GTA Vice City – The Strengths of a Limited Open World
Ask just about any fan why they love the world of GTA V and the response will likely be familiar. The vast, open freedom, limitless possibilities to reign chaos, numerous various settings to explore. A plethora of activities to engage in at any given time, plus some Fun, designed missions to complete whenever exploration fatigue sets in.
But much of Rockstar’s intent with GTA V’s construction is to limit that fatigue as much as possible, allowing the player to revel in the bastness of its open world. Testing the limits of expanding the barriers placed upon a player. But this is exactly the reason I am constantly so disappointed by this latest entry in such a great series.
A sense of coordinated development is lost when the developer becomes so adamantly focused instead on letting the player do what they want. This has certainly been the crux of the GTA series and its massive popularity: give players the environment and tools to run about and cause havoc. But the earlier titles were always grounded in some sort of unreality; Liberty City, Vice City, and San Andreas felt out of this world, a sort of dreamlike playland to allow players the opportunity to rid themselves of disillusionment within the contexts of their real lives.
No other title so perfectly captures this than GTA: Vice City, which is set in possibly the smallest city in the series’s universe. It’s because of this limited open world that the game so appropriately balances the action with storytelling and that necessary sense of otherworldly exploration.
The devil is in the details. Vice City is a wonderfully picturesque environment from any given angle. Sun spots shine off the lens of the third-person camera POV; the clear blue waters sparkle and glisten as waves crash against the sides of cruising speed boats; bright neon paints the town, alluding to the crystal-sheen lifestyle which 80s culture so adamantly sought. The game is a masterpiece in stylistic wonderment, fulfilling this sense of magical realism everywhere one looks. But it’s consistently grounded in its effective gameplay rules that are both easy to interpret and Fun to engage in.
Consider GTA: San Andreas as a counter-point. The added RPG elements, a variety of side activities that boost particular stats, the weight of money on CJ’s sense of authority: it all alludes to the more interesting subject matters which the game delves into — as opposed to Vice City’s simplistic referential storytelling, respectively — but does not necessarily elicit as entertaining an experience. Vice City is blissfully interactive magical realism, presented as a chrome convertible with 80s pop blasting.
San Andreas is the better overall game for its ability to express its underlying arguments involving class struggle through player input. But Vice City’s purity is what allows it to stand the test of time, in spite of its more advanced peers and its archaic functionality. In many ways, the game is better for it, as the aged controls and aesthetic further capture the nostalgic rush capitulated by the period-drawn influences which paint its portrait.
Playing Vice City today, especially having recently playing through the following GTA entries, can often be frustrating. Wildly-responsive automobile handling, obtuse combat functionality, a difficult map to interpret; these all have been remarkably improved upon with each subsequent Rockstar release. But no other game in the developer’s catalogue has so fundamentally perfected the open world experience quite like Vice City.
Whereas San Andreas revels in its massive size, physically representing protagonist CJ’s economic ascent from the ghetto locale of Los Santos into the luxurious Las Venturas (all thanks to violence, theft, and corruption, of course); Vice City maintains modesty all while incorporating an expansive playground for player-character Tommy Vercetti to dominate.
I’ve become a pro at failing missions: ie. loading my last save to reaccumulate my lost resources and initiate the mission more suitably. I return to my safehouse to save the game after completing every mission. Upon disruption of my screen by big red letters declaring my failure, it becomes a natural instinct to bring up the Start menu and Load the last save. Similar to learning the environment of the Spencer Mansion in Resident Evil, or the mystic landscape of Zebes in Super Metroid, or even the arrangement of levels in the original Super Mario Bros., the constant backtracking throughout the city of Vice — to the safehouse, to the mission start points, to the local Ammu-Nations, etc. — becomes ingrained in memory, cataloguing within the psyche a mental map far more comprehensible than the one featured in-game.
This is my city; I know VC like the back of my hand. Tommy is on a quest to reclaim stolen goods; an errand boy constantly being taken advantage of, letting the bigger picture fall back into the relations of a MacGuffin artifact. It’s no wonder he’s eventually betrayed by mysterious abettor, Lance Vance; the world is out to get you as much as you are out to get it. In a city where everyone wants be king, there’s only enough room for the conmen — until they’re inevitably deceived themselves. “This town just ain’t big enough for the two of us.” So it goes.
From a functionality standpoint, Vice City’s limited open world simply limits the in-between time. Travelling to and from requested points of interest allows little empty space; often not even long enough to hear an entire ‘80s hit blasting from the car radio. Later entries like San Andreas and GTA IV would go on to incorporate a cutscene philosophy through player-directed driving sections, offering gorgeous scenery to engulf while the narrative naturally spills out next to you like a friend who won’t shut up during a road trip — but you love him anyways.
Vice City meanwhile establishes its essence of magical realism and then allows it to speak for itself continuously. An endless cutscene, meant to provide world context, as opposed to narrative substance. Which, given what the game has become to contemporarily represent, is far more ideal in execution. The simplicity denotes the frustration inherent in forcing the player to reload old saves, lest they venture all the way back to the mission start prompt. But regardless, that ‘all the way’ really isn’t too considerable a distance, and there’s really nothing like taking a scenic drive down BayShore Avenue, sunshine composing bright lens flare through the dash, Flock of Seagulls transmitting neon waves of adrenaline through the speakers — all contributing to that platonic nostalgic ideal which Vice City is entirely built around.
It’s style at its most pure form, which requires a pure landscape to fully accentuate. The minimized scale works for Vice City because it renders its one-note locale obsolete but comforting. A true escape from modern mundanity, back into the relics of 1980s synth-pop haze. Dreams of fast cars, flashy suits, the epitome of riches and well-being: all consequently brought to you by the corruption and manipulation of others.
But Vice City chooses not to expand on the sinister repercussions of this fantasyland made obtainable. Instead it highlights the tragedies which befall greedy men; dwells on our inherent desire to accumulate wealth and seek higher ground. Accessing power through intimidation; blissfully dominating landscape through money and violence. Completely removed from reality, capitalizing on the concept of videogames as pure escapism, analyzing players’ (ie. humanity’s) internal desires for bright, flashy action setpieces, often as a means of self-prosperity.
There’s little to actually spend your hard-earned money on, besides weapons used to acquire more monetary rewards. This is purposeful and entirely appropriate. That number at the top of the screen represents social status: how much you own this city; rather how much you think you do. It’s all about looks, and self-imposed value. Dress yourself up in gaudy suits, or handle bigger and flashier weapons. Intimidation is the name of the game, and Vice City can only hold so many kings.
The smaller setting greatly impacts this, with its wonderful sense of isolation and maintained aesthetic. Learn the land, so you may one day own it. But that’s the problem with fantasy: eventually you wake up and smell the roses, and they emit an awful aroma of rusted bullet casings, sweat-damped overalls, and cocaine-addled mansions, empty save the bloody remains of the latest befallen magistrate in all his glory.
GTA: Vice City offers a playplace where that dream doesn’t need to end. There’s no such thing as dire repercussions. An open environment to run amok and feign empowerment, to revel in the makeshift opportunities of economic prosperity and violence without fallout. The game remains essential for its escapist philosophy, repurposing the glorification of 1980s car chases and drug-peddling into a more interactive experience. Its purpose: bring that immorally wicked American Dream to life as close as possible, without sacrificing the dazzling Fun.