Old Haunts and Brand New Memories

In the course of writing about games that I see as formative in my history, I started thinking about Grand Theft Auto III for the first time in a long while. GTA III is an important game, really the first for me that channeled that pure sense of possibility in a virtual world. The moment of hand-over, when the guy at the start asks you to drive and you realise you’re standing in a city… it’s magical.

To refresh my memory of the game, which I haven’t played since 2001 or 2002, I went onto YouTube, particularly to look for some video of that opening sequence and the hand-over. I found a video of it here. It was great to see those opening credits again, it triggered memories of the excitement I felt way back when.

But imagine my surprise as I started to watch the cinematic introduction that explains why your avatar is in the situation he’s in. I hadn’t seen it before. There’s a bank robbery, a betrayal by a woman (a girlfriend?), a stint in prison, and an opportunistic escape from a police transport vehicle. A bridge explodes! It was all brand new to me. Somehow, back when I played the game, I must have hit a button and skipped the introductory movie – either on purpose out of impatience, thinking I’d look at it later, or by mistake.

So it was super weird to finally have this explanation for why you start the game standing next to a car in an orange jumpsuit while a guy asks you to drive and a fire burns in the background. I’m sure the betrayal and maybe even the “important person” who also escaped from the police must come into the plot of the game later on, too. It’s totally surreal to think that I played all the way through without ever knowing any of that stuff. As if the character’s memory had only just caught up with me after almost a decade.

After that revelation, it was then time for the opposite: nostalgia. As the person in the video drove the car through the city streets and ultimately to the first safe house in the game, I was shocked by how well I remembered it all. The safehouse, the view across the street from it, the different stores, the kinds of cars around. On and on it went, a torrent of familiarity. Other than my hometown of Wellington and bits of Ottawa, I don’t think I necessarily remember any city better than GTA III‘s Libert City. It was quite a surprise to find out, again years later, that one of my hometowns was apparently a virtual one.

Returning to games is going to become more and more like this, I imagine. Games these days are so often based on the creation of believable worlds that we inhabit for a period of time. Some of them, we grow very attached to and spend a lot of time in. I’m now extremely familiar with the procedural worlds of Minecraft and the dusty hills of Far Cry 2. How will I feel when I go back to them ten years from now?

Will it feel like coming home?

14 December 2010
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