Grand Theft Auto really was, at bottom, a hollow and blackhearted game. Discarding as hysterical the legislative belief that killing cartoon cops nudges you toward killing real ones, we should still be cautious about immersing ourselves for too long in a game whose major selling point is that it frees you from empathy. But the radio stations were beautiful. It wasn’t just that the songs were a good soundtrack; it was that they were on the radio—they’d stop when you got out of the car, and you’d just hear waves and traffic and gunfire before you’d hurl yourself into a different car and the middle of Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’.” There were parody commercials, but they were kind of juvenile and tedious, so you’d change the station when they came on, just like in real life. In a game based on the unfettered and fantastic indulgence of the id, that was why the radio was important: it made you act like you did in real life. The world you were exploring was deceptively vacant—most doors didn’t open, and most people didn’t speak. But with the radio, it felt like a real place: the kind of place where you could get distracted trying to tune into Blondie and drive into a tree.
In Vice City and its golden-age-of-gangsta sequel, San Andreas, radio stations don’t just provide the score, they provide atmosphere: vivid, period-appropriate, and dorm-room cool. They do the same in recent installments of the revived Fallout series, in which the post-apocalyptic Earth of the classic 2D role-playing games is reimagined in 3D by Bethesda, the maker of the sprawling, diffuse, obsessively detailed Elder Scrolls role-playing games. Here the future looks as it did to a pessimist circa 1962: savage tribes and tenuous communities cling to life in the ruins of an atom-powered and atom-destroyed American empire. Everyone’s either in animal skins or scavenged ’50s businesswear. Someone somewhere’s gotten a broadcast tower working, so while you wander the wastes shotgunning mutated wildlife you can listen to Billie Holiday and the Andrews Sisters. In between songs, DJs read the news; since we play videogames in part to pretend we do lots of newsworthy things, most of the news is about you.”