Busjacking for Grownups

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WICKED GAME: In Vice City you play a mid-level mobster named Tommy Vercetti, voiced by Ray Liotta (GoodFellas)

Tommy Vercetti has a problem: he's trying to hijack a city bus, but the bus won't move. He has kicked the driver out onto the street. He's even softened him up with a baseball bat. But Vercetti didn't do a good job of parking his car before he got on the bus, and it's blocking the street. Traffic is backed up halfway down the block, and there's nowhere to drive the bus. Before this busjacking thing goes any further, he's going to have to park his car properly like anybody else.

Fortunately for us, Vercetti isn't a real person. He's a character in Vice City, the sequel to Grand Theft Auto III, the $50 video game that sold 7 million copies in the past year on its way to becoming the fastest-selling PlayStation2 game ever. It's not the violence that moves all those units. Thousands of games out there shed more blood and make less money. When Vice City is released on Oct. 29, it will freak out millions of parents and sell millions of copies, but it will also force us to realize that video games aren't toys anymore; they're sophisticated, thought-provoking entertainment for grownups. At their best, they're art.

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For those who have never played it, GTA3 (as its fans affectionately call it) sounds like just another escapist shoot-'em-up, a virtual urban war game for suburban armchair delinquents. But while most video games put you in a fantastic setting — say, a blue maze full of dots — GTA3 is set in Liberty City, a metropolis as realistic and richly detailed as Dickens' London, with weather that changes hourly and carefully rendered litter tumbling down its meticulously drawn streets. Most video games give you a challenge, like eating all the dots while dodging hungry pastel-colored ghosts. In GTA3, your problems are real-world problems, like parallel parking.

What's more, you have the freedom to choose how to solve those problems, or even whether to solve them at all. GTA3 is a novel written with a joystick, with branching story lines that twist and turn depending on the choices you make. "People play so differently," says Terry Donovan, COO of Rockstar, the British company that makes the game. "I watched my sister play Vice City, and she just drove a moped around for an entire day." This kind of interactivity gets fans emotionally involved in ways no other game ever has. Search the Net, and you will find GTA3-themed websites, discussion groups, rumors, rants, love letters, clubs, gangs, guidebooks and philosophical discussions. One website hosts 48 original works of fiction set in Liberty City.

Along with a body of original literature, the game has earned its share of controversy. Measured by its body count, GTA3 is pretty tame — compared with, for example, Space Invaders — but all that freedom can lead to some vicious scenarios. You can run over pedestrians if you so desire, then shoot the paramedics who show up and loot their bodies for spare change. (Then you can spend your ill-gotten gains on one of Liberty City's many prostitutes.) Video games are protected by the First Amendment, but when GTA3 was released in Australia, the government pulled it from shelves until Rockstar could come up with a tamer, edited version.

But there's a lot more going on here than violence. Vice City is set in a fictional version of Miami, circa 1986, and it evokes the place and the period with the skill of a Scorsese: it's a steaming Cuban sandwich of sultry Latin sirens, drug deals gone bad and seedy mobsters with big metal briefcases full of small unmarked bills. The city streets are awash with neon in candy pink and pistachio green, and each streetlight is ringed by a delicate nimbus suggesting warm, humid tropical air. The kicker is the painfully authentic all-1980s sound track (which will be released by Sony Music as a seven-CD set). Buy this game, and you will Wang Chung tonight.

As for the violence, Vice City doesn't pull any punches — but why should it? Studies show the average American gamer is well into his 20s — old enough to have Wang Chunged before — yet while his tastes have matured, video games haven't been allowed to grow up with him. "There has been a demographic shift in who's playing," Donovan argues. "You're telling a 25-year-old that he's supposed to play with a hedgehog?"

Vice City is the best demonstration so far that video games have come of age. As an interactive medium, one built around freedom of choice, video games are actually well suited to teach us about right and wrong. Tommy Vercetti is free to hijack that bus, but he must be prepared to live with the consequences, which may include being thrown in jail by Vice City's finest. Vercetti is equally free to give up his life of crime and become a taxi driver or a fireman or deliver pizzas for a living. It's up to you — he's as bad as you want him to be. He can even ride around on a moped all day without harming a soul, just soaking up that golden Vice City sunlight. So long as he parks it properly afterward.