Grand Theft Auto III (2001)

Grand Theft Auto III is a brilliant metaphor for American consumerism, coupling esthetics and gameplay to create a critique of capitalism. The open world freedom and undeniably fictionalized American location reinforces a powerful statement about how the American dream can go so wrong. However, as well as it works on an ideological level, the underlying mechanic do not always allow for the seamless flow between ideology and play.

Take, for instance, the driving mechanic. Here’s an industry seeped in the American dream, a domestic invention that provides valuable transportation and serves as a status symbol. In the game, they become disposable as one is able to jack any car of their choice with the push of a button. In the Capitalist system it’s all about the disposability of products, feeding people to get more and more. Crash a car, brush off and jack another one. Yes, it’s fun, but it’s also a statement on consumerism.

However, in terms of gameplay, the mechanic of actually jacking and driving a car is frustrating. For one, the game always has the player character jack the nearest car, not necessarily the one being looked at. There’s also the problem of the driving controls, which aren’t as responsive and smooth as they could be. Part of this awkwardness could be in the use of a keyboard as the input device, but even then, the vehicles lack mass and weight.

It’s a world where movements are over-exaggerated and accentuated, at times more about speed and action than precision and control. This makes for spectacular moments of insane, bizarre sandbox gameplay, but it also makes the missions that require control and precision frustrating. The player is disempowered not because of the lack of tools but the lack of control given, especially in camera movement and combat.

The ultimate goal of this game further reinforces the ideological agenda of the game. The player completes missions to make money. The cash reward is used to buy more weapons to play more missions to make more money. It’s a cyclical process that feeds the entire gameplay experience, an ever narrowing downward spiral of consumption, destruction and wealth. Money is always left in excess, serving no real purpose other than a flashy number of progress and wealth in the game.

But the only moments of exhilaration, the true fun comes from deviating from this system. Causing random mayhem or totally ignoring the outlines of a mission in order to play against the boundaries of the world, push back against the system. This is where the game excels. It’s especially fun when one feels like they’ve conned the system, rigged the game, screwed with the scripting to achieve victory.

It’s disappointing that the game is wrapped up in a grating narrative experience. Granted, this is a narrative that is much leaner and less deliberate than modern games, meaning its cheesiness isn’t crammed onto the player, but the poorly satirized and voice acted stereotypes of minorities, homosexuals and typecasting comes across as borderline offensive, lacking the sharp writing and wit to achieve true satire.

It’s interesting that discussion of GTA III almost always centers on violence and gameplay and yet few look into why Rockstar used these mechanics and what the mechanics suggest. Frankly, the gameplay, while fun, needs a lot of polish and the violence is only as demented as the person behind the controls (which is to say, I beat up a lot of hookers but generally left everyone else alone). It’s certainly an important and thought-provoking game for a multitude of reasons, but it’s a game that can be, and has been, mechanically improved in later iterations.

© 2011 James Blake Ewing