Franchise Festival #75: Grand Theft Auto

Welcome back to Franchise Festival, where we explore and discuss noteworthy video game series from the last four decades. Older entries can be found here.

This week we’ll be hijacking the history of Grand Theft Auto. Cover art, unless otherwise noted, is from MobyGames. Please consider supporting that website, as its volunteers tirelessly catalog key information and art assets for an often ephemeral medium. Where two dates are presented, the first indicates a European release and the second indicates a North American release unless otherwise noted.


DMA Design Limited was founded in Dundee, Scotland, in 1987 by David Jones, Mike Dailly, Russell Kay, and Steve Hammond. The studio developed PC games throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s, achieving widespread mainstream popularity with Lemmings (1991). More information on the early years of the studio can be found in Franchise Festival #57.

Promotional still from the unreleased Kid Kirby. Source: Mike Dailly

DMA sold Lemmings to publisher Psygnosis after its second entry, deciding to focus the studio’s efforts on home console game development. It signed a publishing contract with Nintendo and released its first console-exclusive, the Super Nintendo Entertainment System’s (SNES’) Uniracers/Unirally, in 1994/1995. DMA next collaborated with Nintendo partner HAL Laboratories on the SNES mouse-based Kid Kirby, though this project was abandoned.

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1998’s Body Harvest. Note the vehicle in the background, which can be entered and driven around by the player character. Source: WhatCulture

The Nintendo 64’s time-traveling third-person action-adventure Body Harvest (1998) was planned to be the second DMA title published under this contract following Kid Kirby‘s cancellation, but the deal fell through when Nintendo requested too many alterations based on the game’s perceived appeal to Japanese audiences. Body Harvest was happily saved from publication limbo by Gremlin Interactive in Europe and Midway Home Entertainment in North America. The resulting game, while hardly a blockbuster hit, showcased DMA’s skill at crafting non-linear 3D open worlds featuring vehicular traversal; these ambitious elements would later play a key role in Grand Theft Auto‘s transition from a cult hit to a household name.


Grand Theft Auto (1997/1998)
Grand Theft Auto: London 1969 (1999)
Grand Theft Auto: London 1961 (1999)

In the troubled period between Body Harvest‘s 1995 announcement and its 1998 release, DMA had developed an unassuming PC game about the United States’ criminal underworld. Grand Theft Auto, originally titled Race-n-Chase, was successfully pitched by DMA to publisher BMG Interactive in the mid-1990s. Unfortunately, the game would face several serious challenges ahead of its 1997 release.

The Race-n-Chase prototype suggests a less cartoonish version of Grand Theft Auto‘s visual landscape. Source: Grand Theft Auto Wiki

Early builds, which allowed players to take on the role of a police officer or a criminal completing missions in a city viewed from a bird’s-eye view, were highly unstable; the frequency of crashes eventually caused BMG Interactive to threaten the project with cancellation. Much of this was down to significant disagreements between DMA’s young team of writers and game designers. Grand Theft Auto‘s development team eventually refocused its efforts following the discovery that quirky AI resulted in police officers wildly attacking the player when they took on the role of a criminal character, striking the law-abiding side of the game entirely. Chaos became the foundation of the final product.

Unlike later series titles, where controversy would come to them, DMA Designa actively courted media skepticism with the promotional campaign for Grand Theft Auto‘s debut. Source: Grand Theft Auto Wiki

Grand Theft Auto was published by BMG in Europe in December 1997 on the PC and Sony PlayStation while a North American port was respectively released on the PC and PlayStation by ASC Games and Take-Two Interactive the following February. Players can select one of eight mechanically identical male or female avatars in the PC version (the four female avatars are omitted in the PlayStation version) to complete missions around three fictional North American cities: Liberty City, Vice City, and San Andreas; these are more or less stand-ins for New York, Miami, and San Francisco respectively. Each offers a massive if relatively simple 3D map viewed from a top-down perspective and hundreds of sprite-based non-player characters (NPCs).

