I distinctly remember the first time I saw Grand Theft Auto III in the flesh. It’s completely burned into my memory in the strangest way.
My brother brings home a brand new PlayStation 2, alongside with an entourage of friends. He places the disc in the tray, he sits cross-legged amongst hordes of our friends, hypnotised. I stand in the periphery but I may as well be miles away. I watch for about 10 minutes then get on with my business. I don’t get it.
Meh. Not interested.
This was before the juggernaut. Before the hype, before gamers and the press got wind of the revolution, before Grand Theft Auto III became the default game of its generation the way Ocarina of Time was years before. But still, that was my reaction — I watched for a bit, shrugged my shoulders, and walked away.
Talking about that experience now, with distance, it seems like a mild form of long-term insanity. I remember being a little bewildered and confused by my own malaise. My brother’s friends were losing their minds, and this wasn’t hype — no-one in this room was being told what to react to — they hadn’t read reviews, they hadn’t spent months researching trailers online. This game had simply found its way into this room, into my brother’s brand new PlayStation 2 and changed their lives.
I felt confused, like a kid who doesn’t get the joke. I had misunderstood the punchline.
And, like a little smart-arse, of course I voiced my opinion.
“I don’t get this, what am I doing here?”
“Steal the car and start running over everyone. See how many stars you can get before you die!”
I tolerated it, I wanted to be part of the fun, but I didn’t really get it. It never clicked.
I found it impossible to overcome the feeling that describing what was happening in GTAIII was far more exciting than the act of doing it. Stealing a car, running over pedestrians and taking on the cops in a fully functioning open world sounded like the most entertaining thing in the world, but when it came to actually performing that task it always felt flat.
And this feeling persisted. While my friends were getting geared up for the release of both Vice City and San Andreas, I was bracing myself for disappointment. I bought and played both games — Vice City did the best job of almost converting me with its focused theme and incredible soundtrack, but neither did much to change my opinion. I felt like a stranger at a family reunion — someone on the outside looking in.
San Andreas, in particular, felt like a game completely without focus — as though someone had thrown a massive list of features at a velcro dartboard hoping something would stick. At the time I was in love with Metal Gear Solid 3, a smaller game, dense with detail. In comparison San Andreas felt like a sheet of cling film stretched tight over the Sahara. Rockstar provided one of the biggest playgrounds I had ever seen, but it felt like a desolate wasteland.
But despite this, years later, as the result of confusion and an Editorial switch around, I was given the task of writing Australia’s first local review of Grand Theft Auto IV. A game that, at the time, I literally couldn’t care less about.
It seemed like a recipe for disaster.
But then I started playing and, slowly but surely, I began to fall in love with the franchise I had grown up ignoring.
Grand Theft Auto IV took everything I had grown up hating about the series, and replaced it with something that was either more rewarding or simply more tolerable. The controls I had grown to loath were now infinitely more manageable, the sprawling, flat map of San Andreas was replaced with the focused, gorgeously rendered Liberty City — a location that pulsed with the force of its own energy, a location with verticality, and believable characters seamlessly weaved into a redemption story that I wasn’t embarrassed by. GTAIV‘s Niko may have been a brooding psychopath, guilty of murdering hundreds upon hundreds of innocent civilians throughout my 30 hour playthrough, but it was one of the few times where my onscreen avatar felt like something more than a derivative Hollywood knock off, and that was significant.
In hindsight this reaction was another strange one — once again I found myself on the periphery. Most fans of the series now look back upon GTAIV as this strange blip — a moment where Rockstar drained the fun of Grand Theft Auto and replaced it with a dreary sense of its own self importance. ‘There aren’t any planes?’ ‘Where are the parachutes?’ ‘Why won’t they just let me have fun?’ But with Grand Theft Auto IV I was having more fun I’d had in all the other games combined.
Some of the verbs were missing, but those that remained were bound by a new sense of gravity. I couldn’t fly in Grand Theft Auto IV, I could use a parachute, I couldn’t exercise, I couldn’t form a gang — but all these mechanics, that seemed to me so extraneous and self indulgent, weren’t missed in a game where the glorious detail, animation and sense of place rendered even the smallest action more significant and fun.
People seem to forget that the fun of Grand Theft Auto IV was the joy of simply existing, playing in a world that you could prod with a stick, and the world would prod back. Liberty City was an incredible achievement because it was a universe that you could bend to your will, but in a strange dichotomy it was often oblivious to your existence — that was the power of its scale, and the depth of its commitment to detail.
To me GTAIV represents a different kind of fun.
This morning I spent two hours playing through the opening missions of Saints Row: The Third. In those two hours I robbed a bank, smashed 20 folks in the balls with a briefcase, launched a policeman into the air with a bizarre Japanese human catapult. I set a man on fire — I launched massive airstrikes remotely, I shot down seven helicopters. In its own way this was fun, but I found searching the Tall Trees for Hummingbird Sage in Red Dead Redemption far more engaging. That’s the kind of fun Grand Theft Auto IV represented, and I hope Rockstar continue in that vein with Grand Theft Auto V.
Once again I find myself on the periphery. Most people want that return to San Andreas, a return to the insanity. But we already have Saints Row for that — a game that has found its niche and expanded upon it. I know I’m in the vast minority here, but I hope that Rockstar continues to invest in a different kind of fun — the kind that comes from interacting with a believable world that reacts to your existence in meaningful ways.
That’s the kind of Grand Theft Auto I want to play.