For a path to consequence, Grand Theft Auto should look at some of its copycats. GTA III, the groundbreaking game that switched the series from a top-down, Sim City-style view to full 3-D, singlehandedly invented the genre of open-world sandbox games, but two other franchises have taken what GTA III started in more interesting directions. The Saints Row series, which started out as a joyless act of grand theft game design, has blossomed into a cult favorite by taking Grand Theft Auto to its logical conclusion, with everything turned up to 11. In the latest installment, for instance, your street-thug character has been elected president of the United States and must use his superpowers to fight off an alien invasion by escaping from a Matrix-esque computer simulation of his old gangland stomping ground.
Taking the opposite tack, the Hong Kong-set Sleeping Dogs sings to those of us who think Grand Theft Auto is fundamentally broken by the fact that you can drive on the sidewalk and knock over a light pole in plain view of a cop, and the cop won't react. Sleeping Dogs subscribes to broken windows theory: If the small things matter, the big things feel like they really matter. The game charges you for every fire hydrant you run over, every storefront you ram, every bumper you knock in, and presto, the whole enterprise is more engaging. As my mom always says, what's given too freely is valued too lightly. Sadly, Sleeping Dogs was a commercial failure. That is, it’s safe to say it wasn't the fastest entertainment property to ever hit $1 billion in sales, like a certain other game mentioned in this article.
While Grand Theft Auto occupies an unhappy medium between Saints Row and Sleeping Dogs, the game that threads the needle of consequence most cleverly is the Wii U's Lego City: Undercover, an honest-to-God "Grand Theft Auto for kids" that's fun enough for adults, too. In Lego City, it doesn't matter if you plow through crowds and crash cars—everything and everyone are made of Legos and are magically put back together again.
It's not like GTA V doesn't make any improvements on its predecessors. The multiple characters you control throughout the game are more interesting than any single protagonist of a previous GTA. The dialogue feels less fake, possibly because they had gang members do the voice acting. Animation is much improved, even though people’s faces still look like they're made out of moist clay. Most mercifully, they fixed the save system, so you don't have to go on a journey every time you want to record your progress.
And, of course, things like skydiving from a plane you stole and commandeering a cop car to chase bad guys are as fun as you remember. The sound track is great. And it's still a blast to get together with some homies and pass the controller around, seeing who can cause the most ridiculous mayhem.
But these are the same pleasures we took from Grand Theft Auto 10 years, and four main-series games, ago. That GTA V is essentially a high-definition remake of 2004's Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas means the folks behind the franchise have some thinking to do about exactly what kind of games they’re trying to make. Are they content to design a brilliantly realized city every few years, then sit back and count their money? In the words of one of GTA V’s characters, Michael, a jaded millionaire who sits out by his gorgeous pool every day, “Good palm trees are just a substitute for not knowing what the fuck you’re doing on this Earth.”
As for George R.R. Martin, well, there's a new print run of his best work, Tuf Voyaging, so that's something.