Grand Theft Auto is a game that at its heart is about immoral activities. In fact, one of the few criticisms critics have leveled at GTA V is that its protagonists are unpleasant and reprehensible. As a result, you'd think that the GTA series throws morality and ethics out the window entirely, but you'd be wrong. Morality - or rather, subverting morality - is a major design component of the series. In fact, if you want to reveal the complex morality in GTA's world, you can do it with one simple question: Whose morals are we talking about here? GTA isn't a monolithic structure, but a spectrum determined by the player, the character and the environment. The result is that discussing morality in GTA's internal world might not be very useful at all.
It's undeniable that the player ultimately makes most ethical decisions in a game. Even by opening the box and booting up the game, the player consciously decides to opt-in to a story that's specifically about law breaking and is likely contrary to their personal ethics. But there's the rub - a player's personal moral system doesn't always follow them into the virtual world, nor should it, necessarily. The appeal of the GTA franchise is that it lets players run down pedestrians, fight armed battles with law enforcement and steal cars in a controlled environment where no one gets hurt. Unlike real life, the consequences for breaking the law are minor inconveniences rather than life-ending tragedies. GTA is a series where anyone can feel like a rule breaker, whether it's something as minor as wearing inappropriate clothes in public or as major as robbing a bank, GTA's whole shtick is to let you do things you'd never do in real life. You'd think that this would lead to a principal-free environment where players check their ethics at the door, but that's actually not the case.
Playing GTA doesn't make the player's moral compass disappear - it just focuses it on plot points and NPC relationships, where players tend to react differently than to run-of-the mill driving and shooting gameplay. We don't think too hard about running down a faceless pedestrian, for instance, but agonize over whether to kill Darko Brevic or decide which boss to betray. Developed characters, ones that we interact with and register as something more than cardboard cutouts, kick our ethics engines into gear because we've been given a reason to care about them as having a role in the story.
Added to this, a player's internal ethics could inform gameplay choices in unexpected ways. Some might see Darko's pathetic, drug-addicted state and spare him out of cruelty - in many ways a more fitting revenge. Others might consider putting a bullet through him to be mercy killing. Part of games becoming a medium with worldwide reach is that people with different backgrounds, religious beliefs, ideologies and philosophies will all interpret moral choices a variety of different ways - and may come to different conclusions. Even when you assume that the player controls a character's ethical compass, you'll probably find differing interpretations of the "ethical" choice from player to player. Even then, it's absurd to think that players have complete control over their characters - in fact, the characters themselves play a role.
Rockstar has created the most memorable and fully formed characters in the open-world genre. Though players can change their outfits, beneath their clothes Rockstar protagonists always have a style all their own. John Marston is a rough man trying to do right. Cole Phelps is restrained and anal, but only because he fears what lurks inside him. Niko Bellic is a mature cynic with a protective streak. Even though Rockstar doesn't make RPGs per se, with characters this strong it's impossible not to engage in role-play while controlling them. Therefore, when we're talking about a sense of morality in GTA, we have to understand that the player's ethics aren't applied directly to the world, but are first filtered through the character's personality.
Take Grand Theft Auto IV, for example. When I picked up that game I was ready to raise hell. I was going to rob stores, have shootouts with police helicopters and throw grenades into traffic - except I didn't do any of that. Sure, I had adventures and got revenge, et cetera, but my Liberty City tour had a distinct lack of gangster verve. The reason for that was Niko Bellic. Niko was a violent thug, but I sympathized with his plight as a reasonable man amidst unreasonable people, a guy who could do horrible things but wouldn't do them without reason. It wasn't until halfway through the game that I realized I hadn't gone on a single rampage. Niko just didn't seem the type to throw grenades into traffic and run away laughing. He wasn't an agent of chaos, and his morals were in the diver's seat, not mine. If I came across a side mission or achievement that I didn't feel fit him, I left it undone. While I was in control, I cared too much about Niko and his world to upset the apple cart.