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Initial Observations On GTA Vice City Stories; Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Play Something Other Than Motherfucking Metal Gear

It took me a really long time to summon up the nerve to play Grand Theft Auto. It took me a really long time to even take the series seriously. It’s not that I ever stayed away based on some kind of smug intellectual elitism or outright morally righteous offense at the idea of a game based primarily on beating average citizens to death on the streets, taking their money and brutalizing all classes of society from the crookedest cop to the heartiest hooker. During all the trials and tribulations the series has had over the years when it’s been a frequent and popular target for attacks by groups seeking to effectively ban such games from circulation with overzealous ratings no store would dare touch with a ten-foot cattle prod, I always lent my sympathy to Rockstar, even defending them once or twice in conversations here and there.

No, I didn’t stay away from GTA because I didn’t want to play the game, but because I felt I didn’t have to. After reading a few reviews, I thought I got the jist of the game, and frankly didn’t see what all the fuss was about. I didn’t have to play the game because I thought I already had, in my head, and frankly, it sounded boring.

Open-ended overworld? Been there, done that in Zelda and Metroid, I thought. Non-linear gameplay? Fool me once with the Sim series, I said, shame on you, but shame on me if I’ll ever ride that boat again. Morally ambigious violence, aesthetics and storylines? I’ll leave that one up to the imagination. Basically, I didn’t see any new ground being broken by what I’d heard and read about the GTA series, but there was one thing about it that always piqued my curiosity a little bit:

Vice City.

You see, besides being a shameless Metal Gear fanboy, proud Lucas defender and obsessive-compulsive silent film collector, I’ve always been a passionate victim of 80′s nostalgia. I love the music– everything from Flock of Seagulls style New Wave, Wang Chung-esque dance tunes, Sting and Police era pop meditations and pretty much anything that has a synthisizer amongst the orchestration. I love the movies, especially stuff by Lynch and Besson. William Friedkin’s “To Live and Die In LA” always excited me if for nothing more than the “Miami Vice”-rip off visuals, which of course means that I’m a devotee of Michael Mann, a director who doesn’t seem to know that the 80′s ended about 17 years ago and will never give up, God bless him. I love Opus the Penguin and jokes about Reagan, Thatcher and Iran-Contra. I love watching the Rambo movies and Red Dawn to enjoy them as much as states of the eras zeitgeist, ironic self-parody comedies and kick-ass anti-Commie action flicks. I even love the Presidential campaigns.

Therefore, I always sort of thought about playing Vice City, which seemed an 80′s nostalgic’s dream come true, but never got around to doing so. Granted, mostly it was because it took me a long time to even purchase a PS2 in the first place (bought for exactly the games you’d expect me to buy it for– MGS2 and Ico) and second of all because– once again– why should I give a rat’s ass about GTA? I didn’t buy it back then, even though the soundtracks and artwork seemed awfully tempting, not to mention the controversy surrounding certain groups for the depiction of anti-Hatian slurs in the game, which impressed me on the grounds of researching Miami’s history enough to put in the hot-topic in the first place. No, I never thought about even renting a GTA game, no matter how 80′s enthused, until I saw the news about the latest installment of their series:

GTA: Vice City Stories, for the PSP.

Now, as everyone ought to know by now, I bought a PSP last year–once again– just to play the latest installment of Metal Gear, MPO, which, hyperbole aside, I believe just might be the greatest achievement in portable gaming, period. I’ve played through it five times without it becoming stale in the slightest, though I haven’t shut out my observation to other games, which have included quality titles like Mega Man X (yeah, you’ve played one you’ve played them all, but this one’s portable!), Loco Roco (yeah, it’s basically your standard platformer with clever mechanics and cutesy, Katamarian graphics and music, but it’s portable!), and not so great games like Every Extend Extra (fooled into thinking it would be like Rez) and MGS: Digital Graphic Novel (…don’t ask).

Now, the PSP already had a GTA installment, but it didn’t interest me because it was Liberty City Stories, and if I wanted to play a semi-New York set GTA game I could just buy a used copy of the PS2 original for whatever low price it’s selling for right now. After hearing about a PSP game set in Vice City, however, my tune changed. A game set in the 80′s available on the go, anytime– why not try it out now?

Furthermore, by now I’d figured out that I really did need to branch out and play something other than the titles of my revered and respected Kojima, Ueda and Miyamoto. The idea of playing a game by Western designers, even if they weren’t American (by the way, here are the best two game designers I can think of from our shores: Tim Schaffer and Jordan Mechner, though I won’t bother to check the spelling on their names– why can’t more of our creative crop be like them and less like Will Wright?) seemed intriguing. Also, I realized that I’d been thinking a lot about how I’d fix the GTA series and design my own open-ended world, non-linear play style game, despite the fact that I’d never played one of them in my entire life.

At this point, I decided to give it the same fairness I’d given “The Passion of the Christ”– don’t denounce it or dismiss it without having seen or played it first yourself. And here’s the good news from my one week (give me a medal!) of playing GTA: Vice City Stories so far– it’s much more fun than sitting through “The Passion of the Christ.” In fact, I’ll go farther than that– it’s addictively fun, plain and simple.

