Nobody expected Grand Theft Auto III. Even though it was to become the very definition of a massmarket game by virtue of the sheer weight of its sales, its pre-launch momentum was practically zero. For everyone who wasn’t Rockstar, GTA III just happened. Six months later, Videogame City had a new Mr Big. It became, arguably, the flagship brand for the PlayStation2 – a role typically reserved for a firstparty production. It’s given publishers and developers inspiration for lucrative hits and has been used as a baseball bat by political opportunists with which to beat videogames they allege to be a threat to social stability.
It’s reassuring that something so unheralded could become such a significant success. It seemingly triumphed without having to resort to blanket marketing and coercion. Pretty much any title can manoeuvre itself into the spotlight by fair means or foul, but to stay there takes a game of quality. The ideas and structure of GTA III didn’t just mesmerise gamers, they fascinated a significant portion of the industry itself. Yeah, nobody expected GTA III but, thankfully, that didn’t stop it from being welcomed.
Super Mario 64 took an existing genre and made it 3D; GTA III took 3D and made it into its own genre. Is it fair to call a mixture of wonderful driving and poor gunplay its own new genre? Maybe not. But GTA III’s fingerprints go much deeper than that – which is probably why, in an industry unhealthily obsessed with successful rip-offs, nobody but Rockstar North has yet managed to leapfrog it.
The game’s vitality came down to three key ingredients, elements that allowed the free-roaming nature of the gameworld to come alive like very few others: cars, culture and continuity. There’s no game-over screen and no title screen. Failing a mission never breaks the illusion of the gameworld; it just carries on regardless. Get your character killed or arrested and he’ll just be delivered straight back to the streets.
Most games slice their worlds up into stages, bracketed by menus and loading screens but, although GTA III’s world has been created for the player, it doesn’t revolve around you. Whereas many titles see the developer taking you by the hand and holding on as tight as possible from start to finish, GTA III takes that hand for just long enough to press into it the keys to the city. After that, you’re left to your own devices, contact limited to a small tutorial pop-up window when the situation calls for it.
At time of launch, this was liberty on a scale that console gamers had rarely been presented with, and never in such a readily identifiable fashion. GTA III’s setting, Liberty City, is a place where invisible walls are extinct, and where progression is an option, not an obligation. Sandbox, toy set, playground – whatever you call it, it’s an effective lure, allowing game breaking, improvisation and DIY player-created chaos. It felt like a release from captivity, without a creator towering over you and coaxing you down a series of glorified tunnels. No wonder people revelled in such freedom. But the liberation was, by construction, a loaded deal. Improvised behaviour is a boon when it’s a means to no end whatsoever, but it makes for a schizophrenic difficulty curve. One mission might pass in a pathetic breeze as your target is accidentally run down by some aggressive traffic. The next might be a hellish, dispiriting experience in which your meticulous and lengthy plan collapses thanks to a nearby policeman deciding to intervene at just the wrong moment.
But however frustrating these moments become, it’s hard to stay discouraged. Spend 20 minutes just cruising around Liberty City, cooling off and goofing about, and a brand new (and this time, guaranteed foolproof) scheme will hatch in your head. OK, so the idea of a foolproof plan is almost ridiculous in GTA III – preparation is about as reliable a tactic as pushing your luck – but this emergence is key to maintaining a powerful illusion, even if it risks discouraging some players from ever advancing through the plot.
This is grow-your-own gameplay, an organic set-piece editor just begging to be exploited and taunted, and which could just as easily rebel and maul you when asked to behave. A similar relationship is at work behind the game’s surprisingly excessive depths, too: the hidden packages, the unique stunt jumps, the odd jobs, the Easter eggs. While GTA III never demands the player conduct a serious combing of the game’s environment, it’s still ready for it.
Gamers have been trained to expect a shiny reward for uncovering a hidden nook or knocking down a suspiciously cracked wall. GTA III’s venous network of back alleys and side streets, though, have no guarantee of rewards. That only makes it all the more exciting when something is unearthed, however, even if it’s just a body armour pick-up or a hit of the fictional drug Spank, a narcotic that affords the player superhuman strength, slows the game world and turns sound effects from beeps and yells into foghorns and whale song. It is this aspect of the game that has been responsible for the spread of something far more insidious than any moral crusader would notice: hard-to-collect collectibles. Most visitors to Liberty City inevitably stumble on a good number of the 100 hidden packages dotted throughout the city. With every ten collected, a new resource – guns or body armour, for example – is made available for free at your safe house. But the idea of finding them all without a magazine walkthrough perched on your knee or an FAQ browsed online is an astronomical demand, one only approachable by those with excellent map-making skills or several million hours to spare.
It’s a concept that was formerly quarantined to RPGs but is now rife in modern videogames, a deadly percentage-completion predator masquerading as extra lifespan. Subsequent games all contained a wealthy range of collectibles dotted around their environments, but featured no in-game mechanism to help you to find them and no aid to dedicated players who want to see every little thing within this game they’ve become so smitten with. Of course, it’s a joy to stumble across something completely unexpected and not signposted, a true reward for investigation. But the flipside is an inescapable worry that you’re not seeing the game’s most intriguing secrets – and the side effect of falling in love with any videogame is that you can’t help but want to.
GTA III has become the greatest advert for official game guides since Final Fantasy, encouraging a culture of compulsory spoon-feeding. For all of GTA III’s sophistication, it palls when compared to the user-friendly structure of discovery and exploration presented in, say, the Ratchet & Clank series. But that’s a tarnish that gamers only ever stumbled upon when it was too late, when they were too deeply entranced to protest. One of GTA’s vital talents, and one often lost on any number of clones, is that it managed to make culture and geekery coexist.
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