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.

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