One of the most important games ever created released 10 years ago earlier this month. The term revolutionary is often cheaply thrown around, but Grand Theft Auto III personified the word.
There was nothing like Grand Theft Auto III. The game released exclusively for the Sony PlayStation 2 on Oct. 22, 2001. At the time I had no idea what terms like “sandbox” or “open world” meant for gaming. I wasn’t even old enough to “legally” purchase the game (as if I was buying something hazardous to my health like booze or cigarettes). As I transitioned from using the PlayStation and Nintendo 64, Grand Theft Auto III was jaw-dropping. For those that had heard the whispers in the hallways, it was that the game where you could hire prostitutes then run them over to get your money back.
Rated M for mature audiences only, the game definitely earned that designation. At face value, Grand Theft Auto III is just a game where you beat up hookers, steal cars and kill cops. In an interview with GameSpot, Dan Houser, co-founder of Rockstar Games and a writer on GTA III, said, “The key idea of the game was that it wasn’t about violence; it was about freedom.” Grand Theft Auto III gave you the freedom to create your own memories. Memories that a decade later are still poignant and thriving.
Welcome to Liberty City.
The fictional setting Liberty City is dubbed the worst place in America. I’ve played the game so many times that the intro is burned into my memory. A bank robbery goes bad. Your prison convoy is intercepted crossing the city’s bridge. A bomb goes off, exploding the structure and separating areas of Liberty City. You make an escape for it with your new-found friend 8-Ball. “I know a place on the edge of the Red Light District where we can lay low, but my hands are all messed up so you better drive, brother.” Yet he’s still somehow able to open the car door and slam it shut. That part still cracks me up.
My uncle rented Grand Theft Auto III from Blockbuster for me around its release and I played it the entire night, until four or five in the morning. I couldn’t put the controller down. I had never playing anything like it before. I wasn’t even playing the story missions. I was driving around the city, fist-fighting random people on the street and going on murderous rampages while trying to outlive the police. I was incredibly fascinated with every little aspect of GTA III. You could get a rocket launcher and blow up a whole block of cars. I could even drive around in a taxi, taking people to their required destination. I kept thinking to myself, Wow! You can do this in a game!?
As your level of violent acts increased, so did your wanted level. No action isn’t met without a proper reaction. If you started to beat up some cops, they rolled in with the heavy cavalry. You were pushed back as hard as you could dish it. When you got more than four stars, business picked up. The police would come with armored trucks and helicopters. There would be about 10 cop cars chasing you around the city. If you managed to survive all the way to six stars, a tank would make sure you didn’t last any longer. A tank! It was always frantic trying to escape your burning car before it exploded and you lost all your hard-earned weapons. There is seemingly an unlimited amount of time and ways you can play the game.
I always used to fire up the GameShark (remember those?) to get cheats like infinite health and rocket launcher ammo. For whatever reason you couldn’t swim in the game. You would slowly die if you fell in any body of water. Since I had infinite health, I couldn’t die once in the water after my car crashed into it during a wild police chase or overshooting a Unique Jump. That wasn’t the only time GameShark screwed me over. In one mission you had to follow and ram a truck to collect supplies that would fall off the bed. Well, the supplies never fell out because of some weird GameShark glitch. I’m not quite sure how I got past that mission, but I eventually did. That’s what I get for my cheating ways.
Getting 99 percent in Grand Theft Auto III is still one of my crowning achievements in gaming. I didn’t reach that number until several years after the game released, and I could never get the full 100 percent. I did all the side quests; the taxi, fire truck and vigilante missions. I collected every single hidden package. I perfected all the Unique Jumps. That last percent is impossible. I have to complete all 12 levels of the ambulance side-mission, where you pick up pedestrians and drop them off at the hospital. If you want to have a heart attack while playing a game, do these missions. Your blood pressure will go through the roof.
As the level increases, so do the amount of people you need to pick up in one go. If the ambulance rolls over, gets too damaged or explodes, you fail the mission.The ambulance was extremely difficult to control, because with the slightest wrong move it would flip over. The mission takes almost two hours to complete, and it needs to be done in one sitting. After you unlock the other parts of the city, the mafia will shotgun your car in certain neighborhoods, causing it to explode in a matter of seconds. This happened to me after level 11. I died a little on the inside.
