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Criminal Mind
  • November 15, 2013 : 07:11
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Pump. Pump. Sam Houser’s heart is pounding. The most reclusive man in video games and the mastermind behind the 150-million-selling Grand Theft Auto series is biking to work in the pouring rain. His custom pink Independent Fabrication racer weaves through New York City traffic, the type of chaotic gridlock Grand Theft Auto players love to career through in a stolen car. Houser has a heavy nest of a black beard he rarely cuts, one that provides him the anonymity he covets as he speeds through the streets from Brooklyn to the SoHo office of Rockstar Games. “I do this 365 days a year,” he says. “Sometimes the snow’s so deep I have to carry my bike over the bridge. But every day, every day.”

Houser, 42, counts on the bike ride to calm him down. “The bike is the best way for it. It’s very meditative.” Meditation is good; so is yoga, and Houser is an avid practitioner of both. When he really needs to chill, he’ll choose a ride from his enviable collection and pedal 60 miles to Bear Mountain, because creating the most popular—and controversial—video game series in history is fraught with tension. A relaxed Sam is a better Sam, as those around him know.

But not many know him. In fact, in the past five years, Houser hasn’t given a long interview to anyone but me, and that’s baffling, because what he has to say is sincere, compelling and complex. He can be both insightful and rebellious, embracing different cultures and at the same time full of a healthy paranoia in a kind of punk-rock, hip-hop sort of way. He is an astute student of human nature and, as president of Rockstar Games, a tough negotiator when contracts come up for renewal with parent company Take-Two Interactive.

Partly because of his reputation as a loner and recluse, everyone from journalists who can’t get interviews to a handful of disgruntled former employees has labeled Houser crazy. He is not. He can be intensely private, even avoiding a GTA voice actor when he comes in to record his voice-over work. Houser is a workaholic and he’s stubborn, clearly used to getting his way when he knows he’s right, but he’s definitely not crazy. In fact, there’s something about Sam Houser that is close to genius. If Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto is the Steven Spielberg of video games, Houser is the Martin Scorsese.

Of course, there is more to Houser than that, just as there is more to Grand Theft Auto than stealing cars. Much more, in fact. Behind the high-speed chases, shoot-outs and plot twists, Rockstar’s games are a virtual stylebook curated by Houser and his brother, Dan, Rockstar’s head writer and vice president of creative. Sly references to the coolest music, art and films pop up everywhere, from radio stations loaded with Rick Ross and Aphex Twin to art pieces that appear in the background, pulled directly from New York City galleries. These references are decoded by fans the way a Basquiat mention by Jay Z is googled by hip-hop kids or a dusty rock-and-roll song is resurrected after appearing in a Quentin Tarantino movie.

All this percolates through a world of brutal violence and black humor set in the grittiest of crime films and mashed up into a fictional New York or Los Angeles urban environment. Hollywood producers would die to make a film of the series. Houser and Rockstar have always said no. Houser says no to a lot of things: to being photographed, to participating in the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo game convention that takes place every summer in Los Angeles (“It’s like a big, sort of willy-waving exercise”) and to interviews. “More so than ever before, in a world where people are just out to be famous for being famous and want to be interviewed for being interviewed, it seems like a funny practice,” he says, shaking his head.

We are sitting in the Rockstar office’s media room, which is outfitted with a giant flatscreen TV and killer sound system. The room sits on the other side of a lobby complete with an ultra-rare Warrior arcade game and a vintage Defender cabinet. It’s a few weeks before the release of Grand Theft Auto V, and the stakes—and the stress—have never been higher. Grand Theft Auto IV, released in 2008, had a budget of more than $100 million. It made $500 million in its first week. This year’s Grand Theft Auto V, five years in the making, cost a reported $266 million and, a few weeks after our discussion, will bring in $800 million its first day. Three days later it will top $1 billion.

But that’s still weeks away, and on this afternoon an optimistic yet anxious Houser, wearing a black long-sleeve shirt, gray shorts and running shoes, sits on the edge of a couch. “Grand Theft Auto is a double-edged sword. The fans want bigger, better—you know, higher quality. It’s a privilege to have an audience that is demanding like that. But it’s also a challenge. You have to meet their expectations.” He crosses his arms. “I go to bed at night with the game there. I wake up, and that’s the first thing I see. At several points in the course of this game I’ve had to really calm myself down, because I’m at home playing with my kids, and all I can see is the fucking game, like, running in my mind. I’m like.…” He lets out a low, frustrated growl. “This isn’t ideal.”

