This post originally appeared on VICE UK
Since its first game in 1997, the Grand Theft Auto series has been accused, more or less constantly, of glamorising violence. But really, those criticisms are hard to take all that seriously.
Look at the original GTA. Although it awards you money or "points" in exchange for kills – and the more destruction you cause, the further you tend to advance – that hardly differentiates from or makes it more shocking than tens of thousands of other games. On the contrary, GTA 1's top-down, heavily-pixelated aesthetic leaves it, next to, say, DOOM, Postal or the other "nasties" of the era, looking comparatively tame. Grand Theft Auto III was similarly sullen. 3D, yes, but set in a rainy, American East Coast shit-hole, where the only things you could buy were sex workers and guns. So to say Grand Theft Auto "glamorises" or "sensationalises" violence, when all violence apportioned you were the tools to commit more violence, was inaccurate.
Inaccurate, at least, until 2002 and the release of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City – the game whose marketing budget helped to launch VICE in the UK.
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I'd call Vice City the first truly contentious Grand Theft Auto game, not because it contains more blood, more sex or more swearing (nobody says "fuck" even once, the entire game) than any of its predecessors, but because it makes crime and violence look as if they pay, and pay well. In Vice City, the more missions you complete – the more people you kill – the fancier clothes and suits you unlock. The money you earn, also from killing, can be invested in nice big houses, or in businesses, which in turn earn you even more money.
And although, narratively, Vice City is a shameless and frankly disappointing variation on Scarface, right down to the interior décor of protagonist Tommy Vercetti's mansion, it doesn't end with the film's vital, quasi-redeeming moral message. Where Tony Montana's violence eventually and literally catches up with him, T Vercetti, after taking countless lives with uzis, katanas and M60s, reaches the end of Vice City wealthier, better-regarded and more powerful than ever.
The game is based on an encompassing and inflexible equation. The Grand Theft Auto brothers, Sam and Dan Houser, might not have formulated it originally, but for the sake of illustration let's call it Housers' Equation:
Violence committed (v) is proportional (∝) to money and status earned (m)
v ∝ m
That's why Vice City was controversial, because it carried a truly amoral message: the more bad things you do, the more good you receive.
And the world founded on that precept – the world where killing equalled material and personal enrichment – also made that world look cool. Your cars in Vice City were all low-suspension sports models you'd seen before on aspirational TV shows, like Miami Vice or Starsky and Hutch. The radio stations you listened to played one hit after another; all 80s killer, no filler. And the people with whom you pulled jobs – your in-world friends – were pop culture icons. They were voiced by Dennis Hopper, Lee Majors and Danny Dyer; you played as Ray Liotta from Goodfellas. As well as benefiting some rich gangsters, a mathematical correlation between violence and success apparently made Vice City a kind of paradise, capable of giving you your nostalgia fix. It wasn't just a place where violence paid. It was a place held together and made beautiful by violence, where you desired to be.
Circa 2002, when videogames were still culturally fringe, an idiosyncratic pastime rarely confluent with mainstream musical or celebrity names, the presence of songs and voices you recognised redoubled this effect. Vice City wasn't just gratuitously violent, it was expensively-produced. It was A-list. If it touched the nerves of social and art critics, it was because, perhaps for the first time, traditional video game grossness was receiving filmic credibility. Vice City was discomfortingly lacking moral fibre, but also impossible to ignore, since it had the cultural certificates of high production value, celebrity involvement and popularity. It had the potential, basically, to spread.
Which it did. Despite – or perhaps because of – being censored in Australia, threatened with legal action by then-New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, and a $600 million lawsuit against its creator, Rockstar, Vice City became one of the best-selling and most influential games of the last 20 years. Its most egregious moral sin – a tree of missions whereby you must selectively murder Haitian gang members, which even the notoriously-staunch Rockstar agreed to edit out of later versions – hasn't affected its cachet.
If you've recently played Battlegrounds, South Park: The Fractured but Whole, or any game in which you're encouraged to be violent and mischievous in an open-world, for foregrounding and formalising these kinds of base, interactive pleasures – for making violent video games a valid, cultural avocation, equitable to pop music – some kind of debt is owed to Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, the game that made virtual killing and robbing seem genuinely rewarding.