It was the biggest bombshell to hit the world of technology since Elon Musk decided Twitter needed an exciting new name. On December 4th, video game developer Rockstar announced it was releasing the trailer to its next title earlier than anticipated after hackers had posted a rough edit on social media. Within minutes, the video had clocked up tens of millions of views. Around the world, people dropped whatever they were doing to watch.
The game is Grand Theft Auto VI, the latest in one of the most controversial and profitable franchises in entertainment. Since the first GTA in 1997, the Grand Theft Auto series has grossed more than $8 billion. That is more than Star Wars or Harry Potter. Judging by the 120 million views thus far clocked up by the new trailer, the latest instalment could be the biggest yet.
Video gaming has long dwarfed Hollywood and the music business in profitability. Still, even by those standards, GTA is a phenomenon. It is both hugely controversial and massively lucrative – and has arguably remade the face of gaming itself, though whether that is a positive or negative is open to debate.
But it has been 10 years since Grand Theft Auto V, and video games have moved on. The misogynistic “bro” culture with which GTA was associated, often through no fault of its own, is on the back foot. This year’s Game of the Year shortlist features titles that celebrate queer characters (Baldur’s Gate III) and tell nuanced stories where it is hard to tell good from evil (Alan Wake II).
Grand Theft Auto, by contrast, is a hangover from the days of Loaded and Nuts magazines. A shot of blokey adrenaline that invites you to kick back in a world where boys will be boys, and female characters drink cocktails and lounge by the pool. Does it have any relevance after a decade away?
Rockstar is perfectly aware that the needle has shifted. In the past, the company has insisted GTA would never have a female protagonist and that “masculine” energy was central to the tone of the games. “The concept of being masculine was so key to this story,” said Rockstar co-founder Dan Houser in 2013.
However, times change – and so has Grand Theft Auto VI. The new trailer features a female protagonist, Lucia. Meanwhile, the action is returning to GTA’s beloved setting of Liberty City – the GTA universe’s version of Miami.
Your character could merrily romp around a New York-style city, beating up bystanders, stealing cars and ramming the police. It was hugely juvenile but with an undeniable punk spirit
Fans will hope the latest title will be faithful to the anarchic spirit of its forerunners. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the true innovation of GTA lay in the creation of a gaming “sandbox” where the player could do whatever they wished. Yes, if you were that way inclined, there was a story to follow. On the other hand, if you enjoyed mayhem for mayhem’s sake, you could set the plot aside and go on a rampage of car theft and criminal damage.
The original GTA was a technologically clunky top-down affair with primitive graphics and squeaky sound. It still created a moral panic – in Britain’s House of Lords, it was criticised for encouraging joyriding. Yet the true forward leap in the Grand Theft Auto story was in 2001, when the third title introduced 3D graphics and a fully immersive open world. Your character could merrily romp around a New York-style city, beating up bystanders, stealing cars and ramming the police.
It was hugely juvenile but with an undeniable punk spirit. However, that trigger-happy corner of gaming has now arguably been conquered by day-glo distractions such as Fortnite and Overwatch. Grand Theft Auto VI will doubtlessly cause a splash when it lands in 2025. The real question is whether the series can remain relevant in an industry that has evolved beyond recognition over the past decade.