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Why a world in crisis needs GTA now more than ever

GTA holds a mirror up to the world. We need that mirror.

Grand Theft Auto 4 has aged rather well, you know. Load it up today, five years later, and the streets of Liberty City still look and feel incredible. There's so much life in that city. A lot of games possess character, but GTA 4 is one of the few where each neighbourhood and borough can lay claim to its own; it's a world with an attention to detail that has become completely alien to gamers brought up in the shadow of the 18-month development cycle.

GTA 4 may not have aged in that sense, then, but the passage of time has had another impact: it's starting to feel like a period piece. Released during the final throes of prosperity before the global economic crisis really kicked off, it skewered the post-9/11 world of 24-hour rolling fear and terror alert levels, knocking it all sideways and exposing it to the ridicule it deserved. Those things still exist, of course, but so much of the world we now live in was still taking shape when Niko Bellic was busy being pressed onto discs. (The Lost and Damned and Ballad of Gay Tony expansions, which came later, may have elaborated on the GTA 4 world, but they still only told more stories within the periodic framework their host game established.)

That's why I'm so happy to see that GTA 5 finally has a release date. September 17th may seem a long way away - especially considering we all half-expected it in April or May - but despite the delay a new Grand Theft Auto game is still incredibly timely.

In just a few trailers, GTA 5 has already shown many of the signs I was hoping to see from it. It did it within just a few frames of the first one, in fact - it's all about that guy hammering a "FOR SALE" sign into someone's front lawn. GTA 5 is going to take aim at the world we've been living in for the last five years. The world where mortgage brokers mis-sold debt to millions of people, then sold the obligations those people couldn't meet on to investors and pension fund managers, who were encouraged to believe in the solidity of those investments by credit agencies who were paid more money if they gave the investments higher ratings. (Man, and you think game reviewers are dodgy.) The world where politicians still haven't brought criminal prosecutions against the people responsible for this incredible fraud - because many of the people responsible are, you know, the Treasury Secretary, or the boss of the Federal Reserve.

The fact even Dan Houser can't sell his house at the moment is oddly symbolic.

I hope GTA 5 is also withering in its take on the productivity-destroying bane of social media, which has moved us past the factless horror of 24-hour news - where the pace and pitch is so fevered that even the least consequential and periphery threats to your well-being are rendered apocalyptic in 96-point screaming bold font - into a global exchange of views so often devoid of logic, poise, fact, consideration and empathy that it has begun to accumulate the dialectic equivalent of negative equity.

GTA has never been shy of tapping into new technology, of course - one of the best additions to GTA 4 was the mobile phone with its GPS system - and given the emergence of cloud computing, the near-ubiquity of smartphones, tablets and the mobile internet, not to mention the death of Steve Jobs, the last of the technological aesthetes, it should have a lot to say. I can't wait to meet GTA's version of Google. "Don't be evil" is still waiting for its answer. (Speaking of answers, when asked about Steve Jobs' pre-death threat that he would "go to thermonuclear war" on Android, Larry Page recently said to Wired: "How well is that working?" Haha! Good one, Larry! He's certainly dead!)

Then there is the cult of celebrity, brought to new heights of absurdity by the proximity afforded by social media and the stunning rise of televised popularity contests. There was a bit of stuff about bloggers in The Ballad of Gay Tony, of course, but that felt like more of a sideswipe at people like us than anything, and the cultural narrative has moved on now. It's hard to imagine a contemporary Grand Theft Auto game, especially one set in Los Santos, that doesn't have something to say about Hollywood A-listers under house arrest wearing electronic ankle bracelets, or bloggers like Perez Hilton who have turned tactless voyeurism into a form of celebrity in itself.

Perhaps the script was locked too early for GTA 5 to shine a light on the National Rifle Association's recent behaviour, but GTA has both the guts to explore the more disgusting and opportunistic elements of national tragedies as well as the scale and intelligence for its social commentary to resound, and as the regular poster-villain for people seeking to apportion blame for things like Sandy Hook - Wayne LaPierre gave Grand Theft Auto a namecheck, of course - it feels particularly well-placed to get involved here.

Not to mention in so many other places. We've had Weasel News; goodness only knows what Dan Houser and his writing room have made of the Tea Party movement. And while GTA 5 is set on the West Coast of the US, I dearly hope that Dan - privately schooled in London and an Oxford graduate, of course - manages to find some room for The New Conservatism, the Coalition government and the insanity of austerity. It would be strange to play a GTA game in 2013 that didn't see the world through a wider lens than the one that GTA 4 focused - brilliantly - on the East Coast of America back in 2008. Our world is now, for want of a better phrase, more global.

GTA is even-handed, too. If it turns its attention to things like Occupy and Wikileaks, expect it to be just as sceptical.

Fortunately, I suspect GTA 5 will give us all these things in some form or other, and I'm not just excited about that - I'm hungry for it. Our press, our governments and our social networks do not put the world into context the way they used to do before we lost the gaps that once existed between real moments in our lives, but GTA always does. The thing about everything I've described - from investment bankers paying themselves huge bonuses for buying up debt that can't be paid off, to established politicians prescribing pre-Keynesian economics as the antidote to their unpunished excesses - is that it already sounds like something out of Grand Theft Auto.

And that's the thing we're missing: GTA isn't partisan or polemical in its approach, because it doesn't have to be; it holds a mirror up to the world and invites us to take a long, hard look. Right now, we've never been in more powerful need of media - let alone gaming - that does that. And the very fact that GTA is a huge open-world game is what makes it so well-placed to do this: books, films, news reports and #longreads can only delve so deep into any one issue, but GTA can take in everything it wants. It's little wonder it's been delayed, really, when you think about it, because with all that's going on in the world at the moment Rockstar must be absolutely spoiled for choice.

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