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Criminal Mind
  • November 15, 2013 : 07:11
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Not where people’s heads are at. Movies released at the time were tanking. A Jackie Chan film was scrubbed, and films that featured bombings (such as Collateral Damage) were delayed. Houser and Rockstar considered bagging the project, but the game was released, amid a fair amount of staff concern, on October 22. It featured a transformed Big Apple called Liberty City. The Twin Towers and blue-and-white police cars, too similar to those of the NYPD, were eliminated.

GTA III sold more than 15 million copies. It was a phenomenon. The game was also violent—bloody, beat-you-to-a-pulp violent—and too much for certain pundits to accept as fiction. Activist lawyer Jack Thompson and Senator Joe Lieberman fiercely condemned the violence in GTA III, railing on TV that it was hurting the youth of America and claiming that the mere act of playing could lead to real-life murders.

Former employees with axes to grind got together to tell tales in a book. A group called Wives of Rockstar said their spouses were made to work excessive hours, to the point of illness, at Rockstar’s San Diego studio. Houser, who is known to depart family getaways for the office to work on Sundays, admits toiling at Rockstar is “obscenely hard. Working on these is very taxing. It takes a toll on me, it takes a toll on my family. It is hard going, because we’re putting ourselves into it. We’re pouring as much passion and energy as we can conceivably muster into it.”

The long hours had paid off, and the Housers and Rockstar were suddenly very, very rich. Even before the cash flowed they were known to throw fabulous parties, including one in a giant Chelsea loft. The women were drop-dead beautiful, dancing to the beats of a DJ who was flown in from Paris. And as the music swirled and the booze flowed, everyone from New York City hipsters to nerds partied hard. “There was plenty of crazy stuff that went on at those things,” says Houser. “But I was too busy, too geeky. I was ready to get back in and work on Sunday morning. I was never really that sort of wild man, you know, Scarface and the champagne—not really.”

By May 2003 Sam had settled down with Anouchka, a beautiful young woman from England who understood his intense ways. They even had kids together. Years later, Dan Houser and his wife would buy a 9,000-square-foot mansion previously owned by Truman Capote. The $12.5 million purchase price was the most expensive home sale in Brooklyn history. A British tabloid called it a “gangster’s paradise.”

In June 2005 a Dutch hacker found an odd packet of data hidden in Rockstar’s latest game, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Once unlocked, the file—a piece of leftover code—revealed a mini-game featuring CJ, the game’s smooth urban-gangster protagonist who, after a night of clubbing, has sex with a girl. Players tapped buttons to control the rhythm or change positions in crudely rendered scenes. News of the hidden material, dubbed Hot Coffee, exploded.

“This content was never approved,” Houser announced. “It was nixed and supposed to be taken out completely.” But there it was—for the world to see. Really, the content was too unfinished, too rough, to have been part of what was a very polished San Andreas game. Houser believed that, had it made the final game, CJ would have been more loving with the virtual woman in question.

But media outrage surrounding the content turned into a political frenzy that swept the country. Smelling an opportunity, hard-charging New York attorney general Eliot Spitzer (now disgraced after a prostitution scandal) lashed out at the game. New York senator Hillary Clinton called for a Federal Trade Commission investigation. Was the game too violent? Had Rockstar intentionally planned to subvert the morals of American youth? Should Houser and Rockstar be stopped from making games?

The U.S. government requested all of Houser’s and Rockstar’s e-mails, thousands of them. Houser freaked out. While he (and everyone else at Rockstar) believed they were giving the world a new form of popular art, the height of dark comedy, Houser “lived in a world of fear.” Games rife with adult content were being scapegoated just as other forms of misunderstood culture had been in the past, from comic books in the 1950s to hip-hop in the 1990s.

In January 2006 Houser traveled to Washington, D.C. to appear before the FTC. He was grilled for nine hours as three committee members perused a two-foot-high stack of documents, raising their eyebrows as they questioned him about his profanity-laden e-mails. In the end, they found nothing. Houser was exhausted, admitting, “I was a fucking wreck. I’m still probably traumatized by it.”

When the investigation concluded, Houser went into what he dubs his “black dog” period, a desperate need to drop out, to hide, to run away. He’s had others since, but this episode was particularly devastating. As he was traveling from Scotland to London by train, he picked up his cell phone to hear that Manhattan’s district attorney was considering his own investigation into Rockstar. Not again. “That was a dark time,” he says, adding that friends and colleagues kept him together. “Otherwise I think I definitely unraveled. I did unravel, but I raveled back up, if you know what I mean.”

To aid the comeback, Houser immersed himself in work on Grand Theft Auto IV. Compounding matters in 2007 was a hostile takeover of Take-Two Interactive by its shareholders. Not only were things tough on the outside, on the inside no one quite knew whether Rockstar would remain a fiercely independent studio where the suits let Houser do what he needed to do, both creatively and financially. “These were very uncomfortable, nerve-racking times. And it was, you know, a lot of the time I thought about, you know, packing it in kind of a thing.” He glances around. “Bloody glad I didn’t.”

In the annals of video game history, Grand Theft Auto V may well be seen as Houser’s and Rockstar’s crowning achievement, a shining gift of 100 play hours that builds on what Rockstar has learned from its recent games. The lifelike faces from puzzle-filled L.A. Noire. The awe-inspiring expanses of big country from the gritty Western Red Dead Redemption. The powerful firefights from Max Payne 3. They’ve also added a massive multiplayer functionality (“the hardest part”) that may grow as large as a World of Warcraft game—except for now it’s free. The soundtrack’s 240 songs make it more eclectic and indie than ever, and there’s a score by Tangerine Dream electronic master Edgar Froese in collaboration with hip-hop DJ-producer Alchemist (among others). Clearly the Housers are at the top of their game. Why not cash out now? Certainly Hollywood would find a Sam and Dan Houser film-production company compelling. But Sam revealed that the team has signed multi-year deals with Take-Two Interactive. Whatever’s next—probably a new Red Dead game—will have that signature Rockstar feel. “There are other games that have a sort of artistic, noble appeal and cross over,” says Houser, “but does that speak to a mass market audience that is otherwise consuming superhero movies and more lighthearted stuff?” That’s where Rockstar succeeds in spades, because Grand Theft Auto has both a coarse and an elegant magic. “One thing we’re not going to run out of is ideas for the kinds of things we want to make. We’ve got a lot of ideas.”

It’s night now, and Houser is preparing for his bike ride back to Brooklyn. He seems relieved the interview is over.

“You know what? You take me out of context, and I can be ridiculous. I don’t want that. The work is the work. I haven’t spoken in an interview for quite a long time. It’s lovely to sit here and talk to you about it, and it’s enjoyable to talk about something I’m passionate about. But for my taste, too many people are too quick to rush out there right now and talk. They’re not necessarily for me.”

He speeds into a sea of traffic, disappearing into the darkness of downtown Manhattan.

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


  • Craig
    The Housers love hip-hop?! They are now my personal heroes lol
  • 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
    Incredible story! Awesome interview! Housers are icons.
  • meltron69
    This guy is a god. Long live Rockstar Games. Great article!