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So This Is What the Dream Is Like

By (April 1, 2009) 3 Comments

Violence and Assimilation in Grand Theft Auto IV

In the pantheon of gaming, few franchises can lay claim to the dark divinity of Grand Theft Auto. Comprising nine independent games and four distinct phases, it has become legendary for its brutal violence, gleeful amorality and enormous popularity. In Grand Theft Auto, moral opponents of video games have found perhaps their greatest asset yet.

And, to be fair, I wasn’t a great fan of the games myself. My experience was limited to the most recent installments, the GTA III‘s, set in Liberty City (a parody of New York), Vice City (Miami) and San Andreas (San Francisco). I can’t speak to the game’s earlier incarnations, but the major selling point of the third version was the “sandbox” style of gameplay, featuring various missions to be completed, set within an entire cityscape to be roamed (and ravaged) by the player. Steal a car, run over pedestrians, pick up prostitutes, beat them to death with baseball bats; whether you think that the game instigates violence by desensitizing its viewers, or deters it by allowing the fantasy of violence to be carried out in a virtual world, violence dominates the universe of GTA, and it’s clear that committing violence is meant to be one of the chief pleasures in the game.  

This makes it no different from the majority of high budget video games. Since their early years, audio-visual games have relied upon violence of some kind to provide entertainment. Even Space Invaders requires the use of violence against, well… space invaders. But that was violence without context, or at least without a “real world” context; that was unreal violence, fantasy violence, which doesn’t yield the same visceral reaction as violence set in city streets, the kind of violence that can harm civilians, innocents, or the representations of such.

But this divestment from reality, and from the possibility of real world consequence, makes it harder for such a game to say anything valuable with its violence. GTA realizes its violence much more visibly than Space Invaders or even Halo and thus has a better angle on not just being violent, but speaking about violence itself. In previous installments the game was set on parody, pointing to the violence in American culture and our own gleeful nihilism – the very inclinations that make GTA games so popular. But this most recent version has added an element that carries it through parody and onto something else. It sounds crazy, perhaps, but Grand Theft Auto IV introduces a powerful statement on the immigrant experience, and the violent process of assimilation.

The game’s mechanics are similar to those of its direct predecessor. It creates a detailed and immersive city environment, more or less based on New York, with various boroughs and bridges, ghettos and landmarks. The character is viewed from a third person perspective and has free reign over accessible regions. Players may steal cars (the feature that gave the series its name), collect weapons, and rampage as they see fit. But they may also engage in mini-games, befriend other characters, use online dating sites, go on outings to play pool or darts, or even go to see comedy shows or cabaret.

Rather than produce a linear progression, the Grand Theft Auto games provide an open field of play, a “sandbox,” encouraging players to set their own goals and pursue them. Plot (which progresses through the playing of various missions) provides a loose structure instead of the bulwark of the game. GTA IV, while retaining the structure and gameplay that typifies the entire franchise, is different in that plot plays a much more prominent role, and this difference marks it as artistically superior.

GTA IV also differs from its predecessors in that the protagonist, one Niko Bellic, is an immigrant. The opening sequence of the game depicts the freighter he serves on drifting towards the dimly lit docks of Liberty City. Niko, brooding and laconic, is encouraged by his friend and fellow voyager, who gives the classic line about the “land of opportunity.” Niko is close to buying the promise himself; he has heard tales from his cousin about mansions, riches, yachts and threesomes. It is, to anyone living in the good old US of A, obviously ridiculous.

Niko Bellic, from Grand Theft Auto IV

And this absurdity is revealed very swiftly as Niko finds out that his cousin, Roman, lives in a crummy apartment in the Eastern European ghetto, pursued by Albanian loan sharks and harassed by Vlad, a brutal and brutish member of the Russian mob. Unlike previous protagonists, Niko does not start out with criminal intent. He has his dark past – he served in the Serbian war, worked with smugglers in the Mediterranean, and he has killed before – but he is also haunted by it in a way foreign to the main characters in previous games. When Niko is pulled into violence and criminality, as he inevitably is, it is in defense of his cousin. He attempts to repay his cousin’s debts and, when this fails, kills the man who is threatening to kill him, setting up a cycle of retribution and revenge that draws Niko fully into the underworld of Liberty City.

Retribution and revenge are the most important driving forces in Niko’s life. GTA IV sets up a clear dichotomy between two modes of conduct, one that can be aligned with Niko’s point of origin, the “Old World,” and the other embodied in the supposed promise of immigration, the “New World.”

Fair warning: this will come perilously close to a full-on Marxist critique. At its heart GTA IV expresses a deeply personal experience, Niko’s experience, and thus the experience of the player. Niko’s final choice is between embracing the new or preserving the old, two mutually exclusive and equally tragic options.

