Welcome to the IMPACT series where I dissect notable and iconic sequences from games and movies, and how they broadened my mind and left a lasting impression on me, years to come.
You’re like every other asshole … You made a bit of money, and you became a turd!
This is going to be more or less an incredibly long love letter to a franchise I have adored since my first time starting up my Playstation 2 and loading in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.
I do plan on deep-diving into the series, with Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, Grand Theft Auto IV, Grand Theft Auto V and Grand Theft Auto: Online.
But this is just about the franchise as a whole.
So why is it so impactful?
One of the biggest appeals that Grand Theft Auto has always held for me, is the complete and utter freedom one has to act in a realistically created world.
There are no games quite as expansive, lovingly crafted and insanely detailed oriented as a Grand Theft Auto game upon release. The world crafted in-game is almost slavishly faithful to its real-world counterpart.
San Andreas legitimately allowed me to enjoy 3 American cities in a single game, with its copies of San Fransisco (San Fierro), Los Angeles (Los Santos) and Las Vegas (Las Venturas) in addition to expansive desert and wooded countryside landscapes.
The scope of that game … is still unmatched today. No game I have ever played since, allowed a player to legitimately fly from one city to another in a plane and find themselves in an actual “world” to experience.
Rockstar Games have always been an incredibly ambitious and provocative company. They thrive off negative controversy, an iconic element of their marketing strategy and they refuse to release games until they are goddamn ready. Every single game of theirs, has been an event in the entertainment industry.
The sheer amount of marketing that Rockstar Games is capable of, on a global scale, ensures that every single person is aware of their product. It is quite literally, a hostile takeover of physical and virtual marketing when they release a game.
And so it should be, because thus far, they have yet to release a bad one. Even their more obscure titles, like Bully or L.A. Noire have rabid cult followers who are still breathe and live their games and cry out for a sequel.
But it was with Grand Theft Auto, Rockstar Games cemented their place in history. Its’ sprawling, realistic worlds with all the depravity of real life, from sex, violence, and crime gives players full agency to do whatever they feel fit to do, within the confines of the game.
You have immense creative freedom, complete moral ambiguity and intense levels of customisation.
It’s the ultimate sandbox to experience reality like you never have before and never could in the actual world.
I have always been a person who loved reality more than a lot of fiction. There is just too much in this world that is incredible and more bizarre than the strangest alternate reality devised.
So on a personal level, all I’ve ever really wanted from a game is a sandbox that is realistic and contemporary, with the freedom to shoot, run, hide and interact like how I’ve always wanted to in reality, but without being sent to jail for it.
Grand Theft Auto, from the very first time I played San Andreas, allowed me that escapism. I became obsessed with the game around the same time The Bourne Supremacy (2004) came out.
Taunting the cops to chase me, whilst I drove away in a yellow taxi cab, to emulate that iconic chase sequence at the climax resulted in both film and game merged in an experience I would treasure even now.
With absolute fondness, I still recall slamming my yellow taxi cab around Las Venturas’ highways, avoiding police traps and playing the throbbing score by John Powell “Bim Bam Smash” on a loop over the Self Radio.
Nothing else quite topped that experience in a game, for a very long time.
That is until Grand Theft Auto IV came out and I became equally obsessed with recreating film moments in Liberty City, and my addiction grew even further, because now the driving and shooting mechanic had become buttery smooth and I was in love anew with the driving physics.
The hours I spent, role-playing as a vigilante FIB agent, killing gangsters with Niko Bellic in a suit and tie, wielding a Glock … are too numerous to count and too shameful to admit.
The simple fact is, the game itself encourages you to recreate iconic moments you’ve seen in film and pop culture. Beyond obvious references in Grand Theft Auto’s stories, the amount of customisation for your character in terms of clothing, tattoos, haircuts and in some cases, even weight, meant that you can express yourself however you see fit.
Then there are the vehicles …
Every single game has been an incredible delight to drive, cruise, fly and pilot. I loved the heavier feel of the cars in Grand Theft Auto IV, the sheer variety in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, and now the overall experience of flying across a stunning realisation of Los Angeles in Grand Theft Auto V. Whether it is sport cars, sedans, Pimp-mobiles, tractors …. if there is a fun vehicle, you can find it in Grand Theft Auto and modify it to your heart’s desire.
