Today, Rockstar Games’ latest virtual magnum opus is unleashed on the world.
And in a completely unrelated incident, millions of adults are calling in “sick” to work due to unspecified, quickly-resolved illnesses.
As it just so happens, in case you’ve been living under a rock with only your Atari ST and Intellivision for companionship, Grand Theft Auto V is out now for everyone to devour. Surprisingly, the game is by many accounts incredible, and it is going to make approximately five separate shitloads of money.
Not bad for a series that began with a bunch of dudes in Scotland screwing around with top-down 2D graphics. Along the way, there have been controversies, lawsuits, a particularly pernicious lawyer, and more man-hours logged in for these “murder simulators” than any NASA space mission. All the while, the Grand Theft Auto series has left an indelible mark on pop culture around the globe.
Let’s look at ten major ways Grand Theft Auto has altered our pop-cultural sensibilities!
10) Excess in the Form of Satire
Make no mistake, a lot of Grand Theft Auto‘s most vocal critics are right; these games promote and incite the player to do reckless, dangerous, and sociopathic things. Steal cars, extortion, assassination, and basically the entire gauntlet of criminal activity cribbed from the script to Goodfellas. But like Goodfellas, there’s a certain sense of joy in Rockstar’s satirical, askew view on America’s time-honored fascination with crooks and thieves.
In Rockstar’s vivid game world, your street-level thug has more of a soul and much more compassion than the corporate entities that form the fabric of the idyllic American society; tech firms like Facebook are rebranded as “Lifeinvader.” Low-hanging fruit like Reallity TV and pop stars become nihilistic strawmen of vapidity. Your entire arsenal comes from your friendly neighborhood gun shop, “Ammu-Nation.”
In short, this is a silly, crass, ugly society, where bad behavior is rewarded while the innocents suffer. And this is something you can trace all over pop culture today. Think of the idiotic dystopia of Mike Judge’s Idiocracy, where wrestlers become US Presidents. Think of the daily jabs at our cultural fabric courtesy of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, or the boorish, gleeful display of poor taste courtesy of Sacha Baron Cohen. Not to mention the weekly adventures of desert drug-peddlers from Breaking Bad.
Grand Theft Auto doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The world of Grand Theft Auto is startlingly closer to our own world than we should be comfortable to admit. In order to palpably present to us a video game world where we are encouraged to indulge our worst desires, Rockstar has, from their offices in the UK, held up a heightened mirror to the American experience, in all its gross and stupefying glory.
And that irony can’t be lost on Rockstar, because…
9) Video Games Make More Money Than Hollywood
To be fair, there are actually a lot of things that make more money than your average Hollywood movie. The problem is, nobody ever felt the need to talk about it. Until Grand Theft Auto, anyway.
On its first day of release, Grand Theft Auto IV sold a staggering 3.6 million copies – which Take Two, the game’s publisher, was keen to insist made the company a cool $310 million. Take Two’s chairman was quick to mention, “Grand Theft Auto IV‘s first week performance represents the largest launch in the history of interactive entertainment, and we believe these retail sales levels surpass any movie or music launch to date.”
Since then, other industries have been quick to hop on the “let’s throw our dicks in front of Hollywood’s face” bandwagon. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows did it, the later Twilight books did it, and virtually every major video game since has done it.
Fundamentally, though, big-budget movies and packaged products – like books and video games – are completely different products and their grosses are divvied up in a lot of different places compared to a film, but no matter. Suck on those day-one grosses, Hollywood!
8) Video Games Can Now Be Advertised Everywhere
And the Hollywood comparisons don’t just end with the money. All summer long, Take Two and Rockstar have been waging an epic war against the American public to ensure that we understood one simple thing; Grand Theft Auto V was coming out, on September 17th. If you lived in any major urban environment, you saw Grand Theft Auto V posters. Take Two probably spent more money advertising GTA V than most Hollywood studios spend to make an entire movie. The scale and ubiquity of these ads – on television, in movie theaters, on bus stations, you name it – is staggering.
And yet, nobody bats an eye anymore. That is, without a doubt, insane. If we had enormous posters advertising Super Mario Bros. 3 hanging on buildings in downtown Los Angeles in 1990, we would’ve lost our minds. But, slowly and quietly, from the 2002 release of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, Rockstar has made it a healthy practice to inundate the public with such aggressive marketing that the games become a sort of de-facto event, rivaling any major blockbuster.
And then, of course, there’s the sort of marketing you CAN’T control.
7) “There’s No Such Thing as Bad Publicity” is, in Fact, True
Still, to this very day, Grand Theft Auto is known as “that one game where you can have sex with prostitutes, kill them, and steal their money.”
