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November 18, 2012

Should I Have Finished... Grand Theft Auto III?

I've talked about GTA III once or twice, and I've tried to play games in the series from time to time. In 2005, I wrote about how the representation of prostitution in the game repulsed me and then in 2010 I tried Grand Theft Auto IV, which returns to Liberty City for a couple of articles. I've never been able to finish a game in the series, until now, as I push through my back log of games that I bought but have never brought myself to finish. This time, with this project on my mind, I pushed through and finished the game -- perhaps not every mission, because there are storylines that don't need to be finished to complete the game -- but through to the end battle against a helicopter after which the credits roll. I'm still not a huge fan of the fiction in the series (although I gave GTA IV the biggest chance in those articles from a couple of years ago), so I tried to put blinders on and watch what was happening in the game systems. If you're interested in my thoughts about the fiction, go back and read those earlier articles.

What I see is a game that subtly and slowly breaks down your natural barriers to bad behavior. When I started driving around in the various cars in the game, I'd start out by simply obeying the rules of the road, stopping at lights and such. The game is stacked against you, though, and it feels almost like time at lights will be even longer if you start to try and play that way. Before long, you're running the occasional light, maybe slowly... and next thing you know you're nudging your way between cars waiting for a light. Soon, and especially after you have to do one of the timed missions that make the game particularly difficult, you're in a position where you never want to stop moving, always driving wherever there's a bit of open road, even if that open road happens to be the wrong side for the direction you're driving. Designing and balancing systems to be just this frustrating and not completely logjamming the streets must have been a difficult task.

One thing that impressed me is that the city feels real enough that you get a sense for how it's laid out, slowly building a mental model of the connections between various neighborhoods and which streets go where, what the fastest way to get somewhere might be regardless of what the map indicator reads. In that way, it's almost like a real city, and that's impressive in and of itself. This was a little diluted for me as the game grew into additional islands that were blocked at the start of play, and because those locations had fewer story missions in them (and perhaps also because I had grown impatient with driving at reasonable rates of speed long before them) I never felt like I got to know those locations at all. If you dropped me on the first island even a few months from now, I think I'd know my way around -- but not anywhere else.

There are other things that feed into the systems, and one I pursued a bit more were the collectible packages throughout the cities. I'm certain that I didn't collect them all, but it was helpful to find those (and indeed, to get a sense for where the designers would place them) and to slowly earn benefits to my hideout, such as more available weapons waiting for me when I'd load my save. These were a nice diversion and I could feel myself dropping into the mindset of the designers -- another mental model to build of the space around me.

I never fully grasped the rules behind when the police would elevate or lower my mayhem rating, those stars up in the corner of the screen. It seemed as if staying out of their sight for long enough could do it, as could driving into a paint shop (something I did frequently in a mission where you had to steal several sports cars in short order). I found a few items that could lower this rating as well, though those were few and far between. This doesn't unduly trouble me, but it did make for some significant difficulty in a few missions where I felt as if I just understood the police better, I'd have been able to get out the mission in less time.

There's little impact of your choices on how the story turns out; you're going to get the same story no matter how you play, from a macro level. And I suspect, lots of little stories about particular situations are also probably pretty similar. By the end of the game I had earned a little over half a million bucks doing all these missions and in the end I gave it all up for a woman I clearly had no interest in -- you can even hear Claude shooting her in the credits¹ -- and I had to appreciate the circularity in that, almost as if the game's writers are thumbing their nose at you for all the hard work you've put in, just to get back to where you started.

I also have to admit I'm very impressed with the technical feats of this game -- a game of this scope running as well as it does on the PlayStation 2 is a very impressive feat. Playing it, I reflected with a fair amount of shame that the load times going between cities took less time than loading up a mission in Starfighter or Jedi Starfighter -- even a space mission. I have to tip my hat to that.

On balance, I'm glad I've played it and it closes a gap in my open-world knowledge now that I'm working on open-world games myself. But it's not a world I want to return to, even with the recent announcement of another game in the franchise. I know it will do big business, but the worlds and the acts I'm asked to commit in them just don't appeal to me.

¹It shouldn't be surprising that I find the treatment of female characters to be at best troubling in this game. But then, the game really has no attractive characters of any kind, and treats them all with similar nihilistic dismissiveness.

Posted by Brett Douville at November 18, 2012 02:41 PM


You mentioned trying to observe the rules of the road? Talk about a lost cause. Doing so is a recipe for death, at least in the later games, and as I recall in the first as well. I once read an article (that I now can't find to see if it was conjecture or a statement of fact though I assume the former) talking about the aggressive broken driving AI was perfect for unhinging players and pushing them into that chaotic state of "me against the world" that GTA is known for. It gives the illusion of a stable system that would work if you would follow the rules, but upon close inspection it clearly isn't that. Drivers hit you, people walk in front of you, and they drive insanely slowly when you do. In general you are given every reason to rage. Though, I think it might've just been an observation, as I recall San Andreas being more reasonable.

Of course it's worth noting that David Simon, who created GTA (and Lemmings!), said that initially GTA was basically Pac-Man, with you as the car/Pac-Man, and people as pellets.

Insofar as story, I agree wholeheartely, the open world genre is sorely lacking in that area. I recently traded emails with a developer for Saint's Row 2 on exactly that topic. GTA 3's plot was largely linear. GTA4's interwove a few NPC mission dispensers so that you could do a few in varying order. Red Dead Redemption did that a little more. I've actually considered graphing mission progress in Rockstar games as I perceive increased interwoven complexity, but it quickly got messy and I'm not getting paid, y'know?

Now, Saint's Row, however, had three concurrent narratives as you fought three gangs, after which you had a culmination. That's important to note, because it gave way to Saint's Row 2.

Saint's Row 2 was, in my opinion, the best exploration of open world narrative yet. They split the world into neighborhoods, each containing a narrative driven mission, and each of the neighborhoods belonging to one of the three gangs. You can complete them in any order you like. After you take a certain percentage of a gang's territory (2/3?) the boss of that gang appeared in the world (a single place for each boss) and you could fight them. Again, after you took the entire map, a final area of neighborhoods opens up that complete the story.

Sadly, in Saint's Row The Third, they went back to a GTA 3 style linear mission system. I couldn't have been more disappointed.

If you're looking to round out your knowledge of open world design a little more, I can't recommend SR2 enough. The choices they made there were, in my opinion, a clear step in the right direction of open world games. And one that that was backpedaled on.

Posted by: Jeffool at November 18, 2012 03:32 PM

I'll have to keep SR2 in mind -- I had heard good things about that one for sure, and I know several people who played the third on the strength of the second. I'm probably not going to get to it any time soon, though... lots of other old games to get through. :)

Posted by: Brett Douville at November 18, 2012 05:56 PM