The sensation of flying across San Andreas in a prop plane with God rays reflecting off the surface of the plane, while a sunset slowly comes down across the horizon is still as stunning as it was when it first came out.
With Grand Theft Auto Online, I think I have lost count of the number of vehicles I own. I became, quite literally addicted to the premise of earning money so I could own more cars. As a car fanatic, the garage collection you can build in Online is so vast, that you can actually forget which cars you own.
At the time of writing this, I believe I own close to 200 cars in the game, with almost every kind of imaginable vehicle I have ever wanted in reality. The classic Batmobile from 1989, numerous Ferraris, two replicas of the F1 Red Bull RB7 challenger, a Bond-styled Aston Martin DB5, an Aston Martin V8 Volante, and even the latest Aston Martin Valkyrie. There are numerous Porsches, Ferraris, BMWs, Mustangs, Nissan GTRs, armoured variants of classic coupes, Bentley Continentals, McLaren F1, McLaren Longtail, and even a Mercedes 300SL.
The list could go on forever, because in the years since its release, Rockstar has only continued to build the endless list of cars inspired by real world counterparts in the game.
And I want them all.
No other game I have ever played, has inspired such greed in me. I haven’t even started on my personal yacht, boats, planes (a goddamn V-22 Osprey) and now with the latest Cayo Perico update, a frigging submarine with its personal Bell H-13 Sioux styled helicopter and even a submersible Ferrari/Lamborghini vehicle.
In Grand Theft Auto Online, there is nothing outside the realm of purchase and in all seriousness, that is 90% of the charm of the game. I have always wanted to own all of these things in reality and the game makes it so easy to do so.
There are a lot of things that I’ve learnt from Grand Theft Auto. But I want to distil it down to three major points.
Music. Marketing. Decade Recap.
With the Cayo Perico Heist update, it really opened my eyes to just how much of a “record company” Rockstar is. The music selection and licensing is obscene for a game of its size, with over 20 radio stations. Grand Theft Auto might boast the biggest contemporary collection of music in any game ever made. They are are so casual about their power in the music industry, that the legendary Dr. Dre can just show up as a cameo in a game cutscene and surprise everyone.
What makes it all the more astonishing is that without fail, every single GTA has managed to perfectly sum up the decade in music. I have never heard a bad selection of music in-game ever. It was Vice City that managed to grab the absolute best of the 80s and divide them into incredible radio stations complete with false advertising. Not only were the songs amazing to drive along to, it built the immersion to another level whilst playing.
San Andreas killed it with their 90s selection of songs, the game actually instilling in me, a deep appreciation for rap music. Grand Theft Auto IV was an amazing eclectic mix of everything, even surprising me with their Russian taste and really proving that immigrant music can be just as amazing as mainstream hits.
The more said about Grand Theft Auto V‘s music the better. Everything contemporary, most of it new and unheard of, has exploded on the radio stations in the game. You can hear music from Detroit, bump along to UK underground, dance to the latest club mixes and their nightclub DJs mixes rival some of the best music heard in reality. It is truly astonishing how many unique songs have been made just for Grand Theft Auto. I mean, even Gorillaz made a MUSIC VIDEO for their song using footage of their GTA gameplay.
Which brings me to my next point about Marketing.
One of the most obvious standout features about Rockstar as a game company, is their ability to thrive off negative press. Ever since its release, GTA has become the number one pick for hell-bent politicians and angry parents to blame for the corruption of their children, instead of looking inwards at poor parenting.
Rockstar has done everything in their power to further enrage those fires and thus drive up sales of their games, because suddenly when something becomes forbidden, it only serves to fuel the allure. But beyond that marketing philosophy of “bad press is better than no press”, are the numerous tactics that Rockstar has employed to generate hype around their games.
The Cayo Perico Heist was promoted first in-game, when dead bodies started washing ashore on Vespucci beach, at specific locations and at random times. Then there was a strange message that mentioned that the Casino was under construction for something big. Then out of nowhere Gorillaz released their music video for The Valley of the Pagans ft.Beck. This was then followed by a cryptic trailer that hinted at an island and a submarine ping?
Then to increase further hype, they showcased the actual trailer and the music was absolutely killer, encouraging you to think that you needed a holiday away from the mainland of Los Santos and they were teasing all new radio stations, 2 new places to party and socialise and jobs to do for the DJs in-game.
I don’t think I have ever been more hyped for a DLC than I was for this.
