As Rockstar’s open-world classic arrives on iOS to mark its tenth anniversary, we look back to its creation with company president and GTA: Vice City executive producer Sam Houser. Here, he recalls the films, TV shows and music that inspired the game and the legacy it leaves behind – and why Ray Liotta thought he was a “fucking lunatic”.
What were the points of inspiration for Vice City?
When we were doing the London pack on the first GTA, the idea we had after that was to do Miami in the ’80s, but for one reason or another it didn’t come together. So you’ve got the idea and it’s about gangsters and the mobster underculture, and a celebration of all things along those lines, and you think, where do we take this now? With something like the GTA series there are a lot of options – you can have more fun in Liberty City, or you can do this or do that – but as we were all talking the idea that seemed to have the most meat on it, the one that had the most material that we could work with – in a lot of areas we’re interested in: the vibe, the storytelling, the culture, the fashion, the music and on and on and on – was Miami in the ’80s. To me, it’s still hands-down the grooviest era of crime because it didn’t even feel like it was crime. You had Cuban hitmen coming across and gunning people down in the street, but it was still celebrated in a sort of haze of cocaine and excess and Ferraris and Testarossas, and it was a totally topsy-turvy back-to-front period of time. It was everything that was crazy about the ’80s, and it was in America so it was crazier – and geographically it’s the gateway to the whole of Latin America and the Caribbean, and so everything floods in there.
It was a place that I had grown up loving. As kids, Scarface was one of our favourite films. That’s a totally played-out remark, and most people will try not to say that because they’ve seen things like Scent Of A Woman and some of Al Pacino’s other pieces of work that are a little bit more questionable, but with Scarface, we could put it on here now and you and I within five minutes would be saying, “Actually, let’s watch it – it’s great, isn’t it?” It’s an amazing film.
But the thing that was more of a direct influence was Miami Vice, because it’s a little bit later. Scarface is earlier, like ’83, and it kind of looks it, but Miami Vice was ’84 to ’89, about five seasons, 110 or so episodes, and I’ve seen them all many times. Before you could get them on DVD I bought them off eBay – the crappiest quality VHS copies you’ve ever seen, and I have them all. What blew me away about that series – and Michael Mann is, I think, a visionary film maker – is that each episode was 50 minutes long, and they sort of hit on all the bases in every episode. It was very adult – I remember at the time watching it and thinking that it was very risqué. But it was an incredibly slick show, and when we were first talking about it, everyone was kind of laughing, like: “What are you on about?” And I was like, “No, no, no – it’s so slick”. Just in terms of music alone, when you look at the tracks that Miami Vice used, it’s an amazing list, and Michael Mann would create these miniature pop videos in every show which would be montages. So his use of music in the show was remarkable. A dream of mine and Dan [Houser]’s is to have a montage in a game, actually. We’re on our way; we’ll get it one day – a montage of your experiences set to music. Come on, that’s going to be amazing, right?
Also, Michael Mann’s use of colour and light is wonderful. Miami is such a beautiful place anyway, so the light is gorgeous, but his use of night lighting made it so glossy and sexy. He’s also an expert in the use of weapons, and we met all of the weapons experts who worked on Miami Vice. We got into the details in a hardcore way.
Then the other thing I loved – and we all loved, actually, although initially there was a lot of arm twisting that had to go on in order to make people watch it – was that each show was kind of like a mission. It may have had a few cool little action sequences in it which were novel, but the overarching story was like a mission, so there was so much cool stuff to take in, whether it was the vehicles they used – incredible cars, incredible helicopters, incredible boats – or whatever. While we were finishing GTAIII I would even go home at lunchtimes and watch episodes, and I did that for about a year – it was all I watched. You could sit there and watch it and get stills of so many moments in the show from just one episode and I’d think: “If we can just get that or this or that…” I remember Aaron [Garbut, GTA series art director] working so hard just to get the neon the way he wanted it. He’d been to Miami and he’d seen it in the show, and he knew exactly what he was looking for but it was so difficult [to achieve]. But when he got it right, you were just like [snaps fingers]: “That’s it!”
So there were plenty of other things that influenced us but I would have to say the strongest influence of all became Miami Vice – more so than Scarface, even though the story is more of a Scarfacey story. You can’t beat Miami Vice’s style, its production values, and its focus on details. Michael Mann went on to be one of the best film makers around, but Miami Vice just resonated with us. So hard.