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128-BIT PALMS: Criminality In and Out of Vice City

ANDREW DONOVAN

I was seventeen years old, living in Lake County, Indiana, one of the many suburban conduits to Chicago, when Grand Theft Auto: Vice City was released for PC in 2003. My family and I had relocated from Inverness, Florida, in 1994 as my father chased what remaining work was left in the northern steel mills. Outlet malls, liquor stores, and filling stations characterize the landscape of northwest Indiana; it wasn’t and isn’t a locale game producers are anxious to recreate.

Vice City, on the other hand, exists in a fictional Floridian metropolis, and it represents a Scottish video game development studio’s approximation of Miami circa 1986. It has a described population of 1.8 million people, which is about the population of Miami-Dade County in the ’80s, but packed into a square mileage at least half that of Miami proper. Its denizens cling tightly to demographic zones. Haitian Creole is spoken within the limits of the game’s Little Haiti, and it’s difficult to find Spanish speakers outside Little Havana.

The game’s opening cinematic features the accoutrements of a Hollywood-driven crime fantasy: the Mafia sends a white guy south to “manage” their black and Hispanic contacts, and a cagey lawyer with a pastel-colored suit and a Jewish surname serves as a sort of subtropical Virgil to Vice City’s underworld, facilitating a star-crossed cocaine deal with the Columbians.

Following the game’s six-minute introduction (interminable by today’s gaming standards), the player is confronted with a choice between a boxy four-door sedan called the Admiral and a small scooter called the Faggio (allegedly pronounced fah-jee-oh). In reality, the player can turn the corner and steal any vehicle his heart desires, but the previous cut-scene’s mise-en-scène favors this “decision.” Through the power of indirect control—a design force that compels the player to get the first good mushroom while avoiding the bad mushroom-like Goombas in Super Mario Bros.—the player will choose one of the two closest vehicles with a calculable degree of certainty.


My father probably called me a fag on his way to a jail one Saturday. Within a five-year span in Indiana, he had accumulated as many DUIs, the last of which carried a sentence of intermittent jail time. Whether he uttered that particular slur or its variants depended on the number of Rolling Rocks he had the night before or the relative integrity of the potato chips in his packed lunch. At one time, the name might have been a betrayal. After all, I had gotten it at school. Freshman year seemed, in retrospect, like a series of unedited takes where some asshole swerved purposefully to slam me into a locker, shouting “faggot” as he passed. More than once, I imagined my father joining the ranks of this proto-fraternity.

The worst thing about it was my father’s lack of evidence. If he knew anything about my life or computer fundamentals, he could have dug up unfruitful experimentations with gay pornography and cyber sex chats with women (and probably, not that I cared to investigate, men) twice my age. He might have known that Mike, the son of my father’s foreman at the mill, was crashing on our couch because he had been disowned for coming out. It seemed like no amount of Army Surplus attire, Springsteen citation, or feigned interest in pawn shop guitars could yield immunity.

Having enough arcane knowledge about my father’s mercurial morning temperament to avoid a serious beating, I put the insult on simmer and retreated to faux Florida. My vehicle of choice, in an attempt to contest my father’s attempts to register my masculinity, was the sporty Faggio.

I’ll say it is a different thing when a video game calls you a fag. That initial choice between the Admiral and the Faggio goes beyond names. The slur is juvenile, to be sure, indicative of the Grand Theft Auto series’ nothing-is-sacred, everybody-should-be-offended philosophy, but the game possessed the intel my father didn’t. The game seemed to be saying to me, “This is Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, motherfucker, and you’re driving a Vespa.”


Vice City, with its pixelated neon-laden art deco strips and 128-bit palms, wasn’t the first virtual world to which I’d escaped, but it was the most potent. I got to know every digital kilometer of the city, primarily on a Faggio, but sometimes in the Delorean-esque Deluxo. On the radio, a car commercial channeled Regan-era xenophobia: “This little girl’s going to starve to death, because you had to buy a cheap, fuel-efficient Maibatsu.” At its best, Grand Theft Auto exposes America’s worst traits by donning them as part of a caustic satire.

When a car flips onto its roof in Vice City, it catches fire and explodes almost instantly. I know this because I’ve flipped or totaled no less than one hundred vehicles in the game. I once flew a helicopter into a building just as Michael Jackson reached the coda “Mama-say mama-sah ma-ma-coo-sah” in “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’.” I’ve fired a rocket at a spandex-clad roller-blader on a simulated Miami Beach in a thin effort at literary connection to L’Étranger, which I must have been reading in school at the time.

I never did prostitution in the game, but I don’t consider this any sort of holier-than-thou achievement. My friends at school had mentioned it as an option, citing, with nervous grins, how it was “kind of fucked up” that you could “beat the shit out of a hooker” to get your money back. The developers of the game rest their case at, “Well, just because you can do it doesn’t mean you should.” At the time, the whole idea just seemed banal and depressing. I had been beaten by my father at home, and I had witnessed him hit my mother and brothers. I was much more comfortable treating the game as a Rube Goldberg machine of impersonal, explosion-filled destruction rather than an ass-beat-ing simulator. In later versions of Grand Theft Auto, the player has the ability to consume alcohol before getting behind the wheel of their legally owned car, which hit too close to home while also missing the mark. The trajectory of the series, to date, has been to shed its Wile E. Coyote qualities in favor of a grim descent into the uncanny valley.

