Vice City: Radio

I’ve mentioned the in-game radio stations a little, but not enough to really get across what an important part of the game they are. Outside of the intro cutscene and presumably the ending credits, all the music in this game is diegetic. Car radios provide the bulk of game’s soundtrack.

Every civilian vehicle 1Police cars and fire engines and the like are excepted. Strangely, motorcycles are not. has a radio that automatically turns on when you climb inside, tuned by default to a station that’s appropriate to the stereotypical owner of that style of vehicle, although you can change the station at will. There’s a rock station, a hip-hop station, a synth-pop station, a Latin music station with Spanish-language announcements, a talk radio station, an NPR affiliate, and so forth. Eleven in all, each playing a loop more than an hour long, synchronized to real time: if you leave the car or switch to another station for a while, the radio playback keeps advancing.

Mechanically, this all proceeds from the basics set down in the original GTA, just with different content. There’s considerably more content now, for one thing; back then, some of the radio stations just looped one song repeatedly. But also, by the time of Vice City, the success of the GTA phenomenon meant that Rockstar had the wherewithal to license well-known music, turning the whole thing into a sort of 80s retro hit parade: Billy Jean, Video Killed the Radio Star, Broken Wings, 99 Luftballons. In the earlier games, most of the music was original, written for the game, and much of it was satirical. There’s still a certain amount of that going on, mind. There’s a fictional band called “Love Fist” that gets interviewed on one of the talk stations and apparently has some songs mixed in with the real 80s music. But I couldn’t tell you which songs are theirs, even though I’m sure I’ve heard them multiple times over the course of playing the game. I suppose it’s because popular music in the 80s was so frequently close to self-satire to begin with. I mean, I don’t know what I would have made of the song Poison Arrow if I had heard it for the first time in this context. (“Stupid! Stupid!”)

Now, Love Fist isn’t just a thing on the radio. Their interview mentions that they’re doing a concert in Vice City, and sure enough, you can find the arena where they’ll be performing, all festooned with concert posters. Later in the game you even meet them and do missions for them (fetching them drugs and such). So the radio isn’t just a simultaneous and parallel amusement: it’s world-building. There’s actually quite a lot of this, even on the music channels, which have ads for fictitious products endorsed by local celebrities who might or might not enter Tommy’s story at some point. And owing to the way radio works, it’s a particular sort of ambient world-building, where you get the background in small pieces and at random times while you’re paying more attention to something else. Occasionally I’m tempted to just sit in the car and listen to the radio for a while so as not to miss any information, but I remind myself that I’ll have plenty more opportunities to hear it all over the course of the remaining missions.

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1. Police cars and fire engines and the like are excepted. Strangely, motorcycles are not.

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