Dan Houser, co-founder and vice president of creativity at Rockstar, has said his studio’s open-world GTA games aren’t about violence, but a way to provide players with a medium where freedom of choice is a constant.
Speaking in an interview with Gamespot regarding the tenth anniversary of GTA III, Houser said there’s a reason the team prefers the term “open-world” to describe the game instead of”sandbox,” as he feels the later denotes tossing things into a game with little sense of choice for the player.
“To us, sandbox has this idea of throwing things in without any sense of choice over what’s going in there, while we were carefully picking features and controlling the experience in a particular way,” he said. “It wasn’t this total freeform experience. We gave the player more freedom, but it was just controlled in another way. That’s why we prefer “open-world.” It’s just more descriptive of what we felt we were doing.”
Because of the open-world nature of the title being something almost “radically new” for the time, and due to game’s subsequent success, many games have followed suit with the format.
“When it turned up on PS2, it created something that felt very radically new,” said Houser. “It was this combination of an environment that was full of content that you accessed through geography as much as timeline. And now what seems incredibly obvious but at the time was incredibly progressive, but seamlessness between mechanics or modes.
“You were driving because you got into a car, not because you entered the driving mode. You were shooting because you pulled out a gun, not because you entered the shooting bit. You can do anything, anywhere, within reason–reason based on logic rather than mechanical limitations, if that makes sense. That’s been its biggest legacy.”
Due such progressive inclusions, controversy surrounding the series ensued. Houser touched up this, stating that the main theme behind the game wasn’t violence, but freedom for the player to make decisions based upon their own morality. The idea that, in a game, you could turn the player into an active participant, was an appealing concept to Rockstar.
“The key idea of the game was that it wasn’t about violence; it was about freedom,” he explained. “We thought that was something that games did very well, the idea that you’re turning a viewer into an active participant. So give them the freedom of choice over what they do… give them the choice over what they do next.
“And when you’re not in the story and you’re in the open-world stuff, you can really choose what you do. Good, bad, and indifferent. Drive around listening to music. They were limited, but there were some minigames. Or you could be as big a sociopath as you see fit, and the game will punish you accordingly.
“The thing about the game is that, in some ways, it’s the exact opposite: you get punished as much as you can punish someone in a game for your actions. And you don’t get away with anything.
“Subsequently, as we’ve developed the games and expanded them, we’ve tried to improve all of those things. We’ve certainly tried to improve the story, but we’ve also tried to improve how the non-story content works and make the space between the two smaller. A variety of content that’s not likely to get you arrested, and a variety of content that is. We’ve tried to develop all areas of that. But we’ve definitely tried to give players freedom in how they played the game. That was key to what the game was about and is about.”
As far as any remaining controversy surrounding GTA III, or for the series as whole is concerned, Houser said it was never about reality – only the reality of a movie world. Therefore, any heat the studio accumulates through the media, or elsewhere, it just accepts it, and moves past it.
“If what we do is wildly pathetic and immature, we’ll take the heat for that just the same as if it’s fantastic,” he said.