When you strip away the hype GTA III is an arena shooter where you drive around and kill shit for points.
Typically when people talk about this game they’ll throw around terms like “emergent”, “non-linear” and “sandbox” as if that explains why it’s such a blast to play. I don’t think it does, mainly because we’ve just spent a good decade playing emergent, non-linear sandbox games that are not nearly as exciting or enjoyable as Rockstar’s opus. Freedom and player choice do not automatically translate to fun. By championing those aspects of GTA III above others we fail to understand what really makes it tick.
If there’s one statement that characterises the critical disease that affects this game it has to be “GTA III lets me create my own story.” In a way it does but they’re stories in the sense that “I went to the shops and bought a packet of chips” is a story not in the way Hamlet is a story. That you were being chased by the cops and did a triple flip over the roof of a diner is a cool anecdote but it isn’t even remotely significant to the game’s larger narrative. The events that are narratively important, by which I mean they shape your character’s arc and affect the world he inhabits, are all entirely out of the player’s hands. To claim that GTA III affords the player more narrative freedom than say Monkey Island is dubious.
The cry of “go anywhere do anything” is great for marketing but is destined to be a lie. Our interactions with the game world must be limited and finite. I may be able to kill prostitutes but can I buy them a warm meal, get them off the streets and teach them about Jesus? The only meaningful interaction you can have with a human being in GTA III is to kill them. Where exactly is the player choice there? Everyone who has ever played this game has slaughtered enough virtual people to put Charles Manson to shame, is it because deep down we’re all psychopaths? Of course not its because killing people is the only thing you can do. An emergent system can still enforce as much authorial control as any other.
But none of this really matters because GTA III is an extremely fun game regardless of high brow debates about interaction and player control. It’s fun because it is basically in every way that matters Asteroids for the twentieth century.
The central concept of Asteroids is simple. As you destroy rocks more rocks spawn causing increased on screen carnage. That’s GTA III in a nutshell. It’s a game where every elements works to escalate conflict until you doing the aforementioned triple flip over the diner. Like asteroids you can just fly around refusing to shoot anything and there is a certain enjoyment to be found doing that but the game doesn’t really start until you take that first shot. After that the chain reaction builds and the game escalates.
Where GTA III differs from Asteroids is that it introduces missions to the mix. The interesting thing about these missions is that almost all of them involve trying to restrict the innate chaos and disorder of the game’s system.”Drive this car but don’t damage it too much” or “drive to the bank robbery but escape the cops”. Rockstar knew that Liberty City is hard wired like a bomb ready to go off at any moment so they designed their missions around the concept of not setting off that bomb.
And there’s the tension that is at the heart of GTA III. Do you set off the bomb? Do you drive around and complete it’s staged little missions or do you say screw it and let the game go where it wants to go? The ride is chaotic, joyous and exhilarating but never once delude yourself into thinking it’s of your own creation. That’s all Rockstar baby.