November 14, 2002

End the Trend?

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If you haven’t heard of Grand Theft Auto you have either been hiding beneath a rock or you must be completely oblivious to the world of video games. I will not say which scenario is more likely, but you get the point.

By taking a traditionally low-art, the video game, and infusing it with dynamic, highly advanced, and intelligent design that relies on hyperbole and satire for social as well as political commentary, Rockstar Games has rendered the video game to be more than mere entertainment. If there were ever an avant-garde video game, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City would be it. In all of its brutality, violence, misogyny, ethnic stereotypes, and sexuality, the game parodies the urban and criminal culture of Florida in the ’80s with clear inspiration from Miami Vice and Scarface, all channeled through cutting edge digital graphics. Instead of criticizing this corrupt, materialistic, violent, and hedonistic society, Vice City revels in moral degradation, which is partly what makes the game so compelling.

Although many condemn GTA for its rampant violence and anti-social tendencies in an attempt to censor it, the entire premise of the game is founded in many aspects of the American identity — it is one man against the world, trying to “better his condition” by acquiring capital and power (a goal deeply-steeped in American culture, just ask Professor Kramnick). In this sense, Vice City allows players to vicariously live out the American Dream. Whether this fantasy is achieved through criminal or legitimate enterprise is another story, namely The Great Gatsby.

The urban space occupied by Vice City satirizes the modern layout of an American coastal city, essentially Miami. From the beachfront high rises of “Ocean Point” to the ghetto, low-rise slums of “Little Havana,” Rockstar provides an exaggerated but insightful case-study of urban development, sectionalism, corruption, and inequality. Exploring Vice City, it becomes apparent that high-rent districts and low-rent districts correlate with certain ethnic identities as signified through the ever-shifting urban architecture and demographics. Whereas mostly expensive cars drive — and bathing suit-clad white people frolic — up and down the swanky ocean-front boulevard, cheaper cars roam — and jean clad, gun-toting gang members with colored skin strut — about the grimy inner-city. There’s even a downtown commercial center, with a beautiful skyline concealing exploitative capitalism, and an island with enchanting mansions for the supposedly well-to-do, where the drug-lord also happens to reside. Vice City perpetuates stereotypes of American cities through these overdrawn, urban traits but this use of hyperbole effectively satirizes the uneven development, ethnic division, and crime within cities to reveal the flaws of our most-populated and “cultured” areas.

In addition to the urban landscape, GTA: Vice City parodies the American culture of excess, materialism, and superficiality embodied in the ’80s soundtrack played on 7 different radio stations, listenable from any vehicle in the game and available for purchase as a 7-disc box set in the non-digital world. Tucked into this soundtrack along with absurd commercials and parodied talk shows is an overwhelming variety of equally funny ’80s music. By paying for the rights to the popular songs of the decade, from the early hip-hop of Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five (“The Message”), to the guttural heavy-metal of Slayer (“Raining Blood”), and to the new wave synth of A Flock of Seagulls (“I Ran — So Far Away”), Rockstar Games tapped into the heart of ’80s culture through its unique music, as the gamer will recognize, laugh, and sing-along to the ridiculousness of the ever-so dated and lovable soundtrack. The Vice City CD box set, with a list price of $50, can stand on its own as a veritable artifact of ’80s culture, which is comically hyperbolized in and of itself.

Throughout the assimilation into Vice City’s urban culture, Tommy Vercetti, the main character of the game (voiced by Ray Liotta), brings the gamer into the GTA pseudo-reality by endowing Tommy with all the traits of an indomitable hero. Backed by the gamer’s own audacity and skill, Tommy Vercetti plays the role of the “rugged individual,” who fights his own way from an ex-convict to the most powerful Vice City property-owner and East Coast mob boss in a subverted version of the American myth. As Vercetti’s ascendant course in life is propelled by crime, he functions as a dark hero trying to realize this long-standing dream — wherein any person through his/her own abilities can achieve prosperity. In the end, Rockstar simply provides us what we want: entertainment. It might be kind of sick, but it sure is fun.

Archived article by Andrew Gilman