There must have been a moment at the beginning, where we could have said, “No.” Somehow we missed it. Well, we’ll know better next time. – Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
One widely-held complaint against Grand Theft Auto IV is that its protagonist, Niko Bellic, is presented as a decent man, but the gameplay and the story render that portrayal untenable. Niko is a brutal and vicious murderer, and the we find him reprehensible and repulsive no matter what Rockstar tell us we should feel toward him.
This critique has come up again in connection to Red Dead Redemption. People bring up Niko Bellic as an example of failed storytelling, one that Rockstar corrected with John Marston in Red Dead Redemption. I went through GTA IV a few weeks ago, however, and came to suspect something else. The reaction to Niko Bellic is a failure of criticism based on a misreading of the game. GTA IV never presents Niko Bellic as anything other than what he is: a self-deceiving golem.
Certainly the game initially wants players to be on Niko’s side, just as the people who surround him initially welcome him. Niko is sympathetic: his life is marked by misfortune and tragedy: he had an abusive father, his childhood ended with the Balkan wars of the 1990s, he and his fellow soldiers were led into a massacre from which he is one of three survivors, and the postwar economic collapse made it impossible to make an honest living. He hopes things will be different for him in America and we hope so to. But we do not know Niko yet.
His comments regarding the war are instructive. Early on, he remarks to his cousin Roman that war is a lie told by the old to the young and gullible (or something to that effect). Later, when he finally confesses the details of his wartime experience to Roman, he explains that his unit was ordered into an ambush and that someone within the unit had sold them out. All his friends and comrades died, except for Niko and two other men. Niko is on a mission to find out which of the two betrayed them. All very understandable, but there is also a common thread in these stories that reveals something important about Niko. Niko believes what he is told, does as he is asked or ordered, and views the consequences as something for which he is not responsible.
In this he is a perfect videogame character, similar to Bioshock’s Jack. Jack, it was revealed, had been conditioned to respond to code-phrased commands, which is why Jack follows his mission prompts exactly as the player does. Players don’t have agency in a game, and neither does Jack. He is led along a path, same as the player. In a similar fashion, Niko takes orders from anyone who could plausibly give them. But the key difference between them is that Niko really does have choices and alternatives.
We tend to forget this because we, as players, do not typically have agency in a game. The narrative is fixed and our job is to play through it. But Niko does not know that. Within that narrative, Niko can do as he wants. The path he takes is one he is free to choose, while our choices are constrained or nonexistent. What Niko does with that agency, however, is obey and kill with little conscience and almost no self-interest. He denies this, of course, and his denial fools us at first. This was why a lot of players rejected him. This was not “their” Niko. Rockstar had betrayed the relationship it created between player and character.
But there are two problems with this assessment. The first problem is that players and critics seem to feel an exaggerated sense of ownership of their characters. In controlling an avatar, they end up projecting a non-existent relationship and identity onto the character. When the character frustrates this desire, they find fault with the game. I can’t quite make up my mind on the validity of this desire. The medium is interactive, after all, but it only very rarely has allowed interaction with a character’s nature. It strikes me as narrow-minded to reject playing as a deeply flawed character on the grounds that he is deeply flawed, but in games we are asked, as we are not in other media, to act as and for the character we control. Michael Corleone deserves the icy hell to which he has confined himself at the end of The Godfather II, but Coppola does not ask us to inhabit Michael and commit his evil for him. On the other hand, The Godfather’s appeal is based in large part on the degree to which we are made complicit witnesses and spiritual accomplices to the business of the Corleone family. A videogame merely concretizes the relationship between audience and character.
The second problem is textual: in GTA IV self-presentation is deception. That our protagonist is no exception is not a creative failure on Rockstar’s part, but a clever expression of the game’s theme. From the moment Niko arrives in America, he tries to frame the narrative for himself and the people he encounters. He is hopeful for the future and weary of the violence that has marked his past, he wants to turn over a new leaf, but he is also possessed of a tragic worldview. This is what audiences respond to, in much the same way that Niko’s friends and loved ones respond. This is the Niko that Rockstar couldn’t sustain because of a ridiculous story and relentlessly violent gameplay.
It’s also bullshit.
The moment the bullets start to fly, another Niko rises to the surface. We tend to discount contextual dialogue in videogames, but we shouldn’t. It is the only way we see the character reacting to what we do. In GTA IV, we find that Niko is enjoying the killing just as much as the player, if not more. When he unloads a submachine gun into someone in a warehouse, he’ll scream something like, “YOU SHOULD NOT HAVE FFFUCKED WITH ME!” or just a simple, “Fuck you!” Hiding in cover while bullets streak overhead, he’ll just begin spewing threats and obscenities at his tormentors. “I am going to rip out your heart!” Toss a grenade a blast someone out of cover, and he might just start screaming, “YEAH? YEAH? YEAAAAH?” His accent thickens, his voice breaks and becomes guttural, and you can almost see the red mist descending across his vision.
This is every bit as revealing of Niko as some of his monologues to other characters. He doesn’t just commit murder because he’s paid or because that is his only skill; Niko finds release in killing that gives lie to his protestations that he just wants things to be different. That rage has to go somewhere.
The same goes for his sense of morality. With the exception of a fanatical and unbalanced devotion to his closest friends, Niko is no longer capable of being guided by laws or customs. When he levels a gun at the driver of a car he wishes to take, he will often say something like, “I grew up in a war. This means nothing.” He’s not lying. Killing a stranger for a car is an act that carries almost no weight with Niko, especially as he grows more desensitized to violence.
