Basically…Grand Theft Auto

Basically GTA

The following is a transcript from a video, which you can check out above or over on our YouTube channel.

SCRIPT/VO: Will Mason
EDITING: Djordje Nikolic

From 90s bad taste gaming aimed at blood hungry gamers, to a complex and critical satire of American culture, Grand Theft Auto has become renowned as a controversial gaming icon. Though now one of the biggest franchises ever, it wasn’t always this way, and it was a long and controversy filled road for GTA to travel.


Riding with the Top Down


Developed by DMA Design who would later become known as Rockstar North, the game was originally titled Race ‘n’ Chase, a racing game which saw you controlling various vehicles but allowed you to change vehicles mid race by stealing them. Original design documents show the act of ‘running over pedestrians’ was in the earliest concepts, with the document stating that you could run over “school children and lollipop ladies“. Despite the promise of mowing down lollipop ladies, Race ‘n’ Chase didn’t exactly spark the fire that DMA Design desired, and the only race going on here was the race to cancellation.

Then something unusual happened. Grand Theft Auto was a buggy mess for a long while and was difficult to even test without crashing. During one playtest designer Gary Penn found a bug where the police would begin to smash into the players car incredibly aggressively. This proved to be such fun, that the team left it in the game.

DMA moved away from the racing aspects of the game, and instead switched to more mission based gameplay. Missions are dished out by visiting payphones located in either Liberty City, Vice City or San Andreas. There’s no in depth plot at play here, simply completing missions unlocks harder missions and so on and so on.

Grand Theft Auto was a major success, scoring over three million copies sold, not a huge number by today’s standards, but back then, well, it was a lot. The game was in the mindset of the public as it stirred up controversy, but much of it was generated by DMA themselves. DMA hired notorious publicist Max Clifford to leak stories to the press, stories that told of the violence and excess of Grand Theft Auto. The game proved so controversial that it was totally banned in Brazil.

The expansion pack Grand Theft Auto Mission Pack #1: London 1969 landed in 1999, and was the first, and only time Grand Theft Auto was ever set in a ‘real city’. As you can imagine it featured a bubblegum Austin Powers-esque London as well as more cockney accents than you can shake a stick at. The expansion would itself receive an expansion, in the form of the freeware Grand Theft Auto Mission Pack #2: London 1961. Grand Theft Auto London would receive a fully fledged standalone release for the Playstation in the year 2000, without the need for the original game.

1999 would also see a full on sequel in the form of Grand Theft Auto 2. This game was seemingly set in the near future, with the game having an almost cyberpunk feel to it at times. Graphics and sound were improved, and the lighting gave the city a more realistic feel. They would also create 90s AF GTA 2: The Movie. An 8 minute mini movie that would act as the games’ intro, and would be a peek into the cinematic style DMA wanted to create, but were limited by the hardware they were working with.

While accurate sales figures are not available, it is believed that Grand Theft Auto 2 sold less than its predecessor, and is one of the lowest selling games in the series. GTA 2 had less controversy than other games in the series, and it was more of the same, it looked nicer and played better, but it just didn’t connect with fans. While it was far from a failure, it didn’t progress the series in the way the studio had hoped.

So the big question was, where would DMA go from here?


The Big Cities

Grand Theft Auto 3
Grand Theft Auto 3

Grand Theft Auto 3 would be a major turning point for the franchise when it landed on PS2 in 2001, with a totally 3D world for players to cause mayhem in. DMA had worked on 3D worlds before with the likes of Body Harvest, but this would be the first game that puts you on street level with your protagonist. This 3D world was made possible by the jump in the power of the PlayStation 2, as well as the switch to the higher capacity DVDs as the primary format of the discs.

Liberty City needed a fully fledged rebuild for the 3D world, and while they initially decided to build something original, they decided to base Liberty City on New York, as they felt the location would give them opportunity to ‘say a lot’.  the likes of The Legend of Zelda and the movie Goodfellas as influences on Grand Theft Auto 3,

Players take on the role of Claude, a mute protagonist as they are tasked with performing missions for the many gangs, groups and weirdos of Liberty City. Claude’s silence was an artistic choice, and silent protagonists were the style of the time. Half Life arguably popularised this trope but they can be found in all sorts of games, especially those released post millennium.

