Grand Theft Auto III – Sandbox Escapism at its Best
by Darran Walter
Go on, admit it. Five minutes into playing Grand Theft Auto III, you were possessed by that inevitable rush of adrenaline and sheer anarchistic stoicism. The first thing you did was to commit an act of atrocious violence, a cold, brutal and calculated homicide. Whether it was in the form of a sniper round to the leg of an unaware passer-by or through the creative use of a rocket launcher towards some corrupt law enforcement, the sense of violent power without fear or consequences was the memory that was revolutionary for its time.
My first experience of GTA3 came when I was given control of a well-progressed save file, I had so many weapons at my disposal that I made the North Korean military look under-equipped. My first act of malice of aforethought involved relieving a passer-by of his life with a baseball bat. I wasn’t anticipating him to run so had to revert to plan B which involved pyromania. If nothing else, the game allowed a creative approach to problem-solving.
Let’s get one thing very clear, Grand Theft Auto III didn’t just rewrite the rule book; it tore it up and threw it off a cliff into a pile of burning rubble. This game was the yardstick to which all modern sandbox games owe their success and legacy.
“Grand Theft Auto III didn’t just rewrite the rule book; it tore it up and threw it off a cliff into a pile of burning rubble”
Not only did it spawn a series of subsequent games that would go on to make billions of dollars and receive immense critical acclaim, it also laid down the foundations that games such as Infamous, Prototype, The Witcher III, Batman: Arkham City and many others would follow. From interacting with NPCs to the mission-based gameplay or the unadulterated violence, all modern sandboxes have borrowed inspiration from the grandfather of them all; GTA3.
My overriding memory of GTA3, though, was its sense of escapism. Whether you were a 14-year old acne-ridden teenager, attempting to make sense of the world, or were a young adult trying to impress your peers, it allowed you to completely detach yourself from your worries and enabled you to forget anything else` existed. No bigger compliment can be paid to the game than stating that the Liberty City environment exacerbated such a level of immersion.
I can almost guarantee that anyone who delved into GTA3 would, on at least one occasion, attempt to play the game as a law-abiding citizen. They would try to drive in the correct lanes, park within the bays and maintain a sense of decent human civility in order to avoid causing any criminal damage.
“It was life and death in the palm of your hand, set in a realistic location”
The dream usually lasted no longer than five minutes and, after being insulted by a Colombian in a ridiculous outfit but sporting an amazing CGI moustache, you soon abandoned model citizenship, informing the gentleman what you thought of him by setting him ablaze with a flamethrower. It was life and death in the palm of your hand, set in a realistic location. This was the premise GTA3 and it was glorious.
For a teenager, an environment without regulation or rules was the panacea of early youth. GTA3 provided a space where you could rebel against the system and nobody would tell you what to do. You were in total control and there were no consequences, inevitably gratuitous, chaotic violence was the result.
The game truly excelled when you found yourself escaping the linear storyline and simply running around the city exploring and causing mayhem. I can’t even begin to recount the number of hours and days I racked up simply free-roaming, a term we have GTA to thank for, looking for hidden packages or trying to kill people in increasingly creative ways.
“GTA3 provided a space where you could rebel against the system and nobody would tell you what to do”
Whether deliberately or not, the game actually makes you feel as though you should generally avoid the mass murdering of innocent people and, instead, leads you to focus your beastly attentions on rival criminal gangs. I actively worked to avoid receiving too much interest from the police, given that the game tended to load the deck in their favour when it came to speed and firepower.
In a way, the fact that GTA3 mirrored the dichotomous view of a dystopian society in its approach to law enforcement was quite scary looking back on it. Beat a man to a pulp in the middle of the street, and nobody would blink an eyelid. Everyone’s allowed one mistake. Start to fire weapons into a crowd, however, and the cops would try and take you down using their fists and batons without any regard for your own chances of survival. Should you begin to commit mass murder and the flash car-driving FBI agents would charge the city a whopping amount in destroyed property and firearm damage trying to take you down, probably killing just as many pedestrians as you did.
It was an eerie message but, if the subtext is anything to go by, the game essentially said that police are justified to murder, maim and mangle, as long as they got the bad guy. If you were lucky or skilled enough to achieve the full 6* wanted level, you then had the sense of accomplishment of going up against the military. I’m pretty sure that in the real world public officials have cited plans for such a method of law enforcement taken directly from these kinds of inspirations. After all, who fancies going joyriding when tanks are patrolling the streets?
”If the subtext is anything to go by, the game essentially said that police are justified to murder, maim and mangle as long as they got the bad guy”
Another overriding memory of playing the GTA series is the lead characters. Given the popularity of CJ and Tommy Vercetti in the subsequent games, the decision to make ‘Claude’ (something we don’t learn until GTA: San Andreas) a complete mute was actually brilliant, something I wasn’t appreciative of until replaying the game over a decade later. Claude personifies you (the player) on both the macro and the micro level, he blends into the background as just another citizen in the microcosmic sense, but also represents anonymity and complete escapism in the macrocosmic dimension.
The only thing better than roaming around causing mayhem was doing it from a position of complete anonymity. Our man was just that, his anonymity meaning you felt free of any sense of ethics and would get away with whatever abhorrent performance of criminality you had up your sleeve.
The other characters supplemented the game beautifully. From the Mafia, to the Yakuza, the Cartel and an extremely suspicious Capitalist billionaire (foreshadowing, anyone?) operating behind the scenes who was thrown in for good measure. If your experience was anything like mine, as a young teenager the game introduced you to elements of society and adult concepts that you were unaccustomed to and became increasingly risqué in nature as you progressed.
“You were exposed to themes such as systematic persecution, sexual innuendo and bad language”
A lot of the experience was played out through the medium of the supporting characters interacting with your anonymous perpetrator. You were exposed to themes such as systematic persecution, sexual innuendo and bad language, GTA3 smothered you with adult concepts during its linear gameplay. It isn’t overstating it to say that the longer you played the game, the more cynical and distrusting of those around you, you grew.
The missions eventually revealed ulterior motives or hidden agendas and this proportionately increased your own sense of violence and intent to cause grievous bodily harm. The game made you grow-up internally quicker than you were externally, through exposing you to so many concepts and mature elements of human nature. It was clever from an existential sense as it made you battle-hardened and virtually devoid of empathy by the time the main storyline has ended.
“It created an illusion of power and escapism from reality that made going back to real life on a Monday morning absolutely suck.”
Nevertheless, it would be erroneous to suggest that GTA’s intention was to create an introspective analysis of modern society and of individual conscience. Although it achieved that, the game sets out to do one thing in creating a sense of freedom without consequence. It did that in droves and put you at the forefront of your own decisions and choices. There are so many memories and experiences this game foreshadowed or epitomised and it has stood the test of time well. It was an absolute tour de force that created an illusion of power and escapism from reality that made going back to real life on a Monday morning absolutely suck.
Personally, GTA3 was about growing up and having that feeling of power that was absent in everyday real life. It was comedically funny, often sadistically so, and led to numerous fights over who would command the PlayStation 2. Above all though, it gave you the ability to perform gratuitous, unprejudiced violence in whatever form pleased you on that day. GTA3 was an escape into the world of the sandbox, where real life and all of its challenges were a million miles away.