There’s something curiously contradictory about the idea of an open-world game. Sprawling, detailed maps brimming with life, quests, vehicles and characters are frequently sold as the pinnacle of video game freedom, yet we’re still following established pathways as we pick up missions and head to locations for yet another fight with fists, guns or swords. I’ve always been more fascinated by the rules that govern these artificial worlds, over and above their insistence that I treat such things as background noise.
With that in mind I recently decided to return to Grand Theft Auto IV‘s Liberty City and try my hand at living a normal, law-abiding and peaceful life. I’m going to be a good person, damn it, until I’m not anymore.
Expectations are low.
As entertaining as the Grand Theft Auto games are, they are not subtle products. Satires of the less appealing and darker aspects of modern life at best, grotesque parodies built for the amusement of the crowd at worst. I played through all of GTA IV when it was originally released, and pervasive memories are of firing rockets at police helicopters, chasing down and murdering thugs, crashing motorbikes and pedestrian ragdolls.
But those shallow retrospectives are anchored by fonder memories of Liberty City itself. The New York analogue is just as characterful as any of the game’s human substitutes, filled with life, nuance and imagined history. So I attempt to view Liberty as Niko Bellic must have as he stepped off a nondescript Eastern European freighter in the opening. Niko believes—or wants to believe—that the city is a place to start fresh, somewhere his past sins will be forgiven and the pleasant daily nothingness of a culture that values self-determination. With that in mind, I greet my cousin.
Things are simple at first, mostly bereft of moral implications.
Niko is greeted by his cousin Roman at the boat; The jolly fat man is drunk, so I’m forced to take the wheel. Ostensibly this is a tutorial on how cars work in GTA IV, but it’s also a way to begin experiencing the vast, pulsing sandbox that is Liberty City.
Almost immediately, the game tries to shepherd me down a specific path. Roman urges me to “step on the gas,” a line never spoken if the player goes straight to acceptable video game speeds. But I am not a reckless gamer today; I’m a law-abiding citizen in a real world, and I care about safety. As my fingertips recall the ping-pong steering and grimy layout of the game, Niko himself comments on the stunted diaspora of the district.
“Immigrants here do not make it very far from the boats they come in on.”
The subtext echoes what I anticipate to be my own struggle: in order to progress in this world—to reach “the top”, as Roman puts it—I will have to act outside the norm. The cheap houses in Hove Beach might just as well be filled with hundreds of other players, fruitlessly following the rules while proper GTA gamers ride a wave of blood and bullet casings to the fancier parts of the city.
For now, we’ve arrived at Roman’s terrible apartment and a cutscene argument has left me alone. Since I have no car, and stealing is not an option, I start walking to the cab depot for my first mission. Bits of paper blow past, cars blow their horns and a noisy train clatters by on the tracks above the street. I choose to avoid the sprint button on principle, and because I’m quickly remembering how charismatic and fascinating Rockstar’s environments can be. Light filters through the elevated train tracks as people hurry to start their working day. I actually stop at a crosswalk and wait for a red light so I can cross safely.
It feels right. Comfortable.
Niko gets to know Roman’s co-workers Mallorie and Vlad, then takes me to get settled. What this actually means is I will be taking him to a card game and watching out for loan sharks that want to unmend his legs. Niko’s discomfort and apprehension parallel my own. It’s rare and satisfying to have motivations in sync with the player character in a series known for bombastic and often psychopathic personas.
When we get into a chase with the sharks, I’m worried the pacifist ride is about to end, but Roman reassures me by stating he—and therefore the game designers—don’t want the Albanians harmed. We just have to escape, and we do.
The next mission starts with those darn sharks again, as they circle Roman in his office. Niko’s cinematic response is understandably to forcibly stop these thugs from hurting his cousin, but I get nothing from the scene except a sense of unease from seeing my peaceful, reformed character almost break someone’s arm. My job, however, is to pick up Mallorie and her friend Michelle from the subway station. One quiet drive later, and the girls are in my car. I need to take them back to Michelle’s apartment. When I originally played GTA IV I was amused at the comparative flatness of Michelle’s character. She came off as laughably normal and bland—a stark contrast to the rest of the cast. But approaching things more calmly, actually treating her like a person I’m meeting in a new city, I find her awkward pragmatism rather charming. And she’s clearly interested in me—although it’s also clear she’s interested in anyone who sticks around long enough. It transpires, of course, that “Michelle” is actually Karen, an agent tasked with spying on Niko for United Liberty Paper (GTA‘s CIA front analogue); but Niko is oblivious to that for now.
