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Satirizing American life with Grand Theft Auto VI

The controversial video game returns, once again sparking off controversy, debate, conversation, and just the slightest hint of mass hysteria

A still from the promos of ‘Grand Theft Auto VI’
A still from the promos of ‘Grand Theft Auto VI’

The world stopped briefly last week as the trailer for Grand Theft Auto VI (GTA), the latest in one of the most popular video game franchises ever, came into being at last. First via a leak, as such things often do, a day early; soon through the official channels of the creators, Rockstar Games. Ninety-one seconds that, for years, fans had been impatiently waiting for. In one shot, a crocodile enters a supermarket (presumably with malice). A woman, in another, is twerking away on the roof of a moving car. Clips from an in-game TikTok-esque app featuring people behaving like lunatics. Lucia, one of our protagonists this time, convincing her partner to trust her as they embark on a life of crime.

The trailer set all sorts of YouTube records within a day, racking up some 100 million views. (The game is expected to release in early 2025, so the next year will likely see periodic releases of more trailers and in-game footage.) It’s little wonder though: the video game industry is substantially larger than even Hollywood, with loud, passionate fandoms propelling it. And GTA is somewhere near the top of the pile.

Not only in sales (though GTA V has grossed approximately three times more than even the first avatar, Hollywood’s all-timer, for what it’s worth). But it’s also the kind of game that sparks debate, discussion, the dreaded “discourse”. For starters, the premise is one of utter moral depravity. At its core, GTA is a satire of modern American life with all its decadence and degeneracy. The characters and storylines don’t carry forward with new editions; rather, the city the game is based in ends up becoming the protagonist. A living, breathing, monstrous entity within which you do what you must to survive. GTA is really just a reckless mix of intricate storytelling, nudge-nudge-wink-wink pop culture pastiche and mockery, and a memorable visual vocabulary. The game is grounded in a foul-mouthed, immoral, irony-soaked sense of abandon—the kind of transgressive escape from reality we all yearn for now and then. More than anything, it’s a rip-roaring riot in a way few games are.

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You steal cars, run over civilians, kill bad guys and good. (Elon Musk posted on X/Twitter that he doesn’t like GTA because you have to shoot cops in it: “Just couldn’t do it.” At the same time, the company CEO Linda Yaccarino was urging Rockstar Games to upload the trailer on X/Twitter .) Flee from a chasing armada of police cars. Commit terrible crimes for money. Visit strip clubs and sex workers to blow up all that illegally earned cash. Buy and do and sell drugs. How fun. It’s also an elaborate open-world game, which means that there’s an expansive, non-linear gameplay, where you can ditch the narrative and missions to instead drive around aimlessly and go on criminally fulfilling detours: you know, steal an aeroplane, rob a bank, start a gang war, just immerse yourself in victimless, make-believe guilty pleasures.

The game is expected to release in early 2025, so the next year will likely see periodic releases of more trailers and in-game footage
The game is expected to release in early 2025, so the next year will likely see periodic releases of more trailers and in-game footage

In the past, the series has sparked much moral panic for allegedly glorifying and glamourising all these terrible things, which it absolutely does do. It’s been riddled with controversy for seemingly offensive content, even accumulating bans in some countries along the way. But we as a society have somewhat progressed from the dated notion that video games are corrupting the kids. GTA is anyway an adults-only game (technically), and given we’re constantly bombarded with real life atrocities on social media, it’s harder to clutch pearls over a game when literal dead babies are on the news every day.

This time, among one subset of gamers that refuses to die out, we’ve been subjected to a small but even more tedious debate. Has GTA gone woke?! From the Gamergate controversy of 2014, there has been a mainstream realisation that within the gaming community exists a strong conservative, ‘trad’, misogynistic little club; the kind of guys so terrified of being within five feet of even a fictional woman that they throw a tantrum at any progressive values a game may have. The “wokeness” referred to here is simply that, this time, gamers will have to play as a female protagonist. A woman! In a video game! The horror. It’s such a self-limiting approach to art, but one unfortunately widespread today.

Some fans are unhappy at the clothes the characters are wearing. Soon after the trailer, #BanGTA6 began trending. The content was apparently “too sexualised”, with stills of the twerking woman and another in a bikini held up as proof. So people used AI to cover up the women to make them palatable to the conservative gaze. In some weird corners online, AI images drawing on GTA’s iconic artwork began to circulate but with real life characters. Artwork featuring Virat Kohli and Anushka Sharma on the GTA cover; even a photo of the Indian PM. City-specific artwork surfaced too, with a series of Mumbai-themed GTA art made on AI programme Midjourney.

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Gaming publications have been meticulously scrutinising every detail, every Easter egg, in the trailer, playing it backwards and in slo-mo, hunting for relevant connections to past editions or real life. Fans are drawing up potential maps users could explore, coming up with possible storylines. It’s all been meme-ified and discoursed and thinkpieced into oblivion.

That’s the thing with GTA though: it has always been a vital part of the cultural zeitgeist. The series evokes strong reactions from not just its loyalists and patrons but the wider public—everyone wants in on the conversation. And it’s only increasing. Because unlike, say, films, where diminishing returns set in with each subsequent sequel, the gaming world is such that every new instalment is invariably better than the last. With technological upgrades in game development in gameplay, style, graphics, and detailing, as well as consoles and PCs becoming more sophisticated, fans expect the latest version to be a significant upgrade. The growing tech has empowered the creators to add more elaborate storylines too; GTA V, for instance, featured three protagonists you had to switch between, with intersecting storylines, themes, and motivations adding complexity and jeopardy to the narrative.

Further, as each GTA is essentially a standalone story in and of itself, with little continuity or narrative connection to past iterations, the fatigue of repetition and monotony rarely sets in. The city takes centre-stage; this time, the game returns to the memorable (and fictional) Vice City, modelled on Miami. And as we get closer, with newer details trickling in, the excitement, the buzz, the conversations are only going to peak.

Akhil Sood is a Delhi-based writer.

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