‘Grand Theft Auto 6’ is on the horizon, but will it change the incredible (and problematic) legacy of one of gaming’s biggest series?

Screen capture from GTA 6 showing a yellow Audi and a Green sporta car with explosions in the background.
Credit: Rockstar Games

After a decade of anticipation, Rockstar Games gave the world its first glimpse of “Grand Theft Auto 6” this week. For dedicated and casual gamers, that’s not just a big deal but cause for celebration.

Cinematic storytelling and groundbreaking technology, a provocative, rockstar attitude and ensuing moral panic: Grand Theft Auto has been central to pop culture for the last 30 years. But will “GTA 6” elevate the series’ legacy and gaming as a whole or get stuck in the more problematic aspects of its history?

To answer that, it helps to understand GTA’s complicated legacy. 

The series has been an unequivocal success for Rockstar and the industry. “Grand Theft Auto 5,” the last entry in the series, came out in 2013 and hit $1 billion in retail sales in three days, shattering records. The franchise as a whole has sold 400 million units, 180 million of which are “GTA 5,” according to a quarterly earnings report from Rockstar parent company Take Two. 

GTA is big business, but the franchise’s impact goes beyond the business of gaming. Bob De Schutter, an associate professor of art and design at Northeastern University who specializes in games, says GTA has shaped the last few decades of big budget game design, starting with “Grand Theft Auto 3” in 2001.

Headshot of Bob De Schutter wearing a black t-shirt.
Bob de Schutter, associate professor of art and design at Northeastern University. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

“Everything changed with ‘GTA 3,’” De Schutter says.

“GTA 3” took a freely explorable world, in this case the fictionalized New York City-inspired Liberty City, and put it in three dimensions. It essentially put the idea of open world design into the mainstream, ushering in a new age of big budget games with massive virtual worlds to explore.

“It was just such an amazing achievement, and every iteration of GTA was just another amazing technical achievement as well,” De Schutter says. “It was the Euphoria game engine that was used when [‘GTA 3’] came out, and everyone was like, ‘Jesus Christ.’ They won so many awards just for what they did with rendering a 3D world.”

“GTA 3” also set the tone for the kinds of expansive, cinematic stories Rockstar would continue to tell with the series. From the Miami crime movie flavor of “Grand Theft Auto: Vice City” to the immigrant gangster story of “Grand Theft Auto 4” and L.A. heist epic “Grand Theft Auto 5,” De Schutter says Rockstar has created a new standard for cinematic storytelling in games.

“It was something that once you started playing [them] you had a hard time putting down because they had the same kind of narrative structure as a drama movie with multiple plot lines being interwoven with each other,” De Schutter says.

“Rockstar does that really well, trying to find that balance between movie realism and real-life realism and building up [their worlds] that way,” De Schutter adds. “It’s hard to replicate.”

The worlds in GTA are so immersive that De Schutter notes that even players in the over-50 age demographic that he studies often mention that GTA was the series that got them to start playing video games.

“If you look into the research done by folks like myself, 50-plus-year-olds are not into hyperviolent content, but the way [GTA] simulates the world draws them in,” De Schutter says.

But as captivating as the GTA games and their worlds can be, De Schutter says they have a dark side as well.

“GTA 3” became a blockbuster success in 2001, but it also became the center of a political and moral panic. Each subsequent game has raised similar fears about the effects of violent video games, which have mostly been disproven, and the series’ use of sexual content. 

With GTA, Rockstar tends toward provocative satire of American culture. At a time when games were not as mainstream as they are now, many people saw a game like “GTA 3” as “a crime simulator,” De Schutter says. If they want to, players can shoot civilians or drive over them with stolen cars. 

GTA became one of the biggest gaming franchises to start poking and prodding the audience –– sometimes effectively, other times insensitively –– with questions about how they are choosing to play the game. Rockstar seemed to be asking, “If we give you the freedom to exist in this virtual world, what are you going to do?” 

And, while the GTA series has pushed the boundaries of how stories are told in games, they have historically struggled with representation, with critics pointing to their depiction of women, sex workers and people of color.

“These things are not necessarily things you want to justify in any kind of way, but that’s the dark side of GTA, in the same way that a movie like ‘Pulp Fiction’ has a dark side,” De Schutter says. “It was a [series] that had hyperviolence but also had a lot of artistic and cultural merits to it.”

It’s here –– in who and what Rockstar chooses to represent in its detailed recreation of the real world –– that De Schutter says “GTA 6” could have the biggest impact. At this point, it almost goes without saying that the game will be technologically groundbreaking and feature more interwoven narratives, De Schutter says. But for a game at the scale of “GTA 6” to feature more well-drawn women and minority characters would be a major moment for the games industry as a whole.

Based on the first trailer and early reports about Rockstar’s evolving approach to not just GTA but the company’s own “frat boy” culture, that might be what players see in “GTA 6.”

“That is what I am most curious about right now: What does a GTA look like today?” De Schutter says. “I feel the industry has been improving [in terms of representation] –– we still have a long way to go, but it has been improving. Is GTA following suit?”

For the moment, “GTA 6” is still on the horizon, but one thing is certain, says De Schutter. GTA isn’t going anywhere.

“We’re going to see people in retirement homes playing ‘GTA 7’ and beyond,” De Schutter says.

Cody Mello-Klein is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email him at c.mello-klein@northeastern.edu. Follow him on X/Twitter @Proelectioneer.