Dating in the Grand Theft Auto universe is presented as little more than a side activity. You go on dates for a few funny lines, the thrill of an implied sex scene now and then, and the possibility of gameplay bonuses.
In my world, however, Niko is genuinely interested in Michelle. I spend far too long in the Unflattering Eastern European Immigrant Clothing Store trying to actually look good enough to date this woman, and feel a blush of embarrassment when I take her to a run-down carnival at midnight which isn’t even open. We stroll down the boardwalk to go bowling and I listen intently to vague descriptions of her daily life.
Then I’m back with my unhelpful cousin, who I increasingly find myself resenting for pulling me away from a tidy existence in Liberty. I need to rush to his aid when the Albanians corner him. I knew this was coming, and I’ve prepared myself mentally. The game has designs on my innocence, forcing me into my first combat situation. I justify beating the two enforcers by telling myself I’m protecting Roman. No joy is eked out of the violence, regardless. Immediately following this, Roman urges me to chase down Darden, the man behind the men. My moral high ground crumbles a little and I’m disappointed in my cousin for showing a little bloodlust.
While a chase requires some speed and law-breaking, I still do my best to avoid civilian casualties or accidents. One last-minute swerve to avoid a turning truck nearly costs me the whole mission by sending our car sideways into a dead-end alley. We catch Darden, and I half-run, half-walk up the steps to his hidey-hole. I don’t particularly want any of this, but I guess Niko doesn’t either.
A tutorial pops up telling me how to disarm enemies, with the implication that I should then turn the shark’s knife back on him. I decline, wrestling it away but immediately switching back to my fists so I can at least restrict myself to bashing him unconscious. This tiny choice isn’t hinted at, but it’s interesting that Niko’s dialogue changes from a comical comment about not killing anyone in America to a sincere and emotional warning directed at Darden.
Roman is happy with the outcome. I feel disgusting.
After a quick rest in my filthy bed and a show about the history of Liberty City on my in-game television, I give Michelle a call and we set up another date. I am feeling a little guilty about using her as a salve for my violent deeds—an emotion unfamiliar to the average GTA player, myself included. Another quick drive (I’ve been there a few times now, so I’ve nailed the route despite switching off GPS) and we’re off again. I chew my fingernails over where to take her, and note that the actual missions rarely give you anything resembling the amount of choice that a simple outing does. Surely she’ll enjoy going to a nice bar. Unfortunately it turns out to be a dark and impoverished immigrant bar across the road from my Hove Beach apartment. Even more unfortunately, after we leave it becomes apparent that Michelle doesn’t drink; I’m now a stumbling souse and she probably hates me. I trip over the curb and fall on my face; I don’t feel the pain, but I feel the embarrassment. Drunk driving is not on the cards, so I try to hail a cab, which doesn’t work. We walk back to her apartment, taking in the lovely city lights as I slowly sober up. Michelle’s silence is likely a result of the designers not expecting many people to be hanging around so long, but I choose to interpret it as an awkward response to my boorish behaviour.
I get hit by two cars as I try to follow pedestrian crossing rules and Liberty’s drivers don’t. It’s unclear whether drivers in GTA IV disrespect pedestrians because they take a lower priority, as a statement about discourteous behaviour in urban settings, or because the developers knew it would be amusing to see people get hit by cars in the Euphoria engine.
It starts to rain as we near her street, and a woman running for cover trips and falls nearby. Instinctively, I stop to ask if she needs help, before realising there are no actions Niko can perform to either convey my sentiments or actually assist. Michelle and I run to her front door. I don’t take the game up on its suggestion that I “try my luck.”
On the way back to my place, still walking thanks to my rule about stealing cars, I attempt to get in the back of a nearby taxi to save time. I do it wrong. The taxi driver is rudely shoved out into the street and I’m a carjacker. Niko gets out immediately, but there’s no button for apologising and the driver is very, very angry. He tries to start a fight, so I run. He chases me, so I run faster.
It’s still raining, and I’m desperately hoping this madman will give up, because I know I’ll win the fight. But he keeps chasing. Maybe he’ll chase me forever, I don’t know what the limitations are on pedestrian AI.
