The Process: The Sam Houser Story, Step By Step

by Harold Goldberg

Recently, CNET’s Jeff Bakalar and I had a conversation about a piece I wrote about Rockstar Games’ Sam Houser for Playboy magazine. Jeff was really kind to have me on, and his opener was akin to “That’s a hard interview to get. How did you get the interview?” I did my best to explain why, but since I’m better with the written word, here’s a bit more for journalists and those others interested in the process.

It was early in the new year when I began thinking about contacting Rockstar Games for a story about Sam Houser. Sam and I had a couple of fine, long conversations which resulted in two chapters in All Your Base Are Belong to Us, a narrative history of videogames I wrote a couple of years ago. Although we had corresponded via email since then, we hadn’t talked or seen each other since. We’d tried to have a get together upstate, where we both have houses fairly near each other. But Sam was always busy with work.

When Rockstar said the interview might be a possibility, I began to think of the right home for a profile. At first, I thought about the New York Times, where I’m a contributor. They indicated they had something in the works about Rockstar, so I looked elsewhere. I thought about contacts I had at the country’s more well-regarded and literary magazines. Yet, even in this day and age, the editors there at these magazines do not know games well, or well enough.

I thought of the better online sites, particularly Polygon. But I remember that when I was invited to apply for a job there, I suggested that I could bring Rockstar stories and a Sam Houser piece to the fold. I never heard back from Polygon at all. (I still quite enjoy what Polygon doing, however, especially those stories written by our members, Russ Frushtick, Chris Plante and Samit Sakar.)

I suggested the story in an email to Playboy, just a paragraph or two of how a story might unfold. For a while, I didn’t hear back. So I began to consider other options, maybe The Atlantic, maybe The New Yorker, maybe the Times of London. But when he responded, Jason Buhrmester responded with enthusiasm and, most importantly, understanding.

I chose Playboy because my editor isn’t just a brilliant editor. He knows games and games history. He understands them and appreciates them as a form of popular art. He’s also part of a team that is bringing back extraordinary writing and topics to the articles portion of the magazine. Ai Wei Wei. Marshall McLuhan. T.C. Boyle. Who wouldn’t want to be part of a magazine with content like that?

But would Rockstar itself go for a story in Playboy? I was happy to hear they trusted me and would be willing to work with me again. Ultimately, they said they were fine with any magazine that would understand what they were trying to do. And they were fine with letting me do a long profile of Sam. There were no deals made. No questions would be off the table. I could ask anything I wanted to ask.

Sam didn’t want to be photographed. That was all right with me; it would have no impact on the story. And I understood completely; I don’t like to be photographed, either.

The primary unknown was timing. Rockstar was in the midst of crunch time with Grand Theft Auto V. Sam was traveling back and forth to Scotland, the location of their Rockstar North studio, to help out with the finishing touches of the game.

The last time I spoke to Sam coincided with the release of Red Dead Redemption, the story-filled western that may be my favorite Rockstar game (the music is part of that, as our Robert Gordon explained so well recently). That particular long talk didn’t happen until the game launched, and that was right up against my book deadline – hard up against it. My editor, at one point, suggested that I drop the chapters. I couldn’t have that. The book would have been incomplete without the Rockstar story. We delayed my deadline, and just when the Witching Hour was nigh, the company came through.

It was the same this time. We originally planned for the piece to coincide with the release of GTA V in September. I told Playboy that if the interview happened by August 15, I could make their drop dead deadline and write the piece in four days. It would’ve been exhausting, but I believed I could have done it – as long as they paid for transcribing.

But by the time Sam was able to sit down in late August, that deadline had passed.

I now would have more time to hone the piece. Since I’m never quite satisfied with anything I write, I was happy to have the extra time.

Sam, who rode his bike in to the office that day as he always does, was enthusiastic and honest (as you can see by reading the piece). What I felt is that the conversation was like the theory-filled “My Dinner With Andre” film by director Louis Malle. I’m no Wallace Shawn, but Sam is like Andre Gregory in that he has thought so carefully about our human foibles, the culture of games and popular culture in general.

When the transcript was done, it was almost 90 pages in length. I had far more than I needed, and could have written a story of 15,000 words. The final draft came in about 1,000 words longer than my 5,000 word limit, and I had already cut a lot. Jason kindly said it was a really difficult piece to edit because there was so much in it that was gripping. But he tightened it expertly.

Eight months after the process had begun, the story was published in Playboy’s Christmas issue. I found it somehow wonderfully ironic that New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly was featured in the same issue as the one of the most important and most controversial makers of popular art – ever.

I don’t know when I’ll see Sam again. As I mentioned in the story, he does covet his privacy. But, from time to time, I’ll look at that transcript again. And I’ll probably become a bit wistful. I really wish I could share the full transcript and the audio tape with everyone. I can’t, unfortunately. But I’ve done the best I can with the story, explaining some of the heretofore unfamiliar inner workings and the candid, fascinating thought processes of an artist at the very top of his game.

Harold Goldberg is the founder of the New York Videogame Critics Circle.

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