The GTA's franchise hold on the gaming community cannot be overstated, as for two decades, the series has grown exponentially in scale and reached the pinnacle of success. With each subsequent release in the series, Rockstar Games seems to outdo itself and set the benchmark for the rest of the industry.
As evidenced by the continued success of GTA 5, seven years post its launch, Rockstar has pretty much perfected the art of AAA game development. However, to say that the franchise hasn't gone through its fair share of trials would not paint the whole picture.
The GTA series has had somewhat of a tough time with its identity, constantly in a match of tug o' war. One side tries to tell more nuanced, darker, and profound stories, while the other calls for wanton violence, glamor, and slapstick humor.
This kind of dichotomy is best evidenced in Grand Theft Auto 4 and its sequel, Grand Theft Auto 5.
Should Rockstar go back to a more serious tone with GTA 6?
The specter of the late 2000s in Grand Theft Auto 4
In a post-Batman Begins era, the entertainment industry seemed to have acknowledged and heralded "dark, gritty, and moody" as the key ingredients to success.
Much of the movies and games that came out during this era seem to have a desaturated color palettes with sometimes needless grit and darkness and lacking many nuances.
However, that was not the case for GTA 4, as it had all the grit and darkness players could ask for. But it was sprinkled with the kind of satirical humor and nuance famously associated with Rockstar.
While the game can visually feel a bit oppressive and, dare one say, dull, it all works collectively towards a consistent theme. GTA 4 marked a turning point for Rockstar as it ditched the over-the-top antics of the franchise and chose to tell a far more nuanced tale, wrought with darker themes of vengeance, loss, and trauma.
To this date, GTA 4 remains one of the most polarizing entries in the franchise as fans cannot seem to agree whether the new direction worked or if it was merely misguided. But to many, this was the first time they noticed Rockstar's talent for more honest and emotional storytelling handled with seriousness.
It would be 2010's Red Dead Redemption that proved beyond all doubt that the company knows how to tell a more nuanced and darker story. However, 2013 would see GTA develop something of an identity crisis.
Sunny Los Santos and the return of the ridiculous
When the first few trailers of GTA 5 made it onto the internet, it was pretty clear that this was no Russian-cinema-inspired crime drama a la Grand Theft Auto 4. Instead, it was the return to the older identity of the franchise.
Yet, the game was still trying to tell more nuanced stories and deal with perhaps slightly more serious topics like anger, family, and excess, most specifically with Michael's character.
However, at the same time, it saw the return of over-the-top action sequences and the wanton nature of the older titles. In the same breath, the game was trying to be more than a casual, action-romp and handle nuanced topics with little to no subtlety.
While the game was fantastic overall, tonally, it felt all over the place, and Rockstar couldn't seem to decide whether to commit to the new direction or stick with what works.
As a result, the seriousness was reserved for Red Dead Redemption while the ridiculousness was home to GTA.
What is the right call for the tone of Grand Theft Auto 6?
As much as fans love the sheer ridiculousness of Grand Theft Auto 5, it is ultimately games like Red Dead Redemption 2 that stick with players for years after they finish the game.
Rockstar has proven it can deliver masterfully-crafted, nuanced, and emotionally impactful video games and stories. This raises the question as to why every single one of its franchises needs to be serious.
As mentioned previously, GTA works as a casual, action-packed satirical piece of entertainment, and Rockstar has no reason to fiddle with that formula. While it could result in complacency, it is fair to assume that Rockstar has proven beyond doubt that it is far from that, as evidenced by Red Dead Redemption 2.
Ultimately, it falls on Rockstar whether it's time to redefine what a "GTA game" is and reinvent the wheel. Or to stick with what it knows and the fans love and appreciate, and deliver more on that front.