Grand Theft Auto VI needs to be big. Rockstar’s sandbox crime franchise has continually raised the bar for open-world games over the past few decades. After the standout Red Dead Redemption 2 and the infinitely replayable Grand Theft Auto V, everyone’s waiting to see how Rockstar can up the ante again.
Here’s an idea: Bring that sucker into space.
The final frontier isn’t a totally left-field pitch for GTA 6. In February 2020, Rockstar added some new logos to its website, which seemed to tease new projects. One of those included a golden android in an art style reminiscent of the Grand Theft Auto series. That briefly got the rumor mill running, but hopes for an intergalactic GTA faded pretty quickly.
With a new round of rumors sparking interest in the game in recent weeks, it’s time to revisit that idea. While a space setting might almost sound like a joke, it could legitimately be what the next game needs to raise the stakes to the extent that fans are expecting.
Here’s some history to consider: Grand Theft Auto V was released in 2013. At the time, it was an incredible open-world game that offered a scale unseen by the industry. In recent years, that’s been topped. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt was released just two years later, raising the bar for RPGs and open-world games in general. Two years after that, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild flipped the script on how open-world games work, offering a less linear experience. That’s not even mentioning games like Assassin’s Creed Odyssey and Horizon Zero Dawn that feature enormous maps.
That is to say, for any game to have an open world isn’t terribly surprising in 2021. In fact, it'[s become quite common. With the market flooded with huge sandbox games, it takes a bigger hook to keep players curious. Red Dead Redemption 2’s Wild West setting was novel enough to make it stand out, but it’s hard to imagine being wowed if GTA 6 just features a different big city. Rockstar needs to do something a bit more to raise the stakes.
Space, on the other hand, is strangely uncharted territory for open-world games. While No Man’s Sky continues to explore ways to build out an intergalactic sandbox, few major studios have utilized the setting in a game of that scale. Bethesda is seemingly working on it with its mysterious Starfield, but the sky’s the limit until then.
Considering that Rockstar has never been much for sci-fi, there’s a real opportunity for the studio to reimagine the limits of a Grand Theft Auto game. While Rockstar certainly wouldn’t have to abandon its commitment to American cities, adding a new component to the formula could open the door for the kind of innovation that the series is known for.
How can sci-fi tools change the way players commit freeform mayhem? What kind of biting social satire is possible in an otherworldly setting? And how can zero gravity make car chases feel even more exciting? Questions like that sound more exciting than “which city is it going to be based on?”
Considering that some fans have already created their own take on this, there's certainly a hunger for it. An ambitious Grand Theft Space mod shows exactly how suited the series is for the open skies with alien shootouts, otherworldly exploration, and mind-bending set pieces. Now imagine all of that with a higher budget behind it.
In some ways, “going to space” is the new “jumping the shark.” Once a series has run out of ideas, it’s the kind of mind-boggling escalation that feels unstoppable. The Saints Row series is perhaps most well known for taking Grand Theft Auto to the kinds of crazy heights that Rockstar tends to avoid. Then you have a franchise like Fast & Furious, which often feels like it's inevitably headed for the stratosphere in its noble quest to give Vin Diesel as many absurd stunts as humanly possible.
Sending GTA 6 to space might sound like a hacky pitch, but there’s literally a whole universe to play with out there.
Building an action franchise is like structuring a joke: You always need to escalate. A set-piece serves the same role as a punchline, giving audiences one big emotional high after another with building intensity. In both stand-up and action movies, there’s always one last zinger that takes the routine as far as it can go. It’s never enough to send the audience home with a joke that they could have seen coming from a mile away, just as it's not enough for Vin Diesel to win a simple street race as a grand climax in 2021.
In the case of Grand Theft Auto, that momentum-building philosophy feels especially important. The franchise isn’t just pushing itself forward with Grand Theft Auto 6, but an entire genre as well. If GTA 5 is any indication, the next eight years of video games could be influenced by the decisions the next installment makes.
That brings Rockstar to a crossroads where it has to decide if it wants to be the headliner or an opening act for whatever inevitably tops it — or to put it in more fitting terms, does Rockstar want to take one small step or one giant leap?
Above all else, it would just be fun to steal a space shuttle, and sometimes that’s enough.
GTA 6 is reportedly in development.