‘GTA’ Land Of Confusion: Why Is Phil Collins In ‘Vice City Stories’?

Vic Vance helps easy-listening singer avoid assassination in new game, out Tuesday.

NEW YORK — Up until now, if you were famous and wanted to be in “Grand Theft Auto,” you couldn’t be yourself. Chuck D had to be the DJ Forth Right MC. Samuel L. Jackson had to be Officer Tenpenny. Axl Rose had to be DJ Tommy Smith. Philip Michael Thomas couldn’t be Philip Michael Thomas or Tubbs — he had to be Lance Vance.

But this is the world we live in: Phil Collins gets to be Phil Collins.

With the Tuesday (October 31) release of “Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories” for the PSP (see ” ‘GTA: Vice City Stories’ Involves Smuggling Rings, Jet Ski Stunts — And Chocolate” ), Rockstar Games is closing out another big October of games. And among the twists the company is providing is a string of missions that have Vic Vance, the player-controlled “Vice City Stories” protagonist, protecting ’80s music icon Collins. The commercials airing all over the Web have already helped spoil the climax: Collins holds a concert in the faux-Miami Vice City and drums through his famous song “In the Air Tonight.” Assassins lurk. And Vic Vance has to save the day.

One month ago, under a veil of secrecy in downtown Manhattan, Collins sat down for the most unusual of interviews: no handlers, no PR people — just Collins, MTV News, some shaggy animal-skin rugs and a skyline view. We talked with the musician, who has one of the softest reputations in the business, about his involvement in one of gaming’s most notorious franchises.

“This was suggested to me about six months ago. And I didn’t have any doubt about it,” Collins said. “I thought it was kinda cool. Tell your grandchildren, ‘That’s me. See, I was in a video game.’ ”

“In the Air Tonight” was released in 1981. Over the course of the next quarter-century, the song’s slow build toward a shattering crash of drums became an adrenaline anthem for sporting events and movies. But its breakthrough was a star turn as a central song in “Miami Vice,” that bastion of ’80s cops-and-robbers TV shows that influenced, among other things, “Grand Theft Auto: Vice City.” (Collins even had a role in “Miami Vice” as a huckster named Phil the Shill — unlike the game, the show didn’t allow him to play himself.)

The top guys at Rockstar love “Miami Vice” and wanted Collins to appear in their game to lend it a bit of that ’80s “Vice” spirit. “In the ’80s, I was so omnipresent that I’ve become synonymous with an era,” Collins said, when asked why he thought he was the first celebrity to play himself in a “GTA.” He answered in genuinely humble tones. “I hadn’t thought about it till you just mentioned it. Wow. OK. I know the ’80s were good for me … yeah, I’m flattered.”

He may be flattered, but he knows that, no matter how much he and his song fit the Miami feel, that others will be surprised. Collins isn’t the kind of star people typically associate with hard-edge entertainment. “People think of me as a lot softer and cozier than I actually am,” he said. He might want to do some acting soon, for example, and he doesn’t want any sweet roles. “I’d much rather head towards the ax murderer then the guy who everyone thinks is the cozy dude, you know.”

He doesn’t exactly deny that he’s a staple of adult-contemporary radio. And he confesses to writing songs for Disney musicals. But, he protested: “It kind of annoys me a little bit that just the word ‘Phil Collins’ is ‘working with Disney.’ That just conjures up a whole bunch of things which it isn’t. Disney, which is kind of a family entertainment. Phil Collins, which is kind of ‘One More Night,’ light stations, you know? It is part of what I’ve become. But it isn’t actually what I am. And so, any time I can shake the cage a little bit, I will.”

Collins confessed that he didn’t plan to go this route. He also said that “In the Air Tonight” came to him more than two decades ago. “This song was … among the first songs I wrote for [his 1981 album] Face Value. Going through a bitter divorce. Angry. Upset. Feeling dark. I don’t know. But the lyrics I sang were totally improvised. I didn’t write one word down. I just had the chords that I had already recorded at home in my little studio. I had limited amount of space on the tape. So I just had the keyboard tracks, the drum-machine tracks, and I sang. And that will be on my tombstone.”

So Collins has done music. He’s done TV and movies. Now he’s come to games. He’s on less assured ground here. Tough as he wants to seem, Collins’ taste in games tends toward more gentle fare. “I’m really soft-core,” he said, rattling off kid-friendly PlayStation staples “Crash Bandicoot” and “Spyro the Dragon” as favorites. He indulged mostly in the ’90s: “It was like, 9 or 10 in the morning till 6 or 7 o’clock at night. Constant playing until I got everything. I was obsessed.” Then life caught up with him, and he’s been out of the scene. At the time of his interview with MTV News, he had yet to take the shrink-wrap off a “Grand Theft Auto.” He plans to correct that soon.

He’s no fool. He knows games are where it’s at. “It’s amazing how little records sell nowadays,” he said. He mentioned that more and more music is breaking through games and that more musicians — like 50 Cent — are making appearances in them.

“I like 50 Cent,” Collins said. He hadn’t played “50 Cent: Bulletproof.” But he has an idea for the sequel: “I could be in it.”