The tone and atmosphere of the GTA series are among some of the most underrated aspects yet essential parts of its identity.
Some people play GTA for the mindless carnage and pay no heed to the game's story. However, for the players who do play GTA with some focus on the story, they should notice the significance of the game's tone and atmosphere.
Tone and atmosphere might not be the first things a player thinks about when it comes to GTA, but it's a crucial backbone to the franchise's identity. Hence, it is reflective of the quality of GTA.
Some games do this phenomenally, like GTA 4, while others handle it poorly, like GTA 1. In fact, most games that the GTA community considers good tend to be those that sync tone and atmosphere.
These two attributes are not the most important elements of a GTA game, but they affect the series's overall quality.
How the tone and atmosphere affects the quality of games in the GTA series
Tone and atmosphere are two similar topics, but they aren't identical.
Tone is essentially a reflection of the author's attitude toward a particular subject (in this scenario, Rockstar is an author). Gamers can often see Rockstar's tone in a GTA game, especially since it tends not to be subdued.
Atmosphere is all of the hidden stuff that defines a game. It can include lighting, audio, narrative, and other essential features within a game.
More often than not, a GTA game's atmosphere is heavily influenced by Rockstar's tone. Storytelling isn't the main objective of most GTA games, so dissecting its tone and atmosphere won't be as complicated as it would be with other literary masterpieces.
The 2D Universe
GTA 1 and its expansions are straightforward games. It's not so much that it lacks tone or atmosphere. Rather, GTA 1 placed minimal emphasis on either subject. GTA 1 is simplistic in design, and it features no voice acting or famous radio songs. Its audio atmosphere is incredibly lacking compared to later GTA games.
Considering that the stories of GTA 1 and its expansions are straightforward, there isn't much to dissect in that regard. Fortunately, GTA 2 improved upon GTA 1 in several factors.
Predictably, this would mean that GTA 2 would be a step up in tone and atmosphere, leading to a better game.
GTA 2 changed initially because there was one protagonist (Claude Speed) as opposed to the various selectable protagonists with no character. He mocks and spits over the bodies of people he's killed, so players can more easily understand his sociopathic nature and why he does what he does.
The 3D Universe
The introduction of voice acting did wonders for establishing the atmosphere in GTA III. It made characters' personalities shine compared to yesteryear's characters, and that's not even including seeing the characters in 3D. It's a subtle thing, but it really emphasizes the newly improved story of the game.
Just as GTA III is considered one of the weaker games in modern times, its overall atmosphere is weaker than the games that came out afterward.
GTA Vice City was the start of more modern GTA storytelling, as protagonists were once again more easily relatable. Simple features like giving protagonists voice acting go a long way in improving the game's overall atmosphere.
Not only that, but it also makes it easier to identify the tone of a game. GTA Vice City's 80s-esque atmosphere also helps the sometimes satirical tone stand out.
While GTA Vice City is stuck in the 80s and focuses on drug trafficking, the next major 3D game focused on gangs and combatting the drug trade.
Considering the stories of both GTA Vice City and GTA San Andreas are fondly remembered to this day, it's easy to infer that both games' tone and atmosphere were executed properly.
By comparison, most fans who even played GTA 1 and GTA 2 are less likely to remember those plots.
The HD Universe
Surprisingly, the HD Universe isn't that different from its predecessors as far as tone and atmosphere go.
Although GTA 5's story is one of the weaker ones, one of the things it does right is its tone. While some fans might find GTA 5 to be overtly satirical and on-the-nose at times, it's still clear enough for fans to understand what the game is supposed to be about.
As far as the "perfect GTA story" goes, GTA 4's tone and atmosphere are phenomenal. It's easy to see how fake the American Dream can be from a perspective like Niko's. His cynicism and jaded view on things make it perfectly relatable for gamers who also feel like they cannot achieve the American Dream.
In this situation, fans remember GTA 4 fondly for how well-executed the atmosphere of the game is. While it's true that GTA games aren't solely made for their story, it's still an important supplement that makes its gameplay stand out further.
None of these stories are remembered for their atrociousness. It indicates how crucial something as simple as tone and atmosphere can impact a franchise such as GTA.