The bad news? I’m not quite sure why it’s fun, and to be quite frank, I don’t enjoy the fact that it’s addictive all that much.

Now, again, I’ve only been playing the game for about a week. In fact, significantly less than a week– since Wednesday, let’s say. Nevertheless, in this time, which I intend to explore further, I believe I’ve figured out a good deal of the design of GTA, or at least significantly more than I’d assumed I understood before. After playing for a little while I kinda get why the whole open-world thing works differently here than Zelda-style games, and why people are drawn to it. No matter how much of a fuss people make over the aesthetic content of GTA– the violence, the misogyny, the rad tunes– the truth is that GTA really has nothing to do with any of these things at the heart of its gameplay. At its core, GTA is really about one thing and one thing only:


Everything in the game is based upon navigating through the city, and this is why the open-world feels right. Of the missions that get assigned in the game (which are all thoroughly boring, by the way), all of them depend less upon how you solve different combat and vehicular operation puzzles and more on how you can find the shortest, least dangerous and most effective route between points A and B on the map. Whether it’s transporting drugs, taxi-ing a hooker or finding roving gangs of “Cholos” to beat up, everything’s based on walking, running or driving toward that little pink dot on the radar. Bad drivers, pedestrians and cops all get in the way, at times, but once you wrangle the mechanics of driving and put some restraing on your own instinctive gamerly bloodlust, the game of navigation becomes a rather simple challenge. It’s the seamless nature of the world, transitioning from expansive neighborhood to neighborhood and day to night that makes the experience rewarding and relaxing, which is one of my principal pleasures while playing the game. Less than gunning around for strangers and loose cash (though I’ll get down to that in a minute), I like playing GTA for much the same reason I liked playing Pilotwings 64 after I’d unlocked the wing-man levels– the landscape’s scenic, the music’s terrific and the gameplay’s simple and natural enough that the game turns into a kind of tranquil, meditative trip through a pastel-urban countryside. The fact that there aren’t any obligatatory requirements to meet during these interludes makes the whole experience that much more rewarding. Driving a convertible down a sunset highway and listening to “Space-Age Love Song,” I had a genuine feeling of transcendence.

However, I got the feeling that this isn’t the reason most people are playing GTA, and got down to business: beating-down some citizens.

Now, this is the side of the game that seems to get the most buzz from fans and detractors alike, but it isn’t by any means the core mechanic of the gameplay. Instead, beating up civilians and taking their money, items etc. is really just collecting resources, analagous to breaking bricks and hitting boxes for power ups in the Mario games. What makes this mechanic different from most other resource-collecting sidetracks is that it’s meant to be more challenging, and its results are by no means certain– you can beat up somebody and recieve nothing at all, but beat up somebody else and gather a terrific windfall of cash and weapons. It’s a good example of what we’d talked about before in class– making one single repetetive slot-machine mechanic refreshing by making the task needed to be performed as difficult, and therefore interesting, as possible. What makes the action challenging isn’t the defense put up by most of the people you’ll find, but is instead he presence of policemen on patrol, much like the guards in Metal Gear. Unlike Kojima’s strict hide-and-seek rule, though, the cops are different not only because they ignore you as long as you ignore them and the civilians, but also because from them, there’s no place to hide.

Here’s where some of my problems seep in: Like I said, everything in the game is really all about navigating through the city, and knowing your way about the game’s geography, making it a memory game of locations. It’s essential to know where the hotspots are for health, missions, resources and in the case of hot-pursuit by Johnny Law, bribes. Passing over a bribe icon will begin to take down the player’s level of most-wantedness, and while it reinforces the game’s design of forcing you to know your way around town as a primary challenge, I dislike a lot of the incredibly arbitrary challenges it creates. Since there’s only so many bribe tokens, finding your way from point A to point B is always going to be made more difficult by the cops– that’s fair, and interesting. However, the difficulties posed by them more often than not force the player to make decisions which raises their most-wanted level to such an extreme that getting past the police becomes next to impossible, which makes for an incredibly frustrating experience. This frustration is made even worse by the fact that there are little to no consequences for getting killed or caught by the cops– after reawakening at the hospital or police department, the player no longer has their weapons but still has all their money, which pretty much renders all the hassles from before pretty much meaningless. If there aren’t harsher penalties for playing the game badly, there aren’t many reasons to even try to play the game well.

Of course, this is assuming that this kind of free-form higgeldy-piggeldy experience is actually playing the wrong way to begin with. As I said previously, the game’s missions are unsatisfying on all levels (so far, anyway) as they make for poor narrative and storytelling, lazy aesthetics and rather complicated mechanics for gameplay that oftentimes the player hardly uses. It’s one thing to push the player towards missions such as eliminating crooks and roughing up store-owners, which reinforces the combat skills the player needs in order to survive without being taken out by the police (even if not being able to survive doesn’t pose much of a risk), but there doesn’t feel like there’s any real point to learning how to drive a fork-lift, etc., unless it’s going to prove to be more substantial to the game as a whole than as a mere distraction. Again, I haven’t played through the whole game yet, but I fear a lot of those often-talked about mini-games in GTA are going to amount to peripheral matters that don’t have anything to do with the core gameplay of navigating through complex territory. Like the myriad chain-quests of Zelda or the interminably long cut-scenes of MGS, the mini-games look to me like they form a set of GTA activities only dedicated fans can truly appreciate, while suspicious newcomers like myself can only wonder if it’s worthwhile to continue such seemingly irrelevant behavior.