There is no doubt Grand Theft Auto V is the magnum opus for Rockstar Games, a company with six development studios around the world and hundreds of employees, all of whom helped Scotland’s 300-strong Rockstar North build the game. All told, the team computer-generated more than 40 square miles of painstakingly designed forest, city, ocean and desert. “We went out to the Salton Sea and were absolutely gobsmacked by it,” Houser says, rocking back and forth on the black leather couch. “We made sure we were going to have a whole section that was dedicated to that sort of atmosphere, because we’d never seen anything like it before in our lives.” It’s within the creepily beautiful, fictionalized Salton Sea with its offbeat, sometimes nasty residents and haunting, starry nights that Trevor, the bat-shit craziest of the game’s three new characters, resides in a rusty single-wide trailer. Trevor, along with Michael and Franklin, is one of the trio of diverse criminals whose story lines weave through the game.

Houser feels he has a bit of each character in him. “You know, Michael is constrained and contained with his midlife crisis. As my brother says, we’ve been having midlife crises from about 12 years old. Franklin, the sort of street guy, I certainly fancy myself in that mode. However, for a privately educated Londoner, albeit an American citizen now, I think it’s a bit of a stretch—but somewhere inside me I do. And then Trevor’s a psychopath, and you can fill in the blanks there.” Truth be told, Houser explains, there’s a bit of each criminal in all of us.

On his BlackBerry, Houser shows off a photo of his mother, Geraldine Moffat, a fine actress who plays the gorgeous and often naked Glenda in Get Carter, the seminal 1971 British gangster film starring Michael Caine. Except here Mum is clad in the kind of sci-fi performance-capture suit computer animators use to manipulate the human form into games. “Dan hatched a really fun idea for our mum. The performance was fantastic. She came out here when she did the thing, and it was just so amazing, the energy that it gave her. She just loved it.”

The Housers’ actress mother and jazz musician father, Walter, are key to the Rockstar story. Sam, born in 1971 in London, and Dan, born two years later, weren’t exactly coddled as children. Geraldine and Walter demanded two things of the brothers: “Do your homework,” which Houser feels made him compulsive about work, and “Don’t do drugs,” which kept the brothers straight. (That doesn’t mean Sam didn’t experiment; he just didn’t overindulge.) They fought like brothers—Sam even broke his hand punching Dan—but they also looked out for each other. Like the time bullies stole Dan’s ball and Sam, a devoted rugby player and judo practitioner, sped off to Palewell Common park to confront four older kids. “The main guy came up to me and I sort of did a judo throw and threw him on the ground,” Sam says. “I thought I was like Jean-Claude Van Damme or Bruce Lee or something.” But Sam didn’t know anything more than throws. The bully got up, “smashed me in the face and knocked me out. Huge black eye. But I did get the ball back,” he says, laughing. “Periodically I’ll see that person, and I still hide from him.”

Although he was a lawyer by day, Walter was often seen playing jazz at Ronnie Scott’s, a club he helped run that’s a kind of London Birdland. Post-gig, the jazzmen would hang at the Housers’ home, people like Cream’s brilliant Ginger Baker, who was a mean bastard even then, according to Houser. Dan would occasionally act in school plays, and Sam took up the bass, studying twice weekly for years under the tutelage of well-known player Phil Bates, who worked with Sarah Vaughan and Judy Collins. Sam laments that he didn’t practice enough. “That expression, it’s like a language,” he says. “To have that outlet, to be able to socialize with other people like that, it’s really an amazing, profound thing.”

It wasn’t such a great leap, then, for Sam to move from an appreciation of jazz to a love of hip-hop, a head-over-heels affection that would inform his future work at Rockstar Games. He worshipped what Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons pioneered as they built Def Jam into a legendary record label that melded the best of rock, metal and rap into records by LL Cool J, Beastie Boys and Run-DMC. He made his mother sew Def Jam patches onto his clothes, and when his father finally took him to Manhattan in 1988, Houser made a beeline for the Lower East Side’s Orchard Street, a bastion of Air Jordans and leather puffer jackets. He loved England, but in New York it was as if he’d come home and home was an urban, hip-hop heaven.

Also on this trip, at a dinner with his father and BMG record executive Heinz Henn, Houser unabashedly told the old pro exactly how to make his record company better. “He’s a lunatic,” Henn confided to Walter. “But he has some good ideas.”

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read more: entertainment, Gaming, video games, interview, issue december 2013

5 comments

  • Craig
    Craig
    The Housers love hip-hop?! They are now my personal heroes lol
  • Walter
    Walter
    We need a Grand Theft Lego game. I've sent Rockstar Games an email mentioning this. But I'm sure it was never read by a real person. But I think it would be an awesome game.
  • Terry
    Terry
    Incredible story! Awesome interview! Housers are icons.
  • meltron69
    meltron69
    This guy is a god. Long live Rockstar Games. Great article!
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