I didn’t know anything about Grand Theft Auto the first time I saw Grand Theft Auto III. I walked in on a friend playing the game. My first thought was it didn’t look very good compared to other PlayStation 2 titles and the jump animation was ridiculous. My friend seemed excited about the game though, so I hung around to see what it was all about.
“Are you early in the game?” I asked, “What level is this?” He explained there weren’t levels, but it was a big open city. “But, this is like a little section of the city, right? You can’t just drive around the whole thing at once? Can you?” I assumed there was some kind of overworld map like Super Mario World, and he was just exploring a section of the city. I didn’t believe him when he kept insisting it was entirely open.
“What are you doing?” I asked. He wasn’t doing anything. He wasn’t trying to get to the end of the level, or collect a certain number of things, or defeat a certain number of enemies. He was just walking around some docks by a river.
He started beating up some pedestrians and told me an ambulance would probably show up soon. I continued to be incredulous. I did not believe an ambulance would come on its own to help pedestrians without it having some meaningful impact on the course of the game. Why would an ambulance just show up to help injured pedestrians if it did not directly affect you? When the ambulance did show up, my friend stole it and started driving around the city.
For me, that was the moment when I understood what Grand Theft Auto III was all about. My friend had beaten up some pedestrians, an ambulance had shown up to the scene, and he stole the ambulance to go on a joyride. Grand Theft Auto III was a city that functioned entirely on its own and the player had the privilege of doing whatever they wanted inside of it. My mind was blown.