by G. Christopher Williams

27 October 2006

Scarface begat Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, which in turn begat...Scarface?

Art imitates art imitates art...

If you have read any previews or prior reviews of Scarface: The World Is Yours, doubtless you have already heard someone suggest the ironic indebtedness that Scarface as a video game has to Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, which in turn is indebted to the 1983 Brian DePalma film, Scarface.  And, indeed, that Vice City seems largely inspired by the DePalma film is fairly clear from the Miami-like setting of Vice City, in which an up and coming mobster manages to build a criminal empire.  From its ‘80s soundtrack to chainsaw murders and a mansion whose layout and style nearly mirrors the home of Scarface protagonist Tony Montana, the obviousness of this connection is hardly in doubt. 

And, indeed, also, it is hard to miss the irony that the Scarface video game, which is sort of based on the film, seems more largely to be inspired by the Grand Theft Auto series given the similarities of these games in terms of the genre and mechanics that the two share.  Like Vice City, Scarface follows Rockstar’s template of a free form driving and shooting game with an open world where the player—cast in the role of a gangster—can wreak havoc at will or follow the narrative arc of the game through various missions. 


The World Is Yours

(Vivendi Games)
US: Oct 2006

It would be easy to call Scarface a GTA ripoff or clone (and I suppose equally easy to name Vice City a ripoff of the cinematic Scarface albeit with innovative interactive elements) but doing so frankly does little justice to Scarface‘s relationship to its own source material.

DePalma’s film often reminds me of Mary Harron’s take on Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho (2000).  If American Psycho rather overtly functions as an allegorical representation of class relationships in capitalist culture with a psychopathic killer standing in as the villainous capitalist who cannabilizes the under classes to support his own weird and gluttonous desires, likewise, DePalma’s film shares a similar allegorical approach to describing class mobility.  DePalma’s film metaphorically suggests that an American economy typically functions in similarly bloody terms in order to represent the “violent” nature of competitive business within a cutthroat American economy. 

Of course, the rise of Tony Montana is significantly different than the decline of Patrick Bateman, the protagonist of American Psycho, as Bateman is a man who does not need to dream the American Dream.  He already is in a position of power and can feed on the flesh of the working class to support himself.  Montana, instead, is representative of an immigrant’s response to the American Dream, finding that fulfilling the American Dream of social and economic mobility requires building a foundation of economic power on the less than solid ground of streets made slippery with the blood of rivals, family, and friends.  The American Dream in Scarface is purchased at the expense of valuable but disposable income: human life.

Thus, in DePalma’s Scarface, violence becomes the means of representing the process of climbing the social ladder.  It is by climbing a mountain of corpses that Tony Montana finds himself capable of becoming a successful American.  As it happens, the slipperiness of the blood that pools at the base of this mountain ultimately causes Tony’s own slide into ruin and ultimate death.

The tragic death of Tony Montana is where the film ends and the video game begins.  However, the approach of the game suggests that the resurrection of a Tony Montana is possible through more blood and human sacrifice. 

These new adventures of Tony Montana form a kind of reprise of DePalma’s original story with the player immediately thrown into Tony’s shoes as you and he manage to survive his final encounter with a rival gang through a violent and aggressive escape from Tony’s mansion.  It then becomes your mission to once again reclaim his throne and home and ultimately Tony’s previously dearly bought American Dream. 

The game’s approach to violence is akin to the perspective of those who have come to admire DePalma’s Scarface as a classic, not because it tells the tragic story of the inevitable problems of dreaming the American Dream at the cost of other’s lives and own dreams, but because those admirers revel in the brutality and power that Montana represents as a ruthless and efficient businessman and thug.  The game allows for Tony’s resurrection by reveling in the violence and carnage represented commonly in the film but offers a more hopeful viewpoint (at least from the perspective of the capitalist) that violence and aggression are reasonable sources of power.

In particular, the game acknowledges Tony as an immigrant, emphasizing the strengths of the foreign culture and experience that he brings to his effort to fulfill his American Dream.  In particular, the game seems obsessed with one of Tony’s more famous lines from the movie, which serves as an expression of the value of his Latin machismo, “All I have in this world are my balls and my word, and I don’t break them for no one.  You understand?”  This line suggests that the only “possession” such a penniless immigrant has are the values that underpin the culture that he has fled from, but this same singular “possession” is one that a man like him might use to begin to build a successful business in America—testosterone, aggression, and violence.

The game expresses this notion through a “balls meter,” which grows as Tony shoots and maims his competition—rival gangsters—and is also driven by risky driving and bonuses from femme fatales that Tony invites back to his mansion.  Additionally, a “taunt” button coupled with attacks allows Tony to gain bonus balls by verbally “showing his balls” to his victims.  This extreme machismo—a mix of violence, aggression, obscenity, and sexuality—seem expressions of Montana’s Cuban cultural roots.  When the balls meter fills, the player can trigger a “rage” effect that shifts the viewpoint from a third person view of Tony to a first person perspective, which results in turning Tony into a nearly invincible killing machine for a time.  While in this mode, ammunition becomes infinite and Tony gains health with every kill.

Given that the game is largely predicated on the notion of building a commercial empire in Miami through cocaine distribution, having the “balls” to execute the competition becomes one of the fundamental and necessary business practices in the game. In general, it is this focus on business and the building of an economic empire that largely differentiates Scarface from its video game predecessors (the GTA series) and brings it close to expressing those thematics that are the film’s concerns through the gameplay itself.

Scarface: The World Is Yours is, indeed, a free form driving and shooting game, but, at its core it is a business and marketing simulator as so many of its missions and mini-games consist of the business of sales and marketing.  The outcome of those business transactions is also eminently consumptive and classically capitalistic as capital gained through the practice of buying cocaine from contacts at low prices and distributing it on the streets through street level dealers or through business fronts purchased in the game at much higher prices is the ability to buy what the game calls “exotics.”  Exotics are status symbols—boats, cars, furniture, etc.—that give Tony bonuses to his reputation.  In order to complete the game and unlock new story missions a certain amount of reputation must be gained, and the only way to do so is to purchase this “stuff” in order to demonstrate and display Tony’s power and status.

Basically, in the same sense that EA’s excellent licensed version of The Godfather succeeded in making its free form driving and shooting game more than simply a GTA clone by focusing the game on area control through extortion mechanics that further emphasized the themes of gang warfare that it wanted to simulate, Scarface succeeds in becoming more than a GTA clone by focusing its attention on economic themes and gameplay in ways that Vice City only superficially did through the purchase of business and drive by money collection. 

Admittedly, Scarface is probably a weaker game than The Godfather if only because some of the early cocaine distribution methods (selling a few hundred grams at a time and having to locate and convince individual street dealers to buy the product) are so tedious and produce so little money that they hardly seem worth doing at all.  The game grows more interesting as larger amounts of product become available and distribution through purchased business fronts become available, which allows you to be able to control the demand for cocaine in certain areas of the city to drive up your profits.  The initial small time sales do serve to further emphasize the theme of building an economic empire from the ground up—the rags to riches mythology of the American Dream—and in that sense seem essential to fully understanding who and what Tony Montana is meant to be and represent.

While DePalma, perhaps, wanted to criticize capitalism through the brutal vision of Tony Montana, the new game seems to wish to rewrite DePalma’s script in praise of capitalism, consumption, and the violence he seemed to see them representing.  In either case, though, it seems that it takes balls to rewrite the American Dream.



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