I still remember traveling Vice City’s perimeter by speedboat as the sun set, really listening to Kool & The Gang’s “Summer Madness” for the first time.


Later in 2003, when my father flipped his Nissan pick-up with my seven-year-old brother Joshua riding shotgun, I imagined the roof crumpled a bit; maybe the engine leaked a bit of oil as police officers aided the somehow unscathed pair from the wreck.

The officer who brought my brother home made a strange point of grilling me.

“Do you know your father was driving drunk?” “I believe it.”

“Do you know this isn’t the first time this has happened?” “I know.”

“Do you know this isn’t the first time I have personally arrested him?”

“OK.”

“Mind if I take a look around?”

That wasn’t going to work. I had answered the door in the middle of a firefight with the Vice City Police Department. My brother, already adept at video games and unshaken by the accident, resumed the massacre for me. I’m sure the officer at the door could hear his VCPD peers shout, “We have you surrounded, asshole.” I’m sure he heard the bullet volleys, encroaching helicopter support, and eventual tank fire.

I worried about the state of the housekeeping. Letting anyone into our home, let alone a police officer, was allowed with trepidation, if not a fifteen-minute, too-little-too-late tidying session. Our kitchen floors stuck with the remnants of spilled sodas, and the blast-furnace coke-dust tracked in from my father’s boots proved impervious to a mop, if we even had one.

Perhaps between the sounds of escalated force and my father’s frequent arrests, the officer pegged us as an entire household afoul of the law. “Well, call us if you need us,” he said, retreating to his flashing squad car before I could answer.

“Are you alright?” I asked Joshua, shutting the door on a neighbor’s pity-filled gape.

“No, I died, but I almost killed all the cops,” he said, withdrawing from the computer.

“I mean the officer said you were in an accident with Dad. The truck flipped. In real life,” I said.

“Oh, that was kind of cool!” he replied.


On December 21, 1979, ten days short of the reality of 1980s Miami, Arthur McDuffie, a black insurance salesman and former veteran, was murdered by four white police officers, his skull battered by clubs and flashlights for the crime of running a red light and driving on a suspended license. The court’s failure to convict any of the officers for the murder and subsequent cover-up resulted in one of the worst riots in American history, erupting in Overtown and Liberty City. On paper, eighteen people died and over $100 million dollars of property was destroyed; on television, a tire store smoldered as if it had been hit by a bomb.

Between 1997 and 2015, my father, a white pipe fitter, has accumulated nineteen court records in the state of Indiana. The breakdown of criminality includes six DUIs, four seat belt infractions, three counts of speeding, two counts of disregarding a stop sign, two counts of driving with a suspended license, and one failure to stop for a train signal. My father’s black coworker, Byron, who my father let stay in our basement for a month,had once told my brothers and me, “Your dad’s been lucky to have you kids, man. Next time I get in trouble, I’m not going to weekend jail.” Even as a game-addled teenager, I suspected that whiteness was a much more important factor in Indiana’s courtroom lenience than having a wife and a few kids. One of my father’s infractions had originally been classified as a class D felony; a charge of resisting arrest was dismissed, resulting in a more forgiving sentence.

Whether or not I wish he had served that time in a more substantial way is a source of internalized disquiet to this day. My confidence in the reforming powers of Indiana’s corrections system is nonexistent, and my father’s infrequent kindnesses to friends like Byron cloud the issue. I can also cite his later willingness to let my brothers’ disowned or otherwise neglected friends stay in our home, but I usually end up wondering why the same altruistic acts couldn’t have been extended to my mother, brothers, and me more often. If it came down to it, I don’t know whether I would testify for or against him, and my life with him has often rendered me incapable of passing judgment when it counts. I only feel fit to describe the events as I remember them, and that often feels like my most significant delinquency.

The only time my father witnessed me play Vice City was upon returning from lockup one evening. I was engaging in the game’s namesake, commanding my Ray Liotta-voiced homunculus to steal a bright-yellow sports car. Its occupant, a woman in a bikini, yelled, “Why can’t you just ask nicely?” as I barreled down the street. A VCPD officer witnessing the incident entered his squad car, fired up the roof, and gave pursuit. These are the kinds of unscripted moments that made Grand Theft Auto both a household name and a congressional public enemy. The ability to project oneself into the game’s free-roaming narrative is its active ingredient.

My father saw himself in the situation, asking, “Oh, I guess that’s supposed to be funny? What is that, your old man running from the cops?” Before long, a VCPD squad car had driven me off the road, causing me to crash my car into a palm tree alongside a verisimilar Ocean Drive. An officer stormed up to the driver’s side door, gun drawn, and took me alive. “Busted” splashed across the screen in a large, neon-green font.

Andrew Donovan is a poet living in Gainesville, FL, where he still sometimes plays video games. He is a graduate of the University of Florida’s MFA program, and his work has most recently appeared in the Mondegreen, Cartridge Lit, and New Republic.