Reporting from Carlsbad and New York — 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.