As Rockstar Games celebrates a decade of Grand Theft Auto III, Rory Crean looks back at the game that changed the medium

Any self-respecting child of the nineties, regardless of gender, age or involvement in the gaming world, could probably tell you the meaning of the acronym GTA without a moment’s hesitation. For some, it was the forbidden game they watched their older brother play, for others, it was the ultimate sign of vindication from liberal parents, but for everyone, Grand Theft Auto III was a defining moment in the progression of gaming as an art form.

It’s difficult to find a Top Ten list in the gaming world that doesn’t include GTA III, another derivative of the franchise, or a game that makes no bones about taking inspiration from it. When III landed, it shook the industry so ferociously that it is only now, in 2011, that the gaming industry is emerging from its lengthy shadow, with verve and confidence.

The franchise brought so much into the gaming world that developers all over the globe had to sit up and take notice. Their innovations included a living, breathing, fully immersive world which still provides the basis for successive GTA titles to improve upon. They introduced radio stations that not only played good music and featured hilarious radio hosts, but also responded to the narrative as the game progressed. III was one of the most organically functioning games on the market, and the market responded accordingly. It became a commercial smash hit, becoming  the best-selling game of 2001, only dropping to second place in 2002 due to the release its sequel, the much-loved Vice City. Its commercial success proved one thing; give people a sandbox game and they will do all in their power to destroy it in the most extraordinary fashion possible.

Set in Liberty City, GTA parodied the grimy streets of New York City and revelled in the city’s seedy criminal underbelly. It seemed easy at the time to sit back, cluck our tongues and dismiss this ‘mature’ game as having dealt with its darker themes in an infantile manner, crippling itself before it even got off the ground, but looking back, III’s true effects were far more profound. The juxtapositional comic lens through which the game depicted its visceral thematic and graphical content was instrumental in proving that gaming was as worthy a medium as any to depict crime, violence, sex and other adult themes. Its resounding influence has been proven throughout the last month, with game studios such as Bethesda (Oblivion, Fallout 3), Valve (Half-Life, Portal), and Insomniac (Ratchet & Clank/Resistance) having all paid tribute to the Vito Corleone of the open-world gaming environment. Indeed, given the technical achievements of the game that still permeate the industry today, it is hard to believe that GTA III is celebrating its tenth birthday.

Just one decade ago, III graced our PlayStations with its gritty, satirical portrayal of crime and corruption in America,  turning us all into gun-toting, leather-wearing ’hoods. While the GTA series has never been a stranger to crime, it seems III really wanted to push its audience’s buttons.

Rockstar took a lot of flak after the release of this game and admittedly, it was deserved.

The most commonly touted example of the games impropriety was the ability to pick up a hooker, do your business, let the hooker go, kill her and get a full refund. This single feature has proven one of the most polarising in game history. It was widely argued that the game wasn’t morally acceptable, but watching Claude, the silent protagonist of the game, do just this gave such shocking actions an element of dark and twisted hilarity that neutralised their sickening depravity. That is where Rockstar and their UK developing partners DMA Design received the most abuse. GTA I and II never shied away from crime, in fact they openly embraced it, but there is a certain potency to acting out the same scene with three-dimensional polygonal beings, rather than a tiny cartoon, viewed from an aerial perspective. It was that added visual realism that redefined the franchise, and opened it up to ravaging controversy.

There was a sense amongst some, particularly those in the media not generally familiar with the progression of the medium, that this franchise would desensitise children to violence, and they made a fair point. As Michael Thomsen of gaming/pop-cultural website IGN quite accurately pointed out, there was no way to interact with the AI that inhabited the city other than to offend, violate or murder them. There was a button to punch, shoot, carjack, run into and kick people but strangely no button to wave, smile or ask how someone is doing.

The violence had been ramped up to absurd, comical levels in GTA III, but provided a membrane between the gamer and the game, allowing a complete level of detachment, yet total engagement. Players could care about the story, the characters and the world, all the while understanding that this was, after all, just a game.