Beyond that though, there has been an incredibly consistent GTA branding that I envy, with unique font and art style that saturate every aspect of the game marketing, regardless of which title is released. Add on top of that, bus billboards, NYC giant posters, and endless campaigns that still last to this day, you will never escape the event that is the release of Grand Theft Auto.
The final aspect I adore about GTA is the decade recap.
At GTA’s heart, beats a sarcastic, satirical and scathing teenager who wants to lash out at society and laugh at its ridiculousness. Even the name Rockstar Games suggest there is an attitude of rebelliousness, of good ol’ rock’n’roll attitude to how they produce games. Yes the product is undeniably genius and well made, but its heart is devil-may-care. Rockstar doesn’t care that the game offends or insults you … the fact that you bought it or are talking about it, is already a win in their eyes and they are laughing all the way to the bank.
But what is astonishing is their skill at satire. The have such a consistent stupid approach to things. Pisswasser is their best beer in the game. Cluckin Bell is their take on fast-food empires and their radio stations have insane advertisement for Ammu-Nation the gun store in-game. Then there is the recent parody of Apple in iFruit with lewd, suggestive advertisements and even Faceook is not safe with their hilarious named LifeInvader social media program that apes the infamous company’s style.
What Rockstar is capable of, is identifying the best elements of a decade and turning it on its head, either in a hilariously over the top way or making it bizarrely sexual. Every decade, has had its best music put into a radio station with ridiculous ads, and the story has had the best of all that decade’s pop culture placed squarely into the narrative. Vice City was a spin on Scarface and Miami Vice. San Andreas was all about 90s gangster culture and there are so many references to popular 90s films, like Con Air, Boyz n the Hood or The Big Lebowski.
Grand Theft Auto IV has an obvious reference to Behind Enemy Lines with Niko’s starting outfit, but more sutble references like Ronin and even Zoolander of all things.
The list goes on and on, but it is that ability to grab all the best of a decade and turn it around that makes GTA so special. The world is real, its grounded but … just heightened ever so slightly just to make immersion a bit funnier to those with keen eyes.
Grand Theft Auto is landmark piece of entertainment. It is one of the biggest selling franchises of all time and is probably responsible for devouring about an 1/8 of my waking hours. The reason why Grand Theft Auto is such an incredible hit is because it takes the world as it is, tweaks it to make it funnier and stupid and offers you that tempting chance to be an arsehole you have always wanted to be in reality.
That is what, at its core, makes Grand Theft Auto so addicting. You want to own all these things in reality. To do whatever you want in reality. To be a badass drifting around a corner through red lights, to sky-dive and not worry about the plane exploding onto a skyscraper, to pilot your own submarine, to make money easily by killing half a dozen people … to pull of heists and make millions.
Then subsequently spend all of it on a hyper-car and not worry about financial repercussions.
The story is cynical, hilarious and ultimately all about a flawed human being having a heart of gold. Every Rockstar protagonist is an incredibly lovable asshole. They are flawed, do horrible things, and behave like the biggest douche on the planet, but their writing, and ultimately desire to get better makes them relatable. Michael De Santa, Jimmy Hopkins, Max Payne, Niko Bellic, Carl Johnson, Tommy Vercetti, Arthur Morgan … all of these leads are charismatic, psychotic maniacs with thousands of deaths to their names and millions of dollars to their reputation and game but at their heart, despite their despicable actions, they are good men who look after their friends and just want to get ahead in life.
To quote Doctor Strange … Its a simple spell, but quite unbreakable.
The cherry on top of this satirical escapism, is the hyper realistic graphics, the fascinating side characters and the enthralling music. Rockstar takes immersion to the next level, with hilarious AI phone conversations, the ability to give the finger to pedestrians, and truly indulge in being the best Los Santos/Vice City/Bullworth Academy/Sao Paulo domestic terrorist you can be.
Rebellious. Controversial. Aggressive. Fearless. Anti-Authority. These are but some of the characteristics that help define the role of the rock star in modern day society. Rock stars are unafraid to push the limits of an established set of rules. They constantly question authority and live to upend the social structures that help to define it. Their belief’s become their passions and they strive to share these with the surrounding world. Their aura is intoxicating and inspires others to follow their way of life. This is the life of a rock star. This is the unofficial motto of Rockstar Games.
May you rock on forever, Grand Theft Auto.