With the release of Grand Theft Auto V swiftly approaching, I couldn't help but think of the long history attached to the GTA series. Starting out on the original Playstation, then making a huge evolutionary jump to the PS2, and then somehow even improving on those stellar titles to give us Grand Theft Auto 4. Rockstar has somehow given us an alternate universe filled with engrossing characters, rich history and unforgettable moments.

And while Liberty City, Los Santos, and Vice City all mimic familiar places in our own world, one of the things I've found so captivating about the series is it's satirical take of the real world. Grand Theft Auto could be viewed as a mindless orgy of violence, sex, and debauchery if one was so inclined. But that is only the surface. If you look beneath the killing, the sometimes silly objectives and the blatant stereotypes, you actually find some thought provoking messages. Messages delivered so subtly that you probably don't give it much thought at all. And yet, that is part of GTA's genius.




If you go back and play the original Grand Theft Auto, you can easily detect the core elements of gameplay, that have become the heart and soul of each iteration in the series. You have your main missions that move the story forward. You have the side missions which add variety to the gameplay. And you have the same "open-world" approach to the entire game, albeit from a top-down perspective, rather than 3D.

Those elements carry over into Grand Theft Auto 2, but are polished and improved even more, with a note-worthy bump up in graphics. The radio stations are every bit as interesting to listen to as they are in GTA 3 and GTA: Vice City. And balancing ones "relationships" with the city's various gangs provides an interesting and compelling challenge.

But while the first two entries in the Grand Theft Auto series felt more "arcade-like" in their gameplay, with the focus being placed on creating mayhem and having fun doing it, Grand Theft Auto 3 was the title that really transformed the series into something truly great. Looking back, I find myself wondering if the folks over at Rockstar fully understood what they were about to achieve.


It's no GTA 3, but it got us ready for it.



Prior to Grand Theft Auto 3, one of the big name titles that offered semi-open world gameplay was Driver on the PS One. For it's time, Driver was a "must-play" game. For me personally, it was a bit like getting to play out episodes from Starsky & Hutch or the car chase scenes in Bullet with Steve McQueen. Driver played on your nostalgia and put you into those scenarios. But if Driver was good, then Grand Theft Auto 3 was at least two times better. It blended the openness of the first two GTA titles with the high octane excitement of Driver, giving us sweet gaming bliss.

Grand Theft Auto 3's wild success is also what brought it to the attention of the popular media and various angry politician's. A perfect target, it was held high as an example of all that corrupts and warps the precious minds of modern-day youth. Dealing drugs, using and beating up prostitutes, cold-blooded murder, blatant disregard for laws and law enforcement. Grand Theft Auto allowed you to indulge your fantasies of living as a devil may care criminal.

The outcry over Grand Theft Auto was not at all new for an industry that had seen games like Carmageddon, Duke Nukem 3D, Postal, Doom, and many others take the blame for the downfall of modern-society. Deftly sweeping aside issues of poor-parenting and supervision and other social issues, many were happy to assume that games like Grand Theft Auto were teaching young minds how to become junior sociopaths. Every game targeted for violence, or sexuality was viewed as a deliberate tutorial on how to become a moral reprobate. But life is not without it's own sense of humor and irony, it would seem.

After releasing Grand Theft Auto 3 and State Of Emergency, Rockstar would test the public again with Manhunt, pushing the envelope of violence even further than had been done before. Where the violence in the GTA games had been more mild, Manhunt was a different beast altogether. On the surface, Manhunt seemed gratuitously gory. There whole premise of the game seemed to revolve around finding ever more bloody and fiendish ways to commit murder. It was as if the game was daring you and asking, "how far will you go with this?"



I'll admit, the first time I played Manhunt, I tried to see it as just a game. But, I did find the game to be disturbing, nauseating  even. As you encounter one gang member after another, killing them in gruesome ways that are hardly necessary, you start to feel a sense of fatigue with all of the gore. It gets to be too much. And to be fair, there actually was a point to Manhunt.

The point behind Manhunt was ironically communicated through the gameplay itself. Murder is not fun. Only sick, sick people truly feed off of gratuitous, senseless violence. And, that a steady diet of blood, guts and mayhem will drive you insane. That was also the hidden message in the Grand Theft  Auto series. Can you imagine how exhausting living a life like GTA's protagonists would be? In the course of playing any Grand Theft Auto, how many times are you double-crossed? How many times are YOU compelled to betray someone? Who can you trust? Who are your friends? Who are your enemies? In Grand Theft Auto, loyalties are always changing, motives are always unclear, and death is never too far off. And that my friends, is the TRUE life of a criminal. There is nothing glamourous about not being able to drive down a road without worrying whether someone will fire into your car with an AK-47, or whether you'll be ambushed at some random moment.

It's a Mad, Mad, World

In Grand Theft Auto, the people trying to kill you may do so out of a personal vendetta, or simply because it's good business for them. The deeper you go into your criminal endeavors, the harder it becomes to live a "normal" life and do things that normal people do like just walking down the street. I don't know what other gamers have thought after playing GTA, but I've frequently come away from it thinking, "Who would want to live like that???"

To me the genius behind Grand Theft Auto has always been about how it allows you to have fun, but also manages to poke fun at some of the absurdities of life. Consider how the talk radio stations which never lack for opinionated "callers", also never truly discuss anything of true substance. Is that not real life? How about the irony of prostitutes walking about in front of the cathedrals in downtown Staunton Island? Or the endless plethora of criminal operations fronted by "legitimate" store fronts and businesses.

Rockstar doesn't try to sugar coat the worlds that it creates. Nor do they seek to titillate with baseless, vulgar excesses of violence. Ironically, I think GTA presents sex and violence more responsibly than their gaming alternative, Saints Row. Perhaps my arguments are off, but I would be bold enough to argue that Rockstar has done with Grand Theft Auto what many others in creative fields have done. Kurt Vonnegut, Stanley Kubrick, and Roman Polanski are all examples of men who used their art to expose unpleasant truths about the world we live in. I would say that Grand Theft Auto has done just the same for the world of video games.