March 20, 2009

The Fall

Niko Bellic was promised the life of kings. Five minutes after coming to America, he's sharing a squalid one-couch apartment with his cousin Roman and a family of rats. Niko is disillusioned, understandably, but if only he knew how good he had it at that moment. This is not the American Dream, but it's still something he can believe in.

For a while, Grand Theft Auto IV is nothing but the extremely authored, slow-paced and dialogue-heavy saga of two Eastern European immigrants who work at a taxi service in a facsimile New York City. They have girlfriends and gambling debts, they get shit-faced drunk and sober up to heartfelt emails from Niko's mother. The premise sounds like it belongs to a sitcom or an arthouse movie, but of course Grand Theft Auto is a series about blowing up cop cars with rocket launchers in a sprawling urban world. In this game you shop for clothes and take girls out bowling along a very narrow story path.

For hours, the game doesn't make you do anything illegal or even put a gun into your hands. This is not Grand Theft Auto. It's better.

The grudging affection Niko Bellic feels towards his cousin, his earnest attraction towards girlfriend Michelle and his controlled resentment at loan shark Vlad belittling his ethnicity all feel authentic and capable of driving an entire game. It's subtle, it's sincere -- a Grand Theft Auto game is sincere? It doesn't give me a gun or make me steal a car, but for the first time I don't feel like I need those.

If Liberty City feels like a living world, to skirt a cliche, it isn't because of the significant upgrades in visual fidelity, the physics engine or the traffic density. For the first time, the city is populated by people who aren't larger-than-life. Car thieves don't actually make their getaways in helicopters, hurl grenades at pedestrians or dive-roll out of police cars.

In Grand Theft Auto IV's Liberty City, you do things like obey traffic lights and buy hot dogs from street vendors because no one yet has betrayed their contract with reality to sanction random, meaningless violence. It means something, I think, that the default movement speed is to walk. When the game first told me to walk to Roman's office, I did it, I walked all the way, just looking around without ever carjacking someone to speed up the process. That's what psychopaths do, and Niko Bellic is not a psychopath. Not yet.

Grand Theft Auto IV doesn't stop me from stealing a car or shooting a police officer with his own gun, but as this game begins, that feels like an actor in a play deliberately screwing up his lines. It's a testament to the fiction of this game that I'm willing to sustain it by forgoing gameplay conveniences -- like hotwiring a car instead of borrowing Roman's -- that might contradict Niko's character.

It's curious that Rockstar would attempt a mundanity so contrary to their well-worn groove of casual, amoral mayhem. Grand Theft Auto IV works well enough for a time because the missions do not encourage the player to fly off the handle and do something insane. But check out that completion statistic, still in the single digits.

The game is called Grand Theft Auto and there are snipers and car chases right on the cover. Niko's story is clearly going to be about his unfortunate slide into crime. This is his downfall. How long, though, can we stay in that shitty apartment, where all we care about is collecting on taxi fares and where to take Michelle for dinner? How far does Niko have to fall?

If past Grand Theft Autos are any indication, Niko will not simply run drugs and extort shop owners to make ends meet. He's not headed for a life of crime, he's headed for a life of cartoon sociopathy.

It's difficult to picture Niko Bellic, who appears have to a conscience, and has evidently made some mistakes in his past but does not intend to repeat them, assuming the role of a Grand Theft Auto protagonist. This is a guy who only wants to take a girl to the funfair.

When Niko takes a stand against the mobster harassing his brother, he goes too far and the guy falls out of a window to his death. "I didn't want to kill anyone here," he says, shaking his head. That moment is like the teaser poster for Star Wars: Episode I with young Anakin Skywalker casting Darth Vader's shadow. We know, at that point, that little innocent Anakin is going to grow up to be an unlockable Soul Calibur character.

For the first five hours, Grand Theft Auto IV almost succeeds in escaping its history. Then all the memories worm their way back in -- like the amnesiac Jason Bourne, sitting on a park bench, who suddenly disarms and incapacitates two cops without even knowing he could do that. Alternatively, like A History of Violence, a movie I have never seen but remember its trailer fondly.

Sometimes when you tell Niko to hail a cab, the game mistakes your input and has Niko brutally curb-stomp the driver. It's a horrifying accident, but at the same time it's a little too familiar. It's all coming back now.

Multiple mission icons appear on the map, Niko visits an arms dealer, buys an assault rifle -- what would he ever need an assault rifle for? Will it help his darts game? -- steals a car, turns on the radio and is struck by an obvious and crude satire of American culture and the vapidity of excess; a bluntly political kind of humour that would have been vetoed by the editors of a George W. Bush-themed joke book from 2004. That embarrassing parody, even as it co-exists with the realistic coming-to-America story, warns that Rockstar haven't grown up quite so much as it initially appeared.

Niko and his morals can be indulged for a while, but at a certain point he's got to drop the act. They didn't build this city to be set dressing. It needs to have glowing pigeons to shoot. Rockstar flips the switch. Wake up.