Now, I’m still going to play GTA. Like I said, it’s addictive, but the fact that there’s so little in the way of compelling story or side material makes the gameplay feel very empty, no matter how seamless it is, making for an incredibly lonely, self-destructive experience. Really, I feel like I’ve genuinely wasted time after playing the game for a couple of hours non-stop, as nothing I’ve done in the game has really advanced me anywhere, leaving me with no real sense of accomplishment. Without clear goals, a player can often feel stranded and lost. Zelda and MGS may be a bit overbearing for some gamers craving more spontanaeity and less predictible play, but GTA could learn a thing or two in making their narrative and cut-scenes less jokey and more serious. After all, in the case of Vice City there’s a wealth of interesting stuff to include from the actual history of Miami– the drug culture of competing gangs from Cuba, Columbia and the states was a scary and fascinating time, and could provide a better backdrop of cocaine cowboys and genuinely threatening bad guys than just the somewhat generic “Miami Vice” style of parody the game grudgingly accepts for semi-historical setting.

I’m aware that this isn’t exactly what the GTA audience is really interested in when it comes to the game they’re playing, but I believe that exploring a somewhat more serious tone in the storyline of games like these is one somebody should consider, primarily because the game’s experience is doing something I’m not sure any other game has figured out how to do, or at the very least it shows something that all games do– GTA doesn’t make the player a character in an unfolding story; GTA makes the character the story itself. The avatar of Vic Vance isn’t really interesting in and of himself, nor is he rendered consitently enough through characterization to be taken seriously. Instead, he acts as a vehicle through which we can witness all the other members of the game’s sordid cast, allowing him to act primarily as a plot-device. Just as the player’s purpose is to navigate from point A to point V, the minor character’s purpose is to take the audience from major charactor A to major character B. I can see a game being designed here wherin the player is assigned to the “Witness” character, who’s there for us to watch the unfolding drama of a protagonist, or an ensemble array of different competing characters, instead of playing as the protagonist themselves. True, Kojima already tried this with Raiden in MGS2, but he failed primarily because he tried to pull off Raiden as his own character, insead of merely keeping him as the “Witness” persona-non-grata– If we’re watching “Rebel Without a Cause,” it’s only to watch James Dean, and not the other guy who follows him around, providing the film with an excuse to keep up with Dean in the first place. GTA succeeds by making the PCC such an empty shell that the player doesn’t have to bother accepting it as a distinct character, and can simply think of it as themselves in this world, through which they can observe the story, whatever little of it there is. The narrative potential of putting the audience in the position of the story mechanations itself is an intriguing one, and one I’d explore if I had the resources. Still, I can only wish that Rockstar had done a little more work on these GTA titles and realized the potential they have is greater than that of a mere time-killer.

Finally– anybody who’d like to correct assumptions I’ve made about the series as a whole so far from my limited experience with this one, probably incomplete PSP title’s approximation of the total console experience, please do so and speak up. If I ever finish playing this game, I’ll consider going over to one of the PS2 games in order to get a better idea of the complete GTA mindset, but when I do, I won’t be getting the latest incarnation, no matter how improved and enlightened the new mechanics might be in San Andreas. True, I may be blinding myself to the greater importance of finely honed gamplay for the eye-and-ear candy of more pleasing aesthetics, and perhaps that shows that I still refuse to take this series as seriously as seemingly everybody else on the planet does, but when I do buy another GTA game the only one it’ll be is one set in Vice City, for one all-important reason:

I fucking love the 80′s.


  1. Charles wrote:

    This article was very New Games Journalism, Bob. You should stick with it, I think you have a talent.

    It’s too bad that you’re only going to play the Vice City games. I still maintain that the best one has always been GTA III. You should also take a look at the original, top-down games. They have a charm all their own.

    Thursday, March 8, 2007 at 7:55 pm | Permalink
  2. Bob wrote:

    What I’ve seen of the top-down games seems to confirm that Grand Theft Auto is kind of a direct descendent of Zelda, an ancestor shared with Metal Gear, most clearly evident in the original MSX games. I’m still thinking through the connections those three radically different games share, so when the time comes it would definitely be in my best interest to check out the originals. GTA and MGS have far more in common than their reputations would suggest, and if nothing else I’d like to eventually point out what commonalities they have.

    Saturday, March 10, 2007 at 6:40 pm | Permalink
  3. Kunal wrote:

    Yo – man, I’m not gonna say anything back except you are a sick piece of journalist man, this was so fun and enlightening to read… i’m gonna pass it on to my game culture friends.

    Tuesday, March 13, 2007 at 12:46 pm | Permalink
  4. frank wrote:

    Very nice write-up Bob.

    Monday, March 19, 2007 at 7:56 pm | Permalink

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