Grand Theft Auto 6 is in active development at Rockstar Games. While it has been 10 years since GTA V and 4 years since Red Dead Redemption 2, the developer is taking its time on the much-anticipated sequel. As reported by Bloomberg, Rockstar has intentionally slowed the overall pace of development to instead focus on actively changing the company's culture when it comes to crunch and sensitivity to material in-game. What does an over-the-top crime satire like GTA even look like as Rockstar evolves with the times?
What defines GTA? — Most people associate Grand Theft Auto with driving cars with reckless abandon and shooting up any people or places without a care in the world. While your Wanted Level will summon more police to stand in your way, this infinite escalation is part of the fun — more often than not, it merely introduces more chaotic fun and destruction into the mix until human error kills the player character. Such is the plight of a Los Santos citizen.
At its heart, this gameplay loop is a positive one that puts the focus on unbridled freedom for the player. It’s a thrill that few games can even come close to matching. GTA V’s Los Santos is a playground unlike any other, one that encourages players to explore and break the rules — and the laws — of the world. This is one of the reasons GTA Online’s blend of MMO, metaverse hangout, and GTA chaos is so successful.
But this all resides within a franchise that has had a history of problematic depictions of marginalized communities. Often, the player experiences their freedom by exerting their power over characters in the game. While Rockstar has worked to actively remove problematic content in GTA V, such as transphobic language, this is a part of the franchise’s DNA. And it has been for almost a quarter of a century. Can things really change?
Oh, the Places GTA’ll Go — It is important to remember that Grand Theft Auto isn’t some American bullet-filled fantasy. It was created by a group of Scottish developers. Looking at each entry in the franchise as well as Rockstar’s other games such as Red Dead Redemption and LA Noire creates a picture of developers creating new interpretations of American history and culture. But it’s a perspective that is decidedly from the outsider’s point of view; People half a world away analyze and reflect upon that culture based on media tropes and, to a large extent, stereotypes.
But Grand Theft Auto is neither naive nor dumb. It is a deliberately satirical look at modern American life and what it takes for people to survive in the current landscape. Grand Theft Auto IV puts players in the shoes of a newly arrived immigrant, and the game’s follow-up expansion The Ballad of Gay Tony featured a gay main character. (Hint: His name was Tony.) While these depictions weren’t perfect, they were still unique in the games industry at the time. GTA 6 seeks to further this by having the franchise's first female main character.
The issue with satire in general is that it’s so easy to revel in the aspects of society that are supposedly being made fun of rather than offer a legitimate critique of problematic trends. But with a cultural shift at Rockstar, Grand Theft Auto will have to change as well. With some people claiming that “Woke GTA” is part of some leftist agenda, it is important to think about what GTA could mean in new circumstances.
Making the story more serious could jeopardize the inherent satire that was at the heart of the franchise, but it would also be a way to avoid falling into old ways with problematic depictions of characters. The question that should be asked is whether the new Rockstar is a developer that should even make Grand Theft Auto — or instead try to do something new. Despite having roots in satire, the games have come to represent a violent and often toxic inclination in gaming. While it's hard to move away from one of the most popular franchises in gaming, it very well could be a hindrance to Rockstar if they don’t.
Working within the bounds of the decades-old franchise could make it all too easy to slip back into the work culture that made Grand Theft Auto what it is. We are so obsessed with wondering if Rockstar could pull off “Woke GTA” that we aren’t considering if it’s even worth it. Maybe just like the developer's old culture, it is time for the franchise to die so that something new — and better — can evolve from the vacuum it creates.