Yep! You can indeed do that, given that the game is all about giving you a large sandbox of bad behavior, and the media – itching for a story about moral outrage – picked it up and ran with it. And, surprisingly, they’re still running with it, even a decade later. Here, for example, is Fox 11 LA’s morally righteous, impatient screed against Grand Theft Auto V and all the evil contained therein. It should be noted that there is a familiar face – namely, mine – that appears near the beginning that gets to speak on the game for about 5 seconds (out of a 30 second interview) at the game and hobby shop he works at, before the intrepid reporter continues her litany of misrepresented facts about the game’s salacious content.
Too bad that stories like these don’t seem to do dick. Grand Theft Auto V will make more money in one day than any of us will ever see in our entire lifetime, while the older, out-of-touch generation shake their heads in dismay as the Youth In Our Country murder innocents with these Murder Simulators. Before, controversies like these were enough to sink or stall something like Grand Theft Auto. In the UK in the ’80s, the outrage over “Video Nasties” was enough to scare away potential customers and had horror movie purveyors shaking in their boots. Tipper Gore’s crusade against hip-hop and the Dead Kennedys got records pulled from store shelves and blocked from radio airplay. What the hell happened, then?
6) The Death of the “Moral Majority”
Now, this isn’t entirely the doing of Grand Theft Auto, but if I had to pick one specific thing that seems to speak against the kinds of pop-culture censorship that has rocked the world of comics, film, television, books and music for decades, GTA would logistically be the next poster child. And yet, it continued unabated, and if anything, as outlined above, all this hysteria seemed to only fuel the game’s success, rather than hinder it.
By all accounts, Grand Theft Auto should’ve been rent asunder by our nation’s moral protectors as far back as the original PlayStation release in 1997 – where, even then, media outlets were concerned about the game’s content. But the games have grown bigger, stronger, leaner, and meaner in the intervening years. Maybe it’s simply cultural exhaustion over manufactured controversies, or maybe it’s that we’ve become so inured and desensitized to violence and chaos from all forms of media, but whatever the case, Grand Theft Auto seems to be firmly stating that there is, finally, no more room for bullying from sanctimonious, morally righteous interest groups.
That’s not to say there isn’t a way to cross the line. Oh, you bet there is. It’s on the next page.
5) Sex Is Still a Taboo, Especially if it’s Virtual, and Particularly if it’s Hidden
You didn’t think I’d be so dumb as to not mention the infamous “Hot Coffee” mod, no? Perish the thought!
The rundown on “Hot Coffee” is this: at some point in the development of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, Rockstar was planning to involve a crude series of mini-games where you could have virtual sex with your girlfriend. Before the game’s release, they wisely thought to themselves, “eh, this probably won’t go over very well,” so they cut the scene from the game – but they didn’t remove the actual code from the disc.
Long story short, people found the code, hacked into the game, the news media picked up on the story that “POPULAR MURDER SIMULATOR CONTAINS HIDDEN CODE FOR HARDCORE PORNOGRAPHIC SEX,” and there were product recalls. And lawsuits. And federal investigations.
Could the infallible Grand Theft Auto mass media shock-a-thon have finally met its match? Could these “MURDER SIMULATORS” have finally gone too far? Not exactly. As a result of the class-action lawsuit filed against Rockstar Games and Take-Two, anyone who purchased a copy of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas was allowed to return the game and receive up to 35 dollars cash in compensation. Not such a bad trade, when you consider how much you’d get for the game if you tried selling it these days.
The funny thing was, people didn’t want to sell it back, apparently. Less than 2,700 people bothered to return the game, and considering that San Andreas had global sales at that point of nearly 17 million copies, that number seems a little odd.
Maybe, just perhaps, people liked these games for what they were: fun. And not just because they could shock or titillate anyone. Regardless, Take Two and Rockstar lost that particular legal fight, but more importantly, they won a major battle a little bit later.
4) The Disbarring of Jack Thompson
I’ve mentioned how the Grand Theft Auto games have an uncanny ability to outlive their most ardent critics. But one of their staunchest, most devoted enemies had an annoying penchant of lingering far longer than the others: Florida attorney and avowed human parasite, Jack Thompson.
A lot of you probably already know about Thompson’s one-man crusade against video games, but before Grand Theft Auto came around, Jack Thompson was one of many clueless idiots masquerading their inherent racism as a war against rap music in the late ’80s, and generally trying to blackmail various radio personalities by threatening them with FCC fines. Oh, and he also waged a war against Janet Reno and a local Florida school board for made-up claims that Reno was a “lesbian” and that the school board was issuing “homosexual education tapes.” A real class act.
