228: Fall of the House of Bellic

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Fall of the House of Bellic

Most stories about the Mafia are tragedies, depicting great but flawed characters who are laid low by fate. Unfortunately, this tragedy doesn't usually make it into Mob games, with one notable exception: Grand Theft Auto 4. Brendan Main examines what makes GTA IV's Niko Bellic a different breed of videogame criminal.

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Great article, some really good arguements for video games as an art form.

Excellent article, you've reminded why I loved the game, the gritty truths of life rather than glamorous stories of Hollywood weaved into the story. Even with the endings empty feeling, I might go play it again now.

I have to echo the others: Great article!

This sums up why I love GTA4, yes, more than any of the other GTA's. It is a more real tale. I like that. Now you really made me want to play it again as well.

Like everyone else said, great article.

I still remember that feeling I had when I first beat GTA IV. I had made the decision to go through with the deal, since Roman had asked me to try to leave everything behind. It all went to hell, but I got through it. And then we come to the wedding.

When the game was over it was just a feeling of... emptiness. No joy, no sad, just... empty. It wasn't a bad feeling, but it sure was different from the feelings you usually get from a GTA game.

Wow, I had no idea GTA4 was like that. I may have to look into it one day

Fuck it; I'm beating this game again.

A really great article and a joy to read, although I must say I never felt they took Niko's character far enough.

Tommy Angelo in Mafia (I'll mention that game in every thread, even if it kills me) was a much more fleshed out character, although in the end, the characters are driven by the same thing; desperation.

And what happened to Tommy in the end was even worse than what happened to Niko; and the final monologue is fantastic.

As much as I enjoyed the article the game still bored me. Probably because of his fall, there was no real sense of achievement with this game as there were with the previous ones.

A great article, really enjoyed reading it.

Woodsey:
A really great article and a joy to read, although I must say I never felt they took Niko's character far enough.

Tommy Angelo in Mafia (I'll mention that game in every thread, even if it kills me) was a much more fleshed out character, although in the end, the characters are driven by the same thing; desperation.

And what happened to Tommy in the end was even worse than what happened to Niko; and the final monologue is fantastic.

I think that's an excellent comparison - both characters are out to get what Angelo calls 'balance,' though they certainly chose different ways to tip the scales.

Could Niko have been further fleshed out, made more human? Perhaps... but I found myself willing to accept him, with all his limitations. it may be the suggestion that his past has ripped something crucial out of him, some capacity to function like a normal person.

I agree that that final scene in Mafia is a masterstroke - it deserves an article of its own. But as to who gets it worse in the end, well, that's tougher. I wrote a few thoughts on it, but decided to tag it as spoiler for those interested in experiencing it on their own.

That was the best thing I have read all week.

Nerf Ninja:
As much as I enjoyed the article the game still bored me. Probably because of his fall, there was no real sense of achievement with this game as there were with the previous ones.

Ditto.
Cool article but I still can't help but think that maybe Niko wouldn't have been so jaded if he had some fun things to do in Liberty City: Rampages, Businesses, Pimping, Dealing (like in Chinatown wars), or even a breakout from that fancy prison in Alderney (that's the Jersey island right?) - Jerry was still in there last I checked.

That game had a good story but as a gta game, it came off as really pretentious.

Brendan Main:

You make a good point - I think the biggest problem when trying to make Niko a real character was in fact the very nature of the game; the sandbox.

A loved one dies, the credits roll (or do they?) and then you go pick up a rocket launcher and shoot everything to shit. Hmmm...

Then there's the backstory - not much time is really given to it, yet a large portion of the game is given as the reasoning behind Niko being in Liberty City.

Tommy, you were his story. You endured every moment, talked to every character, saw every regret. Tommy made the wrong choice, but he was forced out of the Mafia; if no one had found out he had a conscience