Archive for May, 2014

Vice City: “Ice Cream”

I once joked about a nonexistent special activity for ice cream trucks in GTA3. Well, guess what? Vice City has a special activity for ice cream trucks! Sort of. When you buy the ice cream factory, it turns out that it’s not really an ice cream factory, and that they’re using the trucks to distribute something else that slowly gets you in trouble with the police as you hand it out. The game is oddly coy about exactly what it is — one assumes drugs, but it’s only ever identified as “product”. In most games, I’d assume that they’re trying to skirt around drug stuff in order to maintain a content rating and avoid being banned in the more persnicketty nations, but that doesn’t really make sense here, because there’s been so many references to drug use and drug dealing already, starting with the premise of the whole game. I suppose it’s possible that the various ratings bodies and other moral watchdogs would be harsher on an interactive drug-dealing mission than they would be on a cutscene.

At any rate, most of the businesses available for purchase have a similar story: once you buy them, you discover that they’re already involved in crimes, even before you can exert your corrupting influence. The used car dealership deals in stolen cars, the print works does a little counterfeiting on the side, etc. This serves as a way to introduce business-specific missions where you expand these operations, but that doesn’t really require the crimes to already be in place. But I suppose that having Tommy Vercetti be the source of all crime, rather than its mere discoverer, would make the whole thing darker and less comic. As it is, no one in Vice City is innocent, and that absolves the player of a certain amount of responsibility. Tommy isn’t a monster if everyone else is just as bad as him, if the only thing that separates him from them is that he’s better at it.

I’ll note one strange technical problem I had with the ice cream distribution in particular. The game tells you to use the shift key to turn on your ice cream truck’s jingle and attract customers. This is in fact an essential part of distributing “product”; no one will come to your truck if it isn’t jingling. But somehow, I found I was usually unable to turn the jingle on, and had to try over and over again before it took. The jingle toggle uses the same key as the horn on most cars, and that works fine, so it’s not like the game was failing to register the keypress. My best guess is that the difference lies in it being a toggle, which you press to start and press again to stop, whereas the horn toots for as long as you hold the key down. This is the sort of thing that I can see being affected by framerate or CPU speed, in which case it’s probably broken forever now, and will only get worse.

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.

Vice City: Rise to Power

I’ve reached a major plot turn. There’s this crime boss named Diaz, who the player character Tommy Vercetti has good reason to believe was involved in stealing the drug money that kicked off the whole story. You do some missions for him in order to gain his trust, but, for reasons I won’t go into here, that trust is suddenly shattered, and Diaz’s men are suddenly out to kill you. So Tommy replies in kind, storming Diaz’s opulent mansion in the rich part of town and killing him first. This leaves a power vacuum in the Vice City crime scene, which Tommy immediately fills. He moves into Diaz’s mansion and sets about taking over the town.

This is a dramatic change from the way the game has gone so far, and from the way that the rest of the GTA series had gone previously. The hero had always hitherto been a lackey. With very few exceptions, the missions had always been about satisfying someone else’s needs, or even someone else’s whims, accepting whatever limitations they put on you to determine success, even if they don’t make practical sense. But now, for the first time, Tommy’s actions are mainly self-directed. He still has missions, but they’re things that he decides to do himself.

This isn’t really reflected in mechanics, mind. I mean, okay, there’s a pretty big structural change: suddenly you’re allowed to purchase all the various businesses you’ve noticed around town with “for sale” icons on them, and that means a surge of new options and new mission sources. So your rise to power is accompanied by some ability to make consequential decisions, about which properties to spend your hard-won money on. But the missions, for all practical purposes, are still just missions. You, the player, don’t have any more control over them just because the objectives are now being articulated by the player character. It’s a bit like the moment in Bioshock where you overcome the mind control, only to find that you’ve just exchanged one master for another, except that the in-fiction aspect makes it feel a great deal less cheap here.

