The 15th anniversary of Grand Theft Auto III is upon us, and it’s got us reflecting on the ways in which the Rockstar Games’ flagship series has changed video games. After all, few gaming franchises have set new benchmarks in the gaming world quite like GTA has. Often replicated but almost never duplicated, Grand Theft Auto has been truly revolutionary in almost everythingm from its gameplay, use of music, storytelling, violence, tone, and setting. In fact, the influence of GTA has extended to every corner of popular culture – from movies and television shows to music videos and even fashion. Here are 10 ways in which Grand Theft Auto changed video games – and the world at large.
10. The Franchise Tossed Political Correctness Out The Window
Political correctness is quite the hot button issue these days, but back in 1997, Grand Theft Auto debuted and showed absolutely no regard for political correctness whatsoever. The series has only gotten progressively more offensive in the decades since, to the point where critics no longer bother mentioning it when they talk about the series. Oh and when we say it pushed the limits, we’re not talking about the game’s infamously violent content — video games were criticized for their violence long before GTA came along. We’re talking about hiring an escort, doing the deed in the back of a car, and then beating the woman to death with a baseball bat. Drinking and driving was even introduced in Grand Theft Auto IV. This general attitude of “anything goes” broke many taboos in the video game industry and blew things wide open for future game developers.
9. Full Frontal Nudity
While not the very first game to do so, GTA was definitely the most popular title to step over this line. The decision to feature full frontal male nudity in Grand Theft Auto IV: The Lost and the Damned’s sent church groups and critics of the video game industry into a frenzy. Rampant crime and violence were one thing, but to show a man’s nether regions in a video game was entirely different. Of course, the franchise had featured naked women before, but to the developers at Rockstar Games, depicting male nudity was just the latest way they were pushing the envelope and testing boundaries in the video game industry. They also felt that it added another layer of realism to the franchise. While parents and church groups may have disapproved, many gamers saw it as another example of a bold move pushing the industry forward and into uncharted territory. While nudity still is not common in video games, it is accepted more when it does appear because of Grand Theft Auto.
8. Open Concept Game Play
The Grand Theft Auto series was one of the first popular games to truly nail the “sandbox style” gameplay that so many games have copied since. GTA gave us the ability to go where you want and do as you please without having to follow a preset story. Basically, you could play the game for hours without actually progressing at all. Grand Theft Auto perfected open concept game play and took it in areas people had not seen before. Beginning with GTA III and continuing to Grand Theft Auto: Vice City and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, the open worlds in the games exploded and became massive, deep, and immersive. Gamers were able to drive around huge cities, stop when and where they want, and engage in the activities they chose. The cities were incredibly detailed and every corner of the game was carefully crafted and rendered. Gamers could spend hours and hours in the game and didn’t feel like they were repeating themselves or their game play. The open world game play has since been replicated by countless other video games. But it was Grand Theft Auto that showed what was possible.
7. Rocking Music
Video game music before Grand Theft Auto was pretty bland. Aside for the standard circus like tunes you got in games featuring Mario, there would occasionally be a rock tune slipped into a game. However, Grand Theft Auto III dramatically changed the music concept in video games by including a huge array of mainstream music hits. What’s more, gamers were able to select the music they wanted to listen to while playing the game. Using a radio station embedded in the cars, gamers could select different genres of music and songs they wanted to hear. This was truly unique and provided gamers with rocking tunes to listen to while cruising around the cities in the Grand Theft Auto series. Suddenly people could listen to Van Halen, Aerosmith or Eminem while playing a game. The choice was theirs. Customizable music has been a real distinguishing feature of the Grand Theft Auto series.
6. Racism, Sexism and Torture
There’s being politically incorrect and then there is crossing the line into areas such as racism, sexism and torture. And the Grand Theft Auto series has entered all of these previously untouchable areas at one time or another. Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, for example, came under fire for its racist depictions of Haitian and Cuban gangs. Grand Theft Auto V enabled gamers to engage in torture, including waterboarding, removing character’s teeth and kneecapping people. Sexism, well, that has been seen in nearly every installment of the series. Most of the women in the Grand Theft Auto games are there for sex appeal alone. Yet no matter how many controversies the game series stirs up, it has consistently gotten rave reviews and high scores from critics.
