It takes about 20 years for childhood nostalgia to mature into a product for adults. The 1950s-based programs Happy Days and Sha Na Na both came out in the the 1970s. That 70’s Show came out in the 1990s. 1980s-based films Boogie Nights and The Wedding Singer seemed to jump the gun and arrive a few years early, while Wet Hot American Summer, Hot Tub Time Machine, Adventureland, and American Psycho arrived right on time in the first decade of the new millenium.
The Cultural Echo
It’s easy to see why this is. You grow up in a particular decade. Twenty years later you’re well into adulthood. You’ve got disposable income and strong memories (good or bad) that can be leveraged / exploited for emotional appeal in a story. The 20-year echo isn’t some strange cultural phenomena. It’s just basic economics.
Technically this means we should be hip-deep in 90s nostalgia right now, and that’s not really happening. Sure, some of the really major elements of the 90s like Ninja Turtles are being revisited, but that sort of thing isn’t anywhere near saturation and 90s callbacks don’t seem to be a safe bet the way 80s callbacks were a decade ago. If anything, we seem to be lingering in the 80s. Maybe because the 90s sucked? What happens in the next decade? Will 90s nostalgia show up late, or will we skip the 90s and jump right to new-millennium nostalgia? I have no idea.
The point is, the 20-year retro echo is just the result of an entertainment industry chasing the dollars of the under-30 market. Which means that 2001 was just the right time for GTA to revisit the 1980s.
Even more than before, the game wears its pop-culture influences on its sleeve. The main character is voiced by Ray Liotta, who also played the main character in Goodfellas. There are numerous nods to Scarface, including an overt reference to the infamous chainsaw scene. The main character’s best friend has an outfit and car that deliberately evoke the character of Sonny Crockett from Miami Vice. Love Fist is a spot-on send-up of the hair metal bands of the day.
Death and Prison
GTA has an interesting way of handling player failure. The game doesn’t have a proper “Game Over” screen. Indeed, there is no ending to the game whatsoever. Whether you die in an explosion or complete the final mission, the game always fades back in a few seconds later and returns you to the action.
If you die, you simply reappear at the hospital. It doesn’t matter how implausible your survival might be. You can jump out of a helicopter and plunge 20 stories to smack into the pavement head-first. It doesn’t matter. You’ll still pop out of the hospital a few seconds later, cured of all injuries. Getting arrested is the same idea. Even if you kill fifty people in a city-spanning rampage, you’ll stroll out of the police station a few seconds later, ready to resume the chaos. (Once you rearm yourself, anyway.)
This isn’t like resetting to a checkpoint where a game pulls you back to a previous point in time with everything reset to your pre-failure state. This death / arrest “happened” within the gameworld, in the sense that you lost some money, you were sent to the hospital / police station, and and several hours pass within the gameworld. On the other hand it obviously didn’t happen in the sense that a hospital can’t cure you of being exploded and the police don’t casually release people with triple-digit body counts. Nobody in the gameworld ever references your miraculous recoveries / escapes.
It’s an unusual approach for handling fail states, but I think it really suits the open-world design.
Vice City is the only game to specifically lampshade this system. Early in the game you meet the lawyer Ken Rosenberg, a high-strung cokehead weasel. If you get pinched, during the fade-out you’ll get an indignant voiceover from Rosenberg to the authorities, OUTRAGED that the police would dare charge his obviously innocent client with such outlandish crimes.
You’re the Boss
Vice City differs from its contemporaries in that it occasionally breaks from the “boss of the week” format. Tommy is building a criminal empire for himself, and so a handful of his missions are self-imposed. Yes, he still works for various bosses around town, but a lot of the missions are framed as Tommy being given information by someone and then deciding to act on it. This is, in a narrative sense, fundamentally different from when Claude would silently nod his head and do what he was told in GTA III. Tommy is a fully voiced character with a fleshed-out personality, and so he needs to be a more active participant in the story.
