Grand Theft Auto V: Providing the thrill of escape
For gamers, it's the equivalent of a new James Bond film or JK Rowling novel.
The video game series is as controversial as it is successful. So far, it has sold more than 100-million copies since it was developed in Edinburgh in 1997. Players take on the role of a criminal in a fictional city in the United States and rise through the ranks of organised crime with action, adventure and shoot-outs.
The latest version is the biggest and most ambitious yet, with an imagined world larger than the rest of the series put together, and follows three criminals as they steal, shoot and shop their way through the fictional city of Los Santos.
It has taken the originating company, Rockstar Games, four years to develop at a cost of about $137.5-million, according to one analyst.
Rob Crossley, associate editor of gaming news site CVG, says that Rockstar reportedly allocated three million copies for the United Kingdom launch: "It's unlikely all will be sold on day one, but it's an astonishing figure nevertheless. Put it this way: that launch allocation accounts for a quarter of all combined Xbox 360 and PS3 owners in the UK."
The plot revolves around a retired bank robber returning to a life of crime with a protégé and his psychotic cohort. But the appeal of the game is as much to do with the extracurricular detail: from shopping malls to strip clubs and sports events, all are open to the player.
"Fans appreciate the sheer amount of thought that goes into the Grand Theft Auto games," says Nick Underdown, founder of fan site Rockstarresource.com. "A lot of the things people are looking forward to don't involve any criminal activity … and it seems like a small thing, but the soundtrack is so important, it plays a massive part in the setting."
GTA5 has more than 200 tracks for players to listen to while driving the game's kilometres of streets and motorways, from country to electronica. It's a key part of the appeal – the 2002 GTA: Vice City featured seven CDs' worth of 1980s pop, which enhanced the game's narrative homage to that decade's films and TV culture.
"Lots of my customers have told me they've booked the day off to play it," says Gareth Rowbotham, owner of Playtime Video Games stores. "I'm not being derogatory, but our customers aren't high-flyers, they're on minimum wage, working 40 to 50 hours a week. They'll come in, buy GTA and play it for 12 hours straight. It's a way of escaping the banality of normal life."
Jevon Farr, who helps to run community site GTAnet.com, explains the appeal. "It's the freedom, the humour, the atmosphere, multiple concurrent protagonists, a gigantic and detailed world map, a dynamic economy, elaborate customisations and a multiplayer mode that becomes self-perpetuating with user-generated content."
Game designer Adam Saltsman says GTA is "the closest thing games have to [looking like] a prestigious HBO or BBC series. There is lots of visceral low art, and there's also lots of high art. The game is very large and very rich, not just geographically, but also vertically. It has the gangster story and the sandbox stuff, but then it has all these satirical radio stations, and even weirder, deeper jokes and commentary."
The game's co-writer, Dan Houser, has described it as a satire on a modern Hollywood that has faded into insignificance in an era of outsourced production. GTA5 is filled with failed actors, drug-soaked producers and various hangers-on.
"Our researchers did an incredible job of finding us some of the strangest people: retired cops, former FBI agents, entrepreneurs who'd retired on a massive fund of money at 28, people who specialised in knowing the underworld of Los Angeles, and everyone in between," he says. "We'd just hang out with them for a few days to see what happened."
GTA5 is available on PS3 and Xbox 360. There are rumours that an enhanced version will be available on the next-generation consoles, which launch in November. But many already see GTA5 as a "nextgeneration" game. It hints at a future in which games become more like virtual holidays, a form of all-encompassing escapism. – © Guardian News & Media 2013
Keith Stuart is the Guardian's gaming correspondent