As with so many tales of Grand Theft Auto III, this one began innocently enough, with a beat cop on my tail. On foot, my vehicle rendered scrap metal, in need of relief, and shooting it out never a sane option, I noticed that I was just outside of the Ammo Nation store, and I wondered if I might be able to take refuge there. To my surprise, not only could I enter the store, but the boy in blue couldn’t follow me in. “I could probably just wait him out,” I thought, surmising that the game wasn’t designed to keep this cop there indefinitely. Minutes passed, dangerous minutes, where the cop stayed put, but my mind wandered to an undiscovered country of mayhem. “If he won’t leave peacefully, maybe I can take him out.” A statement destined to cement my proverbial “life of crime.”
He wasn’t necessarily a sitting duck, but something of a nebulous target beyond the store’s open door. The rather awkward geometry of the game didn’t offer a shooting gallery, but where straight shots didn’t work, I figured an old-fashioned hand grenade would (close does count).
The game offers a rather satisfying and grisly chime every time you mow down a pedestrian or cop, signifying the even grislier acquisition of “cash for crime,” let’s call it. After my grenade launch, hearing the chime and seeing a few hundred simoleons added to my ticker, a little thrill ran through my body, what Nabokov might have called the “tingle” that one gets when experiencing great art. How deliciously perverse, I thought, to know that this helpless badge-wearer was now pushing up daisies, all because the game design wouldn’t let him into Ammo Nation, nor would it let him give up his pursuit of me.
What followed is a unique episode that has assumed the status of mythology, even within the hallowed annals of my illustrious gaming life. I have always maintained that Grand Theft Auto III is a game rife with design flaws, but sometimes these flaws can become a sort of genius in the hands of creative players (and this is perhaps the greatest virtue of its so-called “open-ended” gameplay – its shortcomings are part and parcel of providing a malleable and enjoyable experience).
One dead cop was replaced by two live ones. Kill those, and they are replaced by four. Running low on ammo? Did you forget that you’re holed up at Ammo Nation, where the invisible shopkeep is happy to keep dishing up more grenades? Running low on cash? That won’t happen as long as perished lawmen keep your coffers lined with gold. Occasionally, and increasingly, as the number of live shots coming my way kept rising, those cops would nail me. Yes, their bullets were real, even if their bodies were mostly phantasms. This, too, was irrelevant – Ammo Nation sells health refills in the form of “shields.”
Oh yes, the cops never stop coming, and their numbers and severity only increase. And yet, they could never kill me. I could live forever, but I could never leave that room.
Imagine Sisyphus pushing that boulder up that hill, but instead of it rolling back down, he gets it to the summit, only to see that there’s another hill. Sisyphean the task remains, but obvious futility is replaced by the suggestion of accomplishment, though illusory and fleeting. The reward is the punishment.
Finally, after several day-night cycles had passed, during which the besieging force grew from one lowly squad car to a battalion complete with tanks, heavy artillery, and even Secret Service agents; finally, when I wearied of lobbing grenades out the front door of Ammo Nation, laying waste to generations of Army privates and police lieutenants "two days from retirement”; finally, after having stretched this paragon of “open-ended” gameplay to its absolute terminus (arguably both the zenith and the nadir of my experience with the game); finally, after being so numbed by the endless cycle of death that I no longer valued my own life, I hurled some path-clearing grenades out the door and then lurched out into daylight, fully armed and hell-bent on a valiant last charge against an unbeatable foe, guns blazing and lungs belting out the cry of the unrepentant, as in many a Hollywood war movie. . . .
Half a second later, before I could discharge a single bullet, I was reduced to a bloody stain on the asphalt, and the screen spun my corpse round and round into oblivion.