Tuesday, September 10, 2013

You Shoulda Been a Movie: GTA III

Today marks the third installment of YSBaM, which now has its own tag on this site. I posted the last one, of which I'm super-proud, in 2012, while the first entry, which is also great, was published in 2011. They take some time to complete, so holler if you want more of these.

What feels like a lifetime ago, I played the second GTA for an hour or so. It was insane, and the overhead perspective made the game feel a little more generic – not in a bad way, but there were many top-down mayhem games out at the time, like Postal. I thought it had some neat features, but I wasn’t especially excited by it. I guess the main factor was the short amount of time I had with it.

Then one day I visited my brother, and fired up his new PS2 and introduced me to GTA III. It was love at first sight, or play, or whatever. All I remember was looking at the screen about 20 minutes into the gameplay and feeling a bit breathless. Here – in first person perspective - were living, breathing city streets with an authentic design. People walking on the side walk. Cars driving about. An elevated train rumbled by. The location even looked a bit like parts of Queens, or perhaps the Bronx.

It was nighttime, and before long, it began to rain as well. Claude, the main character, was racing toward a ringing pay phone to receive an interesting and illegal chance to earn some cash. Then with the press of a button, Claude pulled a guy out of a Camaro and took his car for a drive.

Suddenly, the pace of the game became propulsive. Where I had been sprinting and walking for three blocks, I was 5 blocks away in seconds; in fact, I was enjoying my new-found speed a little too much. A bad turn caused me to get my first wanted star for crashing into a cop’s car. As I sped away, I found myself wishing I had chosen a ride with better handling.

Released in 2001 by the cheekily-named publisher, Rockstar Studios, Grand Theft Auto III was a revolution in gaming. This sort of open-world first-person sandbox was a fairly new experience for gamers. You might have three or four simultaneous locations for getting new mission assignments, but you could take them on in any order. Or you could choose to simply relish the environment and drive around, enjoying the several radio stations provided by the game.

Here's someone sort of dicking around on the actual missions:

As new as this type of sandbox game was, having it center on a criminal and his illicit activities made the experience all the more arresting. Why worry about the fact that you just rear-ended a stopped car? This is a game that not only includes street-walkers at nighttime, it encourages you to use a prostitute’s services by giving you a health boost! You’re a kid in a candy store and, a lot of the time, there aren’t enough police around to impose any order on you!

Much like the first street scene that so impressed me, the story also had a nice, low-key vibe. At the start, cutscenes show how you are betrayed and shot by your girlfriend during a robbery (it’s very much like Mel Gibson’s Payback). The cops nab you and you get a 10 year sentence, but your prison transport is attacked and only Claude and a stranger named 8 Ball survive.

After offering you a temporary shelter in his garage, 8 Ball introduces you to an Italian crime family, allowing you to get your own safe house, as well as access to weapons and missions. Although it’s simply a matter of survival – Claude has lost everything in the wake of his arrest, and so he must earn cash – these new criminal contacts gain a huge, complex hold over the protagonist’s life. And there’s always the fact that your ex, Catalina, is still out there…

While this video game had some graphical glitches, it was the best that could be done in 2001. Regardless, the production values were still clearly top-notch. Whenever you weren't being bothered by a glitch or cars suddenly "popping" into view instead of gradually appearing over the horizon, you really would marvel at its beauty. The music was crisp and clear, in stereo - as were the various dialogue recordings, which were so well-performed. And there were excellent video segments, too.

Each mission begins with a well-made cutscene - some short and some long - which add necessary characterization to a story in which the lead is, basically, mute. This is usually how you get a new assignment. Once the cinematic ends, you either start the mission directly, or continue to hear the other characters talk to you; that last option was a smart way to cut down on costs and not take the player's hands off the controls for too long.

Keep in mind that in this free-roaming playground, you have three enemies: cops, who only bother you when you've broken the law; crooks and gang-members who hate you, and random car-drivers and pedestrians who get angry when you car-jack them. Many neighborhoods in the crime-riddled town are filled with no-goodniks who will start to shoot at you on sight.

In this way, the series keeps you on your toes, looking around for potential threats even while you aggravate people. The stakes are fairly low, since a player death just results in you reappearing at the hospital closest to where you perished, with a portion of your money disappearing as payment for "failure." It's a fair system, since money is easily found after the first few hours; it emboldens your playing style significantly. The worst consequence is getting arrested, from which you re-spawn at the nearest police station, all your weapons having been confiscated. That part sucks the most because you have to buy (or find) all your gear again.

I hope I've helped you understand why GTA III was such a big deal. It was like the matrix in The Matrix! You were free to act out as you wished, in a world with real-seeming people, using real-seeming vehicles, in a real-seeming city. The impression the game left was undeniable. People love this game enough that many people still remember what they enjoyed best about it. No, it's not just me:

For Rockstar, GTA III was like the “Sabotage” video for the Beastie Boys. Suddenly, a game that was already popular found overwhelming mainstream renown, putting this series front-and-center in the gaming industry. Fans were obsessed and sales were high: it was the #1-selling game for 2001, and was the #2-seller in 2002, behind its sequel, GTA Vice City. According to Wiki, #III sold 12 million copies by 2007 - and then 2 & 1/2 million more by 2008.

