GTA IV Still Has the Best Story, Fifteen Years Later
Grand Theft Auto IV follows Niko Bellic, a Serbian veteran of the Yugoslav Wars, who migrates to Liberty City, hunting the American dream. Niko makes the trip on board the Platypus, a cargo ship in whose decks rustle all manner of mischief. We see diamonds dropped into pans of broth, the better to smuggle them past the law, and the image sticks – the promising gleam swallowed by the dark gloop. Not that Niko is to be read as a rough diamond, falling into the corruptive sludge of the Big Bad City; it’s more that he has been hardened by intense pressure, his soul mined by conflict. Stowed away beneath his search for a new life is a nasty ulterior motive, which keeps him anchored to the old one: He is on a mission of revenge, pursuing an old comrade who betrayed him in the wars. He may yearn to breathe free, but he longs to stop the breath of another.
Niko soon meets his cousin, Roman, who runs (a) a shabby taxi rank, (b) from an unsavoury assortment of creditors, and (c) on a mixture of booze and bullshit. Though, as Roman points out, “You must admit I have the best line in bullshit you ever heard.” Niko must eat, earn money, help Roman pay his debts, track down his prey, and try his best to live morally in a land of unfettered opportunity. Game on.
At which point, many like to lay bare a problem with this dramatic premise. How does one square away Niko the soul-searcher, the man who craves a fresh, sea-washed life, with the Niko who, outside of the cutscenes, may pass an afternoon by taking a bazooka to a row of parked cars? Or who may wish to souse himself with liquor and smear any number of Liberty’s citizens around the fenders of his Banshee? This was not a new problem. Telling any kind of story, in a Grand Theft Auto game, is like putting a script into a tumble dryer and hoping that it stays ordered and uncreased, as it spins through the heat of interactivity. The problem, however, was less pronounced in previous games.
Grand Theft Auto: Vice City centred on Tommy Vercetti, a mafia psycho bent on building a white and powdery empire. His homicidal mania was cooled by an aqua-hued shirt and a voice performance by Ray Liotta, who laminated Tommy with a tough-to-hate brio. He was so purely self-interested that very little he did ever seemed out of character. Even so, we can probably agree that he was unlikely to have stolen a tank and blown through a sizable chunk of Ocean Beach just for the hell of it. Likewise, in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, it doesn’t make much sense for our hero, Carl Johnson, to head into downtown San Fierro with a flamethrower strapped to his back and an appetite for chargrilled hippies. (It seemed a little out there when Carl, a kid from the ghetto trying to make good, torched a cannabis plantation at the behest of a fuming hippy voiced by Peter Fonda. Talk about breathing free.)
The fact of the matter is, the heroes of Grand Theft Auto have always spurned that very title; by definition, they have to arrive conscience-free, malleable to the whims of a malevolent climate. Though they dream, they must be quick to break into violence. In short, they have always been studies in the Bellicose, but it wasn’t until Niko, whose quest demanded pathos, and a hint of personal tragedy, that the narrative truly started to crack. But here’s the thing: who cares? Is it not far better to accept the gentleman’s agreement that what happens in the cutscenes is wholly separate to the carnage that you are free to stoke in the streets?
If you accept this implicit pact, the rewards of Grand Theft Auto IV are many. The plot throws up a number of sticky situations, in order to wring the hope out of Niko, to rub dirt on any notions of a clean living. The fifth mission, “Bleed Out,” sees him give panting chase to a debt collector, who had assaulted Roman, hounding him to a docklands warehouse and crunching him from a high window into the river. “I promised myself I wouldn’t kill people here,” Niko says, staring out at the Broker Bridge. It’s a good line, making Niko sound like an ex-smoker, swearing that he wouldn’t buy another pack, and it cheapens the currency of life in Liberty City – as though all Niko had done was slip back into a bad habit, rather than stub out a human being.
And what of Liberty City itself? Niko’s struggle is inextricably bound up with the place, and you can’t imagine him anywhere else. The developer, Rockstar North, forged a perfect facsimile of New York: a comic take off (hence the GetaLife Building, the Statue of Happiness, and Star Junction), tinted in a steely blue-grey, and punctuated by the blaring yellow of its taxis. In the fifteen years since the release of Grand Theft Auto IV, the game’s sense of place has grown all the more vivid for depicting somewhere that now seems lost. Just as the 2001 incarnation of the city, in Grand Theft Auto III, seemed to capture the place in a world before the September 11th attacks, under less baleful skies, the 2008 version freezes the city on the cusp of the financial crash, and the freefall – economic, moral, personal – that ensued.
Grand Theft Auto IV came out in April of that year. (It was supposed to launch in October, 2007, but was delayed.) Fire it up now, and, despite the full day-and-night cycle, you’ll find the city remains stuck at the moment of paradise lost, as if permanently paused at a traffic light – trapped in amber, as it were, restlessly still amid the rush. If there is something about Grand Theft Auto IV that grips you in a way that the other games in the series don’t, it has to do with the way that its setting imbues that wistful, autumn rust on Niko. You know that he won’t make it out unscathed, just as you know that he wasn’t a good man to begin with, but you want him to succeed for no other reason than his own doomed wish to be better. He is, like Liberty City, fuelled by ambition and eaten by cynicism – a dream that rots in real time, even as it’s being dreamt. “Perhaps here, things will be different,” he says, in the game’s first trailer, the doubt already leaking in.
You can’t say the same of Grand Theft Auto V. The closest we have to Niko, in that game, is Michael De Santa, a bank robber from the Midwest who retires, and becomes unmoored, in Los Santos – an analogue of Los Angeles. (The place lacks the immediacy of Liberty City, that blend of the urgent and the timeless.) Michael is, in a way, similarly twined to the landscape: his wish for a new life, unlike Niko’s, is granted, and his days are lined with the greenery of money, but all that West Coast sun gets into his bones, and you feel him bristle against his surroundings. He’s like a fish out of water, or a shark doing laps in a pool; whereas Niko was where he needed to be: swimming in exactly the right waters and gasping for air.
If Grand Theft Auto IV feels more serious, or grim, than the other games in the series, the irony is that it’s less pessimistic. Whatever else he does, Niko strives to help the no-hopers around him. He plucks Roman from the jaws of the Russian mafia; he plays a sympathetic ear to a mob boss’s wife; and he even takes time out to e-mail his mother. The fifteen years between now and its release have only cemented Niko’s tale as a one-off. This is just about as earnest a narrative as these games have ever attempted, and the writers, Dan Houser and Rupert Humphries, would, from that point on, save the sobriety for Red Dead Redemption. The end of the game, after Niko has found his betrayer and exacted revenge – or not, as the case may be (the choice is up to you) – leaves you with doubts. Is there any hope for him and Roman? Can they live happily in the long shadows of Niko’s deeds? All this while later, I’m still not sure, but the story has coaxed me back more than that of any other Grand Theft Auto. Back to Niko and back to Liberty City. Perhaps now, things will be different.
Saturday, April 08, 2023 @ 01:13 PM
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Saturday, April 08, 2023 @ 07:16 PM
GTA 5 was a monolith, San Andreas provided infinite memes, Vice City is a fan favourite... but 4 is a great game as well.
The taxi driver with the infinite banter is a highlight for me... never in my gaming life I've laughed so much with a NPC.
Cheers, Josh. Appreciate your work.
Saturday, April 08, 2023 @ 10:09 PM
Sunday, April 09, 2023 @ 02:27 AM
Good memories of getting GTA4 a whole 2 weeks early from a dodgy game shop. Being 1 of like 20 people online was so funny and a real special experience. Man those MP lobbies were savage lol
Sunday, April 09, 2023 @ 03:27 AM
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Sunday, April 09, 2023 @ 06:40 AM
I remember feeling like I was driving on the moon or something.
I wouldn't mind a remaster though. Something that took IV and made it feel like V.
Sunday, April 09, 2023 @ 09:35 AM
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