“Grand Theft Auto” just might be the most infamous name in video game history.
With 15 titles released on nearly every platform imaginable in the past two decades, October 2017 marks not just the 20th anniversary of the first game in the “Grand Theft Auto” series, but also the beginning of an unstoppable pop culture juggernaut’s inevitable future.
Looking back at the original game, it would be fair to call it a humble beginning. For how far the series has come in recent years in terms of graphical achievements and the sheer number of things players can take part in, the original GTA might look to some—at least by today’s standards—like something coded in a living room during a three-day weekend.
In the first game, released in October 1997 and unassumingly titled “Grand Theft Auto,” the player navigates their way through six levels in a top-down view of pixelated city streets. The game is split between three different cities, and the player earns points to progress by committing an assortment of crimes, tasked by the organized crime factions of each city.
Engaging in casual crime to earn money and advance through a story has become something of an easy framework for modern game developers. In unskilled hands, it can be a boring and unimpressive experience. But what almost nobody was doing in 1997 was relying on a simple principle that seems like a given to modern AAA open-world game audiences: freedom of choice.
There are very few restrictions put on the player in GTA for how to complete a mission, and most of the time, as long as the destination or result is correct, players can use any routes and methods they like to reach a goal. This was groundbreaking in the action game space at the time, paving the way for what most players expect now as the de-facto open-world experience.
But even from the start, it was far from being a shining beacon of wholesome family entertainment.
The tremendous prevalence of graphic violence and sexual content in the game led many publications to critically blast the game for being gratuitous and tasteless, with a complete ban of the game issued in Brazil. This was before later games in the series introduced more realistic 3-D visuals, which amped up the bloody action even further.
Throughout the course of the 20 years the game series has been around, there have been at least a dozen lawsuits filed against the developers and retailers for creating and selling a game that—the suits claimed—incites youth into real-life violence, and teaches young children that murder and crime is a worthwhile profession.
The most recent iteration in the series, “Grand Theft Auto V,” still features crime as its main story catalyst. But it’s quite literally a whole new world. Players can play together online in a nearly life-sized city, with scores of things to do to entertain themselves. More surprisingly, a sizeable amount of them don’t even involve crime at all. Tucked away in one part of the city is a plain old golf course where players can play a few rounds.
The way it’s going, it would not be surprising, and even a little exciting, to see future GTA titles incorporate occupational alternatives to becoming a professional criminal. Maybe they could even forgo the theft of automobiles completely. But for now, even with all its legal and moral ups and downs, GTA has changed pop culture at large. And the world of video games will never be the same, for better or worse.