Adding to all the public attention, the media jumped all over the game, which was a natural lightning-rod for controversy. Keep in mind, it's a game in which you could hire a prostitute, gain a health boost from sex with her, and then kill her to get your $ back. Personally, I always found it super-creepy when people did that, including (sigh) my own big brother - but, hey, I also try to avoid hitting pedestrians, too.

The news report is about Grand Theft Auto IV, but this part of the segment discusses GTA III itself:

You never were lacking things to do and places to explore. Rockstar had given everyone constant entertainment with a capital "E." Cruising around and listening to the radio was fun. The missions were varied and enjoyable... Although two people couldn't play at the same time, it was very easy to have someone sit beside you and take over every time you died, or alternate mission assignments with you.

In many ways, then, gamers received the equivalent of a major studio film - one that they could shape however they wanted, within the confines of the recorded segments. You could attack from afar, or with hand-held weapons, or guns, or even one of the cars that you stole. Whether you were challenging yourself or the programmed algorithms of the computer-controlled characters, you were assured of a good time. The designers even included a series of ramps all over town with which you could launch your cars into the air! My favorite is the one through which you can land onto elevated train tracks.

Here's someone just enjoying some of the options provided:

Tying it all together, Grand Theft Auto III kept track of most everything you'd done in this fictitious town that was so appropriately named "Liberty City." By pressing a few buttons, you'd see lists of standard (for games) "accomplishments" like the number of people you'd killed. Yet the tally extended to acts like air time in a car, distance jumped in car, times you were arrested, number of minutes spent with the police on your tail, and much more.

There were lots of collectibles to be found, too, which encouraged and rewarded exploration and experimentation. This was a carry-over from the earlier games: 100 "packages" were scattered throughout the map. When you found one, you walked over it and a message would appear telling you how many you had collected so far. The incentive here was that you would receive a new item at your safe house for every 10 packages. Life's better when your every hideaway is stocked with pistols, grenades, flamethrowers, and more. But the game also featured a ton of easter eggs, too:

Some might say it's impossible to turn GTA III into a movie. It is, after all, inspired by various films like The Godfather, Thief, The Getaway, Payback, and many more. I would disagree with them. All I would need to point to is how enjoyable the experience is, and how the various game developers imbued this experience with its own well-told story, vivid encounters, and memorable characters.

And, as it should be clear from the variety of videos I've embedded here: the video game was jam-packed with its own unique, retro, and above all perverse as well as satirical sense of style. When someone makes something both this crass and this smart, you simply have to pay attention. Especially when it provides so much freedom of choice and exhibits so much quality of production.

Some days, you want to safely cruise around in your car, listening to good tunes. When your mood is different, maybe you want to take part in elaborate bank heists or cartel takeovers. You can wish for organized criminal activities, disorganized crimes, or merely observing the world around you. Other times, though, you just wanna have a bazooka standoff on a lift bridge:

The true blessing of Grand Theft Auto III is that you could accomplish any or all of those - whenever you wanted, however you wanted, and as many times as you wanted. I simply think that in this franchise-saturated 21-Century Hollywood era, the tone, pace, and storylines could make for one hell of an engaging, entertaining film. GTA V comes out in one week, and it will mostly likely live up to expectations because Rockstar, like a good screenwriter and/or director, puts a lot of effort into its storytelling.


  1. Nice post. This game totally changed the way gaming was made perceived as. Maybe it also made the rest of our culture blood-loving, violent freaks, but so be it! This game was great, changed my life, and would have been a great movie. But then again, wouldn't all of them be?

    1. Hey, thanks, Dan! I appreciate it.

      Yeah, it had a big impact on me, too, because, with literally two exceptions, I barely cared about console gaming before that. It really showed what you could do with serious filmmaker levels of $ expense and production quality.

      I've already planned entries for Vice City and San Andreas - both of them would probably make for even better movies than #III, but I wanted to do them in order.

  2. I'm glad you mentioned the special jumps, which were the item that first made me go weak at the knees about this game, and also the most cinematic aspect. You hit the special ramp and it looked like you'd activated a cutscene--the camera left the over-the-shoulder perspective, everything went into slow-mo--but eventually you came to realize that it was actually gameplay video, not a premade cinematic of your car making the jump. It was like being inside of an action movie.

    I think you have to see Drive. It's as close as I think we'll get to seeing a GTA movie, right down to the way that Gosling barely speaks in the movie.

    1. Oh, man, those special jumps! Yes, the cinematic camera angles and slow-mo make you think it's a cut scene - until you notice the same cars chasing you in the background and that other features of the environment remain on-screen. So freaking cool!

      Yes, it sounds like I definitely have to watch Drive. I'm just waiting for the right mood...


Chime in!