Grand Theft Auto is one of the most remarkable games. But since most people, both those who have played it and those who haven’t, picture it as seemingly endless destruction and mayhem, they often don’t realize that its story is just as captivating as its gameplay. Beyond the violent and chaotic spectacle, there are stories that stand tall beside its supposedly more thoughtful Rockstar sibling, Red Dead Redemption.

(This is drawn from other fans’ explanations and perspectives. It’s not meant to reflect my beliefs about the United States or its people.)

GTA‘s Geography is Everything

Grand Theft Auto map: an island surrounded by water

In every Grand Theft Auto game, the map is an island, with nothing beyond it. Many fans believe that this wasn’t just for gameplay reasons; that actually, the game might have been trying to illustrate the American people’s cultural isolation from the rest of the world. For instance, many Americans think that Africa is a country, not a continent; or they think of it that way.

Rockstar, then, has parodied this lack of awareness in the GTA map. It’s how the US sees itself: the only thing in the world.

(No) Honor Among People

Michael and Trevor in Grand Theft Auto 5

Who’s the villain of the Grand Theft Auto games? If you told someone who has never once picked up GTA about the various protagonists across the games, then they might reasonably think that Michael, Franklin, Trevor, or CJ — the protagonists — were the villains. However, while GTA always gives the player a villain who’s really just a (perhaps thinly veiled) worse alternative to the character they’re playing as, the series has also given gaming some of its most iconic villains: the protagonists’ friends.

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We’d get to know the villains by doing missions with them and growing to like and trust them. They weren’t villains until they became villains — they were friends, and it hurt to see that change happen; in Don Salvatore, Big Smoke, Lance Dance, Dimitri, and Michael.

Yeah, that Michael, a protagonist in Grand Theft Auto 5, is also an antagonist. He betrays Trevor, one of the other three protagonists of GTA 5, and nearly gets Trevor killed. The entire concept and execution of having three protagonists in GTA 5 made for unique gameplay, and strengthened the narrative.

Rockstar might be masters of jokes and gameplay; but they also understand how to write a story with realistic characters and emotional appeal. GTA‘s stories treats its thieves as people — making its implied parroting of the truism “no honor among thieves” much more thought-provoking.

Grand Theft Auto‘s American Dream

The protagonist, Niko, and antagonist, Dimitri, of Grand Theft Auto 4

“The American Dream, was more of a nightmare.”

Vito Scaletta

“I don’t see any American dream; I see an American nightmare.”

Malcolm X

Vito is a protagonist from the Mafia video game franchise. But he and Niko from Grand Theft Auto 4 share a very similar story: both immigrated from their home for reasons beyond their control; both stole and committed terrible crimes in the name of protecting their family; and both are disenchanted with the American Dream. GTA 4 took a step towards a more realistic narrative, and one of the reasons was because we played as someone outside of the typical Liberty City (LC).

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GTA gamers always knew LC as an over-the-top parody of New York City. But since GTA 4 was occurring in a new LC, in a new continuity — the same one that the extremely popular GTA 5 exists within — we were no longer playing in that version of America; so it tracked that we’d have a different character, raised in a different culture. Niko’s absurdity was toned down from other protagonists and characters, though he nonetheless still had a comedic tone and charm, which appealed to players. His cousin Roman, on the other hand, fit into typical GTA-America very well — in the first scene, we see him driving drunk and shouting in the middle of the night, simply because his cousin has arrived from overseas.

The violence in GTA 4 is no less pervasive; but seeing it through the eyes of a straight-man like Niko, an Eastern European veteran seeking the American Dream, immediately gives it a more obvious meaning that the rest of the story builds on. Between organized crime and shady government operations, reprisals and betrayals, Niko sees the real of the country in which he was searching for an ideal.

Conclusion (Will GTA Ever Have One?)

GTA 5 cover

Beginning in 1997, the Grand Theft Auto franchise has produced well over a dozen games; and there’s a new, currently untitled game in the making. Those who only know these games through thumbnails and parents’ horror stories of the over-the-top violence and mayhem should know, though, that that’s hardly the only reason this franchise has lasted as long as it has.

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