Back in the 1990s, when Blur made music instead of cheese and operas, DMA Design was working on a little top-down driving game called Race N' Chase. It cast you as a a cop, trying to track down criminals running amok in a city. The problem was, the city was too realistic – there was no way to avoid crashing into other cars, or running over the pedestrians bumbling along the sidewalk. Then one day, someone at DMA Design had the bright idea of flipping the game on its head – what if the player was a criminal on the run from the cops? Grand Theft Auto was born.
Upon loading up GTA, you were presented with your character – a nameless hoodlum in a lemon-yellow shirt – a Liberty City sidewalk, and a street full of cars. What you did next was entirely up to you – though if you were anything like us, you'd immediately dash out into the street to jack the Beast GTS that always spawned.
Sandbox games are so ubiquitous nowadays that it's hard to recall just how revolutionary GTA was. Yes, there had been games like Elite before, but GTA gave you a living, breathing contemporary city as your playground.
The sense of freedom created by Grand Theft Auto was genuinely exhilarating. Your only objective was to rack up a certain amount of money. Unlike the majority of games, you weren't constrained to a particular path – you could complete missions for mob bosses (from a payphone – how quaint!), steal cars and sell them on, or just cause general mayhem in the streets.
Once you'd amassed enough cash, it was off to the next city – from the New York-styled Liberty City, you jetted off to San Francisco-a-like San Andreas, and then to the Miami-esque Vice City.
Those cities were what made Grand Theft Auto a truly extraordinary game. Even back in 1997, GTA's sprite-based 2D graphics weren't the most impressive thing around – indeed, you could plow through pedestrians in glorious 3D in Carmageddon, released earlier in the year.
But the mechanics that underpinned GTA's Liberty City, Vice City and San Andreas made it seem like you were driving around a real metropolis. Traffic stopped at the lights, fire trucks responded to calls and ambulances carted off the victims of hit-and-runs – and there were plenty of them, as your car plowed through a plethora of pedestrians.
Of course, your crime sprees would quickly attract the attention of the cops – and they'd resort to increasingly desperate measures to stop your crime-fuelled rampages around the city. First they'd chase you down in cars, then they'd turn to roadblocks and machine guns.
GTA's realism sowed the seeds for controversy. Virtual sandboxes were all well and good when they took place in space and all you were blowing up was alien life-forms. But Grand Theft Auto players were handed the keys to a contemporary city – and a flamethrower. Killing bug-eyed monsters was all very well, but mowing down police with a machine gun? That was beyond the pale. Even Carmageddon located its pedestrian-slaughtering antics in a cartoonish Mad Max setting.
GTA players, of course, delighted in doing all the things they wouldn't be allowed to in real life. You could steal a school bus and re-enact the chase from Dirty Harry, run over a line of Hare Krishnas in a cop car (bagging a Gouranga! bonus in the process), even take to the streets in a tank.
Naturally, that sort of criminal behaviour didn't sit well with the easily horrified – and it proved to be a controversy magnet from the get-go. Politicians queued up to denounce Grand Theft Auto, while the British Police Federation branded the game “sick, deluded and beneath contempt.”
And with metronome inevitability, the controversy drew curious audiences to GTA. It didn't quite break out into the mainstream in 1997 – it took the addition of 3D to do that, in 2001's Grand Theft Auto III – but the original became a bona fide cult hit, and portended great things to come.
Fancy a joyride down memory lane? Grab a free copy of Grand Theft Auto from the Rockstar Classics site.