Grand Theft Auto 3 received critical acclaim across the board, with critics praising the switch to 3D as well as the open, sprawling world, and won game of the year at the Game Developers Choice Awards. In the United States, Grand Theft Auto 3 would become the biggest selling game of 2001.

DMA, now called Rockstar North, pushed a sequel into full production with Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. Originally intended as a mission pack, much like GTA: London, the team decided, after much consideration, that this would be better suited as a fully-fledged follow up. Vice City would launch only a year after Grand Theft Auto 3, but it would see a fair few changes.

Instead of a mute protagonist, the lead character was now fully voiced, and vocals would be provided by none other than Ray Liotta. The film inspired style would be fully realised in Vice City, and the case was rounded off by a star-studded cast featuring Burt Reynolds, Tom Sizemore and  . Having a lead character expanded the storytelling aspects of the series and gave everything a much more cinematic feel. Another major change was the time period, Vice City placed the action smack bang in an 80s inspired Miami-like world, complete with expansive radio stations featuring era appropriate tracks.

Rockstar would complete the trilogy of PS2 titles with Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. San Andreas launched in 2004, two years after Vice City and saw several improvements and changes to the series.  The map would be larger and more varied, no longer trapped to the confines of the city, you are free to explore towns, forest, countryside and so much more.

There would be some RPG-like mechanics, with CJ’s body physically changing based upon your actions. Work out a lot and he’ll become musical, eat too much fast food and he’ll become fat. San Andreas also has an enhanced stat system where you can improve CJ’s stats as you play. Out of the PlayStation 2 Grand Theft Auto games, Sand Andreas was easily the biggest seller, shifting over 20 million copies. The entire trilogy would also be released elsewhere, most notably on Xbox and PC.

There were also a handful of Grand Theft Auto games released for handhelds, firstly with Grand Theft Auto Advance for the Gameboy Advance. It looked more akin to the earlier GTA games, with a top down, 2D grid based Liberty City for you to traverse. There were also two games for the popular PlayStation Portable, these being Liberty City Stories and Vice City Stories released in 2005 and 2006 respectively.

Both games function as prequels to their respective game series. They both use the same cities as seen in the early PS2 games, but there are a few changes to the world, such as buildings under construction, or details being different.  These games would be ported to other platforms, most notably, to the PlayStation 2 at a later date. All three of the original Grand Theft Auto PS2 trilogy would themselves get ports to smartphones down the line. GTA was now one of the biggest gaming franchises ever, but that in itself brought other problems, pour yourself a hot coffee, you’re gonna need it.


Bumpy Roads Ahead

GTA San Andreas
GTA San Andreas

Jack Thompson is one of the most well recognised names in all of Grand Theft Auto’s history. He was the, now disbarred, lawyer who waged a crusade of good taste against the franchise, as well as the video game industry as a whole. I actually didn’t know much about Thompson until researching this video, and I assumed that he was perhaps an ill-informed, reactionary activist who disliked the game for its violence and overall content.

I was wrong. Jack Thompson is a lunatic. He describes video games as ‘mental masturbation’ and has, on several occasions, has attempted to bring Grand Theft Auto into court cases and on one occasion attempted to sue Sony and publisher Take Two Interactive. At one stage he accused Sony, a Japanese company, of commiting ‘Pearl Harbour 2’. After a long back and forth with the Florida bar over his professional behaviour, the bar managed to have Thompson disbarred and he is no longer allowed to work as a lawyer. Jack Thompson’s career was a lot more in depth than we realised, maybe we’ll come back to him at some point.

The most famous controversy is that of Hot Coffee, a sex mini game that was buried in San Andreas code. The mini game required CJ to visit his girlfriends for ‘hot coffee’ and would then proceed to have sex with them. The game was locked off but was discovered by PC players, of course – those mad lads, who modded it back into the game.

