Rockstar of Tribeca
The Grand Theft Auto franchise is the one of the most popular video game brands in the world. Its latest generation, Grand Theft Auto IV, earned the Guinness World Record for most profitable entertainment release of all-time, raking in $310 million dollars in the first twenty-four hours of its 2008 release. As of March 10, 2011, Rockstar Games, the makers of GTA, report the title has sold over 20 million copies, putting the series lifetime total somewhere north of 100 million units since its 1997 premiere. We’re a long way from the days of DOS and Windows ’98. And the man most directly responsible is named Dan Houser.
He’s too English and polite to say something like that, which is part of what makes him a Rockstar. He and his brother Sam (the two are co-vice presidents of Rockstar Games) go out of their way to make sure we know their products (whether 2006’s Bully or 2010’s award winning Red Dead Redemption) are a team effort from start to finish. So any interview with either Houser brother is a treat. I found this Hollywood Reporter interview after discovering Rockstar’s next game, a “violent crime thriller” set in the Golden Age of Hollywood called L.A. Noire, will (for all intents and purposes) premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 25.
Houser is the producer of six GTA games, the writer of nine (plus RDR and Bully) and a voice actor in five. As anyone who’s even glanced at the games should be able to tell, he and his brother developed a deep, abiding love of American crime films in early childhood. From their work we can see influences ranging from Scarface to Boyz in the Hood to the James Bond franchise to last year’s cookie-cutter anti-Terrorist action films. It became more than loving homage somewhere around 2004, with the release of the sprawling San Andreas. That’s when I personally realized the Houser brothers have recreated their childhood dreams. Like so many of us who lived within easy range of a video rental store, what the two really gained was an abiding love of telling stories. They’ve just chosen to apply the lessons of influential films to video games, leading to many a critical use of the term “cinematic” as a complement.
This time, Houser cites The Big Sleep, Double Indemnity, The Maltese Falcon, Naked City, Out of the Past, Chinatown and L.A. Confidential as inspirations for L.A. Noire’s setting and tone. He then drops the following bit of Wisdom:
“Virtually all movies made from games are awful, while many games made from movies are also pretty horrible. This will change, but with an ever more discerning audience, the goals of taking something from film-to-game or game-to-film have to be more than financial. If you feel the property has something about it that is universal or could work in another medium, and it is not simply about making easy money, then that is something worthwhile.”
Something we should all take to heart. The entire interview is filled with golden nuggets like this.
Beyond that, we have the larger fact: no matter how cool Houser might try to play it, his is the first video game ever honored by a major film festival. And in New York. If it can make it there, it can make it anywhere. I can’t imagine what Roger Ebert will make of this. Then again, he loves noir the same way I love Japanese monster movies. And L.A. Noire seems to do for its genre what Red Dead Redemption did for the Western: give it a big, sloppy, thirty-plus hour kiss. If there was ever a video game designed for Roger Ebert, L.A. Noire is it.
That’s the secret to Rockstar’s success. Let Halo court the hardcore players who conform to tired stereotypes. Rockstar makes the games that appeal to people who don’t play video games. I was such a one. Sure I played a little Mario, but I sucked. And I didn’t care. Princess, mushrooms, evil turtles. Big deal. Then in 2001 (when GTA protagonists were still silent) a friend passed me a Playstation 2 controller. I’ve never looked back.