God, the feeling of playing Grand Theft Auto III upon release. Were you there for it? Do you remember it? You could actually sense, in the moment, that you were experiencing a cultural shift, a game that was going to change things forever. But why? How? What defines the influence and impact of GTA III? There’s no question that it ushered in a new era of open-world game design, for better and sometimes for worse. With all of its opportunities for wanton violence, its over-the-top rampages and police chases, it also put newfound emphasis on sandbox systems that generate surprising results on the fly. But for me, GTA III’s greatest achievement was something else.
This piece originally ran on Kotaku Australia on October 26, 2021. It has been retimed as a weekend read.
It was the way it felt at times to just exist in its world, when you weren’t playing a mission or trying to see how long you could evade the cops. It was the way its day-night cycle, its weather effects, and its radio stations all worked together to immerse you in Liberty City.
Here’s the moment I remember most from all the hours I spent playing GTA III: I was driving around some desolate part of town at night, feeling the isolation of the city. (Your character doesn’t exactly form close, meaningful relationships with other human beings, so Liberty City can be a pretty cold and lonely place.) Every downtrodden pedestrian I saw, every sad, beat-up old car on the road, contributed to a feeling of misfortune and melancholy. And then, as if on cue, it started to rain, making the already gloomy proceedings even gloomier. Then came the finishing touch: the song “Fade Away” by Craig Grey started playing on the radio.
The combined effect was truly electrifying. All the elements came together to fuel a mood, a moment, like a scene in a movie that’s perfectly calibrated to elicit an emotional response in the viewer. But what made this moment and others like it all the more extraordinary is that it wasn’t designed by the game’s creators. Rockstar has since used music on occasion to craft unforgettable moments that are more scripted, most famously the crossing into Mexico in Red Dead Redemption. But this was a moment that just happened, emerging by chance out of the game’s various systems, replicating all the happenstance of real life.
I love the moody, haunting sound of “Fade Away” so much, and always felt that it perfectly accentuated the deep sadness that permeates Liberty City. Part of what makes Liberty City feel so tragic is that it offers no real hope of something better, and as Claude, you have no way out. You’re trapped in this urban American hellscape. But the final verse of Grey’s song, whose lyrics are about a woman troubled by loneliness and nightmares, offers a crackling little kernel of rebellious hope, one that pushes back deliciously against the game’s own hopelessness. Those words also seemed to reach right through the game and speak to me as a closeted trans woman trying to work up the nerve to live a more authentic life, a fact which I admit made the moment all the more goosebump-inducing:
Nightmares they are recurring,
monsters she could turn and face
Scream at them with all her might,
to see them die
One day she’ll have the courage,
to do what she wants to do
End the life of misery
and for once be happy
Reading the comments on the video above, I find other players who were also deeply affected by the experience of hearing this song while just existing in Liberty City. One writes, “There was something empathic about this song. It always seemed to play on a rainy evening while I was driving around Portland Docks. Sometimes I would park by the ship on the pier and watch the waves rise and fall.” Another says, “There’s just nothing like listening to this song while cruisin’ [in] the rain at night.”
Yes, exactly. It’s a song that we associate with our memories of just being in the world, just driving around, just watching the waves rise and fall. And maybe for you, it wasn’t “Fade Away.” Maybe it was some other song on some other radio station. But if you played GTA III when it came out, I bet you had your own experience of a moment that had nothing to do with slaughtering people or wreaking havoc but that you remember simply because it was beautiful.
Never before had I played a game in which such moments of beauty could just spring into being quite like that. In most games I was always working toward a goal — finish the level, complete the quest. GTA III gave me a world that I often just wanted to be in for the sake of being in it; for its texture, its mood, and its propensity to offer up moments that might give me chills, or take my breath away. (With the Definitive Edition of the trilogy imminent, questions still remain about whether the classic soundtracks will be replicated in full for this re-release. I hope your favourite songs make the cut.)
Today, there’s no longer much surprising or remarkable about games that encourage us to just vibe in their worlds. We’re often invited to just take the moment in, to enjoy an in-game radio station in an open-world action game, or to sit for a bit and soak in the atmosphere of a particular place in games like Life Is Strange. I love this trend. One of my favourite things to do in a game is to stop playing and just be, absorbing the distinctive feeling and atmosphere of it for a little while.
But while nobody denies the colossal influence of GTA III, I don’t think it gets enough credit for helping us get here. Twenty years ago, the ways in which it pulled you into its setting with qualities like atmospheric weather and diegetic music were truly extraordinary. Because of those qualities, one of the most thrilling things about playing it was that experience when all the elements came together to create a beautiful moment; one that made you glad, for a little while, to simply exist in its world.