Explanation: Understanding Grand Theft Auto: An Exploration of the Games and Controversies
TA is a collection of action-packed video games that take place in fictional cities primarily in the US. In these games, players assume the role of a criminal (or group of criminals) who must navigate the dangerous criminal world of present-day America. These criminals steal cars and complete various tasks and robberies for elusive crime bosses. The later games offer expansive cities or states that can be freely explored, allowing players to engage in activities such as biking through the countryside or undertaking side jobs for car thieves, drug dealers, or corrupt politicians.
The original Grand Theft Auto was designed by a Dundee-based studio, DMA Design, which also produced the famed platforming series Lemmings. At the time, the game was an unloved project and publisher BMG Interactive almost canned it several times. Now it is one of the most successful franchises in existance, created by developer Rockstar’s studios across the world, and led from Edinburgh by Rockstar North.
Grand Theft Auto (1997)
In the initial installment, players select a character from a pool of eight options and navigate three crudely illustrated cities from a bird’s eye view – Liberty (based on New York), San Andreas (San Francisco), and Vice City (Miami) – by stealing cars, running over pedestrians, and completing tasks for a powerful criminal. The game, released on PlayStation and PC, quickly sparked controversy for its immoral violence. BMG Interactive hired publicist Max Clifford who deliberately fueled the outcry, leading to Scottish secretary Lord Campbell of Croy denouncing the game in the House of Lords. Two expansion packs, GTA London 1969 and London 1961, were subsequently released – these remain the only GTA games set outside of the US.
Grand Theft Auto 2 (1999)
The sequel takes place in the futuristic Anywhere City and closely resembles its predecessor in terms of top-down graphics, a nameless protagonist, and an open-world structure with mission-based gameplay. However, it introduces the idea of rival crime organizations, giving players the option to join and earn respect, leading to more challenging missions. It also offers the opportunity to take on lawful side jobs like driving a taxi or delivering packages. The game is mostly unremarkable, except for its inclusion of an eight-minute live-action movie introduction and being the only GTA game released on Sega’s Dreamcast console.
Grand Theft Auto III (2001)
After DMA Design shut down, Rockstar North took over to create this game, which marked the start of the modern era for GTA. While the main concept of completing illegal tasks for criminal organizations remained, the lead character now had a personal motive: seeking revenge after being betrayed in a heist. This game also introduced a fully 3D environment, with a revamped version of Liberty City based on New York City. The shift from a top-down view, along with the lively game world, intriguing characters from the underworld, and stellar voice acting by Debi Mazar and Kyle Maclachlan, resulted in both critical and commercial success. However, there was controversy when it was discovered that players could pick up sex workers for a health boost and then kill them to retrieve their money. Despite the media’s outrage, the game never required this type of behavior. GTA’s belief is that players should have freedom to do as they please, even if it may be morally questionable.
Afterwards, two portable games were released before the main game: Grand Theft Auto Advance in 2004 for the Game Boy Advance, which heavily drew on the first two GTA games for its graphics. The next year, Rockstar Leeds launched Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories on the Sony PSP, which introduced 3D graphics to the handheld spin-offs.
Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (2002)
Let’s now discuss what many consider to be the most significant game in the series: the story of Tommy Viccenti, a criminal determined to climb the ranks in Vice City, a corrupt city modeled after Miami. It heavily draws inspiration from Brian de Palma’s Scarface and Miami Vice, featuring a mix of popular music, drugs, and violence. The game’s 80s setting, complete with a soundtrack of contemporary pop, was a clever choice that allowed players to engage in explosive activities while listening to iconic bands like Flock of Seagulls. However, this was also when the game faced significant controversy. The Haitian Centers Council denounced its portrayal of immigrants, and Rockstar faced two multimillion-dollar lawsuits from families of murder victims who claimed that the game had influenced their killers.
In 2006, a prequel called Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories was released for the Sony PSP handheld console. The game included a special appearance by Phil Collins as a voice actor.
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (2004)
The game takes place in a fictional version of California created by Rockstar. It includes a city named Los Santos, which is similar to Los Angeles. The game is heavily influenced by movies from the late 1990s, such as Boyz n the Hood and Menace II Society. The main character, Carl “CJ” Johnson, is a former gang member who returns to his old neighborhood for his mother’s funeral and gets caught up in his old lifestyle. The game features a large map with three cities and diverse landscapes, as well as a variety of activities like gambling and cycling. One of the standout characters is Officer Frank Tenpenny, voiced by Samuel L Jackson.
The “Hot Coffee” controversy, where hackers discovered and shared a hidden sex scene in GTA: San Andreas that was removed from the game, is a noteworthy aspect of the game’s legacy. This led to Congress taking action and the founders of Rockstar, Sam and Dan Houser, being questioned by the Federal Trade Commission.
Grand Theft Auto IV (2008)
Rockstar’s gritty tale of the immigrant experience centers around Niko Bellic, a former soldier from Eastern Europe who pursues the American dream in Liberty City through organized crime. This installment of GTA was the first to incorporate a cellphone as a HUD device, allowing Niko to access features such as ordering taxis, calling friends, and managing his wealth. The game gained notoriety for its darker tone and the constant demands of Niko’s cousin Roman, who always wants to go bowling. While it did not spark as many controversies as previous versions, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) attempted to have it reclassified as adults-only in the US due to its portrayal of car chases involving drunk drivers.
In 2009, the game produced two subsequent installments: The Lost and Damned and The Ballad of Gay Tony. This demonstrated Rockstar’s increasing focus on prolonging the longevity of each major GTA launch.
Grand Theft Auto V / GTA Online (2013)
Initially released for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, GTA V quickly became a phenomenon. While GTA 4 criticized the American dream, this game targeted every corrupt and hypocritical element of modern America. Returning to San Andreas, Rockstar’s fictional version of California, and the city of Los Santos, players were introduced to three main characters: retired gangster Michael, hustler Franklin, and unhinged psychopath Trevor. These three characters embodied different facets of Grand Theft Auto’s personality – satirical commentary, character-driven crime drama, and chaotic violence – allowing Rockstar to incorporate a variety of missions, from assassinating social media tycoons to high-speed car chases through the desert.
The game had the largest virtual world we had ever seen, meticulously designed from the highest mountains to the local tennis courts in Michael’s neighborhood. This world would eventually become home to millions of players over the next ten years thanks to GTA Online, the multiplayer mode that Rockstar released soon after GTA V’s launch. Despite a chaotic start – as it was evident that the developer had no prior experience with online games and the servers struggled to handle the initial demand, resulting in players’ characters and progress being randomly deleted – it has now become one of the most lucrative online games in existence. It took them several years to reach this point, but Rockstar finally accomplished the dream of causing mayhem in San Andreas with friends, plotting heists, and collecting high-end cars.
Grand Theft Auto 6 (2025)
Rockstar has been occupied with bringing Grand Theft Auto V to new consoles and regularly updating GTA Online with new content for players. This has resulted in a significant 12-year gap between games. The first glimpse of Grand Theft Auto 6 was revealed in a short trailer in December 2023, coinciding with Rockstar Games’ 25th anniversary. The game will take place in Vice City and the surrounding Leonida, a fictional state inspired by Florida. It will feature two main characters who work together as partners in crime, including the series’ first female protagonist named Lucia, an ex-convict. However, it is uncertain whether this addition will address criticisms of the franchise’s portrayal of women.
The current state of America has transformed significantly since the release of GTA V, making it challenging to predict the satirical elements that Rockstar will incorporate. In a reality where Donald Trump served as president for four years and still had supporters voting for him, it’s difficult to imagine a more ludicrous fictional premise for a game.