Welcome, agonising over which friend to side with in arguments. Welcome, deleting the piles of junk mail that promise to “increase your girth (for a nominal fee).” Welcome, swearing at your phone because your girlfriend is sending you offended text messages about how you don’t call her enough, while the Russian Mafia are trying to blow your head off with assault rifle fire. Call it a life simulator, but with more drunk driving, less sex, and about the same amount of Mafia involvement.
Episode 21, season 4 of The Simpsons. Marge is in court after accidentally shoplifting a bottle of Bourbon. The prosecutor turns to the jury with a flipchart of pictures of male celebrities, asking “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, who do you find more attractive: Tom Cruise or Mel Gibson?” The judge tells him to explain himself, and the prosecutor coolly replies, “Your Honour, I'm so confident of Marge Simpson’s guilt, that I can waste the court’s time rating the superhunks.” Marge’s defence counsel, the ever indomitable Lionel Hutz, looks impressed: “Ooohh. He’s gonna’ win.”
Reviewing GTA IV is enough to sap the mojo of the most determined reviewer. The epiphany that GTA needs your praise as much as it needs to fear your scorn -- remarkably little and barely at all, respectively— is a bleak one. Directing criticism at the game bears all the hallmarks of shooting an airgun at the moon: it wastes ammo, and it rarely changes the size of the moon. So I’ll start with a conclusion and work backwards: will GTA IV give you more bang for your Buck than if you had gone and bought something as mundane as food or heart medication instead? If you like games, the list of reasons not to buy GTA IV is slim to non-existent.
Niko Bellic, a troubled ex-soldier reluctantly press-ganged into a life of crime… so goes the party line, anyway. GTA IV offers a more realistic, grounded tale than its predecessors. Of course, offering more realism than San Andreas, a game in which you landed a jetpack on a speeding train, rampaged through cities in a tank and gunned down explosive RC planes with a roof-mounted Minigun, is about as relative a concept as they come. Callooh! Callay! Let’s welcome “realism.”
One of the more noticeable symptoms of this injection of realism is the car handling: cars are weighty, awkward beasts, initially quite refusing to go around corners when you want them to. The introduction of such realistic traits sharpens the contrast between things that strike the player as illogical and things that are just mental: it makes the nuggets of unrealism seem all the more silly. So it is that the incongruity indicator goes up to 11 when you realise you have to brake to go round corners (y’ know, like in real life), but you can still tear past a police car at 120mph and career into a bus without the lawmen even murmuring an objection (y’ know, not like in real life).
A minor traffic offense.
Going on dates, for drinks and through the motions becomes detrimental to the player’s enjoyment of the game: the stress on “simulating” life becomes plain stressful. San Andreas provided a similar irritant when it nagged us to watch what we eat and visit the gym regularly: it’s just a different variety of minutiae than before, is all. Annoying as these minutiae are (or maybe we empathise because they are so annoying?) such details really do put us in touch with the protagonist.
Niko’s appearance is more fixed than Carl Johnson’s, whose capacity for customisation-- through tattoos and haircuts and various levels of flabbiness-- hindered us from “knowing” him in a definitive sense, certainly not in the way we come to know Niko. Laudable though this is, this identification with the character gives rise to a confusing sensation: of feeling bad for playing GTA IV as one normally plays a GTA game—
Killing sprees? I’m not sure Niko would go on a killing spree unless he had to…
Paying hookers for sex? Wouldn’t Niko just find himself a nice girlfriend instead?
Those bits in italics are a party-pooping amalgamation of your conscience begging for decency, and your inner script-writer calling for consistency. You can certainly make Niko do these things, but it leads to censorious comments aimed squarely and explicitly at the player: “a hired gun, and now I’m paying for sex? My mother would be so proud.” Niko’s judging you, and you have been found lacking. Wanton violence, wanton abuse of other people, doesn’t sit well with Niko, because he makes it abundantly clear he doesn’t want to be involved in any of this.
The shock comes because GTA
is traditionally complicit in the carnage it facilitates. It sets up the scenarios (“tank vs. puppy sanctuary: place your bets! Not good odds on the underdogs…”), gives you the requisite equipment and then reclines in its chair, giggling as you have fun. But Niko may as well be shaking his head in disappointment as you make him immolate prostitutes. So is it simply that, unlike the sick ****er playing
the game, Niko will kill people only when they need to be killed, not purely for the chuckles?
Can a GTA game ever be played in a canonically consistent way? The age-old GTA paradox-- that because the player has no freedom in cutscenes, but almost complete freedom in the game world, discrepancies are at times unavoidable—creates certain narrative difficulties. The nameless and doggedly reticent central character of GTA III acts as a non-judgemental cipher for the player. Tommy Vercetti and Carl Johnson had that air of sociopathy about them which excused the disparities between in-game action and their behaviour in cutscenes. But Niko, one of the most empathisable and identifiable characters in the medium, demands more consideration of the consistency of actions from the player.
In his review
of the game, Russ Pitts predicted,
This game will fuel the fires of many a game writer for months to come. Prepare yourself for an onslaught of ‘Hero or Antihero?’ and ‘What You Do in an Open World Game Says Something About Your Upbringing’ articles.
He’s right, sadly, and as I’m not the kind of Cnut prone to turning back the tide*, I’ll wade right in instead.
Niko’s character is not a simple one. He’s not the caricature of a borderline sociopath found in previous iterations; nor is he the helplessly trapped kitten with an assault rifle and funny accent, which some reviewers have tried to portray him as, seemingly in an attempt to rehabilitate the game, making it “respectable” by making the main character a victim of the criminal underworld. He spends most of the game complaining about how he has to “make ends meet”, but a sudden financial windfall about halfway through the story renders all his whining untenable, even outright ridiculous.