It’s also revealing that less than halfway through the game, Niko no longer has any reason to continue doing contract killing, yet he does not stop. When he finishes up a bank heist with the McReary family, his cut comes to a quarter of a million dollars. This score is what will finance Niko for the remainder of the game. Nothing else he does will ever be so profitable.
It’s discordant. Niko is sitting on a massive pile of money, but you still see him negotiating hard for a five grand hit that will almost certainly turn into a bloodbath. He does work for men who are obviously fools and incompetents, and he does it for peanuts. Toward the end of the game Niko talks about retiring from crime and starting afresh, the same way he was talking when he arrived in Liberty City, but he’s already had chances to quit. He never did.
His justification for most of the game is necessity. He is looking for the two men who may have betrayed his unit during the war, so he needs to work with people who have the resources to track town his targets. Or he is being blackmailed. Or the people who hire him won’t let him quit.
But the justifications wear thin. Early in the game he hooks up with the character who will help him find his enemies, a federal agent who has a lot of dirty work that needs doing. This man even advises Niko not to do business with most of his associates, because they won’t be able to help. Yet Niko keeps working. A corrupt police captain spends a lot of time blackmailing Niko into assisting him with a cover up, but the idea of Niko Bellic being blackmailed is laughable. The man has done nothing but leave corpses scattered around Liberty City, and he would not hesitate to kill someone who threatened him. The same goes for anyone who tried to turn him into an indentured servant. He acquiesces, however, because Niko never acts for himself.
Niko’s biggest weaknesses are evident in his dealings with the Pegorino crime family. The Pegorinos are Alderney (Jersey) gangsters led by a whining, paranoid fuckup who dreams of making the Pegorinos one of the Five Families of Liberty City (New York). By the time Niko starts working with him, his organization has already been ravaged by informants and is down to a skeleton crew that sees feds in every shadow. Yet Jimmy Pegorino has a plan to turn everything around: he’s going to ask a more powerful family to let the Pegorinos start doing business in Algonquin (Manhattan). After all, Jimmy explains, the Pegorinos let these guys operate in Alderney. It never occurs to Jimmy that the Pegorinos no longer have the power to prevent anyone from doing business in Alderney.
From the first, Jimmy blunders from one disaster to another. He wastes his remaining manpower and shrugs off the losses. He turns against a top lieutenant. Throughout everything, Niko keeps Pegorino’s head above water. Things finally come to a head when Pegorino demands that Niko go make a deal with a Russian gangster who has repeatedly tormented Niko and his family. When Niko demurs, Jimmy threatens Niko and tells him that this is a favor owed. Niko lets Pegorino leave thinking that they’re on the same page now.
This is the conversation that sets up the tragic finale, and Niko is passive throughout. He feels nothing but contempt for Jimmy, that much is obvious, but he never actually sets Jimmy straight. He retains his posture of deference, even though Jimmy Pegorino is a floundering third-rate mafiosi while Niko is unquestionably the scariest motherfucker in Liberty City. He could easily say to Jimmy, “I’m through working for you, and if you think you can threaten me you should consider how many people have promised to kill me, and how many of them are still walking around.” He doesn’t. Niko doesn’t talk back.
Nor does he ever take charge. Niko is clearly more perceptive than most of the people he works for. He could easily supplant Jimmy and the Pegorinos, or the Russian gangsters in Hove Beach. By the end of the game, his best friend is a major drug dealer, he has the backing of an absolutely fearless family of Irish hoods, he is sitting atop a massive pile of cash, the capo di tutti capi owes him a stack of favors, and he’s about to wipe out most of the Russian mob. Niko could be a boss, if he wanted.
That, or quitting, would be the smart thing to do. The last thing he should do is keep taking orders, but he does. He learned nothing from the war, and he learns nothing during his life in America. He and his friends were led into a slaughter by following orders and trusting the genocidal gangsters who led them, and when he comes to America, Niko still leads his friends to slaughter and obeys gangsters. Niko is a skilled fighter and is, in some ways, a shrewd judge of character. But he refuses to think for himself or act for himself. He prefers simply to work, even though he claims to despise it.
Maybe this does make him despicable, but I still find Niko more tragic than anything else. Because there are things about him that are genuine, and one of them is that he cares fiercely for his friends and loved ones. In fact, the only times we see Niko reject orders or start taking action on his own is when he his motivated by loyalty. He kills everyone who harms Roman. His pursuit of the traitor from the war is motivated by the fact that Niko can neither forgive nor forget the fact that most of his childhood friends died before his eyes in that ambush. The game ends in an orgy of revenge killing. All Niko has is the family he attempts to construct around him, and it is that family in which he places his hopes for the future.
The tragedy is not that Niko does not get his fresh start. We know that’s impossible, even if he doesn’t. The tragedy is that Niko’s habit of obedience creates the circumstances that will destroy his family. Throughout the game he follows orders that place him and his friends in increasing peril, but he will not attempt to shape events. He will take revenge, and he will act in a crisis, but he refuses to do anything more than react. That is why the game ends with payback and no comfort. Love and loyalty might be his primary motivations, but hatred and rage are all that can move him to self-directed action.
Somehow they always seem to take him back to the exact same place.