Early in the game, Tommy is given a (big, clunky-looking, 1980s) portable phone, and from then on occasionally receives calls from various characters, mostly directing him to new mission sources. After you replace Diaz, you suddenly get calls from pretty much every surviving named NPC in rapid succession, some of them basically just checking in with you to reinforce the idea that everyone is waking up to the notion that Tommy is important. But to my mind, the strongest indicator of your change in status is a subtler one. Any place where you can pick up missions is marked on the minimap with an icon. Some of these icons are pictoral, like the voodoo doll icon that marks Auntie Poulet’s place, but others show letters, like the “D” that marked Diaz’s mansion. After you kill Diaz, his mansion’s icon changes into one that I had difficulty parsing at first: it looked to me like a pixelated and stylized rabbit head. I didn’t know what to make of that until I realized it was just a somewhat lumpy letter V, for Vercetti. All the major mob bosses had their marks on the map, and this was a very direct and automatic acknowledgment that Tommy had joined their ranks. It’s just a little thing, but all the more powerful for the lack of fanfare.

Vice City: Voodoo Mind Control Drugs

I’ve just wrapped up the Haitian/Cuban gang war subplot, and have a bottleneck mission relating directly to the main overplot before I can get any more side missions. Once again, Vice City is doing a much better job of keeping the frame relevant than GTA3 did. According to a brief and spoiler-risking look at a wiki, this means I’m something like 2/3 done with the story. But before I go on, I have some small observations about what I’ve just been through.

The gang war is something that the player character both starts and finishes, and at both ends it’s done with aggression towards the Haitian side. Starting the gang war involves conspicuously whacking a Haitian gang leaser while dressed up in Cuban gang attire and driving a stolen Cuban gang car. In a nice bit of symmetry, ending the war involves stealing a Haitian gang car, although this time the aim is to be inconspicuous: the car gains you access to a Haitian gang drug factory, so you can plant bombs.

Being a purely mercenary sort with no loyalties in this struggle, you have missions for the Haitian side as well. Curiously, however, the authors decided to imply that they’re not entirely voluntary. Whenever Tommy Vercetti visits Auntie Poulet, the voodoo priestess stereotype who gives him the Haitian-side missions, he acts muddled and confused, apparently not remembering any of his previous visits, then extremely compliant, not even mentioning payment. Auntie gives him tea, or at any rate something in a teacup, and he leaves in a daze, ready to do whatever she asked without quite knowing why he’s doing it. At one point she sends him to recover some “powders” that the feds are after because “dey tink it drugs” — implying that it’s not mundane drugs, but might be some kind of crazy voodoo mind control substance. Well, whatever it is that’s affecting Tommy here, it’s clearly capable of affecting him from just inhaling it, because he’s affected the moment he walks into the room.

And that makes me wonder about the factory explosion that closes out this section of the game. Were the Haitians making mundane drugs there, or mind control stuff? And if the latter, what’s going to happen when a building full of the stuff gets released into the atmosphere of Vice City? Well… probably nothing. Even if the authors were thinking of it in the same way as me, it probably wouldn’t lead anywhere just because that’s how most of the stories in GTA3 went: the writers set stuff up and then just kind of left it set up. It’ll be cool if I’m wrong, though.

Vice City: Shortcuts

I’ve had something of a breakthrough: I’ve recovered 60 Hidden Packages. The reward for this is a minigun permanently available at your hideout. This may sound like just another gun, and unexciting, but the minigun’s destructive power (and effective range, and ammo capacity) is so much greater than most other weapons, it renders even the most difficult combat missions all but trivial. For example, there’s one mission where you confront a couple of boats swarming with enemy gunmen, and have to kill them all before proceeding. About a half second of concentrated fire from the minigun is enough to simply sink the boats.

Now, not all missions are about killing. There’s still plenty of driving to be done. But at this moment, it looks like the driving is going to be the focus of all my actual effort from now on — which, to my mind, is entirely reasonable for a game with the word “auto” in its title. Still, this gun seems almost game-breaking. But only almost, because breaking the game is, in an open-world game of this sort, part of the game.

Really, I’ve been taking shortcuts all along. There was one early mission that was clearly set up to be a motorcycle chase: the man you’re pursuing flees the building where you find him and gets on a bike, and there’s a second bike conveniently close to the exit you follow him through. I found it much easier to steal a car and ram him with it, throwing him off the bike. There’s another mission on a golf course, where you have to check your weapons at the door. When you approach the victim, wielding a golf club with deadly intent, he leaps into a golf cart, drives around aimlessly for a while, then makes a break for the exit and escapes. Clearly you’re supposed to grab a golf cart of your own and try to catch up to him, bumping or blocking his cart until he’s forced to get out, at which point you club him to death. But you can instead just make a beeline for the exit, pick up your guns, and wait for him.

