GTA 5 came out on consoles in 2013, about three years after The Social Network mythologized Mark Zuckerberg's rise to power, and three years before Facebook would play a pivotal role in—whoops!—allowing online misinformation to influence the 2016 US election. In GTA 5, Facebook is parodied as Lifeinvader, a social network where you can "stalk" posts instead of "liking" them. This joke now feels approximately three million years old. Somehow, it was still at least a little edgy then to point out that social media is invasive.
Today we take that as a given. We know tech companies view our personal data as a product and that social media can do bad things to our mental health. That's just the mundane reality of day-to-day life in 2020, without getting into the PTSD that content moderators develop looking at horrible shit on social networks, or how they end up succumbing to conspiracy theories. A button that says "stalk" is so much more innocent than the actual ways social media affects us today. And the same goes for almost everything that's happened in the seven years since Grand Theft Auto 5 came out. So what the hell can Rockstar do with its next game? How can GTA 6 satirize a world that's thoroughly mad?
Rockstar hasn't come out and said it's making a new Grand Theft Auto yet, but it's inevitably coming. We don't know when and where it will be set, but it's a little hard to imagine the enormous success of GTA 5, and especially the insane money-maker that is GTA Online, not guiding the direction of GTA 6. If Grand Theft Auto remains contemporary, an attempted larger-than-life reflection of these modern times, it would have to go full-on Saints Row ridiculous to outdo reality.
Half a decade ago, a politician using campaign money to buy videogames would've surely been a stupid GTA side character who gave you a mission to beat up some kid who roasted him on Xbox Live. Now he's just a recently departed US Congressman from California.
Rockstar has added increasingly elaborate talk radio stations in every game since GTA 3, but listening to GTA 5's Blaine County Talk Radio today just feels like a sad, too-close-to-home depiction of modern America.
"I'm tired of this healthcare bullshit too! Some liberal doctor going to tell me I have diabetes? I call bullshit! Goddamn liar," says the first caller to the "Truth Seeker" program. Healthcare in America was bad in 2013, and it's bad today, but the true depths of its badness have become more and more apparent in recent years, as people create GoFundMe pages to pay for life-saving operations, and even the Democratic party balks at embracing universal healthcare. The joke is also just passé in a world where plenty of people think COVID-19 is a Chinese bioweapon or somehow caused by 5G radio waves.
Other GTA radio jokes include: Vaccines cripple our kids, Americans should speak English, the government is reading your thoughts, evolution, "so-called experts." Satire always has a grain of truth, but do these things really work as jokes anymore? What was once passed off as fringe ignorance or idiocy now gets spread daily across social media, where conspiracy theorists have been able to cultivate huge audiences of true believers.
Nothing in Grand Theft Auto could hope to be as ridiculous as Alex Jones, who claimed for years the Sandy Hook school shooting was fake. Or Pizzagate, a conspiracy theory Jones helped spread about Hillary Clinton, a child sex ring, and a random pizza shop in Washington D.C. Someone showed up to that shop with a gun! This reality is so stupid it would be funny, except people can get hurt. They can be harassed. They can be killed.
And we can't write off even the wildest conspiracy theories imaginable as fringe stupidity, because the president of the United States is one of the people spreading them.
America's handling of the coronavirus pandemic has made clear so many things about the government's ineptitude, its prioritization of the economy over lives, and how broken our healthcare system is. Every day it feels like we're living through the worst possible timeline. You could argue that Grand Theft Auto's sense of humor has never been its main attraction, but its exaggerated version of reality has always been key to the sandbox. If GTA 6 tries to stick to the tone of GTA 5, smirking while pointing out everyday things that are bad, it'll inevitably come off like a watered-down version of our utterly busted existence.
Hell, even GTA Online's latest high jinks are a pale reflection of recent events. Goofy alien roleplay gangs in GTA Online? It hasn't even been a year since a million people got really psyched about the idea of raiding Area 51.
For the next Grand Theft Auto to avoid this milquetoast fate, what should its setting be? What should its tone be? Red Dead Redemption 2 shows one possible route here—a more serious game, with characters meant to resonate more than titillate. More The Godfather, less Goodfellas. Maybe that was the goal with GTA 4 and Niko Bellic, but it was clumsy, looking back. Niko's rags-to-riches narrative didn't really mesh with the experience of playing the game. Running around with a rocket launcher kinda breaks the illusion of seriousness.
Red Dead Redemption 2 pulls it off partially because westerns are mythic stories, set in a romanticized version of a time detached from reality and modernity. Even full of western tropes, it's not a satire. Maybe it's time for GTA to go historical once again, jumping back to the '60s or '70s any time and place underrepresented in videogames. What would a GTA set in Detroit look like? Or Atlanta? Nashville? Boston?
Mafia 3 showed how crime stories could look different detached from the same cities and time periods we've seen a hundred times before. In the same way it's been exciting to see Assassin's Creed depict different eras in fastidious open world detail, it would be exciting to see GTA put us at a specific point in time, in a city never depicted with Rockstar's fastidious detail. Even if GTA 6 sticks to the modern day, it could have something to say by focusing on places and people underrepresented in gaming.
No matter when and where it's set, Grand Theft Auto 6 is going to have to have something to say other than Ha, look how dumb today is!—because that's something we most definitely already know.