The mini game essentially looked like someone mashing two action figures together, and was possibly the least sexy thing anyone had ever witnessed. This mini game was also not accessible in the console version of the game, but that didn’t stop calls to reassess the age rating given to San Andreas, and up it to an ‘Adults Only’ rating, due to pornographic content.

Rockstar were not strangers to controversy, as another Rockstar game Manhunt was directly blamed for a teenager’s murder, according to the UK press. Dubbed a ‘murder manual’, there was less press attention when it turned out that the victim, and not the murderer, actually owned the game. Bully also had to have its PAL release changed to Canis Canem Edit, to avoid associations to actual bullying, and Jack Thompson, yeah that guy again, described the game as a ‘Columbine simulator’, referring to the Columbine school shooting. Yet Bully contained no guns.

There are many more controversies that Grand Theft Auto has endured, and maybe, just like Mr. Thompson, we’ll return to them in more detail at some point. In the meantime, Grand Theft Auto continued to be a success, controversies and all.


All Grown Up


By the time Grand Theft Auto 4 arrived in 2008, it had been a full four years since San Andreas. Times had changed, the gaming industry had changed, and most importantly, Grand Theft Auto had changed. The controversies had not stopped GTA, but it had changed the way it had to present itself. No longer could Grand Theft Auto be the teenage barrage of violence and excess that it once was. Grand Theft Auto had to grow up, and grow up it did.

Grand Theft Auto IV is easily the most mature game in the series, and not for violence, or bad language, but for the overall experience. Players step in the boots of Nico Belic, an Eastern European immigrant looking to escape his criminal past. Grand Theft Auto 4 explored more grown up themes, such as exploring the ‘American Dream’ and life as a struggling immigrant.

Liberty City has also been given a huge facelift. It now feels more real, believable and lived-in. The tone has also shifted, and is now more gritty and believable, a far cry from the earlier games’ MTV wackiness. Some of the zanier aspects have gone, for instance Rampages or Kill Frenzies, which were a series staple at this point, are totally absent in GTA 4. Gaming was growing up and GTA was growing with it.

2009 would bring more GTA content, most notably Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars for the Nintendo DS. It returned to a style very similar to that of the older games in the series and has an almost top down viewpoint. The upper screen handles the action with the lower screen handling the PDA, radio and any other UI nonsense you may want to enjoy.

Back in the day it looked as though the future was in ‘episodes’, Half Life released two episodes following the release of Half Life 2 before they lost their abacus. Abacuses? Abaci? Abacussy? Nobody knows, anyway. 1998 First person shooter Sin was followed up with Sin Emergence, an episodic series that only saw one entry. Telltale hung their whole existence on episodic releases. Grand Theft Auto would get in on this with two episodic follow ups to GTA 4, in the form of The Lost and the Damned and The Ballad of Gay Tony.

The Lost and the Damned is a fairly bland but still decent episode that builds upon the biker gang introduced in GTA 4. The Ballad of Gay Tony is a lot of fun on the other hand, with wackier characters and big, silly set pieces, it felt like an attempt to create something a little more zanier and it really worked.

But where was the next mainline game?

Development times grew longer as fans eagerly awaited news of Grand Theft Auto 5. A trailer dropped in 2011 but it would still be two years before the game finally arrived. We finally got the game in 2013 and of course it was worth the wait. We returned to San Andreas and boy was it a jump over GTA 4. We once again received a wider world, featuring not only the city of Los Santos, but mountains, rivers, woods as well as multiple small towns all featured in the game world.

One major change was the ability to swap characters in the open world, giving you the choice of controlling Franklin, Trevor or Michael. Each character has different characteristics and their own story. Vehicle handling has been tweaked and is much less ‘slippery’, it’s probably less realistic, but feels much better. The shooting mechanics feel much more modern here, with cover shooting feeling like a natural progression for the series. Most notably, Grand Theft Auto 5 does away with the realistic aspects of the world, offering a bombastic, exaggerated America thoroughly dripping in satire.

