Grand Theft Auto III and Gamer Memory

A transcript/just a script that I read:

Grand Theft Auto 3 looms large over the past fifteen years of gaming. It sold itself on the idea that you can do everything, and it broke the concept of “open world” into the common imagination, a feat matched only by Farmville clones and match three games today. It presented itself as a hyperviolent crime drama that ripped off cinema’s finest tropes and stereotypes from the latter half of the twentieth century, and history has mostly been kind to it. It lives on in fond memories as a distant relative of contemporary well-loved games like Assassin’s Creed or Shadow of Mordor. But it is just that for most of us–a memory–and it exists like a fossil in a museum that no one goes to. We’re content in the knowledge that it merely exists in a crate somewhere hidden down in the gaming history depths with Zork and Adventure in that giant room from the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

I’ve been guilty of this veneration as much as anyone else. When Grand Theft Auto 5 came out, I lambasted it for being less successful than Grand Theft Auto 3 had been in the realm of satire. In retrospect, I’m not sure why I was so confident of that. Or, rather, I know exactly why I was confident–GTAIII’s legacy is as burned into my head as it is in everyone else’s–but I’m not sure why I was so uncritical in my reflection.

Gamer memory is a collective memory. It allows us to have complex group dynamics around a shared love and frustration for Super Mario Bros. It connects people who seemingly have nothing in common. The fact that mentioning Oregon Trail can make a group of strangers into a group of comrades means something, and when gamer memory is evoked in positive ways it feels like something close to magic.

Gamer memory is also a poison. It makes us celebrate games and experiences that are borderline punishment. It allows us to create hierarchies of taste, of skill, of ability, and of privilege and to root them in the very heart of our enjoyment. Gamer memory papers over problems in favor of a mock universalism that deifies Metal Gear Solid or Metroid or Final Fantasy at the cost of not taking hidden object games, or Farmville clones, or celebrity simulators, or most popular contemporary genres very seriously. It puts certain nostalgia-laced experiences at the very top of our collective ranking of importance and has very little room for new additions.

Grand Theft Auto III is as clumsy in its application of satire as the newest game in the series, but gamer memory obscured that fact. In my head, supported by the opinions of lots of other people, it was a beautiful experience that struck a balance between gameplay and social commentary. What I didn’t remember was the chat radio station that lampoons concerned Leftists for being afraid of telephones and treats Conservatives as if they’re all pro-gun, pro-child beating hillbillies. What I didn’t remember is a protagonist killing the woman he saves in the final mission because she’s too annoying. What I didn’t remember was the brutally hard difficulty that seems less like purposeful design and more like arbitrary difficulty spiking to keep players from completing the game too quickly.

Gamer memory kept me from remembering. Tinged with nostalgia, fueled by my own tween memories and those of everyone around me, I forgot all the mistakes and only remembered the strengths of Grand Theft Auto III.

I don’t want to suggest that we should throw Grand Theft Auto III under the bus. It is undeniably historically significant, and on the whole it is an excellent game that laid the groundwork for some of the most important and entertaining developments in blockbuster games. I don’t think that’s even arguable.

Rather, I think we should take the time to vigorously interrogate gamer memory. We currently have unprecedented access to videogame history through Playstation classics, the Nintendo virtual console, PC releases through GoG or Steam, and emulation of all sorts. Gamer memory is fueled by group nostalgia, and I want to crack through it to find something different. I want to make new memories with forgotten classics instead of retreading the experiences that provide the fodder for top-ten games of all time lists. I want to see those top-ten lists implode with the realization that the games of our sliding-scale youth weren’t as great as so many of us seem to remember them being. And to do that, to interrupt collective gamer memory, we need to play these games again.

Take a break from the newest Assassin’s Creed or Call of Duty. Go back, play a game from your childhood, or your teenage years, or from before you were born. Form an opinion of it. See if it holds up to the image that gamer memory has created for you.

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