NPCs include civilians milling about and driving cars, as well as police officers. The former can be attacked and car-jacked, allowing the player character to make use of whatever vehicle they were driving. The latter pursue the player character and appear in greater numbers as the player character racks up a point multiplier based on crimes committed.

A comparison of the PC (left) and PlayStation (right) versions of Grand Theft Auto. All conversions of the game are impressively similar. Source: Grand Theft Auto Wiki

Crimes are a central aspect of gameplay, as each city features a linear set of missions to complete within two levels. Missions see the player character engaging in some manner of prescribed criminal activity – assassination, theft, smuggling, etc. – and racking up a multiplier to more efficiently score points. The object of each level is to amass a certain number of points. When player characters are captured or killed by police, their point multiplier is reduced and they must fulfill more missions to complete the level.

Though the game’s six levels and its gameplay mechanics are relatively simplistic, its open-ended design is intensely ambitious. Players enjoyed the ability to get from Point A to Point B in any way they chose, while the combination of graphic (if low-detail) violence and seven dietetic radio stations only enhanced the perception that the game was looking forward. The PC and PlayStation original flew off the shelf, though technical and commercial considerations grounded planned ports to the Nintendo 64 and SEGA Saturn. Online multiplayer was available to PC players via IPX connection, though this was ultimately unsatisfying.

What could signal the move to 1960s London better than a red double-decker bus? Source: MobyGames

The game experienced a resurgence in 1999 with two mission packs utilizing the Grand Theft Auto engine. The first expansion pack, London 1969, features new missions set in a heavily fictionalized historical London and was published on the PC and PlayStation; both versions require the player to own a copy of the original Grand Theft Auto. PC-exclusive London 1961 followed later in 1999 and required players to own both Grand Theft Auto and London 1969.  Miraculously, a full conversion of the original game to the Game Boy Color was also produced by Rockstar Games in 1999. This version features graphical alterations and heavy censorship, but is otherwise a faithful adaptation of its source material.


Grand Theft Auto 2 (1999)

The broader upheaval of corporate acquisitions in the video game industry during the late 1990s left its mark on DMA Design. The small Scottish studio was acquired by Gremlin Interactive in 1997 and then again changed hands in 1999 following two tempestuous years under Gremlin, becoming a subsidiary of French publisher Infogrames. Take-Two Interactive bought DMA Design from Infogrames shortly thereafter and also secured the intellectual property (IP) rights to Grand Theft Auto by purchasing the series’ former publisher, BMG Interactive. BMG’s Sam and Dan Houser formed Rockstar as a New York-based publishing subsidiary of Take-Two Interactive at this point while DMA’s Mike Dailly, Russell Kay, and Steve Hammond departed the studio they had founded a decade earlier.

These changes would not derail the series, though, as DMA still managed to deliver the its first full sequel before the end of 1999. Having developed a previous game and reusing its engine made development move much more smoothly than it had for Grand Theft Auto. Grand Theft Auto 2 did not revolutionize the formula established by the series’ debut, but it did iterate in several meaningful ways.

Grand Theft Auto 2 looks similar to its predecessor, but the lighting is noticeably improved. Source: Grand Theft Auto Wiki

The graphical style remains nearly identical – a 2.5D overhead perspective – but is embellished with more detailed models and lighting effects. The PC version’s time of day varies between noon and dusk, allowing for more atmospheric visuals in the latter scenario. Enemy types are more varied, as law enforcement now includes multiple categories based on how many crimes the player character has committed; these include police, special agents, SWAT, and even the United States military.

Gameplay is very similar to Grand Theft Auto, as the player character must complete criminal missions to open up new levels, but a handful of significant new systems have been layered onto the basic driving mechanics. Seven archetypical gangs populate the retrofuturist-influenced setting of Anywhere City: Zaibatsu Corporation, Loonies, Yakuza, Scientist Research Center (SRS) Scientists, Rednecks, Russian Mafia, and Hare Krishnas. The city is divided into three sections which become accessible as the game goes on, and the player must manage levels of respect with each section’s three gangs. The areas – Commercial District, Residential District, and Industrial District – have distinctive appearances and a unique selection of five radio stations drawn from the eleven total stations available in the game.

My favorite detail about the all-around silly Grand Theft Auto 2: The Movie is its decision to have protagonist Claude Speed unceremoniously die at the end. Source: shino24

For the first time, DMA also introduces side activities. Players can drive passengers using buses or taxis to earn in-game money. Special ‘Wang Cars’ can also be discovered through scrupulous searching, opening up access to eight special vehicles if the player finds all of them. Acquiring enough money unlocks new areas and allows the player to save the game.

Though the story remains limited, lest it get in the way of Grand Theft Auto‘s emphasis on emergent gameplay, it is slightly more fully-formed than the narrative of its predecessor. Players take on the role of Claude Speed rather than choosing from one of eight protagonists. This character is thinly sketched, but does feature in a live-action eight-minute promotional film produced for the game and edited down into a brief introductory cutscene.

While the Game Boy Color port features its source material’s content, it necessarily makes the leap to pure 2D. Source: MobyGames

Dreamcast and Game Boy Color ports followed the game’s initial release on PC and PlayStation. Oddly, only the PC version features both noon and dusk scenarios; PlayStation only included noon, Dreamcast only included dusk, and the Game Boy Color version lacked any specific time of day. In spite of its improvements, which laid track for the core mechanics of later installments, Grand Theft Auto 2‘s similarity to Grand Theft Auto ensured that it received only middling reviews.


Grand Theft Auto III (2001)
Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (2002)
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (2004)

Publisher Take-Two Interactive supported the development of a third core entry in the franchise, but also sought to get in on the rapid ascent of online multiplayer games with Grand Theft Auto: Online Crime World. To that end, it explored a merger between DMA and newly acquired Israeli multiplayer game developer Pixel Broadband Studios in 2000. This merger was subsequently abandoned, however, and Online Crime World was quietly canceled.

Production on Grand Theft Auto 3D proceeded steadily throughout this period. DMA initially tried to repurpose Body Harvest‘s engine but found that it had already aged badly since that game’s 1998 publication on the Nintendo 64. The development team next turned to Renderware, a middleware solution created by British studio Criterion Software in the 1990s. The difficulties programming for Sony’s powerful but notoriously idiosyncratic PlayStation 2 architecture caused DMA, like many other studios, to make use of middleware in an effort to reduce costs and the likelihood of technical problems.

Players can finally closely observe the pedestrians they beat up in Grand Theft Auto III. Source: MobyGames

Given the ambition of DMA for the third title in its Grand Theft Auto series, one wonders if the game would have ever even been released at without the widespread availability of Criterion’s Renderware. Rather than iterate upon what worked in prior installments, the development team expanded the project into a fully 3D world explored from street level. Though certain elements were abandoned along the way, including aircraft missions and multiplayer, the content that made it into the final release required a herculean effort by DMA’s 23 core staffers. Thousands of lines of dialogue were recorded by noteworthy actors like Joe Pantoliano and Kyle MacLachlan, motion capture for all major characters was carried out at a small New York studio, and the sheer scale of the game’s open world necessitated an inventive approach to streaming in new data. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 delayed the game’s publication – and led to a handful of last-minute redesigns to avoid inadvertently reminding players of those real-world events – but DMA’s hard work would be vindicated when the game was regarded as an instant classic upon its October 2001 PlayStation 2 release.

Side missions include more socially acceptable activities like driving taxis and ambulances. Source: MobyGames

Players take on the role of an unnamed silent protagonist (who would be referred to in later games as Claude) as he engages in a surprisingly dense plot set throughout Liberty City. This heavily fictionalized interpretation of New York features a host of gangs, including the Italian Mafia and Yakuza, within its three sequentially-unlocked districts of Portland, Staunton Island, and Shoreside Vale. Scenes advancing the story are depicted through in-engine cutscenes inspired by 20th Century crime cinema while the radio stations of Grand Theft Auto 2 are dramatically expanded through the storage capacity of the PlayStation 2’s DVD format.

Unlike its extensive narrative and massive polygonal world, Grand Theft Auto III‘s gameplay is fundamentally similar to its direct predecessor. The player character steals vehicles, commits crimes, and engages in shootouts or fistfights with enemies. Expanding to a third dimension makes aiming more challenging, though auto-aim mitigates frustration. Light platforming is also introduced through the addition of a jump command. The number of police hunting the player character, as well as their aggression, hinges on a wanted level determined by the number of crimes that he has carried out in a short time period; avoiding capture long enough reduces his wanted level while being killed or captured by police causes the player character to respawn at a nearby hospital with less money.

Liberty City Stories is an even more impressive portable adaptation than its Game Boy Color predecessors as it features an entirely new plot and vehicles – like motorcycles – which were not present in Grand Theft Auto III. Source: MobyGames

The last remaining founder of DMA Design, David Jones, left the studio midway through development on Grand Theft Auto III. DMA was subsequently rebranded Rockstar North and Leslie Benzies took over as lead producer on the franchise. Ports of Grand Theft Auto III were respectively produced for the PC and Xbox in 2002 and 2003 while Rockstar Leeds collaborated with Rockstar North on a 2005 PlayStation Portable prequel called Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories.

Yes, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City is set in the 1980s. Why do you ask? Source: MobyGames

The first of two planned Grand Theft Auto III mission packs quickly evolved into a standalone title called Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (2002). Its engine and gameplay are largely identical to Grand Theft Auto III, though it emphasizes its throwback 1986 setting and introduces the ability to drive motorcycles and helicopters. The aesthetic is heavily influenced by 1980s television show Miami Vice. Aside from a major visual overhaul, protagonist Tommy Vercetti can make use of business properties as revenue streams after acquiring them in a set of side missions. A prequel called Vice City Stories was respectively published on the PlayStation Portable and PlayStation 2 in 2006 and 2007.

The second standalone game based on the foundation of Grand Theft Auto III is 2004’s Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Shifting forward to 1992 from Vice City’s neon-lit 1980s pastiche, San Andreas splits its time between three fictional locations loosely based on real American cities: Los Santos (Los Angeles), San Fierro (San Francisco), and Las Ventura (Las Vegas). Players take on the role of ex-con Carl “CJ” Johnson as he tries to solve his mother’s murder and navigate the thorny politics of West Coast organized crime.

Cutscenes in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, like Grand Theft Auto III and Grand Theft Auto: Vice City before it, are presented in highly cinematic fashion. Source: NRMGamingHD

While still retaining the structure and visual style of Grand Theft Auto III, meaningful refinements are integrated into San Andreas. Aiming is more precise while load times have been restricted to entering interior areas or initiating cutscenes. CJ’s verb set is more extensive than any earlier Grand Theft Auto protagonist, as he can swim and climb walls throughout the three cities. Light role-playing features are introduced, allowing CJ’s assorted skills to be enhanced as the game progresses, while character customization through clothing has an impact on how NPCs interact with CJ. At the time of its 2004 PlayStation 2 release, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas stood out as the most successful implementation of 3D open-world design available on home consoles

Strength can be enhanced by that most exhilarating in-game activity… hitting the gym. Source: MobyGames

All three of the series’ sixth console generation titles were critical and commercial juggernauts, but each was bedeviled with controversy. Earlier series entries had likely escaped similar garment-rending through their comparative artistic abstraction and limited mainstream success, but Grand Theft Auto III‘s worldwide popularity ensured that it would be mired in controversy from launch. Guests on American broadcaster NBC were discussing the game’s problematic content – and potential negative influence on players – as early as December 2001. The exploitation of a patch to access a graphically explicit sex-based minigame called Hot Coffee in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas later prompted a Federal Trade Commission probe (which ultimately came down on the side of Rockstar). Grand Theft Auto‘s most disturbing intersection with the news was a series of allegations that it influenced real-world murders; these cases, prosecuted by notorious attorney Jack Thompson, repeatedly proved unsuccessful. Subsequent studies into the link between video game violence and real-world violence have been inconclusive.

Grand Theft Auto III and Grand Theft Auto: Vice City each sold over two million copies by 2004, while Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas became the best-selling title published on the PlayStation 2. Though the series had already established itself as a cult classic in the 1990s, Grand Theft Auto III rapidly achieved a reputation as one of the most influential pieces of interactive entertainment ever made. Home console owners were introduced to vast open-world 3D sandboxes that somehow managed to balance their narratives with unparalleled player choice. This core concept would become synonymous with mainstream video game design over the following decade, as the foundations of Assassin’s Creed, InFamous, The Witcher, Dead Rising, Just Cause, Watch Dogs, Red Dead Redemption, Mafia and Crackdown can be traced directly to the critical and commercial success of Rockstar’s underworld crime saga.


Grand Theft Auto IV (2008)

It would be challenging to duplicate the popularity of Grand Theft Auto III and its standalone successors. Rather than seeking to imitate the brash, cartoonish style of those games, Rockstar opted to take a more ambitious approach. Grand Theft Auto IV would upend the franchise’s satirical tone by treating its subject matter with an uncharacteristic level of thematic heft and avoiding the self-conscious cinematic references of its predecessors.

The graphical technology of the seventh console generation, for which Grand Theft Auto IV was being developed since 2004, allowed a team of over one hundred Rockstar developers split between North America and Europe to emphasize emotion and naturalistic acting in a way they had formerly been unable to do. Lighting and facial mapping detail was especially crucial to this effort. Extensive research into the neighborhoods and culture of New York was then carried out in an effort to inform a more believable world than any in the Grand Theft Auto III trilogy. The setting was a natural choice, given Rockstar’s resource base in New York, and the next entry in the franchise was planned as a return to Liberty City.

Highly detailed character models and realistic environments allow for more believable character development. Source: Errant Signal

A delay in Summer 2007 to further polish the game – and to resolve problems caused by programming challenges endemic to the PlayStation 3 platform – pushed its release into 2008. This would not reduce the franchise’s momentum, however, and it was greeted with widespread critical acclaim upon its April 2008 publication. Over 6 million copies were sold in its record-breaking launch week.

In Grand Theft Auto IV, players take on the role of newly arrived Serbian immigrant Niko Bellic as he rises through Liberty City’s underworld. Niko’s story is inherently tragic, unlike the arcs of Claude, Tommy, or CJ. The Yugoslav Wars veteran attempts to make his way in the United States through the limited doors open to him, offering players the opportunity to make meaningful moral choices for the first time in the franchise, but the conspicuous absence of Vice City’s and San Andreas’ property ownership and management minigame undermines the reality of his goal. Grand Theft Auto had long been known for its cynical attitude, but its fourth numbered entry treats the “American Dream” and the immigrant experience with weary skepticism rather than snark.

Gunplay now features the over-the-shoulder camera and aiming perspective which became common after Resident Evil 4 (2005). Source: Errant Signal

In keeping with its darker subject matter, Grand Theft Auto IV’s presentation is less garish than its predecessors. The underlying physics engine is more realistic, making cars perform more accurately, while atmospheric lighting enhances the highly detailed textures and character models populating its gritty interpretation of Liberty City. What Grand Theft Auto IV loses in scope – its explorable environment is smaller than San Andreas – it gains in complexity. Grand Theft Auto IV’s audio palette is likewise expanded through subtraction: general pop was consciously eliminated in favor of music which had more of a connection to the events and people depicted in the game. Soundtrack director Ivan Pavlovich let his own jaunts through a partially-finished game build dictate who he sought out for the 214 recordings played on in-game radio stations, including having some artists re-record tracks to tie them more directly to the fictional geography of Liberty City. The planned inclusion of an MP3 player was scrapped during development.

Building on the at-times ludicrous verisimilitude of listening to the radio or lifting weights, Grand Theft Auto now allows the player character to watch television shows. Source: Errant Signal

A handful of mechanical updates represent a clear evolution over the series’ PlayStation 2 trilogy. Most actions available in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas remain intact, including swimming and climbing, but Niko can also take cover behind scenery during combat and drive vehicles from a first-person perspective. Minigames and side missions feature less variety than they had in the last couple of series entries in order to maintain Grand Theft Auto IV’s serious tone, though completing tasks associated with Niko’s network of friends and family opens up new mechanics as the game goes on.

While relatively simple multiplayer mechanics had been present as early as the series’ debut title, it is a key feature for the first time in Grand Theft Auto IV. Up to 16 players in the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions of the game, or 32 in the December 2008 PC port, can join one another online for one of 13 game types. These include deathmatches, races, and even a free mode where players can simply collaborate in open-ended mayhem across the game world. All are accessed from an in-game cell phone, rather than requiring players to quit to a title menu, dovetailing elegantly with Grand Theft Auto IV’s broader emphasis on a seamless gameplay experience.

Going all-in on its nightclub setting, The Ballad of Gay Tony actually includes a drinking minigame. Source: MobyGames

Two packs of downloadable content (DLC) were published on the Xbox 360 in 2009 and on the PlayStation 3 and PC in 2010. The Lost and the Damned sees players step into the combat boots of The Lost Motorcycle Club vice president Johnny Klebitz as he works to resolve a violent power struggle within his gang, while The Ballad of Gay Tony focuses on protagonist Luis Lopez’s experience within Liberty City’s nightclub culture. Both stories intersect with Grand Theft Auto IV’s main plot at points. In addition to downloading these installments as add-ons to Grand Theft Auto IV through their preferred platform’s digital marketplace, fans could buy the two DLC packages on-disc as a standalone retail release called Episodes from Liberty City.

Grand Theft Auto IV’s legacy is not as culturally significant as Grand Theft Auto III, though its critical reputation remains strong. It features fewer antiquated elements, remaining highly playable long after the release of its successor; the online multiplayer mode is, in fact, still populated by players a decade hence. It also failed to inspire as much controversy as Grand Theft Auto III, whether through its own more serious treatment of the subject matter or the medium’s increasing popularity among adults in the 2000s; one noteworthy exception was a Mothers Against Drunk Driving campaign that focused on a sequence in which protagonist Niko drives while drunk. Its continued availability through Xbox One’s backwards compatibility program and the PC’s Steam digital distribution service, despite Rockstar’s need to periodically remove music tracks as their licenses expire, ensures that it will remain accessible to new fans for the foreseeable future.


Grand Theft Auto V (2013)

Development began on Grand Theft Auto V shortly after Grand Theft Auto IV was released and grew to involve over 1000 employees across North America and Europe before the project’s completion in August 2013. Since the upcoming game still made use of the Rockstar Advanced Game Engine (RAGE) that had powered Grand Theft Auto IV and Red Dead Redemption (2010), much of the development time was spent on introducing  mechanical changes and crafting the most detailed, expansive world the studio had yet created. Grand Theft Auto V would return to the world of Los Santos and the surrounding San Andreas countryside, though a major increase in size would now permit the inclusion of piloted fixed-wing aircraft. The project would be Rockstar’s most technologically ambitious title so far.

PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 owners gained access to the game in September 2013, though a 2014 port to PlayStation 4 and Xbox One featured a major graphical overhaul. A PC version was then published in 2015. All were blockbuster commercial successes, with the title’s unprecedented sales befitting its status as the most expensive video game ever produced.

Of course it took 1000 people – even the incidental convenience stores feel like real places. Source: Errant Signal

For the first time in a Grand Theft Auto game, players take on the role of three protagonists; though the concept had originally been proposed for Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, it had been stymied by PlayStation 2 technical limitations. Franklin, Trevor, and Michael feature crossing narrative paths during the first few hours of gameplay, when the player is restricted to one of them at a time, but their stories eventually converge and allow the player to independently switch between them at his or her leisure. They can even be strategically placed to offer cover or complete objectives simultaneously during particularly complex missions.

At the game’s start, Franklin is employed by a corrupt car salesman and is sent on a mission to repossess a car owned by Michael’s son. Michael, in witness protection following his participation in a botched bank heist during the game’s prologue, partners with Franklin as he returns to a life of crime in Los Santos. Trevor, a member of Michael’s old gang who had thought his former ally dead, joins up following a successful jewelry shop heist carried out by Franklin and Michael. The three engage in small- and large-scale crime around the city, culminating in their recruitment by the Federal Investigation Bureau (FIB) as it seeks to carry out clandestine operations against a rival federal intelligence agency.

Using a cell phone remains a key feature of Grand Theft Auto V, as had been the case in its direct predecessor. Source: Errant Signal

Aside from the ability to switch between playable characters, Grand Theft Auto V‘s gameplay broadly resembles that of its direct predecessor. A vast array of vehicles can be acquired and used to travel through Los Santos and rural San Andreas while firearms are more responsive and accurate than ever. Relationships with NPC friends, family members, and rivals again facilitates the game’s mission structure and side activities while simultaneously emphasizing a key shift away from Grand Theft Auto IV‘s tone.

The earnestness of Niko’s story – itself a subject of criticism in the years since the game’s release – is replaced here by intense nihilism. Where Niko was fundamentally a man trying to improve his life and being frustrated by cold or corrupt systems, the characters of Grand Theft Auto V are presented as irredeemably and near-universally cruel. A mid-game sequence in which the player must actively participate in the torture of a man for the FIB as part of an assassination plot came under particular scrutiny for its thematic bleakness.

It can’t be stressed enough just how gross the torture scene is. Source: Errant Signal

The game world, in contrast, is extraordinarily beautiful. The first-person mode added to Grand Theft Auto V‘s PlayStation 4 and Xbox One port brings Los Santos and San Andreas into an uncharacteristically high level of detail for a franchise which had formerly been better known for its breadth than its depth. Heavy research into the geography and culture of Los Angeles has resulted in urban environments teeming with interactive characters and physical spaces. In a nod to 2010’s Red Dead Redemption, rural San Andreas likewise features wildlife roaming its scraggly hills.

Grand Theft Auto V introduces the first major evolution to the series’ audio landscape in sixteen years. Stations are still present, offering a combination of chatter and 441 licensed music tracks when player characters are driving cars, but the remainder of the game is backed with a score composed by The Alchemist, Oh No, Tangerine Dream, and Woody Jackson. The four artists collaborated on over twenty hours of flexible stem-based music recordings, which were then edited by DJ Shadow and matched to scripted sequences or emergent gameplay moments.

Whatever its narrative issues, and they are numerous, Grand Theft Auto V‘s fictionalized rendering of Los Angeles is among the most realistic open worlds ever created. Source: Errant Signal

The Grand Theft Auto franchise reached new heights with its fifth numbered title. It was bigger, more beautifully rendered, more densely scripted, and more cynical than it had ever been. It was as dogged by controversy as ever – including a lawsuit by actress Lindsey Lohan concerning the unauthorized use of her likeness and critical allegations of extreme misogyny – but this did nothing to negatively effect the series’ popularity. A major new Grand Theft Auto spinoff would make its debut only fourteen days after the release of Grand Theft Auto V.



The first Grand Theft Auto spinoff was also the series’ only entry not produced internally by DMA/Rockstar. Originally planned as a Game Boy Advance port of Grand Theft Auto III, Grand Theft Auto Advance worked its way through two studios (Crawfish and Destination Software) before finally being successfully developed by Digital Eclipse. The 2003 release is set a year before the events of Grand Theft Auto III and concerns protagonist Mike’s criminal exploits throughout Liberty City. Characters and locations from Grand Theft Auto III make appearances, though its presentation otherwise has more in common with the Game Boy Color adaptations of the series’ 2.5D entries.

Unlike Grand Theft Auto or Grand Theft Auto 2, Grand Theft Auto Advance players can improve their virtual society by taking part in ambulance missions. Source: MobyGames

Liberty City, which is larger here than in its home console contemporary, is viewed from a fixed top-down perspective instead of a controllable 3D camera. Vehicles and characters are sprites rather than polygonal models. Some game elements are included from Grand Theft Auto III, however, including side content like vigilante missions and street races. A planned multiplayer mode was cut from the final build of the game.

Note the differences and similarities between Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars‘ Nintendo DS (left) and PlayStation Portable (right) versions. Source: Grand Theft Auto Wiki

Grand Theft Auto‘s second spinoff, Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars, was respectively published on the Nintendo DS and PlayStation Portable, iOS, and Android devices in 2009, 2010, and 2014. Players take on the role of Huang Lee as he arrives in Liberty City and navigates a conflict between China’s Triads and the Korean Mob. Gameplay is relatively similar to the core series’ 2.5D entries, but the graphics consist of textured polygonal models presented from a player-controlled isometric perspective; cel-shading gives the Nintendo DS version a particularly distinctive aesthetic. Minigames make use of touch controls on the Nintendo DS and smart device ports, while these sequences are replaced by quick-time events (QTEs) consisting of contextual button prompts on the PlayStation Portable.

Grand Theft Auto Online emphasizes the sillier side of the series. Source: Vice

The series’ latest spinoff at the time of writing is arguably not a spinoff at all, but rather a Grand Theft Auto V multiplayer mode. It was not included alongside that game’s initial release, though, and has been promoted as a standalone title by Rockstar. Grand Theft Auto Online made its debut as free downloadable content available to Grand Theft Auto V owners fourteen days after that title’s PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 publication.

In this game, up to 16 players on Xbox 360/PlayStation 3 or 30 players on Xbox One/PlayStation 4/PC can take part in missions within instanced versions of Grand Theft Auto V‘s map. Missions include both competitive and cooperative options known respectively as Player vs. Environment (PVE) and Player vs. Player (PVP). Massive amounts of content, including elements accessible only through microtransactions, have been added through six years of post-release support. Players have also documented all manners of sandbox shenanigans using an included movie maker tool called Rockstar Editor and added their own material to the game using its Content Creator.

Note: Cover image of Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars sourced from GameTDB


Grand Theft Auto grew from a cult classic to the commercial juggernaut of the video game industry between 1997 and 2019. Simultaneously, DMA Design evolved from a small Scottish independent developer to a multinational concern as it grew into Rockstar North. Open-world franchises like The Elder Scrolls (1994 – 2019) and Ultima (1980 – 2000) had long been successful on the PC platform, but Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto III was the catalyst for this principle to shape mainstream home console game design during the 2000s and 2010s. In an era flooded with such titles, from Assassin’s Creed to Watch Dogs, Grand Theft Auto stands out as the problematic progenitor of an entire industry movement.

What do you think about Grand Theft Auto? Which is your favorite entry? How about your favorite crime to commit? Would you like to go bowling with Roman? Let’s discuss below.

For those of you who like to look ahead, here is a tentative schedule of upcoming Franchise Festival subjects:

  • #76: Parasite Eve – November 22
  • #77: Might and Magic – November 29
  • #78: Yoshi – December 6
  • #79: SSX – December 13
  • #80: Dark Souls – December 20