Thoughts on Grand Theft Auto III‘s Tenth Anniversary

This month is the tenth anniversary of Grand Theft Auto III‘s initial release.  In North America, it was released on the Twenty-Second, with Europe and Australia getting it on the Twenty-Sixth.  With those dates right around the corner, let’s look back, and we can see how things have changed—and many of those changes were inspired by Rockstar.

The Grand Theft Auto series had been around for a few years before its third outing, but it was that third one that really brought the series the popularity it still enjoys to this day.  Most of what made it so popular soon spread out into other games, even other genres, altering, in some way, nearly every aspect of gaming.

Get your motor running...

Look on your game shelf (or under your television, in your closet, behind the dog, whatever).  How many titles do you have with large worlds?  Thank Rockstar for that.  They popularized the concept of a “sandbox” style game (as we tried to define the term here), and as I’ve said numerous times before, it became so popular that for the first few years after its release, other sandbox games were dubbed “G.T.A.III clones”.

What it did was show us how fun a wide-open world could be, especially when populated with non-player characters who made the world seem believable.  Citizens walking the street, dressed uniquely though by the district or area, in some cases holding their own conversations and going about their own tasks, making it feel like the world would go on whether the player-controlled character was there or not—as popular as all of that is, now, it can be traced right back to Grand Theft Auto III bringing the concept to the general gaming public.

It’s hard to understate just how important that was—even modern games that aren’t sandbox games have some level of feeling like the player-controlled character isn’t “necessary”.  In some straight-up, beat-up-everyone-in-a-room-then-go-to-the-next-room sorts of things, you can still sometimes hear the N.P.C.s talk to themselves—wondering when they can go home, chatting about “the ball game” last night, and so on.  Like with the concept of having a large world to explore, Grand Theft Auto III didn’t start that concept—but it did make it popular.

Head out on the highway...

Then you have the violence, something the series was known for almost since day one.  To be sure, there were plenty of other violent games out there—but none quite like this.  If any game could be said to “glorify” violence (which, to end the debate right now, I do completely disagree with, hence the “if”), it would be this one.  From the infamous “having relations with a hooker then killing her to get your money back” routine, to just smacking random people with baseball bats to hear the SQUELCH, to mowing everything down with a tank for the heck of it—you couldn’t take out the violence and have any real game left.  Heck, in some ways, it was the game—and that’s just how we liked it.

It showed you can have violence in video games—even insanely large amounts of it—and still have “normal”, well-adjusted kids—if they were “normal” and well-adjusted to begin with.

That’s actually perhaps the biggest contributor to the hobby—controversy.  The game started questions being asked—can kids play violent games and come out “normal”?  Whose job is it to make sure they don’t get in over their heads?  How much is too much?  While the Senate Hearings of the early ‘Nineties really got the ball rolling on all of this, most of the public weren’t really aware the hearings were even going on in the first place.  The issue over the violence in Grand Theft Auto III started bringing it out into the public (which is where the infamous Hot Coffee Mod controversy squarely sat, though the ultimate outcome—not so much).

Looking for adventure...

Sandboxes and controversies aside, another thing the title helped popularize was the idea of having a bajillion side-quests and random things to collect strewn all over the place.  Like everything else, it wasn’t the first to do those things, but it did make it popular.  Even in straight-up smack-everything-in-sight games these days usually have such things, to at least some moderate level—and that’s because when Grand Theft Auto III came out, gamers said it was fun as heck.

To be quite fair, there isn’t a whole heck of a lot that the title did for the first time—silent protagonists had been seen quite a bit over the previous decades (though some didn’t stay silent), controversies surrounded the hobby almost from the start, and violence in video games—Mario killed things by stomping on their heads.  If that’s not violent, I don’t know what is.

So, yes—the title might not have started this or that concept, but none had taken them all and smashed them together into one game so well.  Further, and perhaps most importantly, no game had made those concepts so popular, made gamers enjoy the ever-loving heck out of them so much.

If it sounds like I’m under-selling the importance of Grand Theft Auto III, I’m not—well, not really.  Sandbox-gaming is fun as heck, and having optional things to focus on beside the “main” or “story” missions helps keep a game fresh and adds to its longevity—but if the gamers don’t play those games, if they don’t even know they exist in the first place, why would the developers keep making the games?

In whatever comes our way...

Grand Theft Auto III making so many things popular—and proving they could all fit together into one title—has helped the hobby like little else.  Look on your shelf/behind the dog again, and look for the more recent-ish games.  How many of those titles would exist right now if it hadn’t been truly proven that gamers would love the core concepts or the secondary concepts?  Some would, to be sure—but most would be drastically different.  We owe a lot of the fun we get out of our hobby to this title, so let’s all celebrate its birthday.  Pixelated violence and “ladies of the evening” for everyone!


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