Grand Theft Auto has become one of the most important IPs in the video game industry, competing at the highest levels and with nothing to envy to Super Mario or Pokémon. The next title in the franchise, GTA VI, is one of the most anticipated of the last decade, and its last major release has made history as the second best-selling game in history, behind only Minecraft.
But what is it about GTA that makes it so special? There are many elements that make this saga stand out and make it unique in the industry. But to better understand the idiosyncrasy of Grand Theft Auto, of Rockstar and why it has reached the success and fervor of the current public, we must go back a little further. Specifically, to the late nineties, when the developer company revolutionized the video game industry with GTA III.
Grand Theft Auto 3 revolutionizes the video game industry
Although there are many notable GTA titles, and from San Andreas to Vice City there are all kinds of stories, cities and game modes that have marked the importance of the saga, GTA III was a before and after in the industry. It was the first game in the franchise to move to 3D, and beyond its impeccable story and mechanics, it was an almost unprecedented graphical revolution.
GTA 3 came out in 2001, after Rockstar North (formerly known as DMA Design Limited) worked on the game for four years, starting in 1997. In the midst of developing Grand Theft Auto 2, which came out in 1999 and was also a huge success, the team led by Sam Houser set itself the difficult challenge of creating the first game in the franchise in 3D.
GTA III also had to be open-world, and the intention is that players would be able to explore the city freely. But, in addition, Houser also wanted to include a main storyline and side missions to keep players engaged in the game.
With so many new ingredients to integrate, you can imagine what the development of the game was like. In an interview with The Guardian, Houser recalled that the game went through a series of major changes before its release. The team had to work hard to create a city that felt authentic and alive, and to balance gameplay between open-world freedom and a solid main plot.
But the biggest challenge the development team faced was the controversy surrounding the game. Grand Theft Auto 3 was the first game in the series to use 3D graphics, which allowed the series to display violence and explicit sexual content in a much more overt way. Dozens of critics and parents’ associations opposed the game, arguing that it encouraged violence and delinquency in young people.
The most controversial GTA game
With the release of GTA III, there was an outcry in a way never seen before. There were already violent precedents such as Mortal Kombat –which also had its history of complaints and criticism-, but Grand Theft Auto 3 was something never seen before: you had absolute freedom to commit crimes as you pleased.
The controversy surrounding the game reached its peak when it was discovered that two teenagers in Alabama (United States) had murdered one man and injured another after playing the game. The press accused Rockstar Games of being responsible for the crimes, and it was one of the most remembered moments in the industry that put video games as a precursor to youth violence.
However, Rockstar Games denied any responsibility for the crimes. The company argued that the game did not encourage violence and that adult players were responsible for their own actions. In addition, the two teenagers in Alabama were found to have mental health issues, a point that was overlooked by the press but which made it clear that, GTA or no GTA, these kids could have committed crimes just the same.
Given all this background, critics were quick to accuse the game of glorifying violence and crime. And, in the UK, GTA III was banned in some stores. But, despite the controversy, Grand Theft Auto 3 continued to sell well and became one of the most popular games of its time.
A plot to match the game
The clear gameplay and its freedom to explore the city, steal cars and complete side missions made it a hit with gamers. Undoubtedly, it soon became a big hit with critics and the public. The game received very positive reviews from its launch, which catapulted its sales. And, although it is ugly to admit it, the controversy was also good for the game to reach more people curious about this extreme game.
One of the key aspects of its success was the architecture of Liberty City. Based on New York, this was the first time that the American metropolitan area was reflected in such detail, although we had to wait until GTA IV to see it in its full splendor.
The story of GTA III centers on Claude, a professional criminal who is arrested during a bank robbery and sentenced to 10 years in prison. During his transfer to prison, his convoy is attacked and Claude is freed by gangsters.
As a reward, Claude is hired by mob boss Salvatore Leone to do various dirty jobs in Liberty City. But as he progresses through the jobs, Claude becomes involved in a gang war taking place in the city, which leads him into dozens of scrapes as his busy personal life, with his girlfriend Catalina – a ruthless criminal with many secrets – as the catalyst, becomes increasingly muddied.
Characters such as the corrupt police chief, Ray Machowski, and the leader of the Yardie gang, King Courtney, are some of the key elements of the plot, even appearing in later cameos in various Rockstar games. Thanks to the company’s titanic effort, Liberty City rises in this title as one of the most awakened and dangerous cities in the history of videogames.
Another key aspect of Grand Theft Auto 3’s success was its soundtrack. The game featured a variety of fictional radio stations that played songs from a wide range of musical genres, from hip-hop to classic rock to electronic music. The game’s music was commendable, and became a clear emblem of the saga experience. Keeping the car radio on has never been so satisfying.
GTA III was one of the titles that laid the foundations not only of Grand Theft Auto, but also of the modern video game. The current sandboxes would not be understood without its influence, and thanks to Rockstar’s work we quickly saw how the saga was able to evolve in a multitude of titles, up to the future GTA VI whose release could come in 2025.