Dan Houser on Grand Theft Auto 5, metaphysics and the power of three

To those familiar with Rockstar and the studio's ability to deliver interesting narratives swimming in massive, compelling, completely open settings, it may come as a surprise to learn that Grand Theft Auto 5 started not so much with a story, as it did a literary technique.

More interesting is that in creating their new game, one starring three equally central protagonists, the developers feel they've stumbled upon a paradigm shift in video game narrative. That the game's unusual plot device might inspire metaphysical discussion is perhaps a happy accident. But the game's impetus wasn't.

Fresh off its work on Grand Theft Auto 4's post-release episodes and the completion of Red Dead Redemption, the team felt the need to try something different, said Rockstar's Dan Houser.

"We'd made, suddenly, a lot of these high-definition types of games with single heroes and we wanted to do something different for this game," Houser told Polygon. "We really wanted to push ourselves and keep the audience guessing and do something they weren't going to expect."

So the team set a goal for itself: To create a game with not one protagonist, but three. Three characters who would equally share the spotlight of the last Grand Theft Auto of this console generation. In so doing, Houser believes the game delivers a new way to tell stories, creating something that is uniquely a video game narrative.

The Power of Three

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In Grand Theft Auto 5, players will take on the roles of a retired bank robber, his former partner in crime and a young repo man. While players can switch whenever they want between the three characters, who go about their lives when not being controlled, the game's central story does require spending time in each man's shoes.

In our time playing through some of the game's major missions, we discovered that character hot-swapping not only allows a player to examine a moment from multiple angles, but also allows a player to fine-tune their experience.

But it wasn't always that way. Initially, Houser said, the three-protagonist plot was just a new way to tell a story. The decision to create this braided plot, Houser said, was in part inspired by the way in which some of the follow-up episodes for Grand Theft Auto 4 so neatly crossed over with the game's main plot.

"Even though they were fairly small, we felt there was a lot of potential in doing that and pushing that further," Houser said. "So it really began as a sort of story device, to have these three stories that crossed over a lot more."

But as the developers explored the concept of a single story fashioned by three interwoven plots, Houser said they realized that the plot device could become a major component of how the game played as well.

The end result was missions that had a better sense of flow and removed the interactive chaff inherent in most video games

They realized that by allowing players to switch between the three characters during a mission, they not only ceded more control over to the player, they breathed new life into what could become monotonous gameplay elements. Tired of shooting down the bad guys as they stream into a room? Switch to the character piloting the helicopter. Tired of flying? Pop over to the character set up as a sniper.

The end result was missions that had a better sense of flow and removed the interactive chaff inherent in most video games.

"So there was this idea that our mission was to make the action a lot more condensed in an interesting way," Houser said. "It could also provide these sort of spectacular movements where you're seeing a fun piece of action from two different perspectives."

As the team worked to meld the story's plot with this switching mechanic, they stumbled across a third benefit to this emerging idea: That players would be able to switch to any of the three characters at any time during the game, not just in the thick of a gunfight or during a mission.

"This isn't anything to do with the story or the narrative, but does tell the wider story of these people because they're all living their own lives," Houser said. "Any moment you could go and see what they're up to and it relates to what point you're up to in the real story. You just get a real feeling for them as existing outside of you controlling them, so that just kind of added this great ambient storytelling quality and fun to it.

"You jump across and Trevor's doing something crazy. Michael's stuck in some kind of existential hell hole of his own making, and Franklin is getting into his trouble."

Houser believes this third ability, being able to pop into the lightly scripted everyday lives of any of the game's protagonists at any time, is something unique to interactive media and video games.

"It was sort of a non-narrative storytelling technique that you could only use in games," he said. "It was obviously cinematic in tone but was a unique to games feature. You find what they're doing and then you carry on with what they're doing or take them off where you want to take them. It felt really magical when you see them all living their lives like this and it gave a lot of opportunities for fun."

A Day in the Life

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The everyday lives of Grand Theft Auto 5's chief anti-heroes are not fully realized. Michael doesn't have a full life he's living when you're not controlling him, nor does Franklin or Trevor. Instead the game uses a bit of trickery to create the illusion that they do, and that's probably for the best.

When a player jumps into the life of one of the characters, they're often up to something, not simply staring at a wall in a bedroom save point. The player drops into a tableau that can sometimes be compelling, sometimes not so much, but is often designed to offer a bit of subtle insight into that character's life and personality.

"It's a life he's living, that you're not involved in," Houser said. "As the storyline is progressed through the narrative, that life he's living will change."

Because players can choose to switch between the three at will, when not in the thick of a major plot point or mission, the team was careful not to load up these everyday life moments with key plot points.

"You'll miss lots if you don't pop over to [a character] from time to time," Houser said. "You'll miss lots of the stuff they are potentially getting up to, but you won't miss key plot points. It will be little details about what their lives are like, based on what you've done in the plot. You'll miss those obviously if you move the plot past where those are no longer relevant, and just the sheer number of things you can see them get up to, you'll miss them if you don't keep going to have a look for them."

Early on, the team decided not to create cinematic cutscenes for these switches because they didn't want to slow the game down.

"It's a life he's living, that you're not involved in"

"You just kind of get to them and you just see what they're up to and carry on. It may be that they are being chased by police, so you've got to deal with that situation; it may be that Michael is arguing with his wife and the argument's sort of ending as you get to him," Houser said. "So we wanted to keep it flowing. We didn't want it to stop and give you, 'Here's a big story recap,' because we thought that was going to sort of gum the game up."

The hope is that players will be able to quickly slip in and out of the lives of the three characters and get a sense of how things are going for them effortlessly.

