By Harold Goldberg
A number of people have come up to me in the past week or so with a burning question: “Why you?” They were referring to a process story I wrote for New York magazine and Vulture about Red Dead Redemption 2, Rockstar Games nearly perfect epic about the old West in a time when the West was fading. Those who asked would follow this up with “How did you get inside?”
I think part of it is that I have no ego about getting inside. Part of it is that I feel I’m representing writers who can’t get inside, and fans who don’t have the opportunity to meet Dan and Sam Houser, who work in a laser-focused way and who care about being there for their families. So they don’t have that much time to devote to the media and, say, fan events like BlizzCon.
The kind of process stories I write were taught to me by Adam Moss, who was a young editor of Esquire magazine when the only thing I cared about in the world was to write about pop music. He’s now the editor in chief at New York magazine. These process stories take you inside the development of a piece of pop culture with all of it ups and downs. But for Esquire back then, I wrote about the rise and fall of a band from Buffalo, my hometown. It had a cover line and was well-regarded enough that I was able to leave Buffalo and get work in dreamland here in New York City. I’ve been writing process stories now and then ever since. I like to know how things happen, what the barriers to that happening were, and how things become artful.
My access to Rockstar Games began when “All Your Base Are Belong to Us (How 50 Years of Videogames Conquered Pop Culture,” my narrative history of videogames was released some years ago. I wasn’t getting anywhere with their PR department. But I had been lucky enough to write a worldwide bestseller about serial killers and it covered the worst crimes in the world. I sent the book to Sam and Dan Houser and one of their representatives got in touch with me shortly thereafter.
It still wasn’t easy to get in. I spoke on a few occasions to Rockstar, by phone and in person outside of the office. They wanted to know if I knew the games well, of course. But they also wanted to know if I understood the Rockstar Vibe. To me, the Rockstar Vibe was about making artful games. I come from a kind of journalism where I care deeply about story, not game mechanics. Although I respect those who make them and like them, it doesn’t matter to me, say, to hear about how many kinds of weapons there are in a game and what they do.
The whole matters to me. The art matters to me. It’s not a lofty statement. I just want to be moved when I engage in popular culture of any sort. That’s not going to happen with a gun. It’s going to happen when the whole gets to me and makes me feel emotion. It’s then that I care about the making of a piece of popular art.
My book deadline had passed though, and the interview request was with Sam Houser, who was still helping to finish the first Red Dead Redemption. I received an extension from my editor. But then, my editor said, ‘It’s time for this to go to press. We can’t wait any longer.’ I said the book wouldn’t be complete without Rockstar in it. I said, I can’t deliver the final manuscript without an inside Rockstar story. It was a tense time, to be sure because I was calling into question the editor’s judgment.
Finally, the call came. Could you come down right now? Sam’s ready. I got in a car and sped almost three miles to the Rockstar Offices. I spent hours and hours with Sam Houser and then, more hours on the phone. He was open and funny and intelligent. We bonded on the music stories we had accumulated along the way. By the end, I had over 100 pages of transcript. By the time I submitted the book, I had two chapters, a total of about 10,000 words that no one else in the world had. After that, I profiled Sam for a cover story in Playboy magazine. And then came this story for New York magazine (and the longer piece in Vulture), which focuses on narrative and Dan Houser.
I started asking about the possibility doing the story in late January and commenced work on it beginning in May. But why me? I guess it’s that trust has built up over the years.
This story was to be about 5,000 words, but with tight editing at New York, it was a little shorter. I had so much more from Dan Houser, a number of hours that were recorded. But some things didn’t fit the kind of story I was writing. Ulltimately, the story in the arts section of New York magazine and in Vulture was a success (and controversial because writers wanted me to write the advocacy story they themselves wanted to write). I respect that (except for the insults) and went high when others went low. I said nothing online and went to the Catskill Mountains during the controversy. Up there, I had no internet and very little phone service. I worried a lot. But I also looked at the world of rural wonder around me. The expanse of the land out there itself humbles a person.
I can’t be a proper games journalist. I can only be a writer. I don’t care about hits or the popularity of a story. I just want to write the story. It’s the way I’m wired. It’s why I’ve been writing professionally for so many decades now. I feel I’m not better than anyone else. Sometimes, I feel I’m worse than everyone else.
But I’m still here. And when I’m asked “Why me?” it’s also because I’ve been around for a while, a long time. I have a perspective, a voice, and I don’t have a huge ego about it. I don’t want to advocate (except for our non-profit work in the community). I only want to work hard as a writer.
Author/journalist Harold Goldberg is the founder of the New York Videogame Critics Circle and the New York Game Awards.