5. A-list Actors Doing Voice Over Work
There weren’t a lot of A-list actors doing voice over work in video games before Grand Theft Auto came along. You’d have B-list actors live Michael Ironside doing voice work in games such as Splinter Cell, but bonafide movie stars weren’t clamoring to lend their talents to video games. But with Grand Theft Auto, that changed. Actors ranging from Ray Liotta (Tommy Vercetti in GTA: Vice City) and Samuel L. Jackson (Officer Frank Tenpenny in GTA: San Andreas) lent their voices to Grand Theft Auto, as did veteran stars such as Burt Reynolds, Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda. Even the ultra-reclusive Axl Rose of Guns n’ Roses fame did voice over work for games. Landing big name stars to do voice over work changed the perception of video games in Hollywood, and made it okay for legitimate stars to be featured in video games.
4. Cinematic Experience
Reviewers of 2013’s Grand Theft Auto V basically said that the game was a “cinematic experience.” Rather than playing a video game, people felt like they were immersed in an interactive ensemble TV drama. The graphics and game play had evolved to the point where the game was closer to a Fast and Furious movie than the standard video game people had come to know it. In fact, critics said that GTA V did more to move video games towards a merger with movies than any game in history, and that the cinematic elements found in it would push other game developers into whole new areas. Years from now, when people look at how video games have become analogous with films, they will likely point to the Grand Theft Auto series as a major turning point in that regard.
3. Bad Guys as The Protagonist
Before Breaking Bad or The Sopranos, Grand Theft Auto featured criminals as the protagonist of the story. There are basically no good guys in Grand Theft Auto. Characters played are criminals and they exist in an amoral criminal world. It is up to the gamer to decide what their character does in that world. The police are there to be avoided or killed. This concept of bad people as the protagonist is common in movies, television, and video games these days. But it wasn’t always that way. When Grand Theft Auto debuted in 1997, protagonists in games were still the good guys and the heroes. And more often than not, good triumphed over evil. In Grand Theft Auto, there’s only evil. Bad people do bad things and try to get away with it. That’s it. The world is dark and it is up to the gamer to decide how dark they want it to be. This nihilistic outlook has seeped out of Grand Theft Auto and become pervasive in popular culture.
2. Playing Multiple Characters at Once
Another innovation found in Grand Theft Auto V that was quickly adopted across the video game world is the ability to control multiple characters in the game at once, or even simultaneously. In GTA V, gamers can control three different characters and coordinate their actions so that they carry out a various jobs and heists. This is another revolutionary element pioneered by Rockstar Games, and it has impressed gamers, critics, and the entire industry. Going forward, multiple character play is expected to become the norm as gamers demand more options and a more immersive experience. Once again, we can all thank the developers behind Grand Theft Auto for showing us the way.
1. No Holds Barred Violence
Video games had long been criticized for their violent content prior to Grand Theft Auto coming along. Games such as Doom, Mortal Kombat, and Duke Nuke ’em were all singled out for their ultra-violent content and graphics. However, the violence in Grand Theft Auto was different than in other video games. First of all, the violence is more realistic and less cartoon-like. In GTA, you’re not shooting a plasma blaster at cartoon aliens or battling with robots in a mythical martial arts tournament. You’re running over a pimp with your car or shooting up a liquor store with a hand gun. Second, the violence is often more offensive in Grand Theft Auto – beating a hooker with a baseball bat rather than paying her for her services seems a little more offensive to most people than tossing a hand grenade over the side of a trench at an unseen enemy on the field of battle. The no holds barred approach to violence in Grand Theft Auto has been unlike anything seen before or since. For critics, it has confirmed their worst assumptions and fears about the video games teenagers play. For gamers, it has confirmed that video games are heading in the right direction.