"The whole point is to just set the scene and move on with them," he said. "So they all have their own timetable as to how they're living, when they're sleeping, what are they going to be doing. And that changes as the game progresses, and where they're doing these things changes."

The decision to put the uninhabited protagonists in motion came about as a way to solve a problem created by having three mains, Houser said. Having static characters you jump into would have been incredibly boring, so they solved for that.

"As is often the case with game development, you only solve the problems that you come across," he said. "So you never would have thought of this until you realize, 'We've got to make this interesting every time you come to these.' And then you try to make it as fun and as visually exciting as possible. So it got more and more complex as you move on. But, it started off with just a simple timetable and then it turned into these mini-scenes you flow into and then some of them had action attached to it."

The metaphysics of GTA 5

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It turns out that creating three characters with disparate lives and stories to tell, while keeping them all, individually, the unique center of their lives and the story, isn't as easy as it sounds. There's even a bit of metaphysics involved.

"I suppose we think of it as, each character sees themselves as being the star of their own movie of their life," Houser said. "Everybody thinks they're the star of their own movie at some level, don't they, in existence? So to each character, they are very much the star of their experience. We really wanted to focus on each of them having their own sense of progression, their own adventure, but where they're also so interwoven that it doesn't break apart in the same way as say, the episodes from GTA 4 plus the two mission packs breaks apart into three very clear stories with small points of crossover.

"In this, they're much more tightly interwoven to the point where they almost become the same thing, but, to any one of them, at any one moment, they should always feel like they're not someone else's supporting character; it's their life, it's their adventure."

So if the characters, as seen through the filter of their own perception, are each the star of the game, what's the reality, I ask Houser. Who is actually the star?

"Well without wanting to give away too many spoilers, I suppose answering that question is something you don't even really do until once you finish the game," Houser said. "It's sort of up to the player, I suppose, to figure out what they think. The debate about who you think is the star, or what you think is right, that kind of is what the game's about at some level. I realize I'm being somewhat obtuse, which I'm trying not to be without giving away big spoilers. The game is a story, and hopefully it stands as a story or multiple stories. But one of the things we're trying to get people to think about, I suppose, is who is not better, but less bad of these characters, as you play through their adventures together. That's probably the best way to say it without totally spoiling the game."

"Everybody thinks they're the star of their own movie at some level, don't they, in existence?"

Another integral part of the game is how those three characters interact with one another. Their relationship to one another is "absolutely" important, Houser said.

"Within the story, their relationships with each other and how they view each other is the story," he said. "That's very fun for us to play around with and obviously something we couldn't have done previously without having multiple characters that you could play as and so have a sort of unique relationship with each of them."

Creating that sense that no one is the star, but they all are, while balancing their relationships with one another, required quite a bit of tweaking, Houser said.

When the game does require a shift between characters, usually driven by the story, it's spread out fairly evenly, so players tend to spend equal amounts of time with the three. More complicated was making sure that no one character came across as any particular archetype, like "the bad guy."

"Well, the hope I suppose is that everybody has their own relationship with all three of the characters, likes and dislikes them in different ways," Houser said. "They're not meant to be, this guy's the hero, this guy's the bad guy, this guy's the confused guy. It's meant to be slightly more shades of gray than that, I mean dark gray for all of them, but shades of gray."

While making the game, the team grew concerned that wasn't happening, that maybe one character was slowly becoming the game's anti-hero or the game's bad guy.

"So we moved things around a little bit and toned them down and rejigged them," he said.

During tests of the final game, the developers were happy to see that players came out of the experience with a differing sense of whom they liked most.

"We want them to be different for everybody," Houser said. "Because they all are meant to be in some ways the hero, in some ways the villain, in some ways the anti-hero. We wanted people to be pulled in different directions. To see that people were coming up with different answers to who they like best and different things they liked best about them.

"It should feel as you play through the game that you get pulled towards one of the characters and away from another one, and back again. So we wanted you to feel like you've been pulled and pushed by the characters into believing this or that one's better or worse, or more justified, less justified in his actions or behavior or whatever."

What they didn't want was to take a single character and split him up into three.

"The goal was to try and make something that was different, it was a sort of paradigm shift and there were three protagonists," he said. "We thought we'd pushed it a long way in having one character. But I don't think, us having made it, you can now condense it down and go, 'Well, together they make one character.' No, together they make three."

Once upon a time in a video game

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Telling a story through the eyes of three protagonists isn't a completely unique concept. But Houser believes that doing so in a video game delivers something completely unique to the medium and far more complex to achieve than in more static narratives.

"We tailor the story to the mechanics and to the game," he said. "We write the story in order to make what we think will be a component of a really fun, mechanically rich, content-diverse game. I'm sure there are aspects of it that you could certainly pull apart, put in a TV show, a series of movies, or condense it down into a movie or into a book, but you couldn't tell it this way apart from in a video game.

"The relationship that games give you with your protagonist is very powerful. The way they make you bond with a character you are playing as. To make you bond with three people was something very interesting to us about this story."

Delivering that experience was much more challenging than expected, Houser said.

"When we actually dug into it and started trying to make missions like this, they figured out how to do some amazing things, the scripters, but it created plenty of problems, a huge number of challenges," Houser said. "Like, how do you make it interesting and feel like the player was being pulled along in a way that felt like they weren't being tricked by the way we set stuff up? And just bits where we are trying to keep three plots alive at any one time and not confuse the player too much, not overwhelm them with the amount of information. And making sure they are getting revelations at the same time the character's getting them, so it doesn't feel like that they've been kept in the dark too much.

"I definitely feel that the way we got the story flowing this time is the best we've ever had it. As the game starts, it kicks off and you are just dragged along with it and it feels like it can't be stopped, it really pleased me."

Check back Monday at 10 a.m. Eastern for our review of the game.

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