Now, before I hear people saying, "Oh, there are only so few GTA games," let it be known that there are over 6 GTA games that are currently out, and that there are others in production. But we're not here to talk about that.
Grand Theft Auto is probably the bane of Jack Thompson's existance (or perhaps his lifeblood...I'm not sure yet), as it promotes all the things that are bad about society. Let's see how Rockstar/TakeTwo created the monstrosity that we all play today:
Grand Theft Auto (PC, PS1, 1997/1998)
I remember that I was so eager to play this game that I traded some chubby kid (named Chris Katz...odd that I remember that) a copy of Metallica's "...And Justice For All" album for the disc of this game. The main draw being, of course, that you can steal cars and kill people. That was pretty much it. The structure of the game, if any, was to get cars and kill people. TakeTwo knows what works, and the game was almost banned because of it.
Some noteable changes to gaming (other than the ability to break the law), were the fact that this game was open-ended (you decide what to do next), and that there was no "lives" system -- if you died, you had to have the cash to survive. If you didn't, THEN it was game over. This was also the beginning of the "holy shit that car goes fast, too bad as soon as I touch something with it, it explodes and kills me" phase in GTA.
Grand Theft Auto 2 (PC, PS1, Dreamcast, 1999)
It was a tough call here between listing this game or listing San Andreas, but all hot coffee aside, I think this game did more for the series.
In a "less-than-bold" move, TakeTwo decided to add a storyline that was shaped as you went along. The introduction of the three gangs, in addition to the street-cred that went with the missions, added a strategic element as to which missions you were going to do, and which would put you on a gang's shit list.
In addition to slightly improved graphics (ooh! lighting!), GTA 2 also added on to the level of violence, complete with the addition of Molotov Cocktails, greater police involvement, and even more violence.
A noticeable problem was the lack of swimming. This guy can take having a bomb strapped to him, can eat bullets, and can shoot up cars like it's nothing, but one trip to the water and he's dead!? Other continued gripes were the usual "absurdly fast vehicle = death" problems.
Grand Theft Auto III (PS2, PC, XBOX, 2001)
Bring on the violence! In what is probably one of the most inflential videogames after Mario 64, Rockstar helped push GTAIII to the limits of social decency. Not only can you pick up hookers, use a sniper rifle, do police missions, and just plain blow shit up, but now you can do it IN 3D! As usual, it takes a 3D game to really get people's attention (hence why the Sonic series has busted its ass over the last decade trying to do 3D and failing miserably), and Rockstar did it here. A solid story mixed in with a sandbox environment make this game a must-play.
As usual, as soon as the good lawmakers of the world found out you could kill cops, this game got more press than Jesus (which is strange, because both GTA and Jesus had been around for a while. Makes you wonder what 3D would do for the Old Testament, eh?).
Even with all these changes and advancements...for some reason, you still can't swim! It took them all the way through San Andreas to fix that!