On paper, the “Grand Theft Auto” games are shorthand for everything wrong with America: Violence. Prostitution. Drug smuggling. Gun-running. Political corruption. Racial tension. And — oh yeah — grand theft auto.
But despite the criminal themes, the “Grand Theft Auto” games are some of the best-selling and best-reviewed in the business. “Grand Theft Auto IV,” which is being released to ecstatic fans on Tuesday, could smash not only video-game sales records but opening-day box-office numbers, too.
What is it about “GTA” games that appeal to gamers? Why is it fun for otherwise law-abiding citizens to roll hookers, shoot at cops and steal helicopters?
“I get to indulge my dark side a little bit, but it’s more the story elements,” says Matt Slinger, a 36-year-old gamer from Seattle. “You get attached to the character. I don’t feel like I am the character, but I empathize with the character, especially after 40, 60, 80 hours of gameplay.”
The characters you play in the “GTA” games aren’t good guys. They’re criminals — typically small-time criminals, whose objective is to rise up through the ranks to become The Big Boss.
These sorts of themes are well-established in other media such as film and television. We rooted for Michael Corleone in “The Godfather.” We hoped Henry Hill might outrun the Feds in “Goodfellas.” “Grand Theft Auto” games let you play the gangster in a safe, consequence-free environment. And it’s a blast.
In “GTA IV,” the main character is Niko Bellic, a former war criminal from Eastern Europe lured to the fictional Liberty City by his petty-thief cousin. Bellic does plenty of despicable things during his rise to the top of the underworld, but he’s also a multi-layered, sympathetic character with a noble motive.
Playing the criminal is just one appeal of the “GTA” games. Gamers also love the free-wheeling, so-called “sandbox” gameplay, which was pioneered by “Grand Theft Auto III” in 2001.
“’GTA III’ was such an astonishing game when it came out. No one had achieved what they had in having this kind of open-world game where you moved around so freely,” says Adam Sessler, co-host of “X-Play” on the G4 gaming channel.
Back in the day, most games were linear. You had a set list of objectives, and a set way to accomplish them. “GTA” turned that on its ear, allowing players any number of ways to progress through the game — and get in lots of trouble.
As a result, the “GTA” games, with their mature themes — and ratings — have been a lightning rod for controversy and criticism. Sure, video games had blood and gore and violence. But criminals as heroes? Think of the children!
When gamers found a hidden sex scene in “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas,” politicians fell all over themselves condemning it, including Sen. Hillary Clinton.
“The disturbing material in ‘Grand Theft Auto’ and other games like it is stealing the innocence of our children and it’s making the difficult job of being a parent even harder,” she said.
Sexy scenes aside, many objected to the unapologetic violence and lawlessness in the “Grand Theft Auto” games. Anti-game crusader and attorney Jack Thompson initiated several lawsuits against Rockstar owners Take-Two Interactive, saying that the games trained players how to commit real-life murders. Some of the lawsuits have been dropped, some are still pending.
But fans of the games, like Andrew Monasterio, a 20-year-old gamer from Bartlett, Tenn., scoff at such claims.
“If someone enjoys killing innocent people in a video game all day, there was probably something wrong with him long before the game came out,” he wrote in an e-mail.
Still, there’s little doubt that all this “negative” attention has helped add to the bad-boy allure of the franchise — and its creators, Rockstar Games. Even people who’ve never played a video game in their lives have heard of “Grand Theft Auto,” says Sam Kennedy, editorial director of game site 1up.com.
“They know of the game and that’s been a benefit to the game’s popularity,” he says. “But I think the reason why it’s been popular among gamers is because it’s a very good game.”
“GTA” games are known for their deep, well-developed stories and hip, wry writing. The characters are complex, the environments are spot-on, the game soundtracks are germane to the time and place. I have fond memories of running red lights to Gary Numan’s “Cars” while playing “Grand Theft Auto: Vice City,” which was set in a city that resembled a 1980s-era Miami.
Seattle gamer Slinger loves how much creativity and care goes in to making each of the “Grand Theft Auto” games, where the next is better than the last.
“You can tell how much fun (Rockstar) had making it,” he says. “They’re obviously just barely grown up grown-ups who are sitting around the playground and thinking up the most-fun things that they can cram into this game.”
This creativity has translated into big sales. Take-Two says that the series has sold approximately 70 million copies since its inception. The last iteration, “San Andreas,” (the one with the sex scene) was the biggest yet, selling over 20 million copies since its release in 2004.
Industry watchers expect “GTA IV” to have similar legs. Analysts predict that the game will sell 9 million copies in its first few months, and up to 13 million by year’s end.
Slinger is one of the faithful — although he’s not in front of a console today. He’s on Maui with his wife — and says he almost considered trying to move his vacation around to account for the release of “GTA IV.” (I’m happy to report that he came to his senses.)
Still, he’s planning on tacking on a few extra vacation days after he returns so that he can catch up with his co-worker, who will be playing nearly non-stop in his absence.
“He’s going to be, like, a ‘GTA’ pro by the time I get back into town, and I just can’t have that,” says Slinger. “I just can’t have that.”
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