While most folks are desperate to know when Rockstar Games will release Grand Theft Auto 6 after teasing a 2025 window in the highly anticipated game’s first trailer, I’ve spent all day trying to answer a much different question: When the heck does GTA 6 actually take place?
It’s clear that Grand Theft Auto 6, like its predecessors in the popular open-world franchise, draws inspiration from pop culture of every kind. In the trailer, a middle-aged white woman is exposed for wielding hammers in a more-than-likely racist “defense” of her neighborhood. Ladies twerk in strip clubs, while enjoying the beach, and even on top of speeding cars. Someone releases an alligator at a gas station. A heavily inked criminal’s implicative tattoos lead to his arrest. Pharmaceutical companies use cute mascots to sell antidepressants. GTA holds a mirror up to just about everything of its moment — but what is the moment?
All the trailer’s snippets have real-life analogues ranging from the late 2010s to the early 2020s, which indicates Grand Theft Auto 6 probably takes place at a time when Vice City’s society most closely matched our own modern history. Social media in particular is so ubiquitous in both the game’s reality and our own lives that it’s hard to see the game taking place at any other time.
A more substantial hint is hidden elsewhere. During a scene of Grand Theft Auto 6 protagonist Lucia holding money in the passenger seat of a car, it’s possible to make out the serial number on a $20 bill. The unique identifier, spotted by GTAForums user utopiadeferred, starts with an S. Comparing this detail against how we know currency works in the real world, Lucia’s cash might have been produced sometime after 2021, which is when the current production line started using a Q.
Then again, the entire serial number (“SA 04101998”) apparently also appeared on an oversized $100 bill decoration in Grand Theft Auto Online, so it’s possible it’s just an homage to the year of Rockstar’s founding.
But setting everything else aside, I think I’ve developed a much simpler theory about Grand Theft Auto 6’s timeline. It takes place in 2025. Why? Because that’s the year it launches in our world.
Let’s look at previous games in the series. Grand Theft Auto, the top-down crime simulator that started it all, debuted in 1997 and took place in 1997. Things get a little fuzzy with Grand Theft Auto 2 (released in 1999 with a decidedly uncertain time frame), which I’ll admit isn’t a great look for my hypothesis, but almost every other GTA game has followed the pattern set by the first.
Grand Theft Auto 3? 2001. Grand Theft Auto 4? 2008. Grand Theft Auto 5? 2013. Heck, even the drug trade-focused spin-off Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars is set in 2009, the same year it arrived on the Nintendo DS and PlayStation Portable. And most discrepancies can be explained away by games in the series often focusing on iconic eras in American history: Grand Theft Auto: Vice City and its handheld prequel Vice City Stories are meant to evoke the neon aesthetics of the 1980s, whereas Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas was modeled after inner-city gang culture of the 1990s.
The first taste of a new Grand Theft Auto can work on a person. I scoured the trailer frame by frame, trying to find connections between its references to real-world events and squinting at every bit of text I could find for any clue to the game’s timeframe. Rockstar Games, for its part, is being a little coy by not denoting a year during in-game situations where it would typically be included, like police body cam footage and social media posts.
But if Grand Theft Auto 6 is truly set in 2025, I expect ham-fisted jokes about ugly, self-driving trucks that kill their drivers as much as they do pedestrians and a conspicuously orange politician with silly hair. Then we’ll know all too well when it takes place.
Correction (Dec. 6): A previous version of this article misstated the release timing of Grand Theft Auto 3.