This is another post that I was about done writing last month when a person involved with the work died. Actor Ray Liotta, famous for his roles in movies such as Goodfellas, was also the voice of GTA Vice City’s main character Tommy Vercetti. Liotta died on May 26, 2022. RIP Ray.
Video games and music have had a love/love relationship since the point where games had the storage space and processing power to play actual music during the games. Sometimes it’s an original score for the game – the soundtrack to Skyrim has been big business and the Red Dead Redemption series has very acclaimed original songs.
In other cases it’s a soundtrack of curated songs that play while the game is going. The Tony Hawk Pro Skater series is as beloved for its soundtracks as for its legendary game play. And many driving games have a selection of radio stations for fans of many different kinds of music to get their fix as they traverse pixelated highways.
But when it comes to music in video games, absolutely no one got it as right as Rockstar Games and the Grand Theft Auto series. A host of radio stations occupy whichever vehicle the player feels like stealing and interspersed with the songs are a variety of satirical ads, on-theme DJs and even original talk radio programming. The GTA series soundtracks are achievements unto themselves and have been a major highlight of the games.
Today I’m going to talk about the soundtrack to my favorite video game of all time – Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. Set in mid-1980’s Florida and modeled after Miami, Vice City is a pit of sin and debauchery full of drug deals and a power struggle for the top of the criminal food chain. The game took the revolutionary elements of the wildly successful GTA III and added more voice acting and game play hijinks to really take the series to the forefront of gaming accomplishments.
I could go on and on about the game but this is about the music – and there’s plenty of it. Vice City’s radio stations are loaded with songs. There are seven music stations that offer about fifteen songs on average, the original Playstation 2 release featured 103 songs. Two other radio stations are talk-based programming and are also hilarious, it is Rockstar satire at its best. For anyone who has played the game for any length of time and gotten tired of hearing the same songs over and over again, K-CHAT and Vice City Public Radio offer audio detours that provide absolute laugh riots.
The music runs the gamut of everything great about the 1980’s – everything from pop, new wave, soul, rock and metal, and early hip-hop are represented in the radio stations.
Had this just been a bunch of radio stations with music, Vice City would have been an absolute delight. But wait, there’s more – Rockstar not only provided the music, but also gave each station its own legitimate feel with DJ’s and commercials. The DJ’s fit the spirit of each station they’re on, one personal favorite is the creepy Fernando on Emotion 98.3. The DJ talk fits between the songs probably better than most real-life radio DJ’s can accomplish, at least from what I’ve heard. And of course in-game events can influence what is said on the radio, though this would be something the games would give even more life to in future installments.
And the commercials are a worthy listen on their own. Satirical ads for retirement homes, knives and clothing are all worth a chuckle. And the Ammu-Nation ads pretty much get their own award for their over-the-top portrayals of Second Amendment Rights and also the war we had against Australia. All of it adds up to an experience that rivals or even surpasses actual radio, even back when radio was good.
The soundtrack wasn’t without its subsequent issues – mainly, licensing. Vice City the game has been re-issued and re-mastered for many new console generations as well as mobile. But being able to put the music on the new versions of the game would require new licensing for the songs, something not every record label was behind. Sony was most notable in demanding a king’s ransom for use of their songs, which Rockstar declined. This removed a signature track from both the radio and game’s opening, Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” (It also removed Ozzy Osbourne’s “Bark At The Moon” from the metal station).
Almost every radio station was affected by licensing issues – only Wave FM was apparently untouched by the problem. It has become a standing issue in video games, as it is lucrative practice to re-release classic titles on new hardware. It has also affected the game streaming community, as a Twitch user is fine to broadcast video game play, but if they are playing copyrighted music during that broadcast, it becomes an issue. Yes, even if the game publisher secured a license for the music to be in the game. These game and music licensing issues will likely continue to play out as entertainment evolves but the recording industry does not. (This is also why there are no videos with cool gameplay footage and the radio going – content creators have to mute the songs when they play).
One funny aside about the songs – if you reload a save, the exact same songs play when you re-enter the game. Some of the side missions can be very difficult and this results in hearing the same few song snippets over and over and over again. I got a few pointed words thrown my way by my girlfriend in the past when I was doing something like the vigilante missions over and over and she heard the same few bits again and again. But hey, there’s nothing like flying an attack helicopter to wipe out drug dealers along with the sweet sounds of Night Ranger, Mister Mister and Hall And Oates.
Grand Theft Auto: Vice City was a masterpiece at tying music and video game together. Everything in the game and the music evoked the 1980’s atmosphere the creators sought for the game. ’80’s music of all genres cranks out from the game’s stations, and the developers took the extra steps to make sure the radio personnel and commercials supplemented a totally immersive experience. A player truly is in Vice City when playing, it isn’t just a case of farting around with casual interest in a game.
I’ve spent all this time talking about the music of GTA but I barely mentioned the rock and metal station V-ROCK. That’s because it gets its own post, coming Friday.