Grand Theft Auto 3

(because what the public demands is reviews of 15 year old games)

I don’t necessarily know that my absolute favorite video game of all time is, and I could (and perhaps will at some point) argue that even deciding such a thing is beside the point. But one of my favorites is Grand Theft Auto 3.

It was revolutionary for its time, and it still holds up today. It was violent, perhaps more violent (or at least violent in a different manner) than any game that had come before (or at least any major video game). But what was so great about it was how everything worked together.

There are a lot of debates about whether or not video games are “art.” To which my answer would be of course they’re art, although they’re mostly bad art. There are exceptions of course, and, in this blogger’s humble opinion, Grand Theft Auto 3 was among the first to really be great. It was able to tie together the theme, gameplay, setting and story so well that everything felt right. You felt like you were really in a corrupt city, and everything you saw and did served to enrich that experience. Taking low level jobs to attack rival gangs, slowly working your way up in organized crime, switching allegiances and starting gang wars.

The true brilliance of the game ability to interact with the world. Let me explain what I mean. There was one mission where you were assigned to kill somebody and given a sniper rifle, but the game allowed you to accomplish the goal however you wanted. If you used the sniper rifle, that’s fine. But if you charged in with a machine gun, it might not work as well, but if you accomplished it you accomplished it. Each mission had different goals, but almost all of them had the same basic gameplay, if you wanted to improvise you could, and the games rules were flexible enough to handle that improvisation, which is something that is still uncommon today, but truly unique then.

But you didn’t just interact with the world in active ways, simply being in the world was an experience. There were multiple radio stations, each with a different theme and most were 100% original, and they all played commercials which were hilarious. All the media within the game, the billboards, the radio, the shops, all served to create a unified theme, it was a truly immersive experience.

One of the more brilliant ideas was to have the protagonist completely silent during the whole game. Doing so allowed you to project your own motives onto him. Also, I think that it fundamentally changed the way you viewed the game world, instead of trying to shape the game world you were only reacting to it. You were acting like a criminal and a gangster because that was the only way the world worked; you had to be corrupt, there was not other way. There are other games where the protagonist never speaks, Chrono Trigger being a notable example. What is interesting to me is that in both cases I never realized it while playing either game, it was only when it was explicitly told to me that I realized that case (in Chrono Trigger’s case, when I read about it, in GTA3, when it is pointed out in a radio segment). I think that I didn’t realize it because I already felt like the character. Games feel out of place to me when I am forced to do something that I wouldn’t want to do, (or wouldn’t want my character to do), this is especially true when I am forced to say something I wouldn’t want to say. Forcing me to say nothing is in many ways more liberating than giving me two false choices.

As great as things are, they couldn’t last. Rockstar Games has since made multiple sequels. With each no sequel, new features were added, but instead of complimenting the game, they often detracted from it. Vice City was much the same, taking place in a pastiche of Miami in the 1980s. It played actual music from the 1980’s and allowed the player to purchase property. While it was still a great game, it didn’t seem like it pushed any boundaries, maybe a few incremental improvements on the previous installment, but nothing major.

The next in the series, GTA San Andreas, brought the player to a fictional California, complete with a fictional San Fransisco, Las Vegas and Los Angeles (yes, I know that Las Vegas is not in California). The biggest change in this game was the sheer size of it, for the first time there were significant areas of wilderness between cities. But it also added a lot of features which actually hurt the game. In order to finish the game, you had to do a variety of missions which involved flying planes, for which the control scheme wasn’t pretty terrible, other missions where you had to sneak (which turned the game into a kind of bad version of a Metal Gear Solid game). Now, instead of having the liberty of game mechanics which were flexible enough to handle the situation as the player wanted, there were missions which had to be beat in a certain way and which didn’t take advantage of the games best mechanics. Overall it was a good game though, and kept most of the fun intact.

GTA IV, the first game for the PS3/XBox360 generation, was something else. It went back to Liberty City (a fictional New York), made it super detailed and very big. Every little thing in it was interactive; in San Andreas there were occasional video game consoles which you find and play. In GTA IV, it was overcharged, every bowling alley and darts game was playable. Which is something that is kind of nice to have, but not really. The gameplay of the bowling was pretty bad, which would be fine if it was only an add on, but it wasn’t. The story forced you to go bowling in order to progress, which is horrible and terrible and awful. Why force you to stop playing a good game in order to play a bad one?

Relationship building was a big part of GTA IV, which makes no sense whatsoever. In the first several games your character is basically a violent sociopath, doing whatever he wants. That’s the appeal of the game. But in GTA IV, you switch between violent sociopath and ideal boyfriend, it is awkward and jarring, the theme starts to work against itself. It feels like GTA IV either wanted to keep on simulating real like without realizing that at a certain point it would have to stop being a GTA game, or they simply had a bunch of ideas and included them in the game only by judging whether they are good by themselves, not trying to consider whether they belonged in the game.

There’s a new one out that I haven’t played, and so I will be happy to admit if it has dialed down the feature creep, or if it pushes the gameplay envelope. Mostly though I’m done with the series, it was a great at first, and influenced the gaming world perhaps more than any other game in the last 20 years, but I think overall it is an example of something simply growing too old and being crushed under its own weight.