Sunday, October 30, 2011

Ten year anniversary of Grand Theft Auto III

"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."

With those words, us gamers were introduced to the morbid Grand Theft Auto saga. As depraved as the series may be, Grand Theft Auto also represents a genius reflection of society. The series isn't just a playground for sadistic playing but also a statement about society as a whole. The storyline itself may not of amounted to much more than the standard vengeance and mafioso story. But the masterpiece of the games have never been the plot line. Instead it's the world building that has allowed the franchise to last a decade. Liberty City isn't just a a bunch of unexplorable buildings. It's a cynical representation of modern society as a whole. And exploring the American dream through the city has never gotten old.

It's not a game it's an experience.

I've never played the first two Grand Theft Autos and I doubt anyone my age has either. I've seen them in the bargain bins of game stores, but they never had the allure that the third entry did. GTA3 brought with it a maturity not really seen in games at the time. There were better looking games and more compelling games, but few games matched the anarchic fun of the original. Even today the game is fun to play because of it's simple wish fulfillment. I'm not saying that everybody that picks up the game is a sadist in training, but there is something empowering about the freedom allotted to the player. There are main missions and even side missions, but a lot of people never even bothered playing them. Instead we were instantly attracted to the ability to cause whatever chaos we imagined in the game world.

Now that I'm older though, I can see what upset my mother so much.

Released on Oct. 22, it's hard to believe that it's been ten years since the release. I still remember sitting in middle school lunch and hearing with morbid curiosity my friend's ability to run down old ladies in a stolen taxi. Those that accused the game of being a murder simulator didn't really give the gamers any credit. Yes even those my age were a bit too young for the levels of violence, but we understood the line between fake violence and real violence. None of us were impressionable enough to take the violence at face value, we knew it was all fake. Despite what Jack Thompson may argue, the game had no ill effects after the system was turned off.

Jack Thompson, failed anti-video game activist.

My first taste of GTA was sleeping over my friend's house. He showed me with great glee the ability to run around and cause mayhem. Violence wasn't even our goal. We were more interested in exploring the game world because it was nothing we've seen before. Sandbox games are ubiquitous now but then it was a revolution. Rocket launchers and tanks weren't weapons of destruction but tools we used to test the freedom the game world allowed, just like the radio stations and fast cars were. And while virtual cops tried to police the city, they were nothing but another level of the game to compete against.

Trying to survive against SWAT teams was part of the fun.

To this day I don't think my mother knows I owned GTA, I think she still believes I'm borrowing it from my friend Joe (sorry ma). But that inherent sense of wrongdoing every time I popped the disc in my PS2 only added to the allure. I knew what I was doing wasn't wrong, but the idea that it could be wrong was simply seductive. My friends and I wasted a lot of afternoons passing the control around and topping each others acts of violence. We would see how many cars we can collect in one parking garage or defend a parking lot from waves of police. Even seeing who can pilot the Dodo aircraft for the longest led to competition between me and my brother.

He was the better Dodo flier, I'll admit.

It's hard to defend such actions as paying a prostitute and beating her up to get your cash back (which I've done in the video game, it's just good economics), but unless you played it you don't know how little a deal it was. Shooting people and stealing taxi cabs was violent but also encouraged, even if it wasn't a part of the main mission goals. Not to say the missions weren't fun, but it was how you completed the missions that was the real treat. Now the gamer could dictate how they prepared for the mission, even if it meant piling up eight tanks in the street "just in case you needed them." That's where cheats came in.

It's a shame that video games has lost it's way in this respect. Nowadays, cheating is both frowned upon and penaltalized in games. But back before the gamerscore it made for some of the best game experiences I've had. There's a reason why I still have all the cheats from GTA3 memorized to this day. It simply added to the fun. Something as simple as weapons and health cheats opened up the game world to more mayhem. My personal favorite was the riot and "everybody has weapons" cheat. There is nothing more exhilarating than driving around and watching bagladies with RPGs. I just wish videogames still supported such user freedom.

Even the newer GTA games prefer you not to cheat.

Rockstar is one of the leading game designers today because they earned that title. GTA3 alone revolutionized gaming today with its social commentary, sandbox design and top quality production. GTA3 forced other game companies to catch up and for good reason. Even something as simple as quality voice acting set the game apart from everything else in the market. And the series is still going strong ten years later because shooting a random pedestrian in the face still has it's charm. Not to say it isn't wrong, but the gameworld of GTA has its own rules. We were just living in it.

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