Humor done well in video games is so rare that I learned to cherish it. Grand Theft Auto III is absolutely hilarious. Satire is a crucial and powerful element of the gameplay and storylines. It features clever jabs at American and western culture as well as important social and political issues. Take “AmmuNation,” the game’s weapon store. The NPCs on the street will talk to themselves, saying the most bizarre commentary in weird voices like, “My mother’s my sister!” or “Damn foreigners!” When you refuse to move your car, someone will yell out, “Waddya doin’, givin’ birth?” There were guys walking around in purple pimp suits. The radio also had so many funny parts. Lazlow on Chatterbox 109 is still a riot. The delivery of the way the words are spoken added to the hilarity. There’s even commercials for fake products and events in Liberty City. One satirized people’s unnecessary desire for huge, gas-guzzling cars:
I’m a marketing manager who lives in the suburbs and commutes to work on the highway. I live alone, so of course I needed a car that can seat 12 and is equipped to drive across arctic tundra. It just makes me feel better!
Another commercial brought up sweatshops and child labor involving gym shoes:
Boss: Wow, you’re learning some real skills. How about the salary, and benefits?
Small Child: Yesterday, I made a dollar!
Boss: You see, that’s the kind of dedication we have to our employees, and the quality of our shoes. Aeris running shoes. Always running…from something!
Liberty City felt so alive. It was a living, breathing entity. NPCs would walk down the streets, crash their cars into you or even start fighting and shooting each other. The radio was a big part of the life-like nature of the game. It became a major point of the experience. You could just cruise around the city for hours listening to the radio. A lot of the songs weren’t that well-known. However there were a few. I still remember the cheesy ’80s song by Elizabeth Daily that plays on Flashback 95.6. “I was flying high ’till you shot me down. Were you coming with me when I hit the ground. Hey, hey, hey. I’m HOT TONIGHT!” Listening to “She’s On Fire” by Amy Holland when my car was seconds away from exploding is some sweet irony. The countless things that would happen to you during gameplay, like the wacky violence or your car flipping eight times down the street after hitting a bump, is another important humorous aspect.
What I also so vividly remember is the television commercials. The haunting opera music. The car flying through the air. The screams of pedestrians. Promises of being a made-man, living the American Dream. Most game commercials back then were silly, like something you’d see for Crash Bandicoot. I had never seen anything like the commercial for GTA III. Grand Theft Auto III was one of the first titles for me that felt like more than just a video game. I was also enthralled by the characters and story, even though the main character didn’t have a name until Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (2004). Everything about the story felt larger-than-life compared to any other game I played.
The social response to the game was overwhelming. Parents and politicians were in an uproar, claiming it was ruining the moral fabric of our country. They wanted the game banned to “protect the children.” They claimed it trained people to kill, that it was anti-police, anti-everything. Grand Theft Auto III was blamed for real-life murders, cop killings and unexplainable acts of violence.
Hillary Clinton, then New York senator and current U.S. secretary of state, said in 2005 that, “Children are playing a game that encourages them to have sex with prostitutes and then murder them. This is a silent epidemic of media desensitization that teaches kids it’s OK to diss people because they are a woman, they’re a different color or they’re from a different place.” Clinton’s assertions are baseless and sensationalist. Not for a second are these the messages the game sends out to the culture. This ignorance could also be discovered in educational settings. My high school teacher had never even seen footage of any Grand Theft Auto yet was quick to criticize it for its supposed corruption of the youth. A college professor of mine repeatedly called the game “Grand Thief Auto” and then ridiculed it for its excessive violence and turning children into mass murderers.
Grand Theft Auto III was one of the first games to truly be a social and political phenomenon. The game is a sad reflection of our world. It’s the 21st century commentary on the chaos and hypocrisy around us, done in the best medium possible. Here art imitates life. This is the society we live in. Turn on a news program. Go on any website. Pick up a newspaper. You’ll see these headlines across the screen and on the front page. The real world atrocities are more horrifying than whatever Grand Theft Auto could replicate. People want these virtual worlds banned because it’s the only thing they have some control over. They can only stop the violence and bloodshed when it’s in a video game, not in the streets of their cities, where they’re powerless to do so.
Everyone was playing GTA III. Well into the next year, it was still running in everybody’s PS2. Forget about Mario, Zelda and Spyro the Dragon. Those were archaic compared to this new breed of game. Probably more than any other release, Grand Theft Auto III is responsible for the extreme success of the PlayStation 2. The game has sold more than 14.5 million copies across various platforms since 2001. That’s an insane amount of people who have played the game. The Grand Theft Auto franchise has shipped more than 114 million units since its beginning. That’s more than the population of many countries around the world.
You can still play Grand Theft Auto III today and it feels as fresh and exciting as the day it released. It changed the way I looked at games, their possibilities and what they could tell us about our lives, society and world. If humanity hasn’t annihilated itself decades from now, I’ll return to Liberty City to create some new memories.
Relive the memories with this 10th anniversary video released by Rockstar:
Photo by Rockstar Games