“There was this Eastern European guy in Liberty City” – A Grand Theft Auto IV Retrospective Part 3

Grand-Theft-Auto-V_-3In Part 1 of the retrospective, I examined the role of Liberty City in the Grand Theft Auto IV experience. In Part 2, I examined the role of the voices, the NPCs and the sounds, of Niko and the people he surrounds himself with. Warning: Part 3 contains minor spoilers for Grand Theft Auto V and Red Dead Redemption.

Grand Theft Auto IV ends with a moment of mourning for Liberty City and for what Niko Belic has done. “So this, this is the American Dream,” the contract killer whispers moments after the credits roll and it’s a solemn, if somewhat expected moment. Standing before the Statue of Happiness with the corpse of his final enemy before him, Niko realizes that the chance to start over again, to make your own way, can only be earned on blood money and over the broken dreams of his enemies.

It’s not the most well written of finales mostly because it’s a theme GTA IV had beaten to death by this point but it works. In the moments following Niko’s victory, some of the remaining characters call to congratulate you and talk about the things you and they have lost, depending on the chosen ending. Mallory speaks about her unborn child, Packie weeps for the death of his innocent sister, Roman will talk about his future. It’s an ending for these people. There’s nothing left of Liberty City because of one assumption: Niko Belic is going to start over.

4214-gta-iv-screenshot-subway-escapeNiko’s future, attempting to go straight, is interesting for a lot of reasons, namely that it’s a deliberate attempt to end the psychotic violence of the game. Previous RockStar games, namely the earlier Grand Theft Auto had attempted to leave the games with the protagonists at the top. They were free to make money, engage with their worst impulses and continue to use the world as their own playground. It was the truest way to leave a sandbox game, turning the world into a never ending last day of Rome.

Since Grand Theft Auto IV, Rockstar has been obsessed with its heroes trying atone or just to go straight. It’s an interesting idea. After killing hundreds, maybe thousands of innocents and low lives, the morally compromised hero tries to enter a life of relative peace. There’s a natural struggle between what we’ve done and who we want to be and RockStar tries to examine the balance between those forces.

rdr_honorfame_01Red Dead Redemption is Rockstar’s first blatant attempt to examine the nature of retirement from crime. John Marston, a grizzled ex-con, hitman and killer is recruited by the federal government for one more hit before letting him go back to his family. Much like Grand Theft Auto IV, Marston is a character with a voice and a place. He’s sympathetic to the twisted compromises men need to make on the prairie but has a world weary sense of pessimism when dealing with the many people who need his help. Marston is driven almost solely to return to his family and he’s immoral enough to not be concerned about the lives he ends on the way back to the farm.

In the final hours of Red Dead Redemption, Marston returns back to the family farm and leaves the world of bullets and booze behind him. For several missions, John, his son and wife, engage in very little combat, mostly driving cattle, moving supplies and fighting off animals. It’s a serene moment of pastoral bliss, highlighting the intense, gut-wrenching and brutal violence, even by the standard of other Rockstar games. Marston’s ultimate fate is meant to emphasize the way it’s impossible to escape the consequences of violence you commit. There are consequences for a life of crime and it’s impossible to walk away from justice.

grand-theft-auto-v-screen-capture-2Grand Theft Auto V is singularly obsessed with the idea of the getaway. In the opening scene, Michael’s crew is focused less with breaking in and robbing a currency exchange than they are with clearing a path out of the streets, dodging cops and planning an escape out of an ambush. Michael’s situation, now with a new identity, a new home, and more than enough money to cure his mid-life crisis, is all about the perfect escape. He’s lived and he owes few people but he’s just bored. Franklin, looking for an escape from a tense family life, dangerous neighborhood and a personal life which has wounded him more than he lets on, is brought into Michael’s orbit. Then there’s Trevor, a man who’s escaped by leaving behind more bodies, more blood and more drugs and has built his future on little more than impulse. He kills because it’s what he wants to do, he’s good at it and he’s better at not getting caught.

It’s not until later in the game when the idea of the clean escape falls apart. Trevor’s arrival in Los Santos and the chaos he immediately wrecks in Michael’s life drives everyone deeper into a life of crime and consequences. Michael’s tenuous relationship with the FIB and IAA starts to come to a head and the consequences of living a life outside the law have a very tangible punishment. Everyone’s a slave to their past in Los Santos and it’s impossible to escape the life you’ve once lived. It’s a theme which has resonated very potently in pop culture for the last few years, whether in “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” or the film which had a clear influence of Grand Theft Auto V, “Drive.”

“Drive,” much like 2007’s “No Country For Old Men,” is predominantly about the inevitability and inescapable force of violence and it’s ability to push people together or pull them apart. In both Grand Theft Auto V and “Drive,” plans and rules only mean something until they’re broken. Torture is only unethical until we need it. The five minutes are yours only until a man comes into your hotel with a gun. You’re only retired until you walk back into the game.

While Grand Theft Auto V doesn’t have a single antagonist able to be the focus of the anti-heroes’ violence, all of them put the characters into situations where they have to pay for the violence they so willingly use. Grand Theft Auto V is all about actions and reactions. Michael destroys a Russian woman’s house and is indebted to an insane mobster for his impulsive actions. Trevor curb stomps Johnny Klebitz and finds that the Lost motorcycle gang will never stop wanting revenge. Franklin gets involved in one bad coke deal and finds that his neighborhood will never be safe again. Retirement needs nothing because karma is always coming in Grand Theft Auto V.

5608-gta-iv-algonquinSo why does Niko get out? How does he walk away from the chaos and the many, many bodies he’s left in his wake? While setting up the jewelry store heist, Lester and Michael look for potential help on the big score and Lester mentions a still unknown criminal who made waves in Liberty City but they know the man just disappeared, gave up on the game. He’s out, he disappeared, he found his craft. We know Niko is safe, we know he found what he’s looking for. Grand Theft Auto IV gave Niko Belic and us the ending RockStar thought we needed. In an immensely cynical game, filled with bite, bile, rage and blood, stuck in a world consumed with fear and uncertainty, RockStar gave the protagonist an ending worthy of the statue he stands before at the game’s end. The problem is that the cynicism of the game overwhelms the player, leaving us thinking the natural thought we have for any protagonist in a violent game: of course, they’ll return to killing.

In it’s excellent retrospective on Grand Theft Auto III, Gameological Society editor John Teti said the cynicism at the core of the series is damaging to RockStar’s most recent games, saying:

RockStar sort of acquired this us against the world attitude, I feel, after
Grand Theft Auto III, both against the huge popularity of it and the
condemnation of it and I think it’s affected their future games negatively.
What was sort of cynical and clever in Grand Theft Auto III has
metastasized into a more ham-fisted, lazy cynicism in their more recent
games.

It’s that cynicism which makes Niko’s survival so difficult to imagine, so impossible to explain. The cynicism intrinsic to Grand Theft Auto IV, moreso than the heavy driving controls, repetitive mission types, obligatory long travel times, sticky aiming and often racially caricatured NPCs, which sinks the game and destroys it’s characters. There’s no optimism in Liberty City, no hope and no chance of escape and it’s a fate RockStar embraced moving forward. No one escapes, no one is at peace, death is always coming and it’s all thanks to Grand Theft Auto IV.

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