Since there are very few things to actually spend money on during the game, it’s a safe bet you’ll spend most of the time very wealthy. Niko’s recurring claims, that he does what he does for money, that Roman is gambling away whatever funds Niko can scrape together, that ultimately the work puts food on the table, become flimsy when the player knows he doesn’t need the money that badly.
On some level Niko has agency in doing what he does. The work pays, but he’s good at it because of, not in spite of, his passion for it. The quest for money becomes a way for Niko to justify his quest for revenge; his ostensible poverty becomes the respectable public face for his drive to hurt people.
The game’s conclusion demonstrates the cost of Niko’s ultimate failure: his unwillingness to extricate himself from the criminal world leads the Faustian pacts he’s made to come back and bite him in the arse, just when life seemed to be looking a bit cheerier. It’s an emotional ending, and it’s a surprise in itself to see the ending of a GTA game. I stopped playing missions on Vice City at that ruddy Banshee race, when I realised I’d be having more fun comparing dpi resolutions of gaming mice on Amazon. Rockstar have tempered GTA IV’s difficulty by implementing instant travel taxis, mission restarts and a useable combat system (the fact that it is a system at all is a definite improvement). Those of us with finite attention spans can only thank them for this. It could be that the majority of players (or at least a sizeable minority… or at the very least an enormous very tiny minority) will see the end credits roll of GTA IV, which will be a novelty for many.
(These paragraphs contain a discussion of the end of the game. Don’t read them and come crying to me just because you found out Keyser Söze killed Dumbledore.)
Talk about a dispiriting ending, though. I’ll try not to get too elbow deep in spoilers, because they make my hands all greasy. Suffice to say the player is given a dilemma: revenge or reconciliation. One decision will lead to a main character very close to Niko dying. The other choice leads to a character marginally less close to Niko dying.
That’s it. No happy middle ground, no compromise. Some ****er’s gonna get dead, Niko’s gonna be miserable, and that’s that. Who can we blame for this nonsense? I nominate The Witcher, my personal perennial pariah. All Rockstar do is let you do is choose your poison, never considering that maybe you’d prefer a nice G&T to a cyanide capsule. Games nowadays would have you believe everything has to be dystopia, disappointment and dreary colour palettes, which isn’t the case. Life’s not always shades of grey and brown. Is it so Hippie-ish to say that sometimes things really do turn out okay?
The ending charges you with either killing or capitulating with the game’s antagonist, safe in the knowledge that he’ll almost certainly screw you over if you omit to put a bullet in him. Unlike in real life, though, GTA IV allows you to slip into a parallel universe and see what happens if you’d taken the other path by loading a previous save.
I chose the revenge ending because I knew that the target of my retribution couldn’t be trusted to be left alive: regardless of how much the game told me I was after revenge, I knew my justification was self-preservation. My jaunt in the game’s parallel universe showed this to be the case. My motives were good and my reasoning was sound; I’d even got verifiable extra-dimensional evidence that the guy had to die. Still, though, the game screws me, desperate to wring some pathos out of things before the boat sails.
The logic behind the denouement is questionable. The game discourages the player from dealing with the antagonist by having Niko’s on-off (mostly off) girlfriend tell him she wouldn’t “respect him if he gave up on his principles.” Given that the “principle” involved here is gory revenge, that standing up for his principle would require him to go slaughter a boat full of people, couldn’t Niko have justified himself quite easily? What with the girlfriend being a law-abiding, non-violent type, it seems unlikely she’d want Niko splattering viscera about just to uphold his principles.
Regardless of how much the game told me I was after revenge, I knew I was pursuing self-preservation. The GTA IV
paradox kicks in again: because the game wants to create a difficult choice for you, contrived though it may be: it tells you what Niko is thinking, even if this contravenes what you
think Niko is thinking. In the end, it feels a bit like Niko is a listed property you’re renting Niko off Rockstar, leasing him but not allowed to modify him. And you can’t build a conservatory on him, either.
GTA IV gives us a decent maxim to live by: the more complex a piece of machinery, the more pieces there are to break. Try going out for a game of darts with Roman: when you drop him off back home, park your car so that the passenger door is wedged up against a wall. Roman says, “thanks for a great evening, cousin! Call me!” He then cheerfully punches Niko square in the jaw, shoves him out the car and climbs out the driver’s door, nonchalantly stepping over his cousin, sprawled face-down on the floor.
No love-loss there, then.
The presence of “realistic” elements, like the mobile phone, act as cogs in this enormously complicated machine. The cogs create a screeching dissonance when they grate against each other in the wrong way, showing up faults all the more starkly because these realistic elements exist in a world still populated by fantastic events.
It’s the age-old story, isn’t it? Your girlfriend rings you up to see if you want to go for a drink, you’re just about to respond…
When a car explodes besides you and sends you flying off a cliff…
You splash into the ocean, and get run over by a speedboat…
You swim back to shore, bloody and wheezing, take out your phone, and all you can say is…
“Bugger. She hung up on me.”
Y’ know, just like in real life.
*An optional note on King Cnut: Cnut/Canute has a bad rep, fuelling the plague of infantile jokes anagrammatising his name. His apocryphal “attempt” to turn back the tide was intended as a lesson to sycophants on the futility of such an attempt. Try and think better of the chap, next time you rip the piss out of his amusing moniker…
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