Having appeared in every single Grand Theft Auto game to date as street props, public phones are, in both Grand Theft Auto 1 and Grand Theft Auto 2, a crucial mode of communication between the player and various criminals, as verbal and face-to-face mission bosses are not possible. Ringing in various portions of cities, players are issued orders by said party to perform a string of missions, simply by walking in front of the marked telephone booths.
The system is employed more extensively in GTA 2, where individual missions are trigger each time the player walks up to a ringing public phone. Access to specific phones in GTA 2 is dependent on the player's level of Respect towards a specific gang, determining whether the player has access to any phone affiliated with a gang at all or have access to specific color-coded phones tied within a gang; on top of gang colors, each set of these phones are marked as arrows with green, yellow and red accents, which are only accessible with increasing level of respect towards a gang.
A public telephone in GTA 1.
A public telephone in GTA 2.
Emphasis on face-to-face meetings with individuals in Grand Theft Auto III resulted in fewer occurrences of public telephones as a means to issue missions to the player. Only a handful of characters in games after GTA 2 are known to use public telephones to address the player, including El Burro, King Courtney, D-Ice and Marty Chonks from GTA III, Mr. Black from Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, and The Fixer from Grand Theft Auto IV. Public telephones are also used to activate car and bike races in Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories. Salvatore Leone also uses public telephones to address the player for some of his missions in GTA Liberty City Stories because he doesn't trust cell phones, although he also addresses the player face-to-face in other missions.
Aside its use to communicate with players, public telephones have by large been nothing more than decorative street furniture until GTA IV, where pedestrian may enter animation sequences using public phones.