I definitely agree that being drab and mundane was indeed part of its success but I’d argue that it’s not entirely unlike others that came before it.
Just one year prior (for NA, EU release at least) to GTA3 was the release of Shenmue and while not Open World in the sense that GTA is it was a spectacular celebration of living space, evoking the drab and the beautiful in appropriate measure.
I’d even argue that Shenmue is more accomplished in the creation of believable space than GTA3 was at the time, at least atmospherically. It’s a meticulously detailed world, especially for the hardware, and much of it is dirty and evidently “active” as a living space. I was toying with a project a while back that would capture images of all the locations in the game and here’s a couple of the images I created to show what I mean:
Dobuita Backstreets at night:
Dobuita Arcade at night, view from the bus stop:
The big difference, one that is pointed out in the article, is how the gameplay reactions fit to the creation of the believable space. On that front, due to the expansive amount of meaningful interaction in GTA3, it does overshadow Shenmue. They’re both gameplay abstractions but you can do more at your personal will in GTA than you can in Shenmue.
It’s a good article! I write this in no way to attack it, but just to present a view from my own thoughts on video game spaces.