Interview: Dan Houser Talks Red Dead Redemption
You originally picked up Red Dead Revolver from Capcom. How do you view the game now? Were there any key lessons that informed your approach to Red Dead Redemption?
We acquired a half-made project from Capcom that they were developing and about to abandon at Angel Studios shortly before we bought the studio and turned it into Rockstar San Diego. We then finished, tuned and styled the game to our tastes as best we could, but the core game design was not something we could have too much influence over. The core idea of the game – to make a fast-paced shooting game with the sensibilities of a fighting game – was very interesting and was done really well… But we love open-world games, and in finishing Red Dead Revolver, we also fell in love with the Wild West. The main thing we wanted to keep and expand upon from Red Dead Revolver was the core sensibilities of the gunplay, which we all really loved. The rest, we wanted to start over and make a game that was vast and epic in scope.
Despite being the most enduring film genre, Western games are a rarity, and when we do see them they’re often played for laughs. What is the reason for this, and are Revolver and Redemption responses to it?
Our guess is that most of the reasons are technological. You simply could not make a game like Red Dead Redemption until this point, with its vast open areas of rolling wilderness, a complex, living ecosystem and a massive array of characters, side quests and so on, all flowing together. You could not make natural environments look very convincing until this point, so games set in rural environments would tend to look a little silly, or be limited to very small, narrow levels that may look okay, but don't feel very organic as they are so constraining. Equally, you could not make horses, stage coaches or rope – all vital aspects of a western experience – look or behave remotely sensibly. Nor could you show any kind of emotion on character’s faces. All of these factors combine to make most Western games very limited in scope, or very flawed, and push game makers into making the characters and styling of the game either camp or absurd, as there is nothing worse than having as semi-serious story supported by a ludicrously limited or ugly game… To make a film, they simply had to stick a camera on a back lot and it would look believable.
In your view, what do the Western games we have seen normally get wrong? Can you give any examples?
I don't think people got things wrong – making games is very hard and anyone who can finish making any game has our utmost respect – it's just that people were trying to do something that was fundamentally impossible. This project has been long, grueling and enormously challenging for us, despite our massive experience at making open world games, the big team we have on the project, our strong technology base in RAGE and experience of making Red Dead Revolver. Red Dead Redemption is a game that does justice to the genre of Westerns, and there is simply no way someone could have made a game like this twelve months ago, let alone on previous generations of hardware.
That speaks to a paradox at the heart of a project like Red Dead Redemption: it’s at once original, virgin territory for videogames, while still being instantly familiar and iconic to an extremely broad spectrum of people, gamers or otherwise. Do you see that contradiction as strength, or a problem to overcome?
From a design perspective, it has been the greatest of strengths. As game makers, our goal, at some level, is simple – to fulfill fantasies – and the concept of the old West comes loaded with so many images, so many moments, so many great character types and such a strong sense of legend attached to it, that it was brilliant to play around with them and try to assemble them into a fun and coherent game. From a technical perspective, it was a complete nightmare, because we wanted to include so many things that were vital to making the game we wanted and a massive headache to make fun and look right – amazing gunfight physics, beautiful horses, lassos, stagecoaches with so many moving parts, animals, and so on. For the game to be fun and engaging and everything we hoped it could be, we had to include a huge range of classic western moments – stand-offs, duels, stagecoach fights, gunfights on trains, hold-ups, bounty hunting, and so on. This is the strength of the game, but doing this in a seamless way in a massive open world was a huge challenge.
Rockstar’s games are known for being culturally savvy, overtly referencing a wide-range of cultural touchstones. But Red Dead Redemption seems to take a less self-conscious and knowing approach to its subject. Did you actively avoid that? What were your points of reference?
One of our big goals is consistency across the game – so that dialogue, character design, physics, music, and the world itself all feel integrated and part of a large hole, so during the time the player spends in that world, they feel immersed in a consistent experience, if that makes any sense. So with better graphics comes the need to make characters somewhat more complex and, equally, things like physics have to also keep up with improvements in graphics. Our goal with Red Dead Redemption was to make people feel part of this world – a massive piece of landscape on the point of great sociological change. That being said, the game was to be set in 1910 or 1911 and we had to find a way for the characters to speak that was quick enough for the game to keep moving, but did not feel too anachronistically modern or ironic to remove players feeling immersed in the world. That’s obviously a different challenge from making a gangster living in 2009 New York / Liberty City sound believable and interesting.
You’re deeply involved with the writing for your games, and the writing in Grand Theft Auto IV and its episodes is, in my opinion, the finest in Rockstar’s history. Has your approach to writing changed over time? Did Red Dead Redemption present any unique challenges in that regard?
