Deconstructing the Video Game Gangster | GTA IV at 10

Ah, the Grand Theft Auto games. Who hasn’t gone over to that one friend’s house – whose parents were apathetic or unobservant enough to give their child one of the most controversial games of all time – and spent hours murderously rampaging their way across virtual America?

Oh, most people? Er, forget I said anything.

Various controversies and potential warping of young minds aside, the GTA franchise stands out as one of the original champions of the sandbox game, giving the players a massive map in which they could act out the fantasies of the successful and high-rolling crime boss, doing what you want, when you want, with the police only serving as annoyances or more meat for the grinder.

GTA IV - HeadStuff.org
Traumatised war criminals don’t look at explosions. Source.

This brings us onto the topic of GTA IV, which is currently celebrating its tenth anniversary. And what better way to celebrate the anniversary of a game than to look its impact on its franchise both in the past and now? GTA IV is noteworthy in the series for representing something of a turning point, dialing down the more glamorous aspects of crime previously depicted and taking an almost deconstructive approach to the premise of previous games.  

Grand Theft Auto IV stars Niko Bellic, a Serbian illegal immigrant to the U.S. in search of a new life and who, in most players’ games, is randomly struck by psychotic episodes which cause him to kill everything in sight. Right away, Niko is presented as a very different protagonist compared to his predecessors in the series, who tended to be a rather unrepentant lot, accepting if not outright embracing the more violent aspects of criminal life, often in the name of profit. True, characters such as C.J had sympathetic qualities, such as loyalty to their fellow gangsters and family, but nevertheless had no qualms about engaging in theft and murder for the sole purpose of achieving wealth and a position of respect in the criminal underworld. 

By contrast, Niko comes to Liberty City in an attempt to put his previous criminal past behind him, and only steps back into the role out of necessity, needing to work off his cousin’s debt to a mob boss. Right away, this sets a notably different tone for the game. Instead of a glamorized, successful vision of career criminals, Niko is a darkly realistic take on the lifestyle, only pursuing it because he feels he can do nothing else, and circumstances beyond his control have forced him down it. To continue this contrast, instead of climbing the ranks of the underworld like C.J or Tommy, Niko jumps from mob boss to mob boss, working for whoever’s currently footing his bill, but always at the bottom, never really advancing further than particularly effective hired goon. While not necessarily a more complex character, Niko is undeniably one of the most sympathetic and even tragic GTA protagonists to date, the very premise of the game representing his failure to escape the past.

Another thing that marks GTA IV as separate from previous installments in the franchise is its overall tone. Compared to its predecessors, which could become almost cartoon-like in their settings, GTA IV presents a considerably more depressive and cynical world compared to the almost campy settings of previous games. While none of the external trappings have changed much, GTA IV drops the satirical and campy aspects of San Andreas and Vice City.

Gone are the days of stealing a jet-pack from Area 69 (insert immature joke of choice here) or getting put under voodoo curses, now you’re deciding whether getting revenge on those who wronged you is worth the cost to both yourself and those few you consider friends. The satirical radio stations remain, but the satire is sharper, more genuinely critical rather than exaggerated for comedic value. Even the game physics are more realistic and dour, as cars now function like actual cars, as opposed to operating with perfect smoothness and flying across the street from the slightest impact.

All these changes to the existing GTA formula turned GTA IV into the darkest and most serious of all the then existing GTA games, genuinely examining the consequences of a life of crime, namely that the longer you live in such a lifestyle, the harder it becomes to leave it. Sure, you can try to run away from your past, even go to an entirely new place to do so, but when all you know is a life of violence and aggression, it’s incredibly hard not to fall back into old habits. Further, while crime might pay the bills, it’s no guarantee of glamorous or high living, or even respect, and at the end of the day, you’re no better off than the miserable office worker wasting his life behind a cubicle, except he at least doesn’t have to kill people for his job.

Rockstar stories appear to be taking a much more realistic and cynical look at the nature of the criminal lifestyle.”

In fairness, a lot of these deconstructive elements have very little impact in how people actually play GTA IV, which ultimately boils down to the same stuff as other games in the series, i.e. steal cars, fight gang wars, take your cousin bowling and so forth. In particular, anyone who prefers to play the game and skip the story or to wreck mindless mayhem would likely not notice anything amiss, aside from the physics engine being a bit jankier. That said, GTA IV’s more serious tone appears to have had an impact on the series as it moved forward. To briefly examine GTA V as an example, the same tone of a life of crime being an often miserable and bitter affair seems to have been retained across it’s three player characters. Of particular note, one of the characters, Trevor, a psychotic, self-loathing drug abuser, appears to be a direct jab at the players who play GTA just to kill NPCs and blow stuff up, and how messed up someone would have to be to act anywhere close to how the players portray them.  

Only time will tell if GTA IV’s tone will set the course for all future GTA games, but for now at least, Rockstar stories appear to be taking a much more realistic and cynical look at the nature of the criminal lifestyle as a direct result of the trend set by Niko Bellic. Gameplay remains largely the same, and indeed that’s all many gamers will care about, an amusing irony given that thanks to GTA IV’s precedence, the GTA series is now leaning towards deconstructing the themes and motifs of the earlier games. Nevertheless, Grand Theft Auto IV is not only a great game in it’s own right, but also represents a landmark shift in the attitude put forward by the series as a whole.


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