But Thompson’s raison d’etre, and also his downfall, came once Grand Theft Auto entered the national stage. As well as, tragically, the murder case involving Devin Moore and the deaths of two cops and a dispatcher. A copy of GTA: Vice City was found in his possession, and boom – like a fly on crap, Jack Thompson was there, implicating both Sony and Take-Two for providing the previously mentally-stable man with the urge to kill.
That motion, suffice to say, did not withstand the scrutiny of our nation’s courts. That did not stop Thompson, who continued to tilt at windmills valiantly until, in 2008, the Florida Bar Association officially became fed up with Thompson’s insanity, his media-baiting, and his righteous indignation, and banned him from practicing law in the state – also requesting he pay the state around $44 grand for “recovery for the court’s time and expense.”
Never before in the storied battle between pop-culture and censorship zealots have those zealots been so thoroughly trounced. Thompson’s disbarment was like a victory lap for Rockstar, having defeated their most vocal and powerful adversary – and not through extravagant legal fees or courtroom dealings, but simply by the reasoned sanity of the populace.
On to less controversial things!
3) The Creation of an Entirely New Genre of Entertainment
Despite all the hand-wringing and the controversy about the game’s content, there’s one thing that even its most ardent critics can’t take away from Grand Theft Auto: the fact that it has, essentially, crafted an entirely new genre and form of interactive entertainment.
Now, there were “open world” games before GTA, sure. But these were roughly-hewn curios that lacked the technology and personality to pull it off. GTA was essential in the creation, popularization, and standardization of the truly “open world game.” A virtual sandbox you can use to your own (nefarious) ends. What’s remarkable about this is that the “open world game” is something completely original and only capable in video games. The types of what is known as “Emergent Gameplay” all have their modern roots thanks to the natural evolution of GTA, and that is something that only video games can allow.
Sure, there is a “story” to GTA, and there are linear missions and heavily written dialog. But the fun of GTA, and its resonance, comes from the stories we tell our friends about what happened in its weird little polygonal world. Skydiving from a jet in San Andreas and landing on top of an ambulance. Stealing a tank in Grand Theft Auto III and seeing how long before the SWAT teams take you down. Bending the game’s complex rules and physics for your own fun and amusement; before GTA, these things were unintentional glitches, and Rockstar found them, tweaked them, and made them integral to the experience.
And that ingenuity has not been lost on other creatives in entertainment.
2) Grand Theft Auto‘s Influence on Hollywood is Massive
Film director Duncan Jones (now, coincidentally, on track to direct a movie based on World of Warcraft) was on a press junket, talking about his film Source Code. Jones is asked about his “favorite scene in the film.” He responds:
“Well, on a purely technical level, the scene of Jake jumping off the train was a real opportunity for me to try and push a boundary on the effects side that I hadn’t seen in any other film. We achieved it, I think it looks great and it is a shot that no-one else has done before. And it’s a homage to Grand Theft Auto, the computer game. So it’s fun in that respect too, because I think one of the other things about the film is that it is about a guy who gets multiple attempts to complete a mission and that’s a computer game. As someone who plays games, that was another reference that seemed very natural to the film.”
Boom. And it’s not just Duncan Jones, either; countless others in and around the various realms of film and television have praised and/or borrowed concepts from the games for their other projects. Plus, in a rare example of creative purity, Rockstar seems to be in no hurry to sell away the GTA movie rights just to make a quick paycheck.
In a world where the entertainment mill is constantly grinding its own innards to provide gristle for the easily-entertained, its sort of ironic to see Rockstar’s churlish, violent parody of modern life as a paragon of nobility in this world of crappy superhero movies, lousy toy tie-ins, and endless sequels.
1) Video Games Have Officially “Grown Up”
Regardless of what Hollywood thinks, the general public, more importantly, has learned a valuable lesson from Grand Theft Auto. To wit: video games aren’t just kids toys anymore. Since the heady days of Vice City‘s enormous launch and record-breaking sales, the general public – once equating “video games” with mind-rotting children’s pablum – has seemed to warm up to the idea that video games, in and of themselves, can have a wide audience, young and old.
it took comics until the ’70s and ’80s to reach that same level of perceived maturation; the notion that previously kids-only material could evolve alongside its readership was a wobbly one. Video games came a long way, from the manufactured childish violence of 1993’s Mortal Kombat, to the layered, interesting, bitingly satirical voice of GTA: Vice City.
So congrats, Grand Theft Auto V. You’re gonna make a lot of money, and you’re going to make a lot of people really, really glad they skipped work today.
I mean, uh. Cough. Cough cough.
Previously by Brian Hanson: