Freedom of choice in any medium scares people and makes them say that games like the GRAND THEFT AUTO series have no redeeming value. Here’s another take: GTA has as much value as you bring to it. What you choose to do with the freedom is, as in life, a statement of your values and your projections into that world.
What is consistently glossed over in the outrage and rants and raves over the series is the growth of the Houser brothers’ storytelling. In GTA III, the first game I played in the series, and the one that launched a fascination that only grew through my twenties into my thirties, the story is one of simple revenge, without any characters that rise above archetypal parody. In VICE CITY, the story centered around greed. Characters became more than silent avatars of senseless violence, they became active protagonists in their own downfall, though still wearing their inspirations on their sleeves. SAN ANDREAS expanded to the idea of family discovering itself through being torn apart, of worlds colliding, from the ghettos to the silicone glitz across the bridge, from the trailer park countryside to the snobbish hills of San Fierro, from the desert of James Woods’ CIA agent to the OCEAN’S 11 insanity of Las Venturas and back to where it all began, the Grove Street cul de sac in Los Santos. And then came GTA IV, a newly-realized version of Liberty City, a story of immigrants and family with a revenge story thrown in, and finally, the branching, multi-protagonist narratives of the expansions,LOST AND THE DAMNED, about the destruction of brotherhood and THE BALLAD OF GAY TONY, again, like VICE CITY, a tale of greed from the top down, all the while retaining the sense of humor, head-shaking disbelief, and freedom of exploration that is a staple of the series.
My favorite stories are set in well-defined worlds that make the best use of their medium to grant me a deep peek inside that world, be it a world in prose or a world I can freely explore. The GRAND THEFT AUTO series takes the best of what video games can offer – unfettered exploration and “you are the protagonist” immerson–and marries it with the potential to choose between our worst impulses. For the thoughtful, it forces an examination of violence that goes beyond censorship and political outrage: it forces us to ask what’s inside all of us… and that’s a dangerous thing for any medium to explore.