How The West Was Digitized
New York magazine|October 15, 2018

Rockstar Games, maker of the megahitGrand Theft Auto V, readies its next blockbuster, a follow-up to the Westernred dead redemption.

Harold Goldberg

You can't simply stroll into the Manhattan offices of Rockstar Games. If you make it past the downstairs lobby and up the elevator, a thick metal door blocks your way. After you’re buzzed inside, you’ll need to wear a laminated visitor’s pass to get beyond reception. Signs warn you not to post anything about your visit on social media. Even in the bathroom, a placard jabs, lift the seat before you leak: offenders will be sacrificed. By the door, a worker bee looks at me suspiciously and escorts me back to reception. “You’re not supposed to be out here without someone watching you,” he says.

Inside this highly secure enclave, one of the world’s most successful writers dwells. Along with the team he oversees, Dan Houser, 44, is in no small way responsible for a great portion of tens of billions of dollars in video-game sales, and unless you’re someone who pores over credits, you probably don’t know his name. Dan and his brother, Sam, 47, the Rockstar Games founders, prefer it that way. They hardly ever give interviews, and they’ve never taken a PR photo together. With fame comes annoying obligations and, as Dan has observed by proximity to celebrities he’s worked with, “lots of girls who only want to speak to you or have sex with you because you’re famous. And in exchange for that, you give up your whole soul.” Rockstar hasn’t had a booth at E3, the nation’s biggest game convention—which Sam considers “a big sort of willy-waving exercise”—in over a decade.

The work sells itself. Rockstar’s last release, Grand Theft Auto V, the 2013 action game for which Dan was the lead writer, earned $1 billion in its first three days and has sold nearly 100 million copies. In April of this year, GTAV—made on a reported budget of $265 million—passed $6 billion in sales, making it the highest-grossing entertainment product in history (Avatar, the highest-grossing movie ever, earned only a measly $2.8 billion in theaters).

So there’s a feeling of excitement in the Rockstar offices in early June, five months before the launch of its next project: Red Dead Redemption 2, a prequel to 2010’s open-world Western game Red Dead Redemption, which sold over 15 million copies. Even though RDR2 has been in development for seven years, there’s still much to be done. I’m here today to watch an hour’s worth of game footage.

What I see convinces me that Rockstar may have once again pushed games forward as an art form. RDR2 is set in 1899, at the end of the Wild West era, and features a character named Arthur Morgan, a square jawed, mostly moral cowboy who begins to question the motives of the outlaw gang he belongs to. The game is a mix of stunning artwork, smart writing, and crafty artificial intelligence that makes even non-playable characters on the side of the road seem sentient. Unlike with most current games, there’s no waiting for a scene to load; you move without interruption from game play to movie like cut scenes. Its world feels fully realized, as if players could live in it and put down virtual roots. But I won’t know for sure until I play it—and they won’t let me do that yet.

Rockstar seldom fails, however. Its games are like interactive Scorsese or Tarantino movies, open-world crime sagas or Westerns, with casts of well-shaded antiheroes, in which players can go anywhere or do anything—including complete the prescribed missions or just explore—and then watch the environment respond as though its designers had anticipated their every move. Arguably, because Dan Houser and 2001’s Grand Theft Auto III, Rockstar’s breakthrough hit, set the bar high for crime games, Amy Hennig (the Uncharted series) and Ken Levine (Bioshock) could raise it in other genres. “The Rockstar guys are just so good at making the world feel alive,” says Neil Druckmann, an award-winning game writer himself (The Last of Us) and the creative director of Naughty Dog, the studio behind the Uncharted series, which has sold many millions of copies. “Even just the beauty of riding a horse through gorgeous environments and having the light shifting—it feels so real.”

In August, I receive an email from Sam Houser, Rockstar Games’ president, who writes, “We’ve poured everything we have into [RDR2]. We have really pushed ourselves as hard as we can.” In the past, Dan Houser, Rockstar’s vice-president for creative, has spoken emotionally about how hard he and the company’s teams—ten across the globe, from California to India—work. “That was shit,” he says. “This was the hardest.”

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