Photo via Flickr user Cory Doctorow
My friend Glenn would bring his PlayStation 2 over to my house after class during middle school. I think it was mostly because I had a TV in my room, and he didn’t—like all adolescents, we wanted to obsess over our passions in private. I remember never really knowing how the wires were supposed to attach to the back of the monitor and how we’d just keep guessing until it worked. Our afternoons revolved around Vice City, the second game in Rockstar’s rebirthing of the Grand Theft Auto franchise. You played as Tommy Vercetti, a scummy, greased-up coke dealer with a Hawaiian shirt and a lot of one-liners. One day Glenn had his sniper rifle pointed right at a cab driver’s face as my father walked in the room. Glenn pulled the trigger, replacing the cabbie’s head with a fountain of blood, and that was too much for my dad. No more bedroom GTA action for us.
Six years later I was one month away from my 18th birthday, which meant I was one month away from the right to purchase Grand Theft Auto IV. I couldn't stand to wait, though, so my brother and I hatched an elaborate plan. Our friend Alex was 18, so we signed up for the pre-order under his name at the local GameStop, pooled our cash, and sent him off with 60 of our hard-earned dollars. A copy of GTA IV was hand-delivered to us in an inconspicuous plastic bag a few hours later, like some kind of contraband. I remember watching my brother carefully slice off the cover art so the box wouldn’t arouse any parental suspicions. We played in shifts, our thumbs hovering over the pause button in case mom or dad made any unexpected visits. Nothing would stop us from experiencing the latest volume of the most important media franchise of our time.
For as long as I can remember—which is as long as Grand Theft Auto games have been coming out—the franchise has been surrounded by controversy. It’s a video game synonymous with the violent, satanic indulgences that have been blamed for school shootings and godless children. Disbarred Florida attorney Jack Thompson has dedicated his activist career to destroying the franchise and its creators (along with rap music and Howard Stern). New York politicians criticized GTA IV’s portrayal of their city, Mothers Against Drunk Driving hated that characters could get behind the wheel while shitfaced, and the Chicago Transit Authority refused to let ads for series appear on its property. You likely remember the hysterias caused by GTA—the crimes it got blamed for, the won't-somebody-think-of-the-children rhetoric. (You may also remember that some of the more important works of narrative art of the 20th century were the subject of outright bans, a la Ulysses and Lolita, but that's another story.)
There was a moment, back in 2005, when modders uncovered the sex-simulating “Hot Coffee” minigame lodged deep in the code of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, where it seemed that GTA was about to crash and burn. San Andreas got slapped with the commercially nonviable “Adults Only” rating, and the Federal Trade Commission started investigating Rockstar’s parent company’s advertising practices. And the games did change, a bit—the company agreed to “clearly and prominently disclose on product packaging” any objectionable content, and when I killed a cab driver in GTA IV there was no fountain of blood, just an ugly lurch of the gun, a solemn stain of red on the windshield, and a limp body in the driver’s seat. The streets of Liberty City got a little less gleeful, the violence became a little more human. Storylines in GTA IV included a character's cousin’s taxi business getting burnt to the ground as we watch, a bank robbery going horribly, tragically wrong, and a revenge saga rooted in the atrocities of the Bosnian War.
Some said the franchise had matured, that it was finally discarding the silly, crime-TV parodies of the earlier games and embracing something “serious.” But for my money, GTA has always been on the cutting edge. The plethora of longform, narrative-focused games we have today wouldn’t exist without Grand Theft Auto IV; the dynamic, open-world games wouldn’t exist without Grand Theft Auto III. Rockstar has always been the vanguard of innovation, and their marquee franchise exists to push boundaries. GTA stands as perhaps the one franchise most responsible for legitimizing video games as art on a mainstream platform.
If that sounds fanboyish, maybe that’s a consequence of growing up with these games—every single GTA release since at least the Vice City days was a watershed moment in my adolescence, like Christmas except my parents hated it. When I buy my copy of GTA V, I’ll still feel a twinge of disobedient sin.
Will this installment have the same wide-ranging effect as its predecessors? I don’t know. It’s hard to stay influential and groundbreaking for as long as the GTA franchise has. GTA V be the last major release exclusive to our current generation of consoles, and it’s entering a climate where games like The Last of Us, Bioshock: Infinite, and Far Cry 3 have borrowed some of GTA’s blueprints to amazing effect. Early reviews have stressed the game’s sheer ball-busting fucking awesomeness, but some have also pointed out that it’s retained the franchise’s streak of sneering misogyny, which more gamers are aware of these days.
On the other hand, the franchise has mostly outlasted its critics—hardly anyone seems eager to denounce GTA V as a brutal, child-corrupting monster. Even Fox News is publishing blog posts about how the games have “grown up.” Only the willfully ignorant think that 1) These games are for young kids; 2) You get “points” for having sex with prostitutes; or 3) The sheer scope of playable world and the level of detail aren’t amazing achievements in and of themselves. Even more importantly, I don’t live with my parents anymore. See you guys in a couple weeks.
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