On GTA IV, I was fortunate in that I could hide my many deficiencies behind the talents of my co-writers, especially Rupert Humphries and Lazlow, who head up mission dialogue and the in-game media respectively. I have been able to do the same thing on this game with Mike Unsworth, who has done, I believe, a brilliant job. We have always been clear on our role as game writers – to support gameplay as best we can to keep the game moving and make the experience as interesting as it can be – in short to add to the experience as best we can and when we can't add anything to get out of the way.
We have evolved the process as the technology has allowed and demanded – for example – we now do massive amounts of dialogue during missions that would not have been possible on PS2 as too much of machine’s power was taken up with streaming in the world, so we had to keep dialogue to a minimum at such times, and equally, if characters can speak more than they have to become more rounded and complex characters so they have something new to say, but fundamentally, it is following the same principles – to make the game more engaging by whatever means we have at our disposal.
Rockstar’s recent work has travelled to some dark places and tackled subject matter that few games have ever dared: The Lost and Damned was admirably bleak and featured the only shot of full-frontal male nudity I’ve ever seen in a game; The Ballad of Gay Tony featured a mature, three-dimensional gay character without ever resorting to cheap laughs. Are you consciously gravitating towards edgier subject matter? Will Red Dead Redemption embrace the inherent darkness of the West?
Edgier subject matter? Absolutely not. We have never tried to be edgy at all. We always just made games that seemed interesting to us and that they would be fun to play. Sometimes that game was Manhunt, sometimes it was San Andreas, and sometimes that game was Table Tennis… What we have since the high definition era is the ability to make games that are a little more complex – they don't just have great visual complexity, but also more rounded and diverse characters and themes. We have the ability now to show both sides of someone's character, rather than just one aspect to it, so we can now show more of the weakness of would-be strong characters and the strength of seeming weaklings and this lets us look at things in a somewhat more complex way, which we feel makes the game experience more nuanced and interesting. With Red Dead Redemption, we really wanted to make a big, epic game, and as we looked into what was interesting to us was the difference between the myths of the west and the grungier and nastier reality – how many people hid behind myths and legends to justify horrifying brutality. At the same time, we also wanted to look at the end of this period as we felt that this an amazing time that would give us plenty to play with – the time when the west was moving from reality into legend as modernity was moving in, and the kind of characters present at that point, while also giving us the best range of things to do and see in the world.
Red Dead Redemption takes a very different approach to its open-world than Grand Theft Auto – using random generation and systems to create a more reactive and dynamic setting. Why did you choose to take the gameplay in that direction?
We felt we had to. With GTA, the urban settings gave the player a huge amount of things to interact with simply by being there – people, vehicles and so on and around him all of the time. when we began to get sections of this game's map up and working we were suddenly presented with realities of the wilderness – there was nothing to do – so Christian Cantamessa, our lead designer, and his team began to develop systems to fill that void – we had to put content in the world for the player to experience and so we had to develop interesting ways of doing that which would still feel organic and new to the player – we believe this stuff is really amazing and takes open-world gameplay to a new height.
Did the random elements in the gameplay alter your approach to the writing?
To some extent – we had to develop new dialogue systems for them, obviously, and had to make sure that John Marston’s character was sufficiently ambiguous that it is unclear if he is a stone cold killer with a kind heart, or a good man raised in unfortunate circumstances with great skill with a gun, so that however the player chooses to behave, it should feel natural for Marston.
I’ve seen a lot of coverage of Red Dead Redemption that lazily brand it as ‘GTA in the Wild West.’ How valid is that comparison?
A lot of the key long-standing members of the GTA team have worked heavily on Red Dead redemption, including Leslie Benzies, GTA's Producer and Aaron Garbut, the series' Art Director, while Christian, the Lead Designer, moved from North to San Diego at the start of the project, after working on Manhunt and San Andreas, so to that extent, I would guess it was not a bad way of describing the game – it's an open-world game using the expertise of the best team on earth at making such games. Each GTA has been a massive labour of love – the games are huge – and so it is with this game. We may know how to make a GTA game, but that does not make it easy – it is really hard work and challenging every time. But Red Dead redemption is also very much its own game.
Rockstar appears to be rewriting the American Century through its games: Red Dead Redemption explores the change in values at the dawn of the 20th Century; LA Noire exposes the underbelly of post-war America; Agent is reportedly based around the Cold War, presumably in the Sixties and or Seventies; Vice City is an exploration of Eighties greed and, well, vice; San Andreas documented inner-city life and gang culture of the Nineties; and Grand Theft Auto IV charts the 21st Century immigrant experience. Is this a conscious line of creative inquiry?
Not conscious, but inevitable given that we have tried very hard not to repeat ourselves and that we are always looking for new things to make games about. For story-driven games, we find America generates such interesting stories. Plus, we live in America, grew up consuming vast arrays of American media and have access to mostly American actors.