1997 was a special time. If you weren’t working for a dot-com, you were reaping the rewards of their overspending somewhere down the line. I was making about $80,000 a year, and if I liked a girl in, say, San Francisco, I’d buy her a ticket to New York for the weekend. It was about opulence and self-indulgence. Fuck, you and I were rich. So rich that vices like drugs and alcohol actually suffered. There was plenty of cocaine around, for example, but why ruin your appetite before a $200 dinner? Recreation and entertainment suffered too. Rockstar Games put out an ugly little game about stealing cars that only sold a lowly two million copies. We had the PlayStation because we were rich, but who needs to steal a car? And who has time to play video games? We were too busy going to art openings and getting laid. Even when they released the sequel, people weren’t interested. The economic story was, if you were there to help people escape their shitty lives you were in the wrong era. Hollywood was going broke, record labels folded, and TV started repeating the same show three times a day hoping someone would watch it.
Then the bottom fell out of the market and everyone went broke, flat broke. We’re not talking eating-beans-and-getting-a-roommate broke. We’re talking unemployment-insurance-ran-out-have-to-move-back-in-with-parents-talking-to-your-dad-about-computer-programming broke. Pawn shops and loan sharks started to make money again. The need to escape was back. “I don’t want to hear anyone talk about the recession,” said Tony during the season premiere of The Sopranos. “The only two businesses that are supposed to do well in times like this is show biz and our thing, and it’s been that way since time immemorial.” Now that the economy has hit a brick wall, anyone remotely associated with vice (the phenomenon, not us) and escapism is cashing in. After a sad and hopeless decade, Hollywood has seen a 200% increase in revenue, drug sales are so through-the-roof that police chiefs from Quebec to Scotland are pushing for legalization, the music industry is back, and video games have gone from a hobby for fat guys with zits to a way of life. What else are you supposed to do all day?
By the time Rockstar Games came out with Grand Theft Auto III in 2001, they had tripled their sales to seven million units a game. Drugs, movies and music were doing well too, but not like this. They can’t compete with a digital world you can go visit any time you want with no extra charges and no side effects. In an era where life on this earth sucks the big one, video games have taken over as the number-one route out of here. Grand Theft Auto III grossed $350 million. That’s more than Britney Spears’ Britney or Limp Bizkit’s Chocolate. That’s also more money than blockbusters like The Matrix, Gladiator and Traffic. In fact, if Grand Theft Auto III had been a Hollywood movie, Reuters news agency points out, “it would have ranked as the seventh-highest-grossing film ever, based on domestic box office—bigger than Forrest Gump and just shy of the original Jurassic Park.”
Instead of sitting on their asses and riding this economic trend, Rockstar has risen to the occasion and increased the quality of the game tenfold with every edition. (Side note: What the fuck is with coke dealers in New York? They just keep putting out shittier and shittier stuff. We know the demand is rising but come on. Haven’t you ever heard of having pride in your work!? If just ONE dealer had half-decent shit there’d be lines around the block—no matter what the price. Fuckin’ fags. Anyway.) The first two games provided an aerial shot of a city where you ran from stolen car to stolen car, evading police and getting in good with the right criminals. By the third, the city was at eye level and was completely functional (as we pointed out when we first reported on it). The city in Grand Theft Auto is a totally independent place that lives and breathes all on its own. Days come and go. If you don’t go to the bank to rob the truck, it makes its delivery and the driver goes home. People are late for work. Cabbies pick up customers. And the police go about their business. If you steal a cab, run over someone who’s late for work and then go rob a bank, the police are going to be after you, but it’s your choice. Just like real life. In fact, the only difference with the cities in Grand Theft Auto and real life is, in the video game you are not hungry, you are not broke, you have something to do that day, and your parents aren’t disappointed in you. You’re not Marc, the unemployed web designer and musician who moved back home to Philadelphia and is trying to get a date with his old high-school girlfriend because she works at a bar now and has a kid. No. In the 80s-themed Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (as the most recent edition is called) you are Tommy Vercetti, a mobster who is determined to get several hundred thousand dollars of coke back after a drug deal that went bad. Vercetti (played by Ray Liotta) is especially pissed off because the last deal that went bad landed him in jail for fifteen years. That’s a little bit more exciting than getting laid off from Modo.net. Grand Theft Auto III gave people a place to stay when they couldn’t pay their rent, a place where they had something important to do. We thought that was a very kind gesture, but the mainstream media, no doubt threatened by America’s reborn love of the video game, decided otherwise. Instead of getting into the wonder of this do-what-you-want city, Newsweek, CNN and Time decided the only interesting thing about the game is that you can fuck a prostitute, kill her, and then take your money back. They couldn’t get over the fact that your health points go up when she sucks your dick. Of course, if that happens, the police will be on your ass immediately and a massive gun fight will ensue, but the press are more concerned with how abhorrent it is that cops can get hurt in a fight. They were totally disinterested in the other 67,000 details of the game (hence Rockstar refusing to speak to any of them ever again).
The reason these games are so fucking intense is twofold. One: Unlike New York coke dealers, Rockstar Games is willing to spend some of their extra money on actually improving their product. And two: Rockstar hooked up with these total fucking lunatics up in Scotland that have made computer programming a religion. Rockstar North, as they’re now called, are a tight-knit group of hard-drinking thugs who sit in a dark room 24 hours a day and enter code. “It used to be that you’d have a few designers that would pass the layout to the code guys and they’d just do as they were told,” says Strachan Roan, one of the company’s main designers. “But we don’t see it like that. We make entering code part of the creative process. For us, it’s all about the details.”
When you see Vice City you realize why video games are killing movies as the best way to waste your time. It is truly the details that are behind this phenomenon, the drunken Scottish obsessive-compulsive details. When a plane flies by in the background, it leaves a trail. When cars drive past neon signs, the signs are reflected across the trunk and the windows. When you ride a motorbike, your shirt ripples in the wind. “Most Hollywood scripts are just over a hundred pages,” says Dan Houser, Rockstar’s Vice President of Creative. “This ‘script’ is more like 2,000.”
Not that the initial design is anything typical. Most video games have missions; that’s what a video game is. Vice City’s mission has plot twists. It has character development and suspense that changes every time you play the game. It’s more than a movie or a game. It’s an electronic version of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe; a “vimoveo game,” if you will.
To be this innovative at a time when people need you this badly is totally unheard of—in any industry. It’s like calling your drug dealer at five in the morning going, “Dude, I only have five bucks but I really want to get high,” and having him come over with a gram of grade-A Colombian, three joints and a hug. Why can’t everyone be this kind when you’re broke?
All the nerdy tidbits you need to know:
> the game will be out on October 29th (not the 22nd as most nerds believe) and will only be available on PS2 until 2004.
> Vice City takes place in the 80s in a city that looks like Miami. It is the only game to do that—ever (most are either a million years ago, a million years in the future, or now).
> this city is almost two-and-a-half times the size of the previous game’s city.
> there are 50 interior locations. Now you can go into buildings and clubs and stores. Rob a gun store if you want. Buy a suit. Walk into a disco, have a dance, and beat up the band.
> where the last game had 3,000 pedestrian voices, this one has 9,000.
> there are literally hundreds of vehicles, including a helicopter and a motorbike.
> there are 40 different weapons.
> there are over 100 different missions.
> there are tons of celebrity voiceovers that they won’t tell me about, but one of them sounds a hell of a lot like Philip Michael Thomas.