Rockstar Games (and games), if anything, are always a mess. A mess of tone, of bad jokes, of labor issues, storytelling, gameplay, racism, sexism, and everything in between. Even their most confident titles are stuck in a bog of “Uhhhh, okay?”. Yes. I am looking at you, Max Payne 3, one of my favorite games ever made but it is also pretty fucking racist. Art is complicated. Yeah, no shit. But sometimes you can only hide behind the whole “morally gray” thing for so long. Rockstar has hidden behind that wall since day one and, arguably, the one game that functionally works well within this milieu (but still has loads of problems) is Grand Theft Auto IV. That’s what this essay’s about.
Niko Bellic is an Eastern European immigrant. His background as an ex-soldier paints a picture of his future. He remarks that he can’t remember the last time that his hands weren’t dirty. And he has immigrated to Liberty City (Rockstar’s fictionalized New York City, set in 2008). His hands keep getting dirtier. The city doesn’t welcome him, but his cousin, Roman, does. Roman is the closest thing video games have to Uncut Gems' main character, Howard Ratner. He’s always neck-deep in debt and one of the first missions sees him gambling away money he owes and running away with his losses as loan sharks are hot on his tail. But he has his cousin, Niko. Niko hurts the loan sharks. Niko hurts a lot of people. But he wants to be better. He even tries, but he can’t. Liberty City doesn’t create good people or change folks for the better. It breaks them, makes them worse, and spits them out if they can’t handle it. “Capitalism is a dirty business.” Says Niko as his cousin Roman screams at someone over the phone that he owes money to.
The allure of America that brought Niko to Liberty City was built on lies. Roman promised him a mansion, success, women, and fast cars. None of that welcomes him as he steps off the beat. All there is is a busted apartment below an above-ground subway line. Niko doesn’t even have the time to think what a life for himself might look like, as he’s roped into fixing Roman’s problems—all through escalating methods of violence. What starts as a fistfight, down the line, will eventually be a gun battle. Niko starts to meet other characters involved in Liberty City’s underworld. Through them, he sees a path to some sort of selfhood, one step closer to the American Dream.
For as much as Niko wants to be better, he never puts those words or thoughts into action. He kills, steals, stabs, and does whatever he’s told to whoever he’s told to do it to. And when he takes agency of himself? That still leads to killing. The first real choice Niko makes in the game’s opening hours is to kill the Eastern European neighborhood crime boss. Why? He just seems annoyed by him and the fact that he might be having an affair with the woman Roman likes seems a good enough excuse to kill him. Niko corners him against a broken bridge overlooking greywater that matches the low-hanging clouds and smog above. Niko covers his face, puts a gun to his head, and kills him. And so we are finally introduced to Niko, and through him, we meet the vast character that is Liberty City.
Liberty City is a heightened portrayal of the sort of urban sprawl that is unique to the East Coast. It is cold and colossal, and it gives you the sense that nothing you do can shape or reshape what’s already been made in concrete. It was here before you and it’ll be here after you’re gone. The city always feels half-asleep, oscillating between being forgotten and some sort of change. It is often overcast, smog rises from the streets and gives the sky a sickly orange hue or a consistently grey pallor. If the city had skin, it would show signs of some sort of sickness. Where the west coast settings of other Grand Theft Auto titles bathe in the excess of it all, Grand Theft Auto IV asks the player to succumb to the weight of urban structures, of the withering, eroding effect that capitalism has on humanity and the endless steel and concrete structures we’ve erected in the name of free trade, profits, and Business. The setting matches the story.
The crime epic that is the story of Niko Bellic is arguably the bleakest and most grounded(?) story Rockstar has ever told in an open-world milieu. The satire that is inherent to the series is mainly saved for the game's various radio stations and a few key characters throughout the story (mainly in Roman, Niko’s cousin who has fully bought into the idea of capitalism to the point where he, like most capitalists, just wants to cheat the system and also, uh, be really, really sexist). Having a story in an open-world Rockstar game that feels in line with the gameplay makes the game hit that much harder. It isn’t like there is a super serious cutscene and then you’re off doing zany shit. I mean, you can, but it comes at the detriment of the narrative, and the game never pushes you in the direction of doing that stuff. There is a bite to Grand Theft Auto IV that actually feels impactful compared to the relative floaty, toothlessness of most Rockstar games. This sense of narrative weight, of omnipresent melancholy, even shows itself in how the game plays. Niko controls quite heavily, as do the cars and gunplay. There is a sort of sickening impact to everything that especially makes the acts of violence feel somewhat gross. Gunshots have finality. People die and when they do, it is often uncomfortable due to the weighty physics and how AI reacts to being hit in certain parts of their bodies. All of this to say that Grand Theft Auto IV feels like an intentional work rather than the sort of made-by-committee approach we often see in the AAA games of today (just look at the tonal pinballing of every Far Cry game post-Far Cry 2).
Grand Theft Auto IV is one of Rockstar’s sharpest games and Niko Bellic is the series’ best protagonist. His story is depressing. Liberty City is depressing. Nobody is allowed a happy ending because they don’t deserve them, and the city doesn’t care enough about any single person to single them out and let them actually fall in love with the city, find a good life, and make something of themselves. Every character actually does make something of themselves, but it is not good. But neither is Liberty City. It never asks anyone to just be okay, to be better. So why strive for that when the city will push back at every step? And those who want to be better? To just be normal? Liberty City grinds them down so that they break and become something else, or die a violent, tragic death. Like every character in Grand Theft Auto IV, Liberty City itself wants the easy way out, no matter what it takes, but hey, this is capitalism after all.