What Is Grand Theft Auto: The Franchise Explained

What Is Grand Theft Auto: The Franchise Explained

Grand Theft Auto, commonly known as simply GTA, is a series that has become synonymous with open-world gaming. It offers an immersive and often considered controversial playground, where players step into the shoes of a criminal. Originating from a fairly simple game, the series has evolved into a multi-billion-dollar phenomenon. It delivers gripping storylines, compelling characters, and a huge variety of vehicles from cars to planes. Additionally, it’s lauded for its best-in-class gameplay mechanics that blend action, adventure, and even role-playing elements.

Over the years, Grand Theft Auto has not only redefined what an open-world game can be but also started conversations around video game violence in the larger culture. This article delves into the franchise’s origins, gameplay innovations, controversies, and its impact on the gaming industry. As we look ahead to the sixth main installation of Grand Theft Auto, it is clear that Grand Theft Auto has shaped modern gaming in many ways.

The Origins

The Grand Theft Auto franchise traces its roots back to 1997 when the original game was released. It was created by an independent studio known as DMA Design. This UK-based studio, which later became Rockstar North, created the controversial initial title. However, at the time they weren’t aware it would become one of the most successful game series in the world. The studio had already made a name for itself and had a good reputation, but this project was different. 

Mission phone in Grand Theft Auto.
The initial Grand Theft Auto has a top-down perspective.

The studio had previously created iconic games like Lemmings, including various followups for it. However, the challenge of a free-roaming action-adventure game was harder than they anticipated. The game was a handful and the studio had issues getting it both approved and developed. Finally, though, in November 1997 it was ready for the spotlight.

The game quickly became a success, although the sales numbers were not on the scale of the modern GTA titles. Regardless, the game passed 1 million units in one year, and a new version was at this point inevitable. The game would quickly become one of the most celebrated games on both PC and console.

The Evolution of Grand Theft Auto

Initially presented in a top-down view, the game offered a sandbox world. In this realistic world, players could choose to follow the story or engage in random acts of violence and destruction. The early games were less about the plot and more about granting players the freedom to explore a virtual city. Players were also allowed to commit various crimes and engage in spur-of-the-moment violence.

Patriot in Grand Theft Auto III.
Grand Theft Auto III was a massive upgrade with its 3D world.

With the release of Grand Theft Auto III in 2001, the series went through a significant transformation. This game introduced a 3D third-person perspective, a much more impressive and immersive city, and a more structured narrative. Grand Theft Auto III was revolutionary not only for the franchise but also for the world of gaming. It largely defined the modern open-world genre. As the series continued to evolve with titles like Vice City, San Andreas, and GTA IV, each installment built upon its predecessors by expanding the game world, improving the storytelling, and refining the gameplay mechanics.

The franchise reached new heights with Grand Theft Auto V, released in 2013. This edition offered a more complex storyline involving three playable characters, each with their own unique backgrounds and motivations. It also had a highly detailed, dynamic world and added online multiplayer features through Grand Theft Auto Online. The commercial and critical success of GTA V has solidified the franchise’s place in gaming history right beside greats like Super Mario, Pokémon, and Call of Duty.

Gameplay Mechanics

Under the umbrella of the open-world genre, Grand Theft Auto set itself apart through its impressive gameplay mechanics. The developers designed a blend of action, strategy, and role-playing elements. Missions often require players to perform a host of tasks with varying difficulty and criminality. These range from car chases and shootouts to more cerebral activities like hacking and strategy planning. The game offers not only freedom of movement but also freedom of choice in terms of actions in the game. One can be the most heinous gangster delivering indiscriminatory violence or live the life of a vigilante, dealing with mobsters and leaving regular citizens alone. 

The franchise also includes a Wanted system, where committing crimes draws the attention of law enforcement. The level of police aggressiveness escalates with the severity of the crime. This unique feature was added to the game at the very start and has been one of the few core gameplay features ever since. It adds a layer of challenge and strategy, as players must decide when to engage in criminal activities. This is essentially an extension of the moral choices within the game. It offers a tangible gameplay mechanic for players to adhere to, whatever their preference is.

Grand Theft Auto: Vice City
Stars depict the Wanted level of the character.

Character Development and Vehicles

Another unique feature is the emphasis on character development and storyline. Unlike many open-world games that treat narratives as secondary, GTA invests heavily in plot and character arcs. The locations available in GTA are highly detailed with a proper cultural atmosphere, as well. The characters in GTA feel like they live in the world, and depending on the iteration of GTA, one might see familiar faces in recurring places. 