Niko’s cousin Roman

The two modes of conduct are best summed up in two characters encountered fairly early in the course of the game: Mikhael Faustin and Dimitri Raskalov. They are the bosses of the local Russian mob: Mikhael as the ferocious leadership, Dimitri handling diplomacy and the finer points of organized crime. In everything from their personalities to their drug habits they embody the opposition between New and Old Worlds. Mikhael, cocaine using, dangerous, unpredictable, inefficient, is a classic tyrant, with a belief in blood loyalties and feuds that ultimately leads to his own destruction. Dimitri, inveterate barbiturate addict and constant “voice of reason,” sees organized crime as a game. “We pick the game, but we cannot change the rules,” he states, and in the very same conversation he enlists Niko to kill Mikhael, who has become too violent, too erratic, he must be dealt with. He’s broken “the rules” and Dimitri points to this as sufficient reason to betray his blood brother.

But he also betrays Mikhael in the name of capitalist production; Mikhael is dangerous, yes, but murder is the stock and trade of such men. The trouble is that his murderousness is no longer profitable; it has, in fact, gotten in the way of the mob’s profitability. His dedication to an outmoded form of production, more than anything else, leads to Mikhael’s destruction. In the New World, blood loyalties are replaced with contracts, honor with rules, ritual revenge with law. It isn’t that the Old World mode is not just as arbitrary or dangerous; Mikhael is already self-destructing, and Niko, very much an Old World soul, is burdened by considerable misery. The difference is that the new mode is self-aware, and its subscribers can therefore self-modify in order to remain profitable.

This discourse between Old and New continues throughout the game. While the most detestable characters (Playboy X, United Paper, the hated Dimitri) are aligned with the New World sensibility, and the Old World claims the more classically redeemable characters (Dwayne, the McRearys, Little Jacob), the discourse does not remain that simple. Rebirth in the new mode is not a universally tragic concept, as demonstrated by characters such as Florian Cravic (alias Bernie Crane), a childhood friend of Niko’s, who has come out as gay and made a happier, brighter life for himself in Liberty City. Bernie, along with Niko’s cousin Roman, urges Niko to give up the obsessions of his past, chief amongst them a desire for revenge against a traitor from the Serbian War, and start a new life. It is the time-honored promise made to immigrants, and is here deeply problematized rather than lampooned.

The final decision of the game underlines this intractable tension. Niko must choose to break his vow never to trust Dimitri again, to hang up his vendetta, and make a large sum of money, or to use his knowledge of Dimitri’s location to hunt his enemy down and avenge his treachery. The choice is, in fact, depicted as such: money or revenge. There could not be a more bald-faced opposition between the Old and New Worlds. This choice alone would be interesting, but GTA IV does not stop there. The consequences of the decision further enrich the game’s exploration. If Niko decides to embrace the Old World code of honor and revenge, his love interest, Kate McReary, is gunned down at Roman’s wedding. If Niko turns his back on vengeance and adopts New World capitalism, Roman is killed instead. Kate, as Niko’s future for a new life, is the cost of holding on to his old values, while Roman, Niko’s beloved family and best living link to his old life, is the price paid for assuming the new mode. There is no middle path, no “best of both worlds.” There is the choice of letting either the future die, or the past.

Kate McCreary

It is all the more strange and perverse that Kate urges Niko to make the choice that kills her, while Roman tries to convince Niko to take the path that will end in his own death, a sign that GTA‘s writers understand that simple polarization is impossible. Kate and Roman, the two sacrifices, are the best examples of an attempted fusion between Old and New, Kate being a devout Catholic and family woman, and Roman being the New World’s biggest proponent. Yet this union is depicted as unstable, hence the necessary death of one of these characters. Notably, each is killed at Roman’s wedding to Mallorie, his New World lover.

But this alone isn’t enough for GTA IV to be a truly powerful piece of art. It discusses this dichotomy, reveals the painful and unavoidable sacrifices demanded of assimilation, and the violence capitalism works on its subjects, but why does this need to be a game? Why have us play out the experience, if not simply to enjoy the added level of personal investment and the pleasure that comes from performing virtual violence?

Dimitri describes life and its modes as a game, with rules that cannot be broken without consequence. As the narrative itself is embedded in a game, Niko, along with the individual playing him, is given Dimitri’s choice: which game will he play? Providing the results of this decision alone would be an achievement, but GTA IV uses its medium to push the boundary of questioning. When those consequences play out, when the game is over, what are we left with? What comes after the game? GTA IV does not dodge this question; it undermines the very logic of games. Harking back to its sandbox roots, it points to the falseness of endings themselves, the goal-setting that gives games, be they video or ideological, their perceived value.

In the very end, Niko stands over the broken body of his last enemy, a different foe depending on the choice he has made and the loved one for whom he takes his last revenge. One of his companions tells him, “You’ve won!”, and in game terms he is not incorrect: the end of the plot means the final challenge has been met and the story is over. But the hollowness of these words removes any feeling besides (perhaps) grim satisfaction. No matter how Niko has won, he has lost, and if you wait, as I did, for the credits to finish rolling and the screen to go black, you hear Niko speak from the darkness: “So this is what the dream is like. This is the victory we longed for.”

And then the screen glows, and we see Niko once more. His phone rings. He answers it. His surviving loved one offers condolences. The player is free to play on, and Niko is forced to live on after the narrative ceases, to live after the victory he longed for. The game is over. The game continues.

Phillip A. Lobo is a freelance writer based in Austin, Texas.

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