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What Everyone Gets Wrong About Grand Theft Auto

Ever since Grand Theft Auto 3 laid the foundation for nearly two decades worth of gaming, spearheading open world design ideas still being built upon to this day, the series' star has only soared higher, culminating with Grand Theft Auto 5 reportedly holding the title of the most profitable entertainment product ever produced.

The series has also been a lightning rod of controversies, lawsuits, hidden secrets, and just flat-out misconceptions about the series' intent, which are not helped by the franchise's notoriously publicity-shy producers, Sam and Dan Houser.  Fortunately, a few of those things can and should be cleared up for anyone with a vested interest in where the series has been and where it might go in the future.

No, it's not a murder simulator

It's pretty much video gaming's equivalent of "You'll shoot your eye out." If you see GTA being played on TV, or on the news, the only thing you'll see is high speed chases, cops being shot, and/or prostitutes being beaten. Yes, these are things that are possible in Grand Theft Auto, but there's a difference between what's possible and what is being actively encouraged, at least without purpose. At this point, we're a long way from the days when straight-up rampages were encouraged, and even the ones in GTA 5 are intentionally given to the most unhinged, "don't try this at home" character in the game. The rest of your time in Grand Theft Auto is typically no functionally different than your average Michael Mann film. In the broad sense, the series encourages grand-scale crime and gang activity. It looks far less kindly on pure psychopaths. In fact, Trevor Philips in particular is Rockstar's definitive statement on that, but oh, we'll get to that.

No, GTA isn't encouraging mass murderers either

This used to be an open-and-shut case, until earlier this year, the "are video games to blame for mass killings" beacon was lit once again, prompting a weird government sit-down with some major players in the gaming industry. For the cheap seats, however: there have been multiple studies attempting to prove the thesis that games like GTA were causing people to take their sociopathy out into the real world — the most recent high profile one back in 2015 — and each and every time, scientists were able to note an uptick in aggression, yes, but not the kind of amorality that means taking a gun out in the real world. Funny enough, the last mass shooter to proclaim himself a gamer was Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza, and his favorite game? Dance Dance Revolution.

GTA 5 is allegedly the most profitable entertainment product of all time, but ...

Rockstar's parent company, Take Two, has reportedly been crowing about GTA 5 raking in more money in its short existence than any entertainment product ever, to say nothing of gaming, where it's remained in the NPD's Top Ten sales charts since 2013. There are, however, caveats. The biggest one is that profitable as GTA 5 is, it actually isn't the best-selling video game of all time. Not that GTA 5 is chopped liver, having sold 90+ million copies, but that's nothing compared to the 495 million copies of various versions of Tetris that exist. Also, while they don't have physical copies to crow about, GTA 5 is still dwarfed by the sheer number of players, accounts, and money that has been spent on World of Warcraft over the years by around $3 billion — though, for certain, that could change at this rate.

Further qualifiers, of course, come when you compare the game to other media. The actual reach and visibility of the game goes down considerably when you factor in that the game typically costs anywhere from $35-$60 at any given moment. Meanwhile, Avatar — the reigning all-time box office champion worldwide — sold around $2.1 billion in tickets, and factoring in the much lower cost of a movie ticket, you have a film that hundreds of millions people paid to see. What can we say, hair sex puts a lot of butts in seats.

Roman Bellic isn't GTA 4's problem; he's the point

Ask a gamer to name the biggest negative about GTA 4, and poor cousin Roman's name will come up like a Pavlovian response. It's understandable: his constant invites to hang out tend to happen while the narrative's on a roll, or when the player has better things to do.

Thing is, if Roman annoyed you? Good, the game's done its job. People tend to forget that GTA 4 was one big, rambling, angry love letter to the American Dream, the tale of how Slavic immigrant Nico Bellic was lured to the States with promises of honest work, unforgettable sights, and love and sex beyond imagination. Roman pops that dream bubble early on in GTA's story, and serves to prevent that bubble from inflating ever again.

As much as you can do in Liberty City, it's Roman's inability to conceive of anything else to do except eat fast food, play darts, go bowling, go to a strip club, or drink himself stupid that makes him a constant source of anger. It's that disgust at what Roman's version of the American Dream looks like that drives Nico constantly looking for bigger, better, and different. And yet the calls from Roman continue, sad, desperate, and yet, motivating.

