There was something uncannily familiar about the package I received on Christmas day in 2003, perhaps the memory was so intense that it transcended conventional time, or perhaps I just recognised the PS2 box shaped packaging. At first, it seemed all too good to be true, but second by second, as I unwrapped the present – I was faced with a brand spanking new PlayStation 2, complete with a copy of Fifa ’03 and another game that should never have been purchased for a nine year old child. That game was Grand Theft Auto Vice City.
Weirdly, especially playing back through it today, it was the game’s then industry-leading graphics that won my dad over – his perception that it looked “realistic” might well be a contentious one in this day and age, but I wasn’t going to argue. Lack of Polygons in Tommy Vercetti’s face aside, Vice City is still a beautiful game, perhaps testament to the idea that excellent art design can enable any game to age like fine wine. The game’s neon and pastel palette, accompanied by electro-esque sound design, with radio stations resplendent with dryly hilarious hosts and a wide selection of god-tier ‘80s bangers intertwined to convey a wonderfully atmospheric tribute to the pop culture of the 1980s.
But most importantly, to my innocent, nine year old mind, Grand Theft Auto Vice City represented upheaval and rebellion. As an eight year old child growing up amongst the nominal decency of Britain in early ‘00s, going to church and Catholic school, to hear people swearing in a videogame in which I could steal cars and kill cops was something unheard of, something I embraced readily. I wasn’t really the happiest child to put it mildly, but somehow, Vice City offered me an outlet for all that pent up aggression I had inside me. Maybe it was something that was always there – or perhaps children really can be influenced into behaving like little shits by obscene videogames – but whatever the cause GTA Vice City awakened something in me – and instilled in me the notion of defiance against society and its lame ass norms.
I must have sunk countless hours into the game at first, endlessly pissing around; not even getting as far as the second mission because I was consumed by the freedom the game offered. You could drive anywhere, steal cars and shoot people – but most importantly, you could explore every nook and cranny of its deceptively expansive world. To my young mind, doing missions was null, I was unable to get past the third or fourth mission – in which the player must drop off the daughter of General Cortez (a kindly gentleman who, at one point, you steal a tank from a military convoy for) at a nightclub, due to my reckless abandon and general inability to get from a to b without committing simulated mass murder.
It wasn’t necessarily just the freedom offered by the game that made such an impression on me, however, Vice City’s OTT characterization, bourne of equal parts coal black Scottish wit, a love for ‘80s action movies (and satirical appropriation thereof) and a virulent strain of gleefully acerbic characterisation defined exactly what the Grand Theft Auto series was all about to me. Back in the day, I remember Grand Theft Auto being a very subversive point of contention, and there’s just something about Vice City’s level of anarchic black comedy that no game since has touched.
In fact, playing back through it over the past few weeks (for research purposes, of course) has taught me that, whilst the game’s ultraviolent essence was a point of some considerable controversy at the time of its release, the virulent strain of political discourse running throughout the game’s meandering narrative is actually far more subversive (and relevant) now than it ever was back in the ‘00s. Back then, there was hope, there wasn’t fake news and whilst the president of the United States was a pretty shady dude, but he wasn’t a literal videogame villain with dementia. Listening to Vice City’s simulation of ‘80s talk radio was funny to me back in 2003, what with its stupid voiceovers and hilariously OTT characters being quizzed on these talk shows, but in today’s political climate of fake news, economic upheaval and nazis complaining about being bullied, Vice City’s talk radio was both satirical of a time that once was and satirical of a future nobody in the early ‘00s could have imagined.
Grand Theft Auto Vice City is one of those games – like Total War Shogun 2, or Dawn Of War: Dark Crusade – that I can’t really play too much, because I just understand it’s mechanics inside and out. An almost melancholic nostalgia washes over me whenever I boot the game up on PS4; playing Vice City takes me back to a time of almost childhood innocence. Back to a time when purely just exploring every nook and cranny of the map, or activating the tank/weapons/flying cars cheat and endlessly fucking about, slaughtering the innocent and generally doing what I wasn’t supposed to be doing was an exhilarating, life-affirming experience.