping these comments…

  • MWeyer

    To me, San Andreas is the best, most sprawling but also good story too and great action to boot. But “Lost and the Damned” was a great play too, can’t wait to see what they have in store next.

  • ugg 5808

    Considerably well executed article!!

  • Baldrick’s Trousers

    OI! WTF do you think you’re doing? Are you popwatch guys a bunch of amateurs or what? There’s a MASSIVE MASSIVE SPOILER bang in the middle of this article with NO WARNING WHATSOEVER!!! You completely give away the ending of Red Dead Redemption.
    PLEASE FIX THIS NOW!!! Put in a warning.

    • Baldrick’s Trousers

      Thanks for adding the warning. Apologies for the outburst. I’d delete my post now, but there’s no delete or edit buttons. Thanks again for the prompt update.

      • Nice Grandpaw

        No, leave it up. I like it.

  • LOL

    America loves crap!

    • Milly

      Your toilet loves crap.

      • LOL

        Which is where this game belongs.

      • Channing

        While I agree with you, LOL, that Vice City and San Andreas were superior to it in every way, that’s no reason to put GTA III in the toilet.

  • The Truth

    This and Vice City are landmarks.

  • seriously

    GTA 1 was best of all GTA games :)

  • Hotel L

    That’s some illustrative post.

  • Olive

    While I agree with you, LOL, that Vice City and San Andreas were superior to it in every way, that’s no reason to put GTA III in the toilet.
    Wow, My best fríènd ,she just has annóuncéd hér wēddīng wīth a rich mān who is a cèlèbrìty !They mèt via~~~~SéêkSúɡárDαd.Сσм ~~~~ ..it is the lārgēst and bēst clúb for rich man with yung and beautiful woman and theìr àdmirèrs to chát ōnlìnè. …You do nǒt hávè to bê rīch ór fāmóùs. ,bùt yōu cān meēt yóùr trùē lòvê , It’s wòrthy ǎ try!

  • saifali

    play grand theft auto vice city game

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