Probably the single biggest shortcut is the helicopter. I mentioned that there were toy RC helicopters that you could control remotely. Well, there’s a full-sized one you can steal on top of a skyscraper in the northern part of the city. It’s still kind of tricky to control, although it’s a breeze compared to the Dodo in GTA3. And it makes it downright trivial to get Hidden Packages in places that would otherwise require tricky sequences of motorcycle jumps. I have yet to use the helicopter in a mission, but I’m keeping an eye out for situations where it makes sense.

So, any of these things might subvert the intent behind a particular mission, but I can’t say they’re against the spirit of the game as a whole. Alternate solutions, like spending the time to hunt down 60 Hidden Packages, are intended by the designers. And if they’re not intended in particular, at least alternate solutions as a general concept are a core part of the design, and therefore cannot really be regarded as “breaking the game”. That’s one advantage of using a criminal as the hero. It effectively gives the player permission to cheat.

Vice City: Controversy and Offense

I’m making progress on the missions again. In one of the multi-stage ones that I haven’t managed to finish yet, I encountered familiar words, flashed on the screen as instructions: “KILL ALL THE HAITIANS!” This, I recalled, was the centerpiece of a Controversy. Certain immigrant advocacy groups had taken exception to the game’s use of Haitian and Cuban gangs, and Rockstar had responded that things had been taken out of context, as if people were seriously misinterpreting “kill all the Haitians” as an exhortation to genocide rather than an instruction to finish the gunfight currently in progress between Haitian and Cuban gang members. The thing is, even if you remove that line, or even that entire mission, there’s still plenty of material that’s insulting or degrading to both Haitians (who, in the game, live in plywood hovels and practice voodoo) and Cubans (who are uniformly obsessed with proving they have “big cojones”). The game is at times a sort of 4chan-ish racism-murder-comedy. As I said about GTA3, “They’re shown to be ridiculous caricatures, and then you kill them.” And this is supposedly after removing the worst of it in response to the complaints.

Part of Rockstar’s defense of and pseudo-apology for their content is that they’re uniformly mean to everyone. Even ignoring how absurd that is as a defense of anything (“But, your honor, I pickpocketed the entire crowd!”), that’s pretty unsatisfying. For one thing, hitting everyone equally just means the most vulnerable are hit the worst. For another, it’s never equal. There are a number of satirical talk radio segments within the game that portray representatives of various social and political movements as buffoonish hypocrites, but that’s hardly the same thing as being told to go kill them. For that matter, the radio personalities aren’t treated all the same. Of all the in-game radio interviews I’ve heard while driving around town, all are satisfied with just letting the subjects make a fool of themselves except one, which takes the extra step of explicitly calling them out, with a paragraph of comment-thread-like abuse from a call-in listener that the interviewee can’t come up with a good response to, giving the author and any like-minded players an opportunity to high-five themselves over the righteous straw-man takedown. See if you can guess what the subject here was. 1Feminism.

Now, I’m no friend of censorship, especially when applied to games. Any concern I have over the content isn’t “Should they be allowed to say this?”, but rather “Are the authors assholes? Is this an asshole game, and by playing it, am I encouraging it?” And I think it’s undeniable that Vice City is written to be an asshole; this was more or less how it was marketed. But I don’t think it’s really significantly more of an asshole than GTA3, and somehow it got a stronger rap for it. The Haitian/Cuban gang war is just the Vice City version of GTA3‘s gang war between the Yakuza and the Colombian cartel — they’re even both instigated by the player character at the behest of a real-estate developer who wants to lower property values — but the mayor of New York didn’t feel compelled to issue a public statement about GTA3 the way he did about Vice City. Perhaps it’s just that the whole thing was less known at that point. By the time Vice City came out, it was already receiving media attention that GTA3 had to earn.

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1. Feminism.

