Last week saw the launch of the world’s fastest revenue-generating piece of entertainment in history. There’s a good chance that this strikes you as utterly obvious or so unexpected that it seems just wrong. But it’s quite true: The video game Grand Theft Auto 5, which came out last Tuesday, raked in over $1 billion in just three days, faster than any movie or video game to date.
How has a video game, so similar in form to its predecessors (it’s typical of the Grand Theft Auto series: You play as violent, morally challenged men looking to pull off six big heists), become so popular? For one thing, the Grand Theft Auto series has a huge amount of momentum: The 14 previous iterations of the series have built up a large and devoted fan base. Video games sales are dominated by franchises even more than movies, and the fact that the game is faithful to its many successful ancestors help it rather than hurt it. Along the way, GTA (as its fans call it) was no doubt helped along by its notoriety: Critics, mainly from outside the gaming world, have long criticized its graphic violence, ethical nihilism, unapologetic sexism, and racial stereotyping.
The new Grand Theft Auto is also, by nearly all accounts, just a great video game. Metacritic, a review aggregator, pegs it as the highest-rated video game ever, tied with GTA 4. Reviewers universally praise the excitement of the missions, the life-like graphics, and the enormous virtual world you can explore. Photographer and gamer Phil Rose captured these last two qualities with a group of beautiful “photographs” taken within GTA 5 (including the ones in this post).
The increasing sophistication of the GTA world also raises the question of whether video games might be growing ever closer to breaking through as not only the most lucrative creative products but also the most influential; while GTA 5’s release made more money than any movie’s, it’s still Hollywood that tells the stories that most capture mainstream society’s attention. Can video games ever dethrone movies in terms of cultural import? A recent essay in Bloomberg by Charles Yu makes the case that that just may happen, but that first games need to experience a revolution of possibilities:
Open world games [like GTA 5] have come a long way in a short time, but as impressive as they are, they’re still operated on rails—theme-park rides rather than free-driving cars. “GTA V” points the way to games with a narrated openness in which players wouldn’t be presented with options so much as they would have tools to model their experience. Giving players the ability to create their own stories within the connected world of a larger story creates a natural, social evolution within the system.
Yu says this change would likely come from the mind of a visionary from a post-cinema generation:
If anyone is going to invent a new form of entertainment from this model, she’s probably 15 years old right now, unbound by the conventions and assumptions of received forms. She’s growing up in a world in which a significant number of her interactions with other people are online (for better or worse). She consumes serialized programming in 13-hour blocks and doesn’t really distinguish between TV shows, movies or Internet videos…Maybe she’ll be the first auteur of this new kind of entertainment—an environment with infinite horizons. She may imagine a platform where players are both the creator and the narrator, able to write the game as they play through it. Perhaps she’ll create the first Great American Possibility Space.
You may not see it behind the violence and crassness, but we may one day look back at this one phenomenally popular game as a step in a sea change of how stories are told, consumed, and dreamed up.
Amos Zeeberg is Nautilus’ digital editor.