The story starts off with Tommy Vercetti getting out of jail. Sonny Forelli is the boss of the Forelli crime family in Liberty City, and everyone is a little nervous that a wildcard like Tommy is back on the streets. So Sonny’s plan is to extend their empire southward to Vice CityMiami, basically..
Sonny gives Tommy a bunch of money to get the venture started. Tommy is supposed to buy some coke, sell it, and establish a foothold in the city on behalf of the Forelli family. But then the deal goes bad and Tommy loses both the money and the drugs. Thus Tommy is now deeply indebted to the dangerous and ruthless Sonny Forelli.
For whatever reason, I was suffering from a hilarious case of genre blindness in 2002 and I actually thought my goal was just to get Sonny his money. It was very late in the game before I finally realized that Tommy had no plans to ever pay Sonny back and was just starting his own empire down here.
While dumb on my part (quietly paying back a debt is the kind of thing I would do, but would be totally out of character for Tommy) this actually helped the missions make more sense. In the previous game you might ask yourself, “Why am I working for this corrupt cop? I don’t need his stupid money and he’s not getting me any closer to my real goal.” But here in Vice City the answer is built into the premise: You’re doing the job for the money, and you need the money because the wrath of an entire crime family is hanging over your head.
Tommy needs to pay Sonny back or build an empire capable of withstanding Sonny’s eventual rage. Either way, he needs the money in a way that Claude never did.
I try to avoid turning these retrospectives into a rehash of the Wikipedia page, but sometimes Wikipedia has factoids that are just too interesting to pass up. Vice City had a nine-month development cycle, which sounds incredibly tight for this sort of game. Vice City might not be quite as big as GTA III if you measure it in square miles, but there’s a lot of visual diversity on the map. The fact that they were able to design the game, write the script, hire the actors, capture the performances, script the cutscenes, code the missions, and add this content to the game in just nine months is pretty impressive.
Also impressive? The budget. Just $5 million. Compare this to the over quarter of a billion they spent making GTA V. For the budget of GTA V, you could make Vice City fifty times over.
Graphical fidelity is expensive!
While the Vice City map is actually a little smaller than the one in the previous game, it’s a more polished experience all around. But rather than praise Rockstar for their dedication to quality (because everyone already did that back in 2002) let me use this opportunity to whine about the infamous mission…
We need to hire a getaway driver for a heist. Okay. That’s a fine thing to do in a game like this. The thing is, in order to hire this guy, you have to… beat him in a race? Just to make sure things are unreasonable, the other guy’s car can easily out-accelerate yours. Oh, and the police get wind of the street race and so they chase YOU. (And not him.) And they’re scripted to jump out in front of you. (And of course, being an AI, he knows the way and you don’t.)
If I can beat this guy in a race with these handicaps in place, then I think I’ve conclusively proven he’s completely unqualified. I mean, it’s bad enough this is a fairly hard mission with a lot of “gotcha” moments, but why did the writer feel the need to make the entire premise of the race offensive to anyone capable of thought?
On top of this, the player is probably thinking, “Why am I going to all of this trouble to hire a driver. I wouldn’t WANT to do a mission where I sit in the car while someone else drives!”
And then you win the race, recruit the guy, do the heist, and he dies stupidly before he ever gets the chance to drive. The player’s hard-fought victory is rendered moot, and they have to do the driving anyway.
Yes, this is entirely intentional. This isn’t a case where an incompetent writer tries to empower the player and does the opposite. This mission sets out to be annoying and absurd and then succeeds. I’ll let you decide if the designer should be praised or reviled for it.
 Miami, basically.
Quakecon 2011 Keynote Annotated
An interesting but technically dense talk about gaming technology. I translate it for the non-coders.
Silent Hill Turbo HD II
I was trying to make fun of how Silent Hill had lost its way but I ended up making fun of fighting games. Whatever.
The Best of 2015
My picks for what was important, awesome, or worth talking about in 2015.
Diablo III Retrospective
We were so upset by the server problems and real money auction that we overlooked just how terrible everything else is.
The Loot Lottery
What makes the gameplay of Borderlands so addictive for some, and what does that have to do with slot machines?