Grand Theft Auto is one of the most important cultural phenomenons ever created in gaming. The GTA franchise is one of the best-selling video game series in the world, stirring controversy as it became more popular. People know the series for stories that weave together the criminal underground, fast-paced vehicular gameplay, and unique artistic and cultural undertones. While many know the modern, more complex iterations of the game, some may have forgotten, or never even experienced, how revolutionary the initial title was upon its release in the late 1990s.
The Power of Choice
When the original Grand Theft Auto hit the market, it shocked audiences with its morally ambiguous choices. The game allowed players to commit crimes or evade the police, which was not common. It created gameplay that was as unpredictable as it was controversial. This design decision introduced elements usually found in role-playing games. Features like added agency and unique mission paths were rare in an action-adventure format.
Traditional video games often funneled players into roles of heroism and clear-cut morality. Grand Theft Auto deviated from this norm, allowing individuals to explore more complex moral choices. Players had the option to either follow the path of crime to its extreme or perform tasks in a more peaceful manner. Naturally, the latter was popular, due to being a novel feature. While the game was not yet known for its storytelling, it did set the franchise on a course for more interactive narrative in gaming.
A Dynamic and Responsive Game World
Missions in Grand Theft Auto were far from static experiences. Players found themselves in various unpredictable situations, such as car wrecks or police chases, demanding quick decision-making to succeed. These dynamic scenarios turned each mission into a unique story, lending the game an element of replayability.
This emphasis on dynamic mission design gave the game a life-like quality. Each decision created consequences, like attracting police attention and needing to find a spray shop for a quick disguise or discovering a valuable car to trade for money. This responsiveness to player actions made Grand Theft Auto stand out as more than just an arcade game.
Before the age of elaborate open-world games, Grand Theft Auto managed to offer a newly found sense of freedom. Players could tackle a wide variety of missions from assassinations to appease criminal syndicates to mundane delivery jobs, acquiring them by taking a phone call from a public payphone. This created a feeling of openness, making the world seem larger and more complex than many other games of its era.
The ability to choose from such a diverse range of activities gave players a personalized journey through the criminal underworld. This freedom in gameplay broke barriers, moving away from linear designs and fixed storylines, and contributed greatly to the game series’ continued popularity.
Challenging Traditional Video Game Narratives
The game was a departure from the usual roles players found themselves in. Rather than rescuing a damsel in distress or defeating evil villains, players could actively work to do the opposite. This veered away from the usual narrative tropes found in video games and offered an alternative route of gameplay focused on destruction and disorder.
While allowing players to create mayhem was definitely a conscious choice from the developer, it was the choice between the amount of criminality that was the real feature. Killing innocent NPCs was not the entire game, unlike in games like Postal, it was one of the features.
In Grand Theft Auto, the NPCs seemingly performed daily routines and acted like ordinary citizens. This subtle but significant feature contributed to the game’s immersive quality. The game elevated these insignificant characters, who usually had predetermined paths and actions, to active participants in the game world. While in the first title the behavior of NPCs was far less impressive than in modern GTA games, it laid the groundwork for some of the more important aspects of the franchise.
The Cars and the Art
Cars in Grand Theft Auto were more than just simple vessels. The variety of cars, each with its own handling, introduced variety to the game. Even small details, like the warning beep of a truck backing up, added flair to the simple act of controlling vehicles. This would become a massive part of the game series. Iconic cars span across multiple titles and new vehicle types are added with each iteration.
In addition to the vehicles, the artistic and cultural representations within the game were important to GTA from the get-go. The world building was complete with audiovisual cues that made the game unique. Radio stations and music created greater immersion in the game’s three distinct cities, Liberty City, San Andreas, and Vice City. This feature was in its infancy in the first Grant Theft Auto but became an increasingly important aspect in the upcoming titles. This decision to include radio stations seemed trivial but made a massive impact on the authentic feel of the world.
The original Grand Theft Auto was a groundbreaking release that reshaped the gaming landscape. By introducing elements of choice and moral ambiguity, it added layers of complexity to a genre often dominated by straightforward narratives. Its dynamic world and mission structures made each gameplay experience feel unique. Its focus on diverse activities set the stage for future open-world games with an even greater degree of freedom. The game’s willingness to disrupt traditional narratives and its attention to detail, from NPC behavior to car mechanics, made it a standout title that has influenced countless games since.