Then I pass a cop. He pays me no mind, but I get an idea based purely on my previous experience with the game. I stop, and the taxi driver punches me in the face. I don’t react. The police officer sees this apparently unprovoked assault and comes to intervene. The driver flees, and the cop follows. Imagining the story the driver will tell if he’s caught, of insane immigrants stealing taxis in the dead of night, I run back home. As I lie down in the save point disguised as a bed, I tell myself that was an accident. I’m still a decent person for one more day.
Superficially, I am playing GTA incorrectly. The game not-so subtly reminds me sometimes, like when I agree to play pool with Roman and his first suggestion is that we “get a car”. The developers know full well I haven’t got a car of my own, and they’re not giving me access to Roman’s vehicle. They want me to steal something. When I stand my ground, then take a very long walk to the pool hall, Roman says absolutely nothing. This is aural white space; while it isn’t as arresting as finding a hole in the map and tumbling into an uncoded void, the message is just as clear: “You are not supposed to be here.”
GTA IV’s design and my plans are moving further apart. A simple taxi job I take for Roman has me picking up Little Jacob and taking him to a drug deal. Unlike the previous incident with the police, Niko knows exactly where the mission is headed. Little Jacob hands me a pistol, and I actually grimace. When he asks me to keep a lookout and things go sour I run down to try and knock out the gunmen. Niko ends up in the hospital.
I walk home, grab a burger at the diner on the corner and try my luck doing a mission for Vlad. I’m not optimistic, and true to form the slimy, bald man wants me to collect protection money. Again, the developers drop in a line about not harming a target. GTA IV has a remarkably slow escalation curve; sandbox mayhem aside, you’re eased very carefully into the role of the city’s resident gangster psychopath. Some may dismiss this as an excuse to weave in tutorials—modern hand-holding game design—but it creates a fascinating disconnect between what you can do in the game and what you should do. Allowing socially unacceptable actions while also discouraging them is more familiar to people who play Bethesda RPGs like Fallout 3 and New Vegas, as well as all the Elder Scrolls titles, which put no restraints on your behaviour beyond your own roleplayed morality and the messy consequences.
Grand Theft Auto, on the other hand, has a moral path for you to follow, even if it is a negative one, and it’s visible through the cracks in my experiment. I agree to throwing a brick through a shop owner’s window, but I feel terrible about it. Vlad tells me the owner was ripping off his customers anyway, and I choose to be pacified by that in the same way Niko is.
This mission is where the game teaches you how to use taxis in the game, and is an unfortunate example of the kind of preemptive gameplay gating that makes this whole experiment a losing battle. Before you play this mission, you are physically incapable of hailing a cab or riding in one as a passenger. It’s the cause of my earlier dust-up with the nameless driver, and indicative of how the game approaches the concept of an open world. There is a price to pay for your freedom; many activities hide behind these invisible walls, waiting for you to complete an appropriate amount of GTA-sanctioned criminal acts. Peaceful Niko will never see the other islands, or experience many of the possible diversions that make Liberty City feel so real.
Things amble along for a while. Niko sleeps, watches TV, eats at his favourite diner and goes on charming outings with his cousin. He dates Michelle a few more times and both appreciate his new-found cab-calling abilities. I take walks through the park in the rain, I watch people have minor accidents and I listen to the radio while exploring the alleyways of Broker. A random stranger gives me money because America is great and he finds Europeans hilarious. No further pressure is applied from the game to put me back on track, except for the map screen that greets me when I pause the game. The small collection of markers at the bottom right of a huge blank city dares me to move on.
It feels appropriate that my social and economic status is hindered by my refusal to lower my standards. Like Niko, I’ve been denied access to the finer things until I play by the decidedly rule-breaking rules.
Somewhere between this fictional daily grind and my first acceptance of a truly violent and criminal mission, my Niko dies. Another Niko—one willing to do what it takes to improve his life and protect those he loves—takes his place, perhaps destined to carry his former’s reluctant attitude to violence all the way to the end credits. The experiment ends, and what’s most surprising about this manufactured version of GTA IV is that it feels as if Rockstar intended this style of play from the start. Niko and the player are both equipped with the tools and motivation to wreak havoc on the city, yet Niko is firmly against a return to his ugly past life.
The narrative suggests that devolving into a mindless killer—following the tried and true open-world template—is a fail state. The mayhem renders Niko Bellic’s rough emigration to the Land of the Free completely pointless.
Which makes my quiet and optimistic Niko a winner, in his own way.