Yesterday [or earlier this morning, depending on your perspective] I shouted out a number of notable releases coming out that make it the best week ever.
As it happens, it turns out that week is notable for another reason I wasn’t previously aware of: Ten years ago, on October 22, Grand Theft Auto III released for the Playstation 2.
Longtime readers are long familiar with my fealty to all things Rockstar Games, and GTA3 is the reason for that loyalty. That game [and all of its subsequent spinoffs and sequels] is the last one that I fiended for, that I pulled an all-nighter for.
It was not always this way. When the game came out, I tried to take the high ground. I was working at a youth centre then, and sometimes the kids would bring their PS2’s and hook them up to a spare TV and play it all night. The game had already earned its reputation as the ‘hooker killing game,’ and frankly, the kids I saw who were the most excited to play it weren’t exactly the best spokesmen, loving the mayhem purely for mayhem’s sake. But, trying to share their interests I parked myself on the couch and started playing.
“So what am I supposed to do?” I asked one of the kids.
“Whatever you want,” he said. “The mission’s at that letter L, but you don’t have to go there if you don’t want to. You can drive around or explore, mow people down, whatever.”
And it was like an honest-to-God clouds parting, scales falling from my eyes moment for me. I ran through the streets beating people up. I could listen to the radio in the car. Time went from day to night. It rained. Instead of the top-down perspective of the previous two installments, GTA3 was an immersive, third-person experience set in a [for the time] fully realized, sprawling urban environment.
I stole that kid’s copy of the game and kept it for a week. By playing through the story, I experienced my own personal highlight of any game, that thing that just stays with you, even if it makes no sense.
It’s when you’re doing a job for Don Leone to pick up a body out of a trunk. As you drive to the location, you get a text message from Maria, Don Leone’s crazy partygirl wife, who says you’re being set up. On my playthrough of the game, I’d stopped the car to read the message, and just as I finished, the car I was supposed to be in exploded, startling me. Not knowing what else the game would throw at me, I sped off like a maniac, mowing down pedestrians to meet Maria at a pier so we could flee to Staunton Island under the protection of the Liberty City Yakuza.
Insane, I know.
As a show of good faith to Asuka Kasen, a high level yakuza member, my next story job was to assassinate Don Leone. I snuck back across the bridge to Portland Island and waited on the roof of a building, watching the back door of a strip club through the scope of a sniper rifle. When Leone came out, I popped him and his bodyguards, then ran back to the car and raced back to Staunton Island. That whole sequence has stayed with me for ten years.
In the subsequent decade, Rockstar tweaked the formula, bloating the formula to an entire state in GTA:San Andreas and pulling it back to Liberty City for the leaner, denser, nigh-perfect experience of GTA4. How far have they come? Revisit GTA3 sometime, with the lobster hands, no in-game map, predominantly empty skyline, buildings you can’t enter, a radio playlist you don’t know [this was back before they had a licensing budget for the soundtrack]. You’ll have the perfect opportunity when the game rereleases for iOS and select Android devices later this fall. The edges will likely be smoothed, but it’s clear how primitive the game looks now.
But think of how much we take the idea of ‘sandboxing’ for granted. Franchises from Rockstar’s own Red Dead Redemption, to Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed to next week’s monster Arkham City all liberally borrow from the idea of planting the player in the middle of a huge environment, and letting them run around in it like they want to. GTA3 wasn’t the first game to do it, but it was the first game to do it everyone played.
So happy anniversary, Claude, you mute bastard. Thank you for every hour I’ve spent cruising Little Havana jamming to Lonnie Liston Smith, for every plane I crashed into the Vinewood sign, for every helicopter I flew through the glittering Liberty City skyline at night.
Now howzabout we start teasing GTA5, no?