Perched high above the living, breathing city, as pedestrians shuffle by on their way to jobs that don’t exist, I survey the street down below. Today, it looks almost embarrassingly artificial: a sea of muddled faces muttering the same stale lines, too-angular vehicles honking as they pass. They look like toy soldiers in a toy world, just begging to be knocked aside, perhaps by a sniper bullet or rocket-propelled grenade. Even the structure I’m standing on seems a testament to this. While a parking garage might serve a mundane purpose to me and you, in Grand Theft Auto III‘s Liberty City, it’s just another way to get away from the cops.
Before October 2001, few people expected Grand Theft Auto III to become arguably the most influential game of the millennium – least of all Rockstar’s co-founders, brothers Sam and Dan Houser, now well known as the notoriously reclusive minds behind the acclaimed series. “Our expectations were not that it had to sell 15 million copies, it was that it had to do well,” said Dan Houser, in a rare interview conducted by video game news site IGN in 2011. “Our expectations were that we would make something that was really cool.”
It’s easy to understand where Houser was coming from. All that the previous GTA games really had going for them was a certain “cool factor,” which is probably a big part of why they’re consigned to the same dustbin of gaming history as 2000’s ill-considered Frogger 2: Swampy’s Revenge. While they displayed the same traits that later brought the series great commercial success with GTA III – the freeform violence, the anarchic tone, the biting humor – their simple 3D tech just wasn’t up to snuff. Blocky, blurry, and a little too boisterous, these early games looked and sounded like a helicopter ride through a broken VCR’s worst nightmare. Game critics sung the same tune. While the non-linear gameplay of the early series earned it some praise, nearly all other aspects were deemed subpar.
The aesthetic limitations of the first few GTA titles suggested the flashy transience of arcade games like Robotron 2084 or Death Race, which helped inoculate them from the usual crowd of politicians and pearl-clutchers. Sure, the acts of violence depicted were horrifying, but the crude explosions and pixelated blood were more cartoonish than disturbing. With GTA III, Rockstar changed all that, and the parents of America commenced the hand-wringing. The older games were never shy about flaunting their cinematic aspirations (see the drum-and-bass-laden “movie version” of GTA 2), but now, they weren’t just making a game that embodied the crude charm of Scarface‘s “say hello to my little friend” scene – they were trying to make Scarface itself.
True to that mission, GTA III‘s script is pure capital-S schlock, the stuff of forgotten B-tier gangster movies, drifting from sex to betrayal to stale cannolis without a solitary pause for character or theme. (The game opens with your girlfriend shooting your player character, Claude, as he escapes from a bank heist, and it ends with Claude killing not only her, but his current girlfriend as well.) But while the particulars of the plot seem a bit workmanlike today even by these standards – especially compared to its 2002 follow-up Vice City, which is as direct a Scarface pastiche as Al Pacino should ever let anyone make – the sheer fidelity of its presentation blew critics and audiences away. Like a blast from a shotgun wielded by one of the game’s motley crew of mafiosos, it came out of nowhere – nobody had expected the new Grand Theft Auto game to even have a plot, let alone a compelling one.
Gone were the meaningless murder-sprees of the early games, replaced by a sense of unprecedented freedom. Each of the dozens of jobs that Claude’s mafia masters assign him are handcrafted experiences, complete with backstories, twists, and several potential avenues of completion. When tasked with offing a Triad dealer who’s pushing the game’s fictional drug “SPANK” out of his stirfry stand, for example, Claude can opt to go in guns blazing and risk the mark fleeing, or simply rig his getaway vehicle to blow him to smithereens – saving our leather-clad antihero a chase around Chinatown. Later games in the series mostly abandoned this improvisational template in favor of an even more “cinematic” approach that favors monolithic set-pieces over player expression.
That’s the most surprising thing about playing GTA III today: not how much the gaming world has changed since its thermonuclear debut, but how much has stayed the same. Sure, the grimy clockwork worlds that today’s be-stubbled antiheroes inhabit have grown in both complexity and size – the too-perfect sunsets above GTA V‘s Los Angeles analogue are a lot more convincing that the ones that dawn every 24 minutes above the jumble of gray rectangles that comprise Liberty City. These same antiheroes are guided by minimaps clogged with icons that advertise a seemingly-endless but ultimately shallow sea of content, like races, killing sprees, and contract hits – all concepts first popularized by GTA III. It might seem like a small detail, but it reveals an uncomfortable truth: to the keen observer, there’s no question where the blueprint for today’s most salable genre originated. Like the murderous Claude, it was born and raised in Liberty City.
GTA III‘s manual calls that same Liberty City “the worst place in America,” implying a crime-ridden metropolis that seems more the stuff of Batman than a reflection of today’s relatively-peaceful New York. Standing atop that parking garage, site of many a personal rampage, it’s easy to see why Liberty City has that reputation. Besides murder, there just doesn’t seem to be a lot to do there. The only businesses where Claude can spend his ill-gotten gains are gun shops, and the twin ends all criminals face – death or incarceration – are entirely neutered, reduced to small cash fines. Yes, GTA III is just a game, whatever that means, but even as its grand innovations echo on down the years, its limitations follow in their wake, challenged by neither those who birthed it nor their competitors. From a business perspective, what was revolutionary in 2001 still manages to move copies in 2016. But standing there, looking down on where it all began, I can’t shake the feeling that 15 years of progress should have moved the ball just a little further away from that damn parking garage.
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