Grand Theft Auto 5 was, surprise surprise, a major hit and to date, has sold over…195 million copies worldwide. Shortly after release would see the release of Grand Theft Auto Online, a totally online version of Grand Theft Auto 5’s map featuring races, missions, deathmatches and later, Heists. Grand Theft Auto Online would become a huge success in its own right, and through updates would see it become a popular and exciting live service experience. Players could up their in-game cash using shark cards, bought with real world money, something that Rockstar has found to be extremely lucrative.

Rockstar would push all its resources into GTA Online, which while this provided the game with ongoing, high quality content, it proved to be a bit of a stumbling block for the series, at least creatively. Previously announced single player story content for GTA 5 would be dropped entirely, in favour of pushing updates for the money making online mode. Some updates would feature content that could be played single player, but over this is a multiplayer experience.

GTA Online has been so popular, that development on a sequel would be on the back burner as development was laser focussed on new content as Grand Theft Auto Online would become a ‘licence to print money’ for Rockstar, with the game making almost a billion dollars in 2021 from microtransactions alone. Years would roll on and no new GTA games would be released or even announced by Rockstar, it’s crazy to think that Grand Theft Auto 5 released for the Xbox 360, and here we are, two generations later, still playing that same game.

And what about playing the same games you knew and loved, but they’re bad now?


The ‘Definitive’ GTA

Most Disappointing Games of 2021 GTA
Most Disappointing Games of 2021 GTA

Now, I say there were no GTA games released for many years, and while that is technically true, it’s not strictly true. Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy: The Definitive Edition wouldn’t be so much released as it would belly flop out onto consoles and pc in November 2021 and holy Cluckin’ Bell,  it would be anything but ‘de-fine-itive’, ‘fine’; you get the picture.

Alarm bells should’ve rung when Grove Street Games, a company largely responsible for ports, especially to mobile, would be chosen as the developers given the unenviable task of fully updating an entire trilogy of PS2 classics. The relatively small team used AI to upscale the textures and character models to a ‘modern standard’, which either created incorrect textures, incorrect character models, or in some cases, broke the whole game. Montage please!

It didn’t help that Rockstar took the decision to delist all oth er versions of the PS2 trilogy, making this poor definitive edition the only way to play these classics. It would receive updates and sure the game looks and plays much better these days. But the damage was done. Rockstar, who are normally a fairly solid company in regards to quality control, really dropped the ball on this one, and possibly damaged the brand as a whole. It definitely damaged this release, and to this day, still receives mixed reviews.

But Definitive Edition was just a stroll down Ruined Memory Lane ahead of potentially the most anticipated game of all time.


The Future


But some fans wouldn’t wait for GTA 6 news and took matters into their own hands. In September 2022, 90 videos featuring 50 minutes worth of footage would be leaked online. All footage was work in progress, and some showed basic animations, and others were more detailed videos of how some Grand Theft Auto 6 systems will work.

It was one of the biggest leaks in gaming history and was all performed by a British 17 year old accessing Rockstar’s network. The leaker was a member of hacking group Lapsus$, who managed to hack Rockstar using only a television, Amazon Fire stick and his phone. The hacker in question was deemed unfit to stand trial due to acute autism.

The reveal trailer for GTA 6 was also leaked 24 hours ahead of its anticipated release, leading to Rockstar releasing the legitimate trailer early.

Grand Theft Auto 6 was officially announced in late 2023, with a release earmarked for 2025. GTA 6 will see us return to the world of Vice City but not as we know it. It’s now modern day and the area has been expanded to represent real life Florida, which, given Florida’s international reputation, we’re all aware of Florida man after all, should allow Rockstar to include more ice cold satire on American culture.

Rumours suggest that development is running behind, any major game is nothing without a delay, and GTA 6 may well be delayed into 2026. GTA 6 looks as though it is putting a big focus on creating a deep and well written single payer component, but you better believe that there will be a major focus on recreating the success of GTA 5.

There will be some sort of live service model, and with solo content appearing on GTA Online, will Rockstar choose to integrate GTA 6’s story mode into its online mode? It is very very possible.

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