Niko decides to kill Vlad because he was possibly sleeping with a woman Roman has a crush on. It's a drastic overreaction, and it's not a momentary logical lapse but the beginning of the end.

This guy has to fit into the established Grand Theft Auto template. After killing Vlad, he abandons all normal ethical compunctions. Niko needs money, he says, to get by, but he never stops to try and get by, and twenty hours into the game he's got more cash on hand than 80% of households in the country. Score one for the American dream.

Niko's a criminal, but who's there to be disappointed in him? You'd think friends would disapprove when he kicks off their date by kicking someone in the face and stealing their car, but they exclaim "Niko, what are you doing?", if that, and then it's back to normal. It doesn't feel like this is a tragedy about Niko's inability to save himself. I feel like in my traditional role as a gamer, I'm complicit in his ruination. I'm the teenager telling him he'll be cool if he smokes a cigarette and listens to Led Zeppelin, although instead of cigarettes it's blowing up a tractor trailer.

Where Grand Theft Auto IV fails is that beneath the accent, the superficial ethics, the dry wit, the regrets, the fierce protectiveness and pride, the pondering gait, under all that, Niko Bellic is really just this person:

I tried harder to resist Niko's descent into crime than Niko himself. By the time the player reaches the second island, Niko is any other thug and this game is any other Grand Theft Auto. Cellphone calls from Roman, originally a means to delve into the characters' backstory and explore the world, become far-too-frequent minigame intrusions. Subsequent stabs at realism ring false: Niko disapproves of Roman's gambling problem, but doesn't stop to consider the severity of his own murder problem.

Niko's after money, and the player is forced to adopt a similarly pragmatic approach. Niko robs banks, slaughters the denizens of row houses, sleeps with a girl to unlock a special healing power. I hit civilians with my car, flip off police officers, walk around with a sniper rifle in the daylight because nothing is real anymore, and why should it matter?

The systems are transparent. NPC questgivers change their names, their faces and their ethnicities to prolong the length of the game without ever changing the game. Grand Theft Auto IV is long -- for 2008, anachronistically long -- and is subject to diminishing returns in the same way that the Simpsons, after having been on the air for 20 years, cannot be good anymore. Grand Theft Auto cannot and does not command the same respect or cast the same spell at hour 50 that it did at hour five.

How could this not be the case? This is Grand Theft Auto. It's formulaic by design, and for all the strides they make in this one game, they've got to compromise eventually, just like Niko. It's as if Hideo Kojima patterned Metal Gear Solid 5 after Half-Life 2's unbroken camera and contextual environmental storytelling then freaked out halfway through and fell back on a 40-minute cutscene. Grand Theft Auto IV can dream, but, as one of its character remarks mournfully: "we can pick the game... but we cannot change the rules."

In America, you can do anything if you work hard for it; in Grand Theft Auto you can do anything you want; and Rockstar are the kings of the industry and can do anything they want -- but not really. Rockstar had an ambitious idea once -- a real-time 3D world with traffic and a world clock independent of the players' action -- and they did it. In Grand Theft Auto IV Rockstar's ambition was to tell a serious story, which they really can't do if they're still beholden to letting the player run around killing with leisurely impunity.

Niko doesn't make a new life for himself; neither does Rockstar. Their old ways are easier. That's why in the end, Grand Theft Auto IV is a tragedy, though not for the reasons intended. It's the same thing with BioShock's third-act collapse that mirrors the trajectory of Andrew Ryan's failed underwater utopia. These games are so focused on portraying the fall, and succumb to the same fate. It's an irony out of Greek mythology or a Twilight Zone plot twist. Grand Theft Auto IV's undoing has a sting that other good games with poor endings do not. There, it's merely frustrating. Here, it's a heartache.

Love hurts. But Niko Bellic, who's up to four cop stars, doing a stunt jump in a stolen motorcycle, shooting an Uzi at the crowd and breaking up with a vapid stereotype over the phone, wouldn't understand that.


Anonymous said...

Thank you thank you for this long, reasoned essay; the game deserves no less. You're so right. There's a second heartache, too: I can't picture Rockstar improving the formula for the next installment. They're in a rut, but it's a rut that (financially) works. Imagine the single-minded determination it took to produce all that vicious, puerile, unfunny parody. What a waste! When Rockstar wants to be they're the Shakespeare of their medium; very few other developers, if any, can touch those first hours of GTA IV in terms of writing, acting, and immersion.

Rockstar, listen to us! I'm not the only person who thinks Saints Row 2 was more fun than GTA IV, even though GTA IV was the greater work. Leave the sociopathy to the Saints Row team, they're awfully good at it. You, Rockstar, can do something no one else can do. Tell your stories. Build your characters. We will still like you, we promise! Keep making GTAs if you want (give us a real sociopath next time, so the dissonance and heartbreak won't be so great) but in time a greater success will come from something more mature.

Julian said...

I agree that Rockstar can do something greater if they dropped the old GTA over-the-top-ness. Bully, of all games, hinted at that; I liked it much better than the GTAs, partially because the story and world were, in a backwards twist, less puerile than the GTAs.

However, I disagree that Niko wasn't a sociopath from the start. He left his native home in part because he was a killer. He tried, and ultimately failed, to leave that behind him. I think the way that was paralleled in the game is a great strength, not a great weakness. It works for me that it feels off, that it feels like Rockstar's slipping back in to their old ways, because Niko is also slipping back into his old ways.

The American Dream is greed at the expense of others, and in that sense Niko lives the American Dream to the fullest. He learns early on that it's impossible to live that dream without murdering, stealing, and using other people. He wants to believe he still has a conscience, but that's just his delusion... and yours, as the player. In the end, he's every bot as much a monster as the people he's been working for/fighting against. That the game got you to behave in a way consistent with Niko's fall is a triumph of the game, not its failing. That it lead you from idealism to nihilism means that its game mechanics have affected you, brought you to the ground along with Niko. If that isn't lunarrative harmony, what is?

Apolo Imagod said...

If anything, at least GTA IV showed that Rockstar can, if they so wanted to, make a serious game. In the case of GTA IV, I think they had the intention, but shied away in the end. Perhaps the reception to GTA IV, and discussions like the one put forward in this post, will encourage them to be more courageous in the future.

Steve M said...

Very nice write up. I, too, think it was disappointing to see GTA fall back on formula after such an ambitious start to the game. But they cannot help it that people eat it up. Hell, the only person I personally know who finished any of the prior entries was myself. All my friends just ended up playing 10-15 rounds of psychopath.

Anonymous said...

Julian argues that Niko's characterization was successful for him, others argue it was not successful. This is a kind of evidence that Rockstar is succeeding: really, it's so exciting that they've reached the level of ambition and skill that we can debate about this at all. In addition to all the technical challenges they have to face in creating a game, they have to worry more and more about the same things novelists and film makers do: is the plot starting to drag, are the characters believeable, etc. It's a whole new world (for this generation of games, at least - anybody here play The Last Express? Holy cow - watch the cutscene remix on Vimeo and you'll see what I mean) and I'm keeping my fingers crossed for them.

I wanted to mention Bully as well, but I haven't played it yet. I guess it's time. This is the other thing I love about Rockstar, their willingness and ability to branch out with other games and genres ('Rockstar Games presents Table Tennis'). From a business perspective there's no reason for them to stop making GTA over and over again, and that's cool too. But I think in the next decade, as the average age of the game-buying public moves toward 40, games more like Bully (less sophomoric, more [dare I say it] heartfelt) will only grow in popularity.

Jorge Albor said...

I just wanted to say I really liked this article. I'm actually curious what you think of Lost & The Damned and if you think Rockstar could build a DLC model that tells different stories in the same city.

Anonymous said...

For all the cynicism I showed the game when it came out citing the faults you touched upon here, you have still succeeded in explaining why I need to play it.

Vincent Graves said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Vincent Graves said...

I liked this write-up, despite the fact that I never felt that Niko was a realistic character. The player's hand is still held tightly as they progress through tutorial missions that teach them how to pick up objects to break windows for no reason. We are quickly forced down a path that demands every enemy must die, while we suffer Niko's assertion that he hopes to make a new life for himself in a new country. Niko's fall isn't as protracted as you make it sound, and the highs the game attains are lower than you make them sound. In short, Grand Theft Auto IV is still Grand Theft Auto. Grand Theft Auto IV still a gutless, scattershot, attempt at building an open-world and the characters that inhabit it. At the same time, Grand Theft Auto IV was one of the most celebrated games to be released in 2008.

There is something deeply wrong with that.

Alan Jack said...

I have to admit, I think you've just convinced me to go back and give GTA 4 another chance to win me over.

I hated it the first time, because I felt horribly restricted by the dull opening missions, but now you've made me question if that was perhaps because I entered the game with preconceptions of what I would be doing. Not that I'm letting Rockstar off the hook that easily - if that was what was wrong then they shouldn't have called it GTA 4 - but perhaps the game deserves more attention.

Question: if some art requires an understanding of art to appreciate (for the sake of argument, I mean the good type that just require the knowledge that you look at it as a metaphor), is it okay that some games need some understanding to truly appreciate them?

Jason T said...

Thank you for so eloquently putting into words my disappointment with (and, sometimes, heartbreak over) this game.

What makes the whole situation even more frustrating is that the game allows you access to a "free mode," but this is treated more as a glorified multiplayer lobby. I feel like Rockstar could have had its cake and eaten it the game simply encouraged using "free mode" as the safe playground for the inevitable crazy behavior and exploration—jumping ramps, shooting pigeons, whatever—so that playing with Niko might maintain some consistency in character and theme.

Oh well. As you say, if they're determined to force Niko gun down police officers to help out some pals with a bank robbery (with nothing more in the way of apology than "Go back to your families!"), the damage is already done, the caricature already drawn.