No, Hot Coffee was never meant to be found

In the category of myths that have become legend, there is the tale of the infamous Hot Coffee feature in GTA: San Andreas, where the dates CJ can go on in-game can end with a full blown graphic sex minigame. To hear news outlets, parents, politicians, and overzealous gamers tell it at the time, the game's sex could've been found by any poor hapless child who happened to turn on the game. You know, when they're not blowing off gang members heads with shotguns, because that's the thing that's okay.

The reality, however, is slightly more complex and eyeroll-worthy, in that even when you manually release the toggle locking away the content in a hex editor, the feature still wasn't fully integrated into the game without some extensive mucking around with the game's code, which was difficult on PC, but virtually impossible to execute on consoles at the time. And yet, the very existence of the assets on the disc was enough to make parents, politicians, and the ESRB have a conniption, and force the game to get an AO rating until the mod was patched out entirely. One of gaming's biggest controversies was centered around content you would literally have to to put work into to even access. It was never intended to be found.

No, there was never a Bigfoot in San Andreas, but ...

On top of just straight-up misconceptions, San Andreas was the game that brought actual myths and legends into the fray, starting with the widely spread rumor that Bigfoot himself was roaming the forest hills around Mount Chiliad. The rumors weren't helped by the modding community frequently planting the fabled beast in the game just to mess with their friends. The hunt for the poor guy escalated further after the Hot Coffee fiasco, with some modders up in arms claiming that when Rockstar removed the Hot Coffee files, they removed Bigfoot as well. Why those two things would've been related, don't ever tell us.

Regardless, sad to say, old Sasquatch was never in the game to begin with (he finally made his legitimate appearance in GTA 5). HOWEVER, Bigfoot was was probably the least creepy thing happening in the woods of Mount Chiliad, with the most easily proven, and profoundly distressing thing being the existence of Ghost Cars which will spawn and follow CJ at a certain point in the forest, with no driver behind the wheel.

Yes, there have been female protagonists in GTA before

One of the big questions over the last decade or so is when exactly GTA will catch up with the rest of the gaming world and give us a female protagonist, something virtually every other open-world action game has managed to pull off. Ironically, despite starting out as the first and most blatant GTA clone, Saints Row got there by its first sequel.

Rockstar's only commented on it once, with Dan Houser stating that GTA 5 was specifically a story about masculinity. He wasn't wrong in that game's case, and arguably, Vice City was so specific a riff on Miami Vice and Scarface that Tommy Vercetti was the only option. But Rockstar's other games? That excuse flies less.

More importantly, however, it's been done before. Nobody talks much about the old top-down days of GTA, but the first one on PC was notable in that you had a full fledged roster of protagonists, four of whom — you guessed it — were female.

And the thing is, it didn't affect gameplay that much except to the player themselves. All the violence and mayhem and story lost nothing for it, but gained everything from being in a unique set of shoes.  GTA Online has been proving the same for five years running. It's time.

GTA 5 isn't about Michael, Franklin, and Trevor; it's about Rockstar

It's fallen by the wayside in the wake of GTA Online's enormous success, but lest we forget, GTA 5 has a single-player campaign. And yet, the fact that a mode that's just non-stop mayhem has usurped all the subtext, self-reflection, and drama of the core game shouldn't be ignored. After all, Rockstar saw this coming.

The three protagonists of GTA are all, to shorthand things immensely, the Ghosts of GTAs Past, Present, and Future, the three pillars that hold every GTA aloft. Michael represents old-school criminal mischief, Franklin the exhilaration of rising through the ranks to be on top, and Trevor pure chaos. The entirety of GTA 5's narrative is about the potential way forward for the series. Michael having pie-in-the-sky dreams about making movies isn't an accident, it's saying out loud what gamers have always accused Rockstar of working up to since Vice City. It's what critics have praised Rockstar for aiming for since the first Red Dead Redemption. And it's the thing most at war with the players who just want to destroy everything in their wake, and it's not an accident that Trevor is the one who confronts him about it, or that he's the one keeping the other two down. Come to GTA 5 for the heists, stay for the closest thing the Housers will ever come to developer commentary.