Posts Tagged ‘ GTA IV

Niko Bellic

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.

Let Me Show You Where to Stick Your Trophy

I used to be fairly positive about achievements and trophies. I saw a lot of great possibilities for them, because I saw how people like Valve were using them. Some of my best Team Fortress 2 memories are of those moments when I would do something I couldn’t believe, and then achievements would start falling into my lap.

But it has all gone to hell. The entire concept has been diluted into complete meaninglessness, as developers pile pointless trophies into every game that are not so much achievements as inevitabilities. As I played through Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune last week, I received “trophies” for getting 10 headshots, or for killing 50 enemies with my pistol, and so on. It’s like Naughty Dog were surprised they made a shooter.

“Whoa, look at that! He just killed a bunch of people with that machine gun. Dude has mad skills.”

It happened in the middle of a tense firefight in a church. I was running out of ammo, snipers were drawing a bead on my position, grenades were falling like hail, and I was desperately diving from cover to cover, killing as quickly as I could. I was completely into the moment, hanging on the edge of my seat as Drake slid his last clip into the M4 carbine. Then, just as I killed a sniper and a stream of gunfire doused my position, a window popped into the screen congratulating me on my 50th kill with the M4. The tension that had been building since the encounter began was broken by the intrusion. The reward that mattered was the thrill of riding out this desperate firefight. But the game forced a lesser prize into my hands, and took away the real one.

Worse by far, however, is the narrative mutilation that achievements perform on games. No plot point, no crucial character development escapes its requisite asinine and self-consciously clever achievement. The work of the writers, animators, and artists who create important moments is crippled by the attitude that unless it comes with an achievement, it doesn’t matter.

A few weeks ago I was playing through Grand Theft Auto IV on PC, and the end of the first act is marked by the destruction of everything Niko and his cousin have accomplished since arriving in America. The Russian mob has turned against Niko, his apartment and his cousin’s taxi service have been firebombed, and now Niko and Roman must flee Broker and go into hiding in Bohan.

It’s a great sequence. The player and Niko realize that they’ve been betrayed and have made their worst enemy a very powerful man, and now Niko and Roman race around Broker trying to salvage the pieces of their lives. But it is too late, and Roman begins wailing as he watches first his apartment and then his hard-won taxi garage burning to the ground. The pair race out of Broker with nothing but their lives, and Roman is yelling at Niko for ruining everything and lamenting the lost status and possessions he worked years to acquire. Niko tries to defend himself, but is also clearly racked by guilt over his colossal fuck-up. When you finally get to the safe-house in Bohan, Niko can’t even stay in the apartment. He walks back onto the street for some much-needed air and privacy. Outside, a street-preacher’s sermon is in full swing, telling you that you’re mired in so much sin that you’re already in hell.

I watched him from across the street as he stared back, and oblivious pedestrians brush past both of us. It was a crowning moment after a powerful bit of storytelling. Several hours into the game, Niko had only managed to ruin things for himself and his best friend.

Then a message box appeared on the screen: “Achievement Unlocked! – Lowest Point.” And that was the end of that.

Or how about this punishing moment from Heavy Rain, when the Origami Killer forces Ethan to amputate a finger in order to get another clue about where his son is being kept? It’s an unbelievable sequence. A prerecorded message gives you five minutes to chop off your finger in front of a camera. You go around a fire-damaged apartment, finding useful things like a knife, a cleaver, and some alcohol. Then, once you’ve set the place, you take a few shots of liquor, chop off a finger, and then pour alcohol over the wound. Ethan is screaming and crying from pain. I felt sick.

A few seconds later we get a loading screen, and the game announces that we’d won the “Goldfinger” trophy. Haha, how clever! Because, you see, we just chopped off a finger. Actually, I don’t even know what the fuck “Goldfinger” has to do with what just happened, but at least we can all agree that we really accomplished something here. We got a trophy!

Most games have trouble sustaining my interest in the plot and my emotional involvement with the characters. When a game manages the trick of pulling me into the gameworld, of making the room and the controls disappear, it has managed one of the most difficult and important tasks in telling a story within a game. That’s the achievement. That’s what creates the possibility that a game might actually mean something to you long after you’ve stopped playing.

Trophies and achievements destroy that. They piss on the narrative importance of anything you’ve seen or done, and they increasingly mock the concept of skilled play. They break in at every turn, rushing to reassure you that you’re doing well, that you’re not wasting your time, and that what you’re doing actually means something. And they only succeed in making it seem meaningless.


Someday I’ll be comfortable with what I do, and I will be able to believe that it is a job at which I work very hard. But it is hard for me to say that with conviction, when I spend so much of my time playing games I love, and discussing them with people I like. It is harder still to acknowledge any toil of my own when I identify and agree so completely with this passage from A Connecticut Yankee:

There are wise people who talk ever so knowingly and complacently about “the working classes,” and satisfy themselves that a day’s hard intellectual work is very much harder than a day’s hard manual toil, and is righteously entitled to much bigger pay. Why, they really think that, you know, because they know all about the one, but haven’t tried the other. But I know all about both; and so far as I am concerned, there isn’t money enough in the universe to hire me to swing a pickaxe thirty days, but I will do the hardest kind of intellectual work for just as near nothing as you can cipher it down — and I will be satisfied, too.

Still, writing is work. And if you play enough of them, and if you have to play them because you’ve promised colleagues and editors that you will play them, games become work as well. Consider, also, that I still try to play games for relaxation, I also try to read a bit for enjoyment, and I still try to write for pleasure. Then, of course, there is the fact that a lot of my work involves strategy gaming, which requires rather more than shooting character models until they stop moving.

I get tired, and I don’t acknowledge it because I don’t feel I’ve got the right or the reason. But sometime in this past week, it dawned on me that I could not remember the last time I took a weekend off from work. I could not quite recall the last time I had played a game that wasn’t eventually going to be the subject of a Three Moves Ahead, a column, a review, or a blog entry. So MK made me promise not to do any work on Saturday or Sunday, including playing games for professional purposes. I agreed, and worked until late on Friday so that I could keep my part of the deal.

What I needed the most, besides a break and a day full of stiff cocktails and buffalo wings, was violent and kinetic videogaming. I needed brutal power fantasies and faster-than-thought gameplay, and I needed games without a single fucking hotkey. Feel free to argue with my choices, but Mirror’s Edge and Grand Theft Auto IV seemed made to order.

Ultimately, Grand Theft Auto was the better game for my purposes. When you’re running in Mirror’s Edge, and the motion blur starts to creep in around the edges of your vision as Faith kicks it into high gear, the rush in incredible. But the endless dying and capricious save points means the game delivers that feeling only sporadically.

On the other hand, the game gets me so involved that I find myself leaning forward with every long jump, willing Faith to go farther. I flinch when she hits the ground too hard. Few things are more satisfying than sprinting toward a SWAT trooper as he draws a bead, and dropping into a slide-kick just before he pulls the trigger, punting him to his death with a savage kick to the stomach.

Still, GTA IV was the more mindless, escapist activity. Niko Bellic gave me a simulated life to live in the endlessly involving Liberty City, and I enjoyed role-playing his character. Thrilling car chases, brutal back-alley killings, and the casual carjacking of a driver who nearly hit my on the street was my kind of diversion. Like Niko, I didn’t need to think or plan what was going to happen. I just waited for the phone calls that told me where there was killing to be done, and then I went and did it.