Vice City: Money

Vice City‘s plot is about money. The fact that I can even say this is illustrative of the difference between this game and its predecessors: the first two GTAs didn’t have any real plot to speak of, while GTA3 had some kind of revenge premise that only made a difference in the beginning and the end, by which point I had forgotten about it. But this time around, the protagonist has spoken lines, and a fairly large proportion of those lines are “What about the money?”, so it’s harder to forget. The premise is a drug deal gone wrong. A suitcase full of large bills, belonging to Tommy’s boss Forelli, is in the hands of persons unknown, and all your main-arc missions, however generic they may be, indirectly serve the purpose of tracking it down.

Pursuit of money has always been a big part of the series, of course. But previously, it was mostly a matter of game mechanics. Your cash functions as your score. In the first two games, your primary goal on each level was simply to accumulate a certain quantity of money, which would unlock the next level. GTA3, in what I take to be a nod towards the earlier games, made you pay a $100000 fee to access the mission that got you off the first island — but for the first time in the series, it was diegetic, the money being paid to an NPC, ostensibly for the large quantity of explosives that the mission required.

Here in Vice City, there isn’t even a fee. Content is much less locked-away: you need to go through a certian set of missions to get off your initial island, just like in GTA3, but the entire city unlocks all at once. It’s probably more accurate to think of this as completing the tutorial missions. There’s still a strong pressure to keep on accumulating money, though, because there’s so much to buy with it now — in particular, safehouses.

A safehouse is a place where you can save your game, and most of them also have attached garages where you can stash vehicles safely. (Cars tend to disappear when you get too far away from them otherwise.) They’re strictly a convenience, but a safehouse close to the missions or rampages you’re attempting can greatly shorten the die-and-retry cycle. Still, it would be dishonest of me to claim that this is the reason I buy them. I buy them because they’re there. Because they’re available in greater quantities or higher prices than I can afford at any given moment, and that gives me something to strive for. It’s a way to make the ever-increasing cash rewards meaningful.

The suitcase full of cash? That’s cutscene money, in the same sense as cutscene deaths. Unconnected from the quotidian hundreds or thousands that pass through my hands. Getting it presumably means passing it on to Forelli, so it’s not like I’ll spend it. It would be kind of neat if a persistent player could simply do enough crime to pay back Forelli without finding the original, but the game cannily prevents us from making a serious attempt by simply never telling us how much money it is.

Vice City: Rampage!

The Rampage or Kill Frenzy has been a feature of GTA from the very beginning. The basic idea is that you’re temporarily given a weapon with unlimited ammo, and you have two minutes to kill a certain number of enemy gang members (or occasionally innocent bystanders or even cars), which will spawn in greater-than-normal numbers around you while the rampage is in progress. If you succeed, you get a cash reward that increases as you pass more rampages. This could obviously seed a feedback loop that encourages people to keep seeking out new rampages until they’re exhausted, but I personally never got that far into it, even though they’re necessary for 100% completion. Rampages carry the risk of harm, and can sometimes attract police attention. But they are a good opportunity to try out weapons that might not otherwise see much use. In particular, it’s often possible to find a rampage for a weapon before it becomes available in the main game.

The one thing that’s changed from the original GTA kill frenzies is the way that they’re triggered. Originally, the trigger was picking up certain specific weapons lying out in the open. The kill frenzy weapons didn’t look any different from ordinary weapons, so you’d sometimes find yourself in Kill Frenzy mode unexpectedly. Vice City instead uses special rampage icons that float in the air, slowly rotating. I call this an improvement, but it does mean that when you attempt a rampage for the first time, you don’t know in advance whether you’re going to be rampaging with a rocket launcher or a katana. This is a significant piece of information to withhold from the player — particularly if, like me, you’re doing it primarily for combat practice.

Speaking of which, I think I did in fact gain from my practice, and I intend to switch back to missions in my next session. But I think the main thing I got out of doing multiple rampages was an appreciation of how much easier combat is using mouse/keyboard controls. I had long since given up on using a controller for first-person sniping, but now I’m giving up on it in general. Even driving seems more comfortable with mouse/keyboard controls at this point. Strange, considering how relieved I was to get joystick controls working in GTA3. There may be some grass-is-always-greener in effect here, with any control scheme I’ve recently switched to feeling better simply because it’s different and alleviates the inconveniences I’m aware of at that moment (while introducing others I’m not paying attention to yet). But even taking that into account, mouse just seems like the way to go in any situation where you’re aiming a gun.

