Ask Dan Houser what Red Dead Redemption is about and the usually loquacious VP of creative at Rockstar Games pauses for 10 seconds. "It's America," he finally replies. "The birth of modern America. What was gained and what was lost."
Some might scoff at the idea that a video game can tackle such heady themes, but Houser and his brother Sam, the co-founders of Rockstar, are used to being underestimated. Their label, part of Take-Two Interactive, is best known for its massively popular Grand Theft Auto series, which has sold more than 100 million copies and generated lawsuits, boycotts and legislation because of explicit violence and sexual content.
The Housers are British immigrants whose critical eye for their adopted country and embrace of its pop culture tropes is reflected in nearly every game they make. Recent Grand Theft Auto (known affectionately as GTA) releases fit comfortably in the tradition of crime dramas like " The Godfather" and "Scarface" with plots that comment on the myths and realities of the American dream.
Now Rockstar is moving into perhaps the only genre that provides an even better backdrop for those themes: the western. Red Dead Redemption, which comes out May 18 after five years of development, takes place at the twilight of the Old West, in 1908, when Easterners and automobiles were encroaching on the previously untamed frontier and the cowboy was fading into fiction. The game's main character, John Marston, is a recognizable relic: An ex-gunslinger forced into tracking down his old gang in order to save his family.
Red Dead Redemption comes at an awkward time for the western, as the genre has been all but dead on the big screen since Clint Eastwood had arguably the last word on the subject in 1992's "Unforgiven."
The minds at Rockstar are convinced that what the western needs now is to be experienced instead of watched. The company is known for making "open world" games in which players can go anywhere and do nearly anything, and Red Dead Redemption is its biggest yet. Its map spans from a virtual Wyoming to Mexico, from ranch to saloon to burgeoning Texas city to pueblo-filled border town.
"They're called westerns, not ‘outlaw' or ‘cowboy' films, and that's an inherently geographical word," said Dan Houser, a fast-talker with a shaved head who cites "The Wild Bunch" and 2005's little-seen Australian film "The Proposition" as inspirations. "One thing games do better than any other media is give you a sense of place. This is what we consider doing a western properly."
Since its founding 12 years ago, Rockstar has tried to create a major hit besides GTA but has managed only modest successes. The substantial resources invested into Red Dead show the company believes it can buck history and sell at least several million units at $60 a pop, but the prospects are far from certain.
"Rockstar has a very odd place in the industry because there's an audience who appreciates the way its games criticize our culture and there's an audience who just love running around and blowing things up," said Tom Bissell, author of the upcoming book "Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter." "I think the first group will love to see Rockstar explore the mythology of the Old West, but it's hard to know if the second will find that as interesting."
TOP SECRET WORK
Although Houser thinks big picture at Rockstar's headquarters in New York City, Red Dead Redemption has been designed at the Rockstar San Diego studio, located in a discrete second-floor office in Carlsbad.
The lack of signage is one indication of how tightly controlled operations are at the secretive Rockstar. In a rare instance when the company opened itself to the press, a Times photographer was forbidden from publishing any pictures beyond one arranged by marketing staff.
On the main production floor, about 200 programmers, designers and artists were hard at work last month in their cubicles putting the finishing touches on Redemption. It's a spiritual successor to 2004's smaller scale Red Dead Revolver, which bears only a little of the Rockstar touch because it was primarily overseen by Japanese publisher Capcom.
Roughly 500 people around the world have contributed to Redemption over the last five years. By contrast, Activision's Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, the bestselling game of 2009, was made by fewer than 100 people in two years.
In an office off the production floor, Leslie Benzies showed more than 200,000 items he thinks will be critical to Red Dead's success: They're bugs that have been individually identified and fixed. Some are huge, like characters walking through walls, but others are as seemingly trivial as the size of the moon and the color of dust.
Benzies, the president of Rockstar's Scotland studio that makes GTA games, came to Carlsbad six months ago in part to bring a perfectionist's eye to the end of production. "It's vitally important that every little thing in the world is right," he said, "because the slightest thing that's wrong can disconnect players."
It hasn't been an easy five years, insiders admit, with several journeys down paths never finished. It's difficult to imagine the finished product being much bigger, however, as it takes at least 40 hours for a single person to complete and hundreds more for those who pursue optional challenges and play together online.
Because Red Dead Redemption takes place in desolate, rough country, integrating a hallmark trait of Rockstar's past games — the ability to chance upon interesting people and things to do — was a major challenge. "It would have been contrived to say ‘Here's another small town and another small town,' " said producer Steve Martin. "So we made the natural world alive with bears, coyotes, cougars and snakes. It gives you that sense of struggle against the wilderness."
There were numerous other problems inherent in a western setting. How do you make things stand out in a world where the ground, the clothing and many people's skin tones are brown? Tricks with lighting and smoke. How do you make objects appear rugged and sun-warped? Forbid the use of straight lines. How do you make a horse move as realistically as a car in Grand Theft Auto? Record a real horse in a motion capture studio.
As with all of Rockstar's open world games, Red Dead is divided into missions, specific tasks that advance the story in small chunks, such as earning a sheriff's trust by helping him bring in the local "most wanted." Marston is just as deadly with his rifle as GTA protagonists have been with semiautomatics. He doesn't, however, engage in any of their controversial sexual behavior. "I'm a married man," Marston says early in the game when told about available "female company."
"We have just over 500 characters who all have names, family members and jobs," said Josh Bass, head of art. "You can see a man at 7 a.m. in a Mexican market manning the chicken stand and at 6 p.m. he'll go over to the local pub."
The least defined charcater in the game, in fact, may be John Marston. Though he has an overarching goal, players define what kind of man he is and what kind of game Red Dead Redemption is based on how they handle the thousands of interactive moments that make it up. In one optional mission, Marston finds a woman being held up at gunpoint along the side of the road. He can save her, participate in the robbery and pocket the money, or ignore her and ride off into the sunset.
"The morally ambiguous cowboy is the perfect protagonist for the style of game we make," observed Houser. "Sometimes you can be the hero, sometimes you can be the bad guy, and sometimes while you're deciding what to do, a bear comes out of nowhere and eats someone."