Those damn cable networks that cover games only in terms of violence. Those big ‘consumer’ magazines that never review games. They think we don’t think. They think we don’t read. They think we need to get a life. Well, we have one, and, yeah, it’s rich beyond videogames. But it’s also made richer because of videogames. That’s why, after more than 15 years of covering games, I had to write All Your Base Are Belong to Us, How Fifty Years of Videogames Conquered Pop Culture.
So when I locked myself in my lair for most of the past three years to write, there was one thing I wanted to prove. In All Your Base, I wanted to show how full videogames have made our lives. And I wanted to do that by writing about the many game makers whose passion and knowledge about games goes beyond what you see on the screen when you play.
All of them exude great passion for their work. You can see it in the 89-year-old eyes of Ralph Baer, the maker of the Magnavox Odyssey. Baer dreamed of pretty much all the bells and whistles in games today — back in the 1970s. You can hear it when Ken Levine leans forward and gets gunned up about the pop and literary culture that influenced BioShock, and soon, BioShock Infinite. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. Dark, literary stuff.
It was my guess that I could find same enthusiasm in Sam Houser, the notoriously press-averse Rockstar games co-founder – if I could ever get past the doors. No one had gotten a really long, incisive interview with Sam, ever. He and his brother Dan are kind of like the J.D. Salinger’s of videogames. They really don’t need to court the blogs, magazines or TV talk shows. Rockstar’s offerings can sell without the constant help of the media industrial complex because there’s just so much inspired content in their games.
Ten months before All Your Base was due at Crown, I reached out to Rockstar via email. I heard nothing. Eight emails and two months later, I still heard nothing much. My stomach was in knots. Then, an ex-girlfriend said she had a friend inside. It turned out that she knew a person who had merely done business with Rockstar. While he sent an email, he didn’t want to stick his neck out beyond that. Crap! Another dead end! I thought about waiting for Sam at the Rockstar offices entrance. But that thought was brief. I’m no stalker.
I decided to approach Sam and Dan directly. I sent My Life Among The Serial Killers, a book I co-wrote with a brilliant psychiatrist, to both brothers. I said I truly enjoyed the Grand Theft Auto games and that no history would come close to being complete without the Rockstar story. Dan Houser, the estimable head writer of most of Rockstars’ games, took the book and letter to their marketing department.
Soon, I had two meetings with this really pleasant, thoughtful woman from Rockstar who got games and understood what I was trying to do. Probably just like you, we both believe great games can be considered popular art, and we talked geek talk about the dialog in GTA series, how surprisingly deep and often funny that writing could be. Like, in Grand Theft Auto IV, I’d have to pull over while driving because the talk radio shows made me laugh so uncontrollably. Good times.
She soon said that Sam indeed wanted to do the interview. I was thrilled. But Rockstar was in crunch time for Red Dead Redemption. Yet the interview was on! And then it was off! Then, it was on! And off. And on. And off, all due to deadlines.
No one around me believed it was going to happen.
People kept saying, let it go. They’re stringing you along. Having worked at Sony Online Entertainment during the launch of EverQuest, I knew they weren’t jerking me around. That didn’t mean I didn’t want to hurl each time the interview was postponed.
March, 2010 was the date the manuscript was due at the publisher. That wasn’t going to happen. I pleaded with my editor for more time and got the extension. But as April came along, my editor’s generally gracious nature began to turn to worry. The book’s release date had already been postponed. And then the Rockstar interview was postponed again. I almost began to believe it wouldn’t happen. My editor began to tell me to let it go. But I couldn’t; in fact, I couldn’t sleep at night. I was so close. I kept getting up at 3am and adding more to pages of questions I had.
Shortly after Red Dead Redemption was released, I got a call asking if I could get to the office in 20 minutes. I said, “But I’m way on the other side of town.” Rockstar said, “Get ready. We’re sending a car for you in 10 minutes.” I threw an iPod Touch and my questions into my Heart of Darkness backpack and was out the door.
Twenty minutes later, I sat in a conference room with Rockstar memorabilia around me. I wasn’t nervous, well, not too nervous. But I was ready. Sam came in, limping a little from a spill he’d taken while riding his bike. He sported a long, Red Dead Redemption-style beard. The first thing he did was apologise for the long process of getting into Rockstar. He meant it. I could see it in his eyes.
Then Houser said, “Isn’t this an amazing time for games? Red Dead Redemption and Super Mario Galaxy 2 are being released at the same time.” Sam actually is a Nintendo fan, having worked on a slyly humorous Nintendo 64 game called, “Space Station Silicon Valley.”
He sat down on a couch, and I could visibly see that he swallowed hard, kind of a gulp. He was getting ready to talk like he hadn’t ever before.
Sam was completely affable, and we discussed everything Rockstar. He talked about how he was torn about moving to New York from London. He talked about the early days of Take-Two and about making ports of middling offerings like Bass Hunter to fund games he really liked. He said that Dan’s first writing gig was on a British version of the trivia game, You Don’t Know Jack.
He became more serious and talked about 9/11, about the horrors of watching the Twin Towers come down, about changing GTA III because of the tenor of the times, all about Hot Coffee and about dealing with the Feds. He talked about some very dark days, which I detail in the book. Everything was on the table.
And he’s no a fan of the many executive level bloodsuckers in the world of games. Houser said, “I’ve been working in this industry for quite a long time. I think it’s getting itself into sticky territory when it thinks only sequels and franchises and brands are what people (care) about. These companies are run by these corporate types while the great, creative things (in games) have only really come from guys going, ‘Well, we’re gonna make this because that’s what we believe in. So that’s what we’re going to make.’ It doesn’t come from people going, ‘Well, this is what our feedback told us, and this is how we’ve assessed its viability, so this is what you have to make.’
Among the 200 people I spoke with for the book, Sam Houser is the most outwardly passionate game maker I met. Yet he has that same cynical, New York edge that I have, the one that warns, Yeh, everything probably can go wrong, and it’s all right to be paranoid about it – as long as you have a glimmer of hope. Like me, and maybe you, too, Houser felt like an outsider in the world. He still does. It was something I hadn’t contemplated much before; I had thought that if you had made it big, that black sheep-ness would magically disappear. It was sheer prejudice on my part. But Sam uses that outsider-ness to Rockstar’s benefit — to motivate and drive his people to make better games.
Hours and hours went by. It was like this Vulcan mind meld. We talked about punk rock, blue-eyed soul, books, travelling, being on the road, and, mostly, games. I spoke with Sam twice more for two hours with follow up questions. Some people have said, “Dude, you’ve drunk the Rockstar Kool-Aid.” Others have said, “Watch out. They’re going to turn on you.” I’m not a fanboy; I ask tough questions and write with a critical eye. But I am a videogame fan, just like you. And one thing about Rockstar; they’re never going to turn on their fans.
If you’re a fan or a games journalist, I hope you get to meet Sam and the other game makers at Rockstar somewhere down the line. For now, you’ve got what I’ve written in All Your Base Are Belong to Us. I really hope you’ll check out the book to read those intense Rockstar chapters (and about the ups and downs of all the genius game changers). In the meantime, be loud and proud, gamers. To paraphrase National Book Award winner Patti Smith at her punk rock best, At heart, you’re a video gamer. And you have no guilt.
Harold Goldberg is the author of All Your Base Are Belong to Us, How Fifty Years of Videogames Conquered Pop Culture. He will read from the book at The Strand Bookstore, 828 Broadway in Manhattan, on April 7th at 7pm.