On the Level is Ed Smith's regular column on stages, setpieces and slices of beloved games that have held up over time.
Grand Theft Auto III's Liberty City, when you saw it for the first time in 2001, spoke for itself.
Final Fantasy, Elite, and Zelda had already primed us for open-world game design; Driver, Urban Chaos, and Body Harvest had infused the genre with violence and, with those first two examples, a crime film aesthetic. But Liberty City, looming large in three dimensions as you began GTA III, was more palpable than the worlds that had laid its groundwork. Its sheer spectacle managed to overwhelm precisely the details that made it unique.
The first mission of Grand Theft Auto III, "Give Me Liberty," serves as more than a technical showcase. As the title suggests, it communicates to us, in myriad ways, precisely the place, the people, and the politics we'll subsequently experience.
A fleeting moment, but when the introductory cutscene ends and we enter a car, and then drive away from the explosion on the bridge, two police cruisers, sirens wailing, drive past in the opposite direction. If we want open worlds to feel alive and populated, and also react to how we behave, this pair of cop cars seems to anticipate our expectations—quickly responding to an emergency we've caused, the police in Liberty City act like police in real life, and are watching what we do.
As we depart the bridge and make for an objective marker, our car radio finds a signal: "This is Head Radio, a Love Media Station. Just one of 900 radio stations, 300 TV stations, four networks, three satellites, ten Senators." The jokes start coming, often at the expense of corporations, but really, at everyone, in typical Houser/South Park fashion.
Be it through its mute protagonist, who compared to his peers seems always stoic and individual, its overarching story, which involves battling a gang trying to consolidate absolute power, or its missions and the free-form process of completing them, GTA III celebrates nonconformity. Big organizations, it says directly, are corrupt and untrustworthy. Only the individual, wreaking chaos in a giant playground, is really celebrated.
If plausibility, to a certain extent, makes open worlds more absorbing, Liberty City is laudably plain.
The breadth of the Liberty City and the variety of toys successively discovered within invite us to explore and cause trouble. Cheap they may be, but those sweary jokes engender, from GTA III's beginning, a sense of mischief. We may giggle at it like schoolchildren. Later, when we're handed guns, sports cars and remote-controlled bombs, we may similarly feel more disposed toward the game's specific kind of playfulness—causing chaos will feel natural.
Driving on through Liberty's streets, two things, particularly in hindsight, seem significant. First is the in-game clock. It's incidental, but given the extent to which GTA III nowadays is credited with having changed video games, there's an undeniable poetry to this prologue taking place between roughly 4 and 6AM. By the time "Give Me Liberty" is over, and the player begins GTA III proper, you're quite literally standing at a new dawn.
Second is how grey Liberty City, or at least the opening "Portland" section of it appears. "Beautiful" is a word often used to describe open worlds. Skyrim, the various cities of Assassin's Creed, GTA V's Los Santos—even the lethal, parched landscape in Fallout 4 boasts its own kind of luster. But Portland is drab. It's neither beautiful in the conventional sense, nor possessing a tangible, individual charm. Its proportions are wrong—like all recreations of urban space in Grand Theft Auto over the years, it doesn't contain enough shops, streets, or houses.
But if plausibility, to a certain extent, makes open worlds more absorbing, Liberty City is laudably plain. Our preliminary circuit of Portland reveals few discernible landmarks. We navigate instead using lesser, everyday monuments: the dock, the hospital, the garage with the sports car. In reality, we navigate our hometowns and cities by recalling areas of personal significance. Lacking landmarks, and also the option to place waypoints on an in-game map, Grand Theft Auto III encourages us to form subjective connections to banal details. We learn it like we learn our own neighborhoods.
Arriving shortly at Eddie's garage, described previously as a "place on the edge of the Red Light District," where we can "lay low," we are permitted a sense of homecoming. Prior to GTA III, Grand Theft Auto games unceremoniously dumped us into their open worlds. We didn't have a house or a base. Perhaps that made us feel even more like rogue elements, disconnected from the city and thus liberated to attack it, but it also made our characters feel less real, their surroundings more artificial.
It's not much of an effectuation, but seeing our protagonist walk into his dwelling, change clothes and walk back out—especially if playing the game when first released—makes Liberty City seem a mite more real. It's not just a place where people steal cars, shoot guns, finish missions and do other video game things. It's a place people live: an even more minor detail, but the fact we only see our protagonist's house from the front and are never allowed to browse what's actually inside nicely reflects Liberty City's implied, inner life.
Returning to the car, and taking a few more corners, we arrive finally at the Mafia-owned strip club that will provide our first, true mission. Called "Sex Club 7" (another pun, there) and covered with posters for a film called Badfellas, it's the starkest illustration of Rockstar Games,' Grand Theft Auto III's and Liberty City's covert stabs at the real world.
"Give Me Liberty" has ingratiated our surroundings to us. But this final building, which makes a sex joke at the expense of an innocent pop band and openly references gangster movies, reminds us to expect more than verisimilitude. As we're finally led around to the club's rear, to use a door reserved for the owner and his staff, we are being given privileged access to Grand Theft Auto III's remixing of pop culture and its aggressive, joking take on the world.