Grand Theft Auto, one of the most successful and controversial video game franchises ever, hits 20-year mark.
Even though video games are the most popular form of entertainment in the world, there’s perhaps only a handful of video game franchises that have become household names. Super Mario Bros., Pokémon, The Legend of Zelda, perhaps Sonic the Hedgehog — and the outlier of the bunch — Grand Theft Auto.
Whether you know Grand Theft Auto — commonly known as GTA — as one of the most critically acclaimed series of all time, or merely as the ultraviolent, anything-goes simulator that has spent much of its existence engulfed in controversy, you’ve heard of it. Like the more wholesome games listed above, Grand Theft Auto has had a profound effect on entertainment and culture.
This October Grand Theft Auto turns 20. Let’s take a look back at how and why the franchise everyone seems to have an opinion about has become such a beloved and reviled cultural touchstone.
“I was one of three designers who got put on GTA. We were a bit disappointed,” game designer Paul Farley said in an interview with The Guardian. Little did that small team know what this initial job would lead to. In 1995 DMA Design began work on a game called Race’n’Chase. They thought the concept was rather underwhelming. That was until they decided to give players open-ended missions that all started in telephone boxes. At the time open-world games with nonlinear progression systems weren’t common, and people inside the studio were nervous about the idea. Why would anyone want to spend hours exploring an open world? The studio persisted with the project and changed the name to Grand Theft Auto along the way.
When Grand Theft Auto eventually launched in October 1997, the final product was a top-down shooter set across three areas modeled from New York City. All the trappings of modern-day Grand Theft Auto titles were there — corruption, a whole lot of violence and a no-holds-barred approach that let the player break any and all rules of civilized society as they deemed fit.
Two successful expansion packs were added, each of which were period pieces set in London. Along the way, DMA Design was enveloped into Take-Two Interactive, the parent company of RockStar Games. A sequel, Grand Theft Auto 2, launched in 1999. Like the original, Grand Theft Auto 2 featured a top-down perspective, but this time it was set in a retro-futuristic city simply known as Anywhere, USA. Published by RockStar Games, Grand Theft Auto 2 was led by two brothers, Sam and Dan Houser, who would take on the task of moving the series into 3D gaming.
With the advent of 3D graphics coming into mainstream games, starting with the PlayStation 2 generation, DMA Design and RockStar Games upped the ante with the next entry in the series, Grand Theft Auto III. Originally planned for an early October 2001 release, Take-Two delayed the game three weeks after the 9/11 attacks. Tweaks were made to the game to be sensitive toward the tragedy, and GTA III launched October 22, 2001, to critical acclaim. On review aggregator Metacritic, GTA III holds a 9.7/10, tied for first among all PS2 titles.
Led by Sam and Dan Houser, Grand Theft Auto III brought the series to new heights, though not without controversy, much of it thanks to the increased realism brought on by the new third-person, 3D perspective. The game led retail giant Walmart to start checking IDs to make sure consumers were at least 17 years of age. The National Institute on Media and Family as well as the National Organization for Women publicly condemned the game, alongside numerous media outlets. It was briefly banned in Australia. And more unsettling, multiple murders were eventually linked to Grand Theft Auto III’s legacy.
In February 2003 the now-infamous ex-lawyer Jack Thompson tried to use one Ohio teen’s obsession with GTA III as a basis for the murder of a young woman. Later that year Thompson would defend William and Josh Buckner, Tennessee step-brothers who claimed the game inspired the summer 2003 double murder of Aaron Hamel and Kimberly Bede.
These cases contributed to the longstanding narrative that video games can cause violence. Keep in mind that a number of detailed studies have disproved this narrative. Video games do not lead to violence. But just as J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye was inexplicably tied to more than one murder — including the assassination of John Lennon — the mere notion of Grand Theft Auto being linked to violence added to its notoriety.
RockStar North took over development of the franchise starting with Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, which launched in October 2002. Once again, the game was a critical and commercial success. And once again, it stirred controversy.
In Thompson’s most attention-grabbing case, he sought to place the blame of Devin Moore’s 2003 murder of two Alabama police officers on Vice City. And again in 2006, Thompson filed a lawsuit against RockStar and Take-Two, alleging that 14-year-old Cody Posey wouldn’t have killed his father, stepmother and stepsister had he not played Vice City.
Thompson targeted other game companies throughout the mid-2000s, but he was never successful. The Supreme Court of Florida permanently disbarred him in 2008 for his continuous lies and disparaging comments made throughout litigation.
The series moved forward with Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas in October 2004. San Andreas marked the first time in the franchise when a Black character served in the leading role. It became the best-selling video game of 2004. More than 25 million copies of San Andreas have been sold worldwide.
As the video game industry went through its next permutation with the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, there was an unusually prolonged period between San Andreas and the next console entry. In the meantime, three handheld Grand Theft Auto titles — Grand Theft Auto Advance, Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories — were released from 2004 to 2006. Still, fans were clamoring for the next evolution of Grand Theft Auto.
That came in April 2008 with Grand Theft Auto IV for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. Within 24 hours, Grand Theft Auto IV approached four million copies sold. Grand Theft Auto IV stands tall at a 98/100 on Metacritic, making it the second-highest-reviewed game of all time, behind only The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. The game received even more praise for its depiction of Niko Bellic, the game’s main character, an immigrant from Eastern Europe. Grand Theft Auto IV was also the first entry in the series to include online multiplayer.
Two expansions — The Lost and Damned, The Ballad of Gay Tony — were released in 2009, alongside a brand-new retro-style GTA titled Chinatown Wars for handheld systems.
By this time, Grand Theft Auto was already one of the most successful game franchises of all time, but its most successful game had yet to be released.
Near the end of the PlayStation 3 / Xbox 360 generation, RockStar released Grand Theft Auto V in September 2013, more than five years after the launch of Grand Theft Auto IV. Featuring three protagonists, ultra-realistic graphics and the largest game world yet — both online and offline — Grand Theft Auto V pushed the PS3 and Xbox 360 to their limits. The game made an astounding $800 million in its first 24 hours and crossed the billion-dollar threshold in just three days.
In November 2014 RockStar brought Grand Theft Auto V to the next generation of consoles by releasing it on Xbox One and PlayStation 4. Grand Theft Auto V holds the number-one slot on Metacritic for both the Xbox One and PlayStation 4. To date, more than 80 million copies of Grand Theft Auto V have been sold across all platforms, making it the all-time best-selling game not named Tetris or Minecraft. As a series, Grand Theft Auto is only surpassed in sales by Mario, Tetris and Pokémon, thanks in large part to Grand Theft Auto V.
We’re more than four years past the launch of Grand Theft Auto V, but the game still regularly appears on best-seller lists. With its robust and lively online mode, players have remained engaged with the latest entry in the series since it launched, and new players are brought into the fold each day.
Twenty years ago, no one would have guessed Grand Theft Auto would become such an important piece of entertainment, but here we are. Why has Grand Theft Auto only increased in popularity with each entry, in the face of continuous controversy? The simple answer: Grand Theft Auto is one of the most polished and immersive experiences available in gaming. The world is your playground in a way that few other games have been able to deliver.