The most recent installment, Grand Theft Auto V, even allows players to switch between multiple main characters, each with their own skill sets and storylines. While this character-switching mechanic is a new addition, it further enhances the importance of detailed storylines and character development in the series.

However, by far the most iconic of the gameplay mechanics comes down to vehicles. The game is, after all, called Grand Theft Auto. Everything began with the player character being able to steal cars from unsuspecting road users. Ever since the initial title, vehicle gameplay has been the most significant cornerstone of the GTA experience. The franchise comes with a massive array of cars, motorcycles, planes, boats, and more. Each has distinct capabilities, controls, and special use cases. Finding a rare ride was exhilarating in the first Grand Theft Auto, and it is still there with the latest.


The Grand Theft Auto franchise has been no stranger to controversy since its inception. Its depiction of violence, crime, and other adult themes has drawn criticism from various quarters, including politicians, parent groups, and the media. The series has even faced legal challenges and calls for censorship, especially due to its inclusion of potentially sensitive content like drug use, sexual activities, and extreme violence. Despite these controversies, or as some might argue because of them, GTA has become a cultural phenomenon in addition to its success in the marketplace.

A Steam promotional image for Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy - The Definitive Edition.

©Rockstar – Original

From the very start, the game series was in hot water. The developers of the game were intentionally creating a game that hadn’t been released before. Violence had nearly always been a part of video games, but such a graphic and realistic depiction of it in a real-world setting was what likely made GTA stand out in the eyes of the critics. While games like Doom and others had already been accused of destroying the minds of young people, this was different. The characters were regular people in a virtual city that resembles the real world. The game allowed players to commit crimes, kill innocent civilians, and engage in other questionable behavior.

Impact on the Gaming Industry

However, while GTA was under fire from activists and parents, the series also set sales records. In fact, the latest iteration, Grand Theft Auto V, is one of the best-selling video games of all time, selling over 100 million units to date. The series has again and again showcased the commercial viability of adult-themed, story-driven games with unmitigated violence.

The game’s cultural influence, however, doesn’t stop with violence. From the very start, Grand Theft Auto has featured living, breathing environments with strong cultural undertones. Whether it is Vice City‘s ’80s vibe reminiscent of Miami, the catchy music and realistic radio stations, or the dark humor and satirical content instilled in the game, GTA titles always offer in-depth cultural immersion.

GTA Vice City

The game that celebrates having full agency over the player character, allowing them to destroy property, kill civilians, or engage in other types of criminal activity. It also sparked a discussion about who should play games like this. This has resulted in many markets adopting new policies that restrict selling certain games to minors. Whether the type of specific age-rating system is good, bad, or perhaps not robust enough, is a matter of opinion. In all this, Grand Theft Auto‘s influence is nevertheless undeniable. 

The Future of the Grand Theft Auto

As of now, the future of the Grand Theft Auto franchise seems promising. With over a hundred million copies sold on the previous title, it’s clear that there is an enormous demand for more adventures in the criminal underground of Grand Theft Auto. Rumors and speculations about Grand Theft Auto VI have been circulating, but official information remains sparse. Nonetheless, expectations are high, and it’s likely that the next installment will aim to push the boundaries of open-world gaming even further.

We can also expect technological advancements to play a significant role in the series’ future. With the performance of new gaming consoles and PCs continually improving, future GTA titles have the potential to offer even more immersive and expansive worlds. Features such as ray tracing are going to improve the realism of the game. It still remains to be seen how Rockstar will revolutionize the franchise more than a decade after the release of Grand Theft Auto V

Online gameplay is also likely going to be a major point of upgrade for the upcoming title. Grand Theft Auto Online was a hugely popular aspect of the latest title. As more and more studios are implementing live service games, Rockstar is probably going to lean toward the trend as well. This should mean that the game is going to offer continually updated content, although how it is created is still unclear. This doesn’t seem all too surprising, considering that the new GTA has to once again remain relevant for years to come. Even if it is not quite 10 years like its predecessor.

In terms of narrative, the franchise is likely to continue in a similar vein to previous games. Expect biting commentary on cultural and societal issues, funny takes on dark subjects, an impressive collection of setting-appropriate music, and improved gameplay with even more vehicles to play with. Regardless of the exact details, Grand Theft Auto VI has every chance to become the next great video game phenomenon.

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