I love the U.K. because some of my favorite things originated from Britain (Charlie Chaplin! The Beatles! Television! Slapstick comedy! James Bond! The Office! Wallace and Gromit! Winnie the Pooh!) but Britain is known for making great video games as well.
Some of the most acclaimed games that hail from Britain include Donkey Kong Country, Tomb Raider, Goldeneye 007, Banjo-Kazooie, Conker’s Bad Fur Day, LittleBigPlanet and Batman: Arkham Asylum, but the most popular video game that comes from Britain might not surprise you because it’s also one of the most controversial games ever made.
The Grand Theft Auto series is one of the most critically acclaimed and commercially successful video game franchises. The fourth-highest selling video game franchise of all time behind Mario, Tetris and Pokémon.
It was created by Scottish video game designers David Jones and Mike Dailly of DMA Design (later Rockstar North) as a top-down 2D action game for Microsoft Windows and MS-DOS in 1997, later ported to the PlayStation. It put you in control of a criminal who performed tasks for the city’s local crime syndicate, and as the title of the game suggests, breaking the law was perfectly acceptable.
The game was a bestseller in the U.K. but mostly unremarkable, despite its potential. IGN called it poorly designed but still fun thanks to the freedom of exploration it offered players.
Grand Theft Auto 2 received similarly mixed reviews when it was released. The main reason GTA and GTA 2 were criticized was because of their dated graphics, but both received acclaim for their soundtracks.
The real game changer came when Grand Theft Auto III was released in 2001.
GTA III took place in New York-inspired Liberty City. It had a story, cutscenes, great presentation and great voice acting (the cast included Kyle MacLachlan, Robert Loggia and Michael Rapaport), but the freedom of exploration was the game’s main appeal. It took the best things about the first two games and expanded on it beautifully with a huge three-dimensional environment. A landmark in 3D exploration that influenced other video games.
That game was followed by Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (2002) which took place in 1980’s Miami, complete with palm trees, pastel, neon and cocaine. Ray Liotta (Goodfellas) provided the voice of the main character Tommy Vercetti, which gave a Scorsese-like air of sophistication to the game’s atmosphere.
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (2004) was even bigger. It took place in a state instead of just one city. It was set in the early nineties and evoked Los Angeles in that time period, Tommy Vercetti now replaced by a man named CJ, Vice City’s organized street crime now replaced by street gangs and disco now replaced by rap.
San Andreas was astonishing for its scope and freedom. This time the transportation you could steal included cars, buses, motorbikes, trains, boats, planes, helicopters and tanks. Side-jobs included driving a cab, delivering packages, and becoming a vigilante or a pimp.
Realism was taken to the next level not just in the game’s graphics but in the game’s mechanics. Eating and driving made you gain weight while running and dieting made you thin (Grand Theft Auto meets The Sims).
Grand Theft Auto IV (2008) for the PS3 returned the series to Liberty City with a more mature and less cartoonish storyline. This game is still the unmatched jewel in this series’ crown. It had the most realistic ambience and amazingly high replay value. It also let you wreak havoc with a friend in multiplayer modes.
Grand Theft Auto V (2013) tried to top the fourth game by having three protagonists you could switch between, but as I said, GTA IV was the peak. GTA V didn’t feature that many new stuff. Not that it wasn’t a great game, especially for newbies who were unfamiliar with previous installments.
You may be wondering why these games are so popular. The reason is apparent if you compare Grand Theft Auto to all the video games that came before it. While most games have a linear structure, Grand Theft Auto players made their own game. Almost no other game offers such a level of freedom in a world so huge and full of variety. Nitpickers could point out some flawed shooting and melee controls, not to mention its clichéd and juvenile humor, but these things do not matter to many of the game’s fans. In a world ruled by law and political correctness, this game offers lawlessness and literal freedom to do anything you want.
I also love how there are so many recognizable voices in these games. Many of my favorite celebrities appear, sometimes playing main characters and sometimes voicing themselves when you turn on the radio in your car.
Some of my favorite celebrities who appear include Gary Busey, Lee Majors, Burt Reynolds, Danny Trejo, Samuel L. Jackson, Peter Fonda, James Woods, Ice-T, Fred Melamed, Charlie Murphy, Wil Wheaton, Ricky Gervais, Katt Williams, Chelsea Peretti, Bill Hader, Jason Sudeikis, Fred Armisen, Rachel Feinstein, Danny McBride and Cara Delevingne.
Of course, I cannot talk about Grand Theft Auto without also discussing its reputation among non-gamers.
Video games have always been objects of criticism for their violence since the release of fighting game Mortal Kombat in the nineties. That game, which showed scenes like this…
…prompted the establishment of the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) which rates video games the same way the MPAA rates movies. However, Grand Theft Auto took controversial video game content to another, slightly more bizarre level.
During the development of San Andreas, the ability to have sex with other characters was added as a minigame called “Hot Coffee” (I won’t go into the details). To Rockstar’s credit, they removed this from the final product, but some savvy hackers found the code that allowed players to access it, leading to the game being withdrawn from stores and re-rated by the ESRB, not to mention several lawsuits against developer Rockstar and publisher Take-Two Interactive.
It didn’t matter to the people filing the lawsuits that Rockstar never intended for the access code to go public and that modification of any kind was unauthorized. Rockstar even attracted federal investigation over this incident.
Ask many people in the video game industry and they will tell you that they are smart enough to understand that GTA is fantasy. These games are meant to be escapism for gamers to do what they cannot do in real life, but that doesn’t prevent tabloid outrages over the game’s more controversial elements.
These games are rated M for mature audiences, the equivalent of an R-rating. Don’t blame the developers if people do not listen to those ratings.
My opinion on the “Hot Coffee” controversy was that Rockstar did not deserve to be sued, but even if access to the sex scene was intentional, does a scene between two consenting adults having sex really warrant more outrage than the game’s over-the-top violence? Americans seem to think so, but personally I think people take these games too seriously.
People getting upset about sex and violence in video games is similar to people getting upset about facts in the era of “fake news.” People would rather live in a fantasy world than face reality. In this case, the reality that hiding sex and violence from young people is impossible to do.
Ironic since many people play games to escape reality.