So tell me how GTA IV is social commentary, precisely.
Well, Mr. Elrod, that's not exactly a simple task.
It illustrates parts of Western society which make many of us uncomfortable, and, in a lot of ways, it seems to celebrate them, or at least tolerate them. I know that many of my friends and contacts are disgusted by the game's treatment of prostitution, organised crime and racial and sexual stereotypes. While I'm wary of both flogging a dead horse and digging up a freshly buried hatchet in talking about this game at the year's end, I believe that GTA IV is laudable enough to merit abusing a few more metaphors.
All things considered, the non-specialist mechanics bring us closer to Niko's identity. He's not quite the everyman, but there's a great sense of there but for the grace of God with Niko. He isn't a Mafia member, and he isn't CJ. He's an immigrant who's fallen on hard times, and if it wasn't for Rockstar's dubious attempt at providing an engaging backstory for Niko, then his story would be a wonderfully nauseating antidote to the hubris inherent in modern American patriotism. He can drive a car, but not like your Burnout avatar. He can shoot a gun, but he's no Master Chief. He's no fitness fanatic, either. On an early mission, when Niko is forced to climb a lot of ladders and run a great distance, he can be heard to shout "fuck!" repeatedly. He is not as otherworldly as past GTA protagonists.
The game is at its strongest when discussing the American dream. In that sense, Niko's interactions with his cousin Roman are among the best moments in the game, and much of the rest of the narrative and play seems incongruent with these crucial points. Roman is a true believer. If nothing else, the titties have made him fall in love with The Land of Opportunity. Niko, on the other hand, is more skeptical:
Everything is just advertising with nothing to back it up!
It's an attitude which pervades Liberty City. Packie, who quickly develops a rapport with Niko, has this to say:
Tell you what, I'm going to do a ton of lines, bang a lot of college girls, then die young leaving a bloated corpse. That sound like the kind of life worth saving?
When Niko responds, you can hear the venom in his voice. When, as the player guns down a rival gang, Niko can be heard to shout, "I LOVE THIS COUNTRY," this is not a celebration of violence or the ease with which it is possible to buy a gun in New York City. It is Rockstar accusing the American dream of "leaving a bloated corpse." When Niko pays a prostitute to have sex with him and then runs her over to collect his cash, it is not without context. Has Manifest Destiny been reduced to measuring a person's worth by the relative size of their titties? Is this what society has come to?
I was disappointed to learn that Niko's skepticism ultimately comes from a very sociopathic place, and not an intelligent and concerned one. I really can't understand how or why Rockstar slipped up on this one. When the game starts, Niko worries to no end over every crime he's committing. It doesn't slowly ease him into a freer conscience. It just decides at a certain point that Niko no longer cares about his actions. It's alienating.
If Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas made us part of the American dream RockStar so loves to mock, then GTA IV has us take on the role of an outsider looking in. This makes the satire that much more potent. When we drive Manny's corpse to a streetside "doctor," we are left with a sour taste in our mouths. A similar scene with CJ at the wheel would seem comical, or even pimpin'. Niko's commentary is vital to the message of GTA IV, as it gives us a perspective we might otherwise lack. In previous GTA titles, it was possible to turn off the radio, avoid RockStar's parody of American culture and focus on the bloodthirsty descent into crime the games offered the player. In GTA IV, it is impossible to turn off Niko. His bitter critique of the society he has been thrust into incontrovertibly affects the player's perception of Liberty City. Grand Theft Auto is no longer all a big joke. It's a comment on crime. We're no longer going to bust a cap in someone's ass in order to get revenge for some trivial gang slight. Instead, we're forced into the criminal underworld by adverse circumstances. Niko wants nothing more than to move on with his life and start afresh, but, unlike Roman, he's also a man who does what needs doing. When it becomes obvious that what needs doing involves criminal activity, he comes to terms with that fact very quickly.
There is a sense in which Niko's feelings and the game's narrative come into conflict. I've argued against the conventional wisdom on this point, but I'm coming round to the accepted view. In fact, in the last few weeks, I have become disillusioned with GTA IV. Like many games this year (Braid, Fallout 3, Mirror's Edge and Fable II included), it is not everything I wanted it to be, or even everything it told me it was when I first started playing it. Once, I would have attempted to rebut Elrod utterly when he said this:
I'm seeing it bandied about that you can play through GTA IV without ever once being a criminal thug. Seriously? Not a single core mission needed to complete the narrative of GTA IV requires you to kill? Steal? Maim?
And it's not true. I had been playing Niko as a highly intelligent (if uneducated), slightly cynical but not overly cold or violent man of mildly conservative values (as I believed I was being prompted to play by the game's narrative), and that worked well for the first twenty hours of play, but, as Niko became more involved with more hardcore gangsters, he started wearing balaclavas and shooting down cops by the bucketload. Slowly, I felt my heart break. Niko wasn't the honest man pulled down I so wanted Rockstar to make him. He was a killer. Worse: he was reckless. In one mission, when working with a group of others, Niko insists on more unnecessary violence while his peers recommend running. His bloodlust was very disappointing to me.
So, in more ways than one, this is the game which, to my mind, best captures the spirit of 2008 for the video games industry. It showed us just where we can go, and how beautiful that can be - how transcendent, how moving, how illustrative, how engaging, how involving, how visceral, how hands-on - and it promised to be all of these things. And, yes, in the end, it failed to deliver. But in a year wherein the issue of games - and game writing - "growing up" seems to have been at the forefront of everyone's minds and on the tip of everyone's tongues, just showing that we have the guts to stick a flag in the ground and proclaim that we can be this emotional and thought-changing medium is a huge achievement. N
Comments are closed. Selected responses to this article are archived below.
Graduate School Gamer
It's funny that you mentioned your disappointment that Niko's mentality comes from a sociopathic origin. Personally, it is the only place that I could imagine him coming from. It you look at the way missions are completed and the kind of actions you are doing when you control Niko, there is a sense of disassociation and insanity in your actions.
Everything you do in GTAIV is a mission. It is for your own personal gain. The thefts, murders, and relationships are very methodical, planned, and executed. When I attempted to court an NPC it was not that I felt a social connection or link, but because it quickly became a chore to unlock an achievement or advantage in the game. Very rarely did I feel a genuine connection (exceptions include Buci).
I thought making a sociopath out of Niko was in fact a genius move. If you try to explain the more common actions of players when they go off and cause ruckus in the game space, there is a sense of disturbing escapism and relief in their actions. It is amusing, terrifying, and creative. What else would you describe it but as sociopathic? Great GOTY pick by the way.