I remember the first Grand Theft Auto. 2D and top-down, it sported the kind of gameplay once again being made popular by indie hits Hotline Miami and Retro City Rampage. It was brutal - for the time - and garnered a respectable collection of outraged responses. That outcry was probably part of the reason I ended up playing the game: drawn to the controversy like so many of us were.
But for me, it was just another game, and the GTA series didn't cement itself in my heart until the arrival of Grand Theft Auto III. A familiar story I'm sure.
Just a couple of minutes into my Playstation 2 encounter with GTA III and it's safe to say I was in love, and the fondness I had for the series then endures to this day. The freedom offered to the player was exquisite, a living and breathing world was there to be explored. Barren by today's standards, at the time it was nothing of the sort. Rich and detailed. It's a measure of how far we've come in such a short time that much of GTA III - a game that once danced on the bleeding edge of game design - now feels empty and archaic.
Here's to progress.
Yesterday's reveal of Grand Theft Auto V's three main protagonists instigated reflection, with time spent in III and IV once again thrown to the forefront of my mind. III's hero might have been nameless at the time of first meeting, but Niko Bellic had enough personality to establish himself as a truly iconic character.
Despite the terrible things that Niko does during his adventures in Liberty City, we like him. In reality it would be much harder to empathise with a character who steals and kills his way through life, but in the confines of a video game, his behavior is more palatable. It helps that the people he meets along the way are nearly all nefarious types, each of them lining up much further down the food chain of acceptability.
But his actions aside, I wandered what else it might be that has drawn me, and millions of other gamers, into the world of Niko Bellic, and other protagonists like him.
I can't help but think that first and foremost it's the richness of the worlds surrounding these characters reflecting back on them, casting them in a more favourable light, that allows us to forge such strong emotional connections with them. The mundanity of some of the things you can do in games like GTA IV ensures that whilst we might not agree with the opinions of our playable characters regarding the sanctity of life, or share their lack of respect for other people's property, there's enough humanity present in other elements of these games to allow us to draw personal parallels. In effect, the worlds that the characters exist in can inform our opinions on them just as much as their actions. Maybe even more.
GTA V promises to add increasing amounts of depth to the formula laid down in earlier iterations. The range of activities is even more astounding than it was in IV. Rockstar are promising games within games: tennis and golf are set to make an appearance, and we'll be able to ride BMX bikes in the mountains and race water scooters. I'm also expecting more gambling and more arcade games, both the kind of experiences that drench the overall whole with plausibility.
Being able to engage in these sorts of trivial actions is one of the reasons that i feel past Grand Theft Auto's have resonated so strongly. You can make your own fun, with Rockstar constantly striving to make sure that their sandbox has the most toys in it. It means that whilst the individual missions are linear in their delivery and morality, the flexibility of the worlds that host them makes sure we each have a distinct and personal journey. It's that personalised experience, that in my mind, makes Grand Theft Auto such a compelling series of games to play.
There are plenty of other studios that embrace similar core tenants when they approach the act of making games. Bethesda are perhaps the most adept, with Fallout 3, Oblivion and Skyrim all affording players an incredible amount of content to experience. There's plenty of other developers working on sandboxes, and whilst few can match the grand scale of Bethesda and Rockstar's offerings, there's still plenty out there for players seeking the freedom to express themselves.
Games like Red Dead Redemption, Just Cause, Far Cry 2 and Crackdown all engender the same feeling of exploration and adventure, and though they deliver their kicks via disparate narratives and varying settings, the same spirit of adventure is there. Perhaps that's the reason so many of these types of games have attracted such strong and dedicated followings.
The three new characters set to appear in Grand Theft Auto V will no doubt have a massive playground to enjoy. Each comes from an edgy, ragged background. Michael is a bank robber from Rockford Hills (Beverly Hills), Trevor battles his addictions in Blaine County and Franklin jacks cars in Vespucci Beach (Venice Beach). On paper, three unsavory characters, but nevertheless we're likely to forge individual bonds with these men (still no playable female character) during the inevitable extended sessions of play.
But why the connection? Because we empathise with their drug habits, or have a shared passion for armed robbery? No. We're going to make friends with Michael, Trevor and Franklin because of the things we'll be doing together when we're not living a life of crime. There are so many individual grains in a Rockstar sandbox, that getting lost in the detail and living a life inside a virtual world is entirely possible.
Characters like Niko Bellic and Rico Rodriguez act as our personal tour guides, leading us as we explore rich and densely populated worlds. Together we play in the sandboxes created for us by Rockstar and co, and that's precisely why we're able to forge such strong connections with them. Remember the old saying... "the family that plays together, stays together." How true.