Vice City: Back to Packages

I seem to have gotten stuck on missions for the time being. There are three available to me, all involving new vehicles: stealing a fast boat, racing a boat through a series of checkpoints within a time limit, and stealing a tank. I recall stealing a tank back in the original GTA, but this is the first appearance of drivable boats in the series. They handle more or less like extra-swervy cars.

At any rate, I’ve come close to passing the racing mission, and will likely pass it after a few more tries, but the two vehicle-stealing missions are really shooting missions, with more armed guards than I can easily handle. You can’t even try to steal the tank while the driver is still inside, which, if my puzzle-solving skills haven’t failed me, means you have to slaughter its entire escort of soldiers, then park a vehicle in front of it, thereby forcing the driver to get out to move the vehicle instead of just having one of the other soldiers do it. If I’m going to take on an entire platoon single-handed, I’m going to need to get better at handling weapons. This may require further tweaking to the control scheme.

So I spent most of last night’s session not on missions, but on exploring the islands and looking for hidden packages. The packages look different from the ones in GTA3: instead of a rounded bundle presumably full of drugs, they look like a small green idol. If there’s a story to that, I don’t know it. The mechanics haven’t changed, though. As in GTA3, there are 100 of them, and each unique or interesting feature of the city hides exactly one. And every ten packages gets you an additional item that’s always available back at your hideout. With ten packages, you get body armor, which is a must-have for any risky mission. I’ve got twenty now, and was disappointed that the second reward turned out to be a chainsaw, which is only situationally helpful — you’d be hard-pressed to get close enough to those soldiers for it to do any good.

I may be frustrating myself by going about this with the wrong attitude, too. When I played GTA3, I did my first explorations purely for exploration’s sake, not for the sake of an edge in combat. The fact that I found hidden packages was a bonus. Possibly I’ve gotten tired of simply poking around virtual landscapes without a goal. Certainly I did a great deal of that when I was playing World of Warcraft, but it’s in the nature of games that we eventually learn what we needed to learn from them and move on, like a child who’s solved tic-tac-toe. One of the strengths of the GTA “sandbox” model is that it supports multiple activities, so that you can still keep enjoying the game after tiring of one. But my lack of success with the missions is hampering me there.

Having said all that, it strikes me that what I really should be doing is Rampages. Rampages are an aspect of the game that I haven’t really explored much, having pretty much decided that they were too rich for my blood back in GTA3. Plus, doing a bunch of them would help to hone my combat skills. Maybe I’ll post about those next time.

Vice City: Awkwardness Revisited

Well, I’ve made it off the initial island. As in GTA3, progress from one part of the city to another is arbitrarily gated by missions: the ostensible reason you can’t use the bridges just happens to go away the moment you have an in-story reason to be on the other side. Also as in GTA3, the first island’s climactic mission is the one that introduces a gun that you can aim and fire in first-person mode, which is a great deal easier to do with a mouse than with a gamepad. Having been through this situation once, I did not long hesitate to put my controller down.

Using the mouse for first-person aiming makes things easier, but I have to ask: does it improve the experience of the game? I think it does in this instance, because the mission is frustratingly difficult without it. (Even with a mouse, it took me a couple of tries.) But it definitely isn’t the way the game was meant to be played. And it’s not a trivial question, because awkward controls can be a core element of gameplay. Lately there’s been a spate of games based entirely on struggling with humorously awkward control schemes, like Surgeon Simulator 2013, Probably Archery, and Enviro-Bear. Their lineage can probably be traced to QWOP, but the idea of deriving challenge through a suboptimal UI has been played straight for a long time. A colleague of mine once pointed it out as the basis of the 1982 arcade game Gravitar: it gives you a spaceship with a gun on its nose, which means you have to do aerial somersaults to remain aloft while taking out enemies on the ground. Your ship would be a lot more practical, and much easier to use, if it could shoot downward. But where’s the fun in that?

And really, the GTA games pretty much fit into the deliberate-awkward-controls genre. Your control over your vehicle is imperfect, at least to start with. Lacking control, you skid and swerve, run red lights, drive in the wrong lane and on the sidewalk and so forth — in short, you drive recklessly, and that, as I have said before, is the core pleasure of the game. But I suppose it’s different from the other awkward-controls games in that they generally ask you to overcome the awkwardness, rather than indulge and savor it.

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