As video game players have gotten older, as antiheroes have become routine across the culture, as sex and violence have permeated prestige television, the controversies that once surrounded the Grand Theft Auto games have begun to seem like sepia-toned oddities from another age.
Sure, the new installment, to be released on Tuesday, contains plenty that might offend those who enjoy taking offense, and it is still disturbing to see parents giving these games to preteenage children. Among the interactive pastimes Grand Theft Auto offers — alongside pursuits like yoga, sky diving, tennis, scuba and golf — are bong hits and lap dances.
But while the franchise has lost the ability to shock, it remains the most immersive spectacle in interactive entertainment. And with the profane and hugely enjoyable Grand Theft Auto V, Rockstar Games has produced the best plotted, most playable, character-driven, fictionally coherent entry in this 16-year-old series.
The game is set in an immense, parodic vision of Southern California, a West Coast counterpoint to the caricature of New York City in Grand Theft Auto IV (2008). While Los Santos — the game’s version of Los Angeles — and its surroundings exist in an alternate reality, it is also a contemporary one that evokes and satirizes the anxieties of 21st-century life. There’s a fake Facebook (LifeInvader), a fake Twitter (Bleeter), a fake Apple (Fruit), a fake Kickstarter (Beseecher), a fake “50 Shades of Grey” (“Chains of Intimacy”), even a fake Call of Duty (Righteous Slaughter 7, a first-person shooter game that advertises itself with the tagline “The identical art of contemporary killing”).
Grand Theft Auto V is still an action game about hoodlums and thieves; we start with an extended bout of cop killing and proceed to a series of increasingly ambitious heists. But the structure feels more logical than before. Your character doesn’t arrive as an outsider in a new city and start carrying out the requests of people whose only purpose is seemingly to delay him. Instead, the events flow from situations and desires.