I have a confession to make: I'm a huge dork for anything Grand Theft Auto-related. "That's unbelievable," you're no doubt thinking. "Hold back with the soul-baring truths there; next you'll be telling us you like Star Wars." Not a particularly shocking revelation given how popular the franchise is, I know, but my fascination with the whole thing goes beyond getting a kick out of the gameplay. I'm not usually the kind of gamer who gets sucked into the lore that surrounds this stuff. I've always found a degree of academic fascination with the amount of detail poured into certain franchises, but I'm rarely invested in it. I appreciate the depth of thought and meticulous detail, but it's only on occasion that I'm drawn in on any kind of emotional level.
Thanks to some very fond memories, both professional and personal, Grand Theft Auto is on a very short list of games that I love to revel in. This week's release of the GTAV trailer enthralled me, not just because of my excitement for a new game next year, but because there's a sense of permanence and consistency to the world it portrays. The places we see in each new game in the series flesh out Rockstar's vision of an alternate America, and we can feel a sense of familiarity. Is that Angel Pine Golf Club in the trailer? Could those hikers be climbing Mount Chiliad? Does this mean the game will stretch out beyond Los Santos' borders and into Flint County? If that's the case, is this a hint that GTAV will be as expansive as San Andreas?
I know exactly whom to blame for my obsessive behavior: James Mielke. Currently he serves as a producer at Q Entertainment in Japan, and you may have seen his name pop up when he served as the de facto spokesperson for Child of Eden. Back in 2001 we were working together at Ziff Davis Media, where I was running the Official U.S. PlayStation Magazine and he was an editor for Electronic Gaming Monthly. As I recall, I'd had some kind of exclusive something-or-other lined up for my November issue (which hit newsstands in October), but it had fallen through at the last minute. In response, James had called me from New York about a week before we were due to go to press and left a message that to all intents and purposes was, "If you don't put Grand Theft Auto III on your cover, you are f***ing stupid and will regret it forever."
Now, you have to remember that at this point Rockstar was far from the publishing powerhouse that it is today. The first three Grand Theft Auto releases (the original, GTA2, and London 1969) were well regarded, but far from blockbusters. Smuggler's Run and Midnight Club had fared well thanks to being part of the PlayStation 2 launch lineup, but the studio had yet to really make any kind of dent in the collective consciousness of gamers. Rockstar had been quite demure about Grand Theft Auto III up until this point, and to be completely honest, none of us in the press had given it much thought. We knew it was "another GTA," and like every other game on the PlayStation 2 at the time, it was being "reimagined in 3D." As blind pitches go, it wasn't exactly awesome or anything.
"It's incredible," James had enthused, before recounting tales of how it sucked in ideas from shooters, role-playing games, and even Crazy Taxi. After a couple of days of almost unbearable enthusiasm and due consideration (I still hadn't seen the game in the flesh), we eventually decided that yes, we would put it on the cover, but much as I hate to admit it, it wasn't because I was being particularly "visionary" or anything. It was more due to the fact that James wouldn't shut up about it, and we didn't have a better alternative.
It turns out we were the only magazine in the United States to put the game on its cover that year, and the issue sold like crazy. The game, of course, went on to sell a hojillion copies and pretty much turned the whole video game business upside down.
While early coverage (ours included) focused on the ambition of the project and the elegant blend of different gameplay mechanics, it wasn't until we'd all played through the thing in its entirety that its true artistry became apparent. Because of its very liberal attitudes toward violent and sexual content, many observers couldn't get past its adult nature and refuse to acknowledge anything beyond its offensive nature to this day. For those of us who actually played it, though, it became clear that something new was happening. "The whole thing is meant to be America as if it's the way it's presented in the media," Rockstar's Dan Houser told us in a recent interview. "And it's still the case now. It might be done in a slightly more nuanced and different way now, but that's still what the gameworld is supposed to be like--this prism of America as if viewed only through movies and advertising."
Outside of Metal Gear Solid, very few games of the "PlayStation generation" had dabbled with social satire or political observation prior to GTAIII. PC games had long been trying to say something with their content, but by 2001 it was rare (particularly with Western-developed games) for us to be playing a game on our TV that asked us to do anything more than shoot at stuff, or hit things. GTAIII hid its cleverness behind this facade but was able to successfully satirize an entire society while the majority of people who played it were completely oblivious.
Now, in its eighth iteration, Grand Theft Auto is apparently extremely likely to tackle recent sociopolitical and cultural touch points: the housing and banking crises (which we got a hint of with that foreclosure clip in the trailer), the gaping divide between rich and poor, the vapidity of Kardashian-flavored celebrity, and the treatment of immigrant workers. Given the observations provided by the narrator, perhaps we'll also see something more introspective on the part of the creative team too. It seems the protagonist is a metaphor for the challenges of growing older and adapting to life's changes: fatherhood; existing in a world dominated by younger, hungrier talent; and approaching work differently with the benefit of maturity and hindsight.
It's the fact that we can ponder possibilities like this that I remain such a huge dork for anything Grand Theft Auto-related. It's an adult franchise that, even in its sillier moments, actually treats its audience like adults.
So…there are my Grand Theft Auto memories (I have many more, but would end up writing far too much about it). What I really want to know are yours. What do you remember fondly about the franchise? What about it really speaks to you? Is it just the humor, or is it the action? Or is there something more to it for you? Post your thoughts in the comments below.
John Davison is the vice president of programming for GameSpot. You can follow him on Twitter @jwhdavison.