Countdown to GTA V: Courting Controversy Pt. 3


Edging ever closer to the September 17th launch date of Rockstar’s enormously ambitious and gargantuan game, Grand Theft Auto V,  the boys and girls at Twinstick Gaming are salivating over screen shots and putting our twitchy fingers to use by doing a retrospective of Rockstar Games’ greatest and most controversial hits.

Each day, on the run up to September 17th (GTA V’s worldwide launch day), we’re going to bring you a little slice of the history and controversy surrounding the projects Rockstar has chosen to undertake over the years and examine the evolution and maturation of their games. Today’s more than ample portion? The game that changed the rules, Grand Theft Auto III.

In October, 2001, Rockstar Games published Grand Theft Auto III. Unlike it’s predecessors, GTA III was a 3D open world, action/adventure game released exclusively for the Playstation 2 and it completely changed the world of video games over night.

It was met with almost unanimous critical acclaim, even the notoriously harsh Edge magazine awarded it an 80% (8/10 using their system)! Most critics put the game in the mid to high nineties, praising its brave open world, free roaming nature and dynamic new perspective. Gaming had started to see fully realised 3D worlds since Mario 64, but nothing like this.

The size of the map, the scale and depth of the world, combined with the freedom the game offered was utterly unparalleled. It was a truly staggering achievement and was hard to believe even when sitting in front of the game watching it unfold before your eyes. I almost let this one pass me by, as I’d been briefly entertained, but ultimately underwhelmed by the previous iterations of GTA. However, a fortunate win on an internet site, combined with my own indecisive nature led to a very memorable and serendipitous moment!

I had been reviewing games and movies and ranting and raving about games in general for a site that awarded the top poster of the day with a free movie or game. I had previously been a top poster and requested Metal Gear Solid 2 as my prize (though it was weeks away from release). When I was informed I’d won AGAIN a few weeks later, I had literally NO idea what game to request?

As it was early October and GTA III was only days away from release, a friend of mine convinced me to ‘give it a go.’ Tempted by the prospect of getting a game so soon, I sent in my request and a couple of days later, it slipped through the letter box and into my PS2.

Where it stayed.

Right from the cinematic opening sequence, I knew something about this game was special. Seeing my anti-hero, Claude (although his name wasn’t actually revealed until YEARS after GTA III’s release) robbing a bank, only to be gunned down by one of his his co-conspirators, meters from the getaway car and then being left for dead was an amazing introduction to the game. However, seeing him arrested, incarcerated in a police van – which was subsequently attacked with explosives, freeing Claude and another inmate, ‘8-Ball’, as well as destroying the Callahan Bridge, was intense and exciting and had me hooked before I’d even picked up the pad to play.

What followed was being dropped into a wide-open game world, the like of which I’d never seen, and being told – go explore! It was amazing!

The atmosphere of the city, the hubbub from passing cars and pedestrians, the shots fired in the distance and the police cars drifting by all coalesced into one of the most absorbing experiences on any game ever. Along with the numerous and varied missions spread over a vast game world (the world was unlocked in sections through in-game events such as the re-opening of the aforementioned Callahan Bridge) that would see you rise from petty criminal to rubbing shoulders with mafia bosses on your quest for revenge, there was a whole city to explore and experience.

GTA reviewing the classics
Go explore! Take guns!

The soundtrack was given a total overhaul and became as much a part of the game’s ambiance as the steam filled streets of Liberty City. 8 different radio stations filled with fully licensed songs from a mix of genres. One minute you could be listening to Debbie Harry singing ‘Rush Rush’ on Flashback FM, a flick of the switch later, some Dub-step and Reggae on K-Jah, or a little hip-hop on Game Radio.

Each station wasn’t limited to just music either, they all had their own DJs to introduce and ‘mix’ tracks as well as hilarious spoof adverts that offered some of the games greatest comedic moments (like the non-too-subtle poke at Nike, with Eris Running Shoes carrying the tag-line “Eris Running Shoes, always running… from something”).

However, the piece de resistance was the talk radio station, Chatterbox FM. Radio show host (and writer, along with Dan Houser) Lazlow brought a delightfully bizarre mix of satirical mockery and high-brow-disguised-as-low-brow humour. His show included interviews with fictional Liberty City residents as well as numerous callers that were having problems in the city. Each had questions for Lazlow, comments about other callers or just an axe to grind in general. I remember spending hours one night  just driving the mean streets, giggling along to Lazlow instead of tackling missions or side quests. The soundtrack alone set a new standard for what could be achieved in a video game.

I easily spent more time in the game world just collecting cars, cruising around and seeing how long I could survive a 5 star wanted level than I did playing the missions. And this was a BIG story. There were plenty of missions in each section, that had you assassinating made men, planting bombs in cars or taking ladies out for a drive around the city, all of which were hugely enjoyable and, thanks to an amazing script, courtesy of Sam and Dan Houser amongst others, utterly hilarious!

Of course, it wasn’t long before this freedom to explore the dark and seedy underworld of crime-filled Liberty City led to some shocking and controversial headlines. However, despite the scattered hidden packages to collect (that were presumably drug related), the rampant gang warfare (including Triads) that was spread throughout the city and even the highly suggestive ‘lesbian’ scenes mid-way through the game, all of which caused the media to flap a little, it was something else that caused the consternation on a global level.

As before, the game was filled with plenty of violence and the freedom to behave as you wished. That included picking up prostitutes in your car, running unsuspecting pedestrians over and thanks to the brand new 3D world and third person, over the shoulder perspective, the ability to beat up and mug the population of Liberty City!

Just like real life, the prostitutes blended in with the general public, making them hard to spot.

However, it was the combination of these things that seemed to have the nation, if not the world, in uproar. News of the ability to pick up prostitutes was shocking enough (though never graphically as the prostitute disappeared into the car along with Claude, followed by highly suggestive rocking and squeaking of the vehicle as your in game cash was reduced by $90 or so), but when it got out that you could spend your GTA cash on a cheery, rosie-cheeked street walker, then bash her head in and take back the money you’d just spent on her ‘services’ – everyone lost their minds!

Attacked from all angles, stores were under pressure to stop selling and certain territories refusing to even allow the game into the country, Rockstar Games and DMA Design were, once again, the subject of much discussion, debate and anger!

What puzzled me at the time was the fact that it was almost implied that it was ok to bash the heads of the general populace, but not the prostitutes – they should be off limits. Surely that’s discrimination? No-one ever applauded Rockstar’s efforts to keep the game inclusive. You should be able to treat all people equally regardless of their nationality, race or lifestyle choices.

And that was just the FIRST of the contentious issues this game raised. Before long, people found another thing by which to be appalled!

Never more than a step away from the next controversial issue, rumours of a mission that involved deliberately crashing an aeroplane into the Liberty City’s ‘Hyman Memorial Stadium’ soon surfaced. The rumour related specifically to the removal of such a mission, in light of the September 11th, 2001 destruction of the World Trade Centre buildings 1 and 2 (and 7 but DON’T get me started on that). This turned out to be a gross exaggeration (whether or not Max Clifford was involved this time remains a mystery…). Although the game WAS delayed by a month to make changes in light of the disaster. The developers’ offices were near Ground Zero, which was obviously partly responsible for the delay. However, changes were made.  As the game was set in a city reminiscent of New York City, the paint scheme of the city’s police cars was changed from a blue-and-white NYPD design to black-and-white to help put a little distance between the two. Also one mission which referenced terrorists was completely removed. Other relatively small changes included redirecting the flight path of an A.I. plane that would fly near skyscrapers and changing pedestrian dialogue as well as some content from Chatterbox FM.

Flight path altered!
Flight path altered!

That said, the astonishingly large stadium in the game DOES sit there, dormant, throughout a game that actively encourages you to explore every nook and cranny. It’s not surprising that people became suspicious of it.

It’s hard to say if Grand Theft Auto III deliberately introduced the prostitute bashing to court the kind of controversy that helped sell the first 2 games, or just simply created a dark city with a seedy, criminal underbelly and gave the player freedom to act in it as they saw fit? After all, the game at no point requires you to visit prostitutes OR beat up random citizens, let alone encouraging you or asking that you perform both actions. You can avoid doing either and still complete the game and have a grand old time doing it! The game just gives you the freedom to do as you please. If you chose to run around maiming digital hookers, only to be outraged by it – question your own actions before you question the game’s designers. And if you condemned the game without ever playing, then you missed a masterpiece! Get it played!

Continue to part 4 here!

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