What's the first thing you'll do when you crack open Grand Theft Auto V? For me, it won't be shooting drug dealers, visiting strip clubs or even robbing hookers. Nope. I'm going to jack a car and drive around for a few hours while enjoying what will doubtlessly be the best part of the game: the radio.
"If you're balding, you might as well kiss sex goodbye. Even if you're 16 and have a full head of hair, women can tell if you're going to go bald," said one radio commercial in Grand Theft Auto San Andreas (2004). "Let's face it – women hate bald men, except basketball players. What causes baldness? Don't take this the wrong way, but the explanation may be downstairs. It's bald, and it wants you to be, too."
I spit my drink out all over the living room when I first heard that one. Same for Thor's self-help ads in GTA Vice City (2002), wherein the Norse god offered advice to listeners looking for self improvement: "Beware the traps set by the Frost giants – carry your magic hammer!" and "Accept the crystal cup at the feast, beware the dwarf."
Sure, the GTA series has attracted attention for its ground-breaking open-world gameplay, amazing graphics and often controversial themes. Players have, after all, generally controlled criminals and been free to do whatever they want, including the oft-cited hooker beatings. Not too many games offer such vicarious, over-the-top and amoral thrills.
But the real soul of the series – the unheralded feature that rarely gets its due – comes from the kooky commercials, the intensely biting satirical talks shows and hands-down fantastic music found in its in-game radio, which plays anytime you enter a vehicle.
Like a good Tarantino movie, GTA's sound provides much of its identity. Anyone who doubts it should try playing with no sound. The amazing world is still there, but its heart isn't.
Grand Theft Auto V, sure to be the biggest game of the year after its release on Tuesday, September 17, will certainly continue in this vein. Like everything in the game – actually the seventh in the series, despite its title – the audio component will be massive. Developer Rockstar North confirms it has licensed 240 songs from all genres of music to be played across 15 stations, with an additional two talk radio stations. (Click here for a preview of the stations.)
For the first time in the series, Rockstar has also brought in such well-known musicians as Alchemist and Tangerine Dream to produce an original score to go with the game's missions. Aside from all the licensed content, there will be an additional 20 hours of original music.
An eclectic array of personalities, including Pam Grier, Bootsy Collins and Kenny Loggins, are playing various radio personalities – Grier is hosting a soul station, Collins an eighties boogie-funk station, and Loggins a classic rock station. The idea is to make the game feel like modern-day Los Angeles, the multi-faceted cultural inspiration for its fictional setting of Los Santos.
"What was important for us was to capture that feeling of L.A. and California," soundtrack supervisor Ivan Pavlovich told Rolling Stone. "We approached the radio stations as the musical soundscape [you experience] as you fly into L.A. One of the things we've never done in a GTA game before is a pop station; exploring that made so much sense in the context of L.A."
Indeed, the audio in previous games did an amazing job at capturing the tone and feel of their respective settings. Vice City , set in mid-1980s Miami, had a full-on Scarface meets Miami Vice vibe, with music from A Flock of Seagulls, Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Spandau Ballet. San Andreas, set in the L.A.-inspired Los Santos in the early nineties, was heavy on the gangsta rap.
Driving around that sprawling city while listening to the likes of Dr. Dre and Ice Cube transported me back to that era. I was just out of high school, such films as Boyz N the Hood were popular, the Rodney King riots had shaken Los Angeles and the music reminded me of all the swirling tension coming out of L.A.
It's rare that a game – especially a fictionalized one – can evoke such memories, which is why GTA is such a unique pop culture phenomenon. What makes it even better, though, is how much fun it pokes at the culture it mirrors, and how bang-on the satire is.
Sure, players could beat up prostitutes, but radio ads in Grand Theft Auto IV – released in and set in 2008 – also entreated them to tune into "America's Next Top Hooker."
"It's the show that makes women shake what they've got, and then leaves them feeling inadequate," it said. "Can reality TV ever get any better?"
The better question is: Why can't radio in the real world be as good?