Vice City

Written by David Kushner, Rolling Stone

Thursday November 7th, 2002

The biggest, baddest, wildest in the world returns-in full 1980s neon.

“Are you ready for your sit down?” asks the guy with the handlebar eyebrow piercing as he ushers me into an abandoned loft in New York. Inside a room covered with posters of beach bunnies and assorted thugs, he pops open an aluminum briefcase to reveal his contraband: a PlayStation 2.
It seems like a lot of drama for a video-game demonstration. But the freshly burned DVD he’s slipping into the machine is no ordinary game. It’s Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, the hotly anticipated and, three weeks before its October 29th release, closely guarded sequel to the best-selling title in PlayStation 2 history, Grand Theft Auto III. Costing less to make than many indie films, GTA3 has sold more than 8 million copies, generating roughly $400 million in sales (more than the movie The Matrix) since its release last October. The Mafioso-action franchise has become a pop-culture phenomenon, redefining the way people play and think about games, and pissing off a fair share of politicians and public decency mavens along the way among other things, the game has been banned in Australia and chastised by Phil Donahue.

Like the previous titles, the new GTA casts the player as a hired thug running missions for a bossman; instead of watching The Sopranos, you’re in it. This time, the action takes place in Vice City, a tropical playground of strippers and coke fiends, inspired by Miami Beach in the 80s. And, as before, it’s not just a game to play but a world to explore.

Behind the game is an ambitious team of young people who are living up to their moniker, Rockstar Games. Sequestered in a loft in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood, the unshaven and tattooed troupe comprises the most self-consciously elite publisher in the gaming biz. It draws on a coterie of Scottish programmers, English hipsters, DJs, porn stars and assorted celebrities to create entertainment experiences that defy the easy stereotype. “By the time you’ve reduced Grand Theft Auto on national television to a sound bite, it’s a game with hookers in it,” says Rockstar’s chief operating officer and marketing guru, Terry Donovan. “It’s hugely more than that.” As Vice City’s sun-dappled streets unfold on the screen before me to the beat of Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message,” it’s clear these guys have something more potent than shock value up their sleeves.

In many ways, Rockstar recalls Def jam Records of the mid-i98os. Like the pioneering hip-hop label founded in a dorm room by Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons, Rockstar has brought enormous commercial success to a transgressive youth culture. And, like Def Jam, Rockstar has done it with a calculated sense of style.

Rockstar’s founders are acutely aware of the comparison. Growing up in London in the 1980s, Sam Houser, his younger brother Dan and prep-school buddy Terry Donovan admired the hip-hop label from afar. “These guys were proud of themselves,” says Donovan. “You could buy almost anything they put out – a patch, a sticker, an album – and not be disappointed.” For Sam and Dan, whose father managed the legendary London jazz club Ronnie Scott’s, any association with the East Coast scene was a badge of honor. “I ran out to the shop the day Rick Rubin’s Slayer single came out, just to get the Def Jam patch,” Sam says.

The boys eventually got their crack at the music business, taking jobs marketing pop videos and signing fledgling bands for BMG music. Sam later seized the opportunity to work for BMG Interactive, a new division of the company that let him pursue what he thought would be the next generation of urban expression: video games. While the rest of the industry was searching for the new Tomb Raider, the Indiana Jane fantasy with the T&A heroine, Sam found inspiration in something considerably more underground: a pitch he received from some guys in Scotland for a carjacking game that came to be called Grand Theft Auto.

“Graphically, it wasn’t nearly as sharp as Tomb Raider,” Sam recalls, “but it was deeply immersive. You were put into a world and given choices.” Though the game had objectives – stealing wheels, scoring deals – they weren’t the end-all. The game gave you an unconventional top-down view of a sprawling Gotham that spilled far off from the edges of the screen. You could simply get behind the wheel and drive.

Released in Europe, the original GTA became a sensation. It also became a controversy, since it was the first game in the industry to star an unabashed anti-hero – for a short time, it became the talk of the BBC and of Parliament for its raw depictions of the criminal underworld. “We never related to the Dungeons and Dragons, here’s-my-sword-and-there’s-that-Orc kind of game,” Sam says. “We wanted to make stuff that was more relevant to people like ourselves.”

But when they went to America to talk to publishers about releasing the game in the States, the rudimentary graphics were not enough to win them a deal. It took a New York software publisher called Take 2 Interactive to see the light. Donovan and the Housers moved into a communal house in the city of their dreams to start their very own video-game label, calling it Rockstar. In the next couple of years, Rockstar got a reputation as a hip company with a mix of video games, cool T-shirts and downtown-Manhattan dance parties. But with the release of Grand Theft Auto III, the company went overground – big-time.

Taking advantage of a larger budget and the PlayStation 2’s processing power, the action was in full-blown 3-D. Garners were transported right down to street level: ripping cabbies from their seats, kicking them in the guts, then peeling away in a cloud of exhaust.

There’s no question you can commit some serious crimes in Grand Theft Auto III. But it’s the player, not the developers, who dictate the morality of the game. You can take a baseball bat to innocent bystanders and leave them in a pool of blood, but you’re just as able to spend the whole game earning money by driving injured civilians to the hospital in an ambulance. “If you realize PlayStation players aren’t all ten years old, there isn’t some kind of social responsibility to have a redeeming value,” says Donovan. “Your responsibility is to provide a tool kit with which young adults can entertain themselves.”

As most players discover, the real fun in the game is freestyling. A cult of GTA fans continually compares notes on Internet bulletin boards. “The first few days,” posted a player who goes by the name Axelthedark, “I did nothing but run around the city stealing cars and running over hookers.” A commentator on National Public Radio swooned about driving aimlessly within the game with the radio cranked while the sun set on the horizon. “You become like Emerson’s transparent eyeball,” he gushed, “seeing everything, consisting of nothing.”

In the minds of some theorists, in fact, it’s not just a new frontier for games, it’s a new frontier for humanity. “Now that we’ve colonized physical space,” says Henry Jenkins, director of comparative media studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “the need to have new frontiers is deeply in the games. Grand Theft Auto expands the universe.”

“Get me neon! I have to have neon!” With these words, Sam Houser unleashed Rockstar’s Scottish team of coders and artists into the streets of Miami last November to take digital photos and gather material for their follow-up to GTA3. He got his wish: Compared to the New York-themed Liberty City of GTA3, the series’ new town is a sunburst of white sport coats and pink crustaceans. “It’s kind of the look Walt Disney might have gone for,” says Aaron Garbut, art director of Vice City, “if he was a psychotic substance abuser with authority issues.” Knowing how obsessively GTA3 is played, Garbut and the other game makers in Rockstar’s Edinburgh, Scotland, office obsessively researched and rendered the most picayune period details of i98os America – from the redneck tough guys with the polygon mullets to songs such as Judas Priest’s “You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’ ” and Laura Branigan’s “Self Control” cranking out of the convertibles. “The goal is to make the player feel like he’s starring in his own fucked-up Scorsese cartoon,” Garbut says. Vice City also makes cheeky use of the celebrities who provide the many voice-over cameos. Dennis Hopper portrays a crazed filmmaker. Porn star Jenna Jameson plays one in the game. And this time, unlike the mute lead of GTA3, Vice City’s ex-con anti-hero, Tommy Vercetti, gets a voice and an attitude courtesy of Ray Liotta. Gamers get a new fleet of transport to jack: speed boats, motorcycles and, most dramatically, helicopters.

While Vice City pushes the boundaries of video-game freedom, it also reveals the medium’s current limitations. Some are a matter of scope; garners can finally go inside buildings – a feature absent last time around – but they can’t go inside all the buildings. Also, no one in Vice City actually snorts cocaine, because the gaming industry is often afraid of exploring more nuanced adult content than exploding limbs. And until a garner can break down in a pile of pixilated blow, an emotional experience as complex as the real Tony Montana’s will never be attainable.

After my Vice City sit-down, I’m led into a backroom, where Donovan and the Housers make a point to say they haven’t all sat for an interview in ages. With baggy pants and bloodshot eyes, they look like three blokes recovering from a rave. “I’m an eleven-year-old in the body of a slob,” Dan Houser says apologetically.

While plenty of fans are anxiously awaiting Vice City, some pundits are wondering whether Rockstar can improve its franchise. “It’s a question of not being saddled as a one-trick pony,” says Michael Gartenberg, an analyst with Jupiter, a technology research firm. “They need to be driving this genre forward.” The boys are also confronting an increasingly hostile political climate. In a recent court case about the marketing of violent games such as Grand Theft Auto, a U.S. district judge ruled that video games don’t qualify as “speech” – a ruling that could pave the way for long-threatened government intervention in the games industry. Most recently, a California congressman introduced an act that would make it a federal crime to sell mature-rated games to minors.

The games play on, though. Rockstar is already planning the next, undisclosed, chapter in the GTA saga. And there’s talk of a massive multiplayer online GTA world down the line. Sam Houser only hopes to live up to his company’s name: “At the end of the day, you can’t fuck with Keith Richards,” he says. “You can’t argue with Keith Moon riding down the street in a Rolls-Royce with a blow-up doll hanging out the window. That guy is the original punk rock. And if we can bring a fraction of a percent of that to games, then we’re doing something.”