"Darkel was just a crazy bum who gave you some crazy missions," said Rockstar in this 2011 Grand Theft Auto 3 Q&A (opens in new tab). "None of these missions involved blowing up buses of school children, although that is a funny rumor."
With that, following the release of GTA 3's 10 Year Anniversary Edition, the developer put years of cut content speculation to bed. Launched in October 2001, the series' fifth open-world crime simulator courted the same media controversy as its forerunners—this time galvanised by its first-ever three-dimensional world, and its proximity to the September 11 attacks in New York City. Liberty City, of course, is Rockstar's fictitious slant on NYC.
GTA 3 was delayed in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, but Rockstar has long maintained the decision to remove Darkel—a so-called "street urchin (opens in new tab)" who it's thought would have offered the player Kill Frenzy-style missions—was made months in advance. Nevertheless, one dedicated group of hobbyist modders has spent the last several years researching the game's files, promo materials and prototypes to create Grand Theft Auto 3 as it appeared in beta form. Named GTA3D, the project is built from the ground up and reintroduces a host of removed characters, missions, vehicle models, lines of dialogue and more.
Given Grand Theft Auto 3 turns 17 this year, my first question to the team developing GTA3D is: Why?
"The thing about GTA 3 is that it was the first ever Grand Theft Auto in real 3D," team member Angelo, aka The Hero, tells me. "If you look at early versions of Vice City or San Andreas, it's basically very similar to the final game. In GTA 3, however, the early versions are very rough still and look very different visually to the final game. They had to build the whole game from scratch—and that's what I think makes GTA 3 very interesting."
"It was a very intriguing game," adds project lead Richard, otherwise known as Mr Jago. "I think looking back and trying to get into the developers' heads, and to consider why they made the choices they did is really interesting to us. We all grew up with this game so it feels like a special project to us."
Inspired by other similar but less focused beta mod projects, work began on GTA3D in 2014. Sergiu, the mod's art director, QA tester and self-professed "eye for detail" tells me GTA3D has been a learning process for the entire team, and that while many contributors have come and gone in that time, the mod's final release will be a "major tribute" to the team's teenage years.
As for the elusive Darkel, The Hero says that despite his omission from GTA 3's final release, his name still appears in both San Andeas and Vice City's code. "There's a C++ class called CDarkel which [Rockstar] wrote for GTA 3 that takes care of all the Rampages," he says. "That same class is still used in Vice City and San Andreas. Obviously the character is not there, but it's still in the code."
Operating from GTA 3's abandoned Harwood tunnel, it's thought Darkel would have provided the player with several missions—in the same way San Andreas' Cesar doles out Kill Frenzy/Rampage-style challenges. It's also thought one of these evil tasks involved loading an ice cream truck with explosives and killing as many pedestrians as possible (opens in new tab).
"We can only speak theoretically here as we don't have much to go on," says Sergiu to this end. "Our research went as deep as old magazines, databases, concept scans and all of that. We know that Darkel was supposed to give the player five missions, one of which involved the ice cream truck. He would not give the player any monetary gains for doing the missions, but actually things that only he could give you—things like vehicles, weapons, things like that, because he was a hobo. As a hobo, he probably wouldn't have had much money.
"Besides the ice cream truck missions, we theorised that he might have missions where he gave you special weapons—such as flamethrowers, Molotov cocktails, the tank and that sort of thing. One thing I reckon is true is his relation to moonshine [bootlegged booze]. There is an advert for the game that speaks about the recent breakout of moonshine and hobos in the city. We had the idea that one of his missions would feature selling moonshine and another would be using the moonshine to cause havoc in the city with some of his groupies."
The GTA3D team agrees with Rockstar's assertion that Darkel's character ultimately didn't fit the game's tone—even if his missions sounded suitably chaotic. Strangely, the late actor Bill Fiore (opens in new tab) is credited in the game's closing sequence (here (opens in new tab), around the 3.11 mark) despite Darkel's absence from the final product. His representatives were unable to tell me why this is the case, nor why his part was cut, but were quite certain Fiore himself was offered little explanation or elaboration at the time.
Likewise, international DJ Tom Novy (opens in new tab) was removed from the final game despite featuring in earlier builds. One of his songs, Back to the Streets, was originally intended to feature on in-game radio station Head Radio, as was his likeness as a pedestrian character model. I contacted Novy and, like Fiore's reps, he was unsure why his part was axed and implied these decisions were made without his direct input.
Another rumour which persists today is the suggestion that GTA 3's Dodo plane (opens in new tab) didn't always have clipped wings and stubborn flight controls. Despite Rockstar's rebuttal (opens in new tab), some corners of the internet believe the aircraft's model was edited post-9/11—and that school buses were spiked for the same reason.
"We can actually confirm that that's false because we have the original files that were from 2000," says Sergiu. "They show that the Dodo always had clipped wings, and that school buses weren't removed because of 9/11. Darkel was also not removed for this reason either—these are all myths.
"There were a few pedestrian lines and also some radio commercials which were hidden in the archives of the Rockstar website and not available to the public, though. We found them and made good use of them in the mod. They reference the military, hobos, some of them reference college education, some of them reference some poverty related stuff—all very political-related stuff.
"One of them mentions Saddam Hussein, another mentions 'nasty liberals', or something like that, in an Ammunation ad. One of these was actually used in Vice City but the references to terrorism and liberals were modified to 'communists.'"
Richard adds: "The only thing they might not be telling the truth about is the police cars, because all the pictures up until then showed them with blue with the white stripes—like the New York pattern. They tried to deny that afterwards but it's possible that that's not completely true. We also looked in the game files for those pedestrian voices and they actually duplicated voices to replace certain lines. The SWAT team members [NOOSE, as they appear in the GTA universe] have these lines for when they're chasing you or shooting at you. The artist replaced them with a weird laugh. [The original lines] might have been too offensive."
Now in its fourth year of development, the GTA3D team hopes to launch its labour of love this year. And while this might be a hobbyist endeavour, a cursory glance on GTAForums (opens in new tab) suggests the project is in high demand. With this in mind, Sergiu tells me that he and the team will likely make GTA3D open source eventually, but also points out discoveries are still being made to this day. "In the actual game last year," he says, "a Russian modder found a file containing the actual vehicles and pedestrians from the game's year 2000 game files which were well hidden."
"Actually, they weren't well hidden at all, but, actually, people were too stupid to notice," interjects The Hero. "Just a few days before I was told about this, I had looked at the file and actually did think to myself: Perhaps there is something in there. But I didn't make the connection. Which was quite embarrassing in hindsight."
Despite The Hero's bruised ego, it's discoveries like this that underscore the enduring appeal, popularity and legacy of Grand Theft Auto 3 on PC. Darkel, in particular, epitomises the curious quirks that would be otherwise resigned to the history books were it not for mods and creative enthusiasts such as GTA3D and its team.
Red Dead Redemption 2, GTA Online and what we might expect from Grand Theft Auto 6 may dominate the Rockstar-related headlines of today, but for those anticipating GTA3D, the past is just as interesting, if for nothing else but to investigate the series' history and the path that's led it here.
More information on GTA3D can be found in this direction (opens in new tab). Special thanks to team members Son Of Big Boss and Jinx who were also involved in the interviews above.