In the gaming community and popular culture alike, few titles have carried with them the same stigma as the Grand Theft Auto series. Even if you're not a fan of video games, chances are you're still quite familiar with Rockstar's infamy. At one point or another you've probably seen politicians or angry parents lobbying against the games and their apparent "corruption" of our youth. No other game in recent memory has sparked such a reaction in the media and throughout households. The words "Grand Theft Auto" alone have been enough to build ridiculous political platforms and have caused more sleepless nights for parents than teen pregnancy. Mothers shield their children from the games in fear that their kids will grow up to be hardened criminals, gang members, or possibly mafia enforcers. Any time there is a gun related crime committed by a person under the age of 65; GTA is to blame. Whenever a 12 year old steals his mom's minivan and backs it into the mail box; GTA is to blame. And when an angel gets its wings; it's because a copy of GTA has been tossed into the raging fire of misconception and a child's soul has been saved.
With opinions so extreme there's little surprise that the division is so black and white between audiences. You're either one of the millions that loves GTA or you're one of the millions angered and frightened by it, kind of like Scientology. But for those of us that are fans, we not only drink Rockstar's Kool-Aid, we bathe in it. GTA is a way of life for those that truly appreciate the immersive experience the games offer. Rockstar's fan base is as broad and expansive as the massive open worlds they create for players. It might also surprise some to learn that this demographic of gamers are "normal" people and far from the soul-less hell spawn we're depicted to be. Contrary to popular belief, we don't have criminal records or like to punt kittens. We're everyday people that function within the boundaries of society and blend seamlessly among you. In fact, the same hands that prepare your chai lattes at Starbucks have probably stolen a tank and gone on a civilian squashing rampage through Vice City.
I've logged more hours wandering the streets of Liberty City than I can possibly fathom and can honestly say that I haven't felt an increased urge to rob a liquor store. I also haven't felt compelled to drive my car through a crowded park or to assemble a crew for a bank heist. Why? Because the Grand Theft Auto games are in fact, video games. It's a fairly simple observation, but I can't help to think if more people made it, there wouldn't be such a fuss. People have been able to separate video games from reality since the beginning, which is presumably why there wasn't a pandemic of people stomping on mushrooms and trying to crawl into their plumbing after the release of Super Mario Bros.
To Rockstar's credit, the developers have stood behind their vision without compromising the franchise's integrity in the midst of the PTA led witch hunts. If anything, the games have grown even more offensive in the face of the mass public shaming. Just when we thought Rockstar couldn't surprise us anymore, the ESRB has released their rating for the upcoming GTA V. Fans of the series will be glad to know the game has received the familiar "Mature" rating for all the classic reasons; Intense Violence, Strong Language, and Use of Drugs/Alcohol. The rating also includes Nudity, which isn't new to the franchise, but for the first time players will be greeted by "male cult members with exposed genitalia". That's right, male genitalia. Rockstar has heard the complaints of both parents and politicians over the offensive content found in their games and chose to respond by adding penises to the list. I'm proud to call this country my home.
At this point though, the inclusion of male nudity hardly seems offensive considering the outrage GTA IV faced for allowing players to operate vehicles while intoxicated. Again, I feel it is important to note that the Grand Theft Auto games are just that, games. And like any games, for some they are steeped with nostalgia. Fans love the suggested humor and film references in addition to the bustling environments. The huge worlds of the GTA games have become as familiar to us as our own cities and neighborhoods. Some of my best memories were had while exploring Rockstar's amazing universes filled with fast sports cars and rocket launchers. When I was navigating the tumultuous seas of a new high school, Claude was there. When I was settling into my place amongst the other nerds on the honor roll, Tommy Vercetti was there. When I should have been studying for exams in college, CJ was there. And when I was relocating to the middle of nowhere for a new job, Niko Bellic was there. No matter what was going on in my life I could always power on my Playstation and return to the familiarity of my safe house with a red Infernus parked outside.
Even though it's been a while since I've played the GTA games, certain moments stand out in memory more vividly than my first day of school or even my high school graduation. Little nuanced details like the rays of light streaming through the ferris wheel on Firefly Island during sunset or a roll of bread tumbling from a grocery bag after two pedestrians bump into one another on the sidewalk. My favorite thing about these occurrences is not only the subtly, but their uniqueness. These were moments that happened by chance and only because of the freedom players are given to explore. The best thing about GTA is that everyone's experience is entirely different regardless of the story. These games are loaded with complexity despite the naive belief that it's nothing more than senseless violence. The games are unmistakably loaded with over-the-top carnage, but the user experience is what you make it. If you take the time to appreciate the massive worlds you'll find that the mayhem is contrasted with an almost Zen-like experience.
These memorable encounters are what I'm most looking forward to with next week's release of GTA V. Despite the story or the new ability to switch perspective between three separate characters simultaneously, the setting is what should excite players the most. This entry in the series boasts the largest playable environment ever seen in a video game. In addition to being larger than all of the previous cities combined, players can now explore the ocean depths with submersibles and scuba gear. For a long time the airspace has been open to gamers, whether in a helicopter or a hang glider, but being able to dive beneath the waves is an incredible advancement. At the very least, it's an indication of the amount of freedom packed into the “open” world and the intent to have players explore it. Examining your surroundings has always been a cornerstone of the GTA series and highly encouraged. Usually exploration is rewarded, even if that reward is nothing more than the scenic view of a valley below from atop a nearby mountain. Surely there will be plenty of drug use, violence and ...frontal male nudity...to see, but GTA V promises to offer much more for those open to it. I won't deny that a high speed police chase that only ends when you hit a bench and send your avatar sailing through a windshield is a lot of fun. I'm just saying that, love them or hate them, the GTA games are a unique experience that only comes along every few years, kind of like the Olympics or a solar eclipse. So being only a week away from the next installment is a magical time. Although I plan on seeing GTA V load screens more than the sun in the oncoming months, the week until its release will be filled with an almost ritualistic anticipation. It's a week where sitting in traffic will seem a little less infuriating and the morning's coffee won’t burn your tongue. It's a week of giddiness for ludicrously inappropriate radio broadcasts and ricocheting flaming cars off buildings. But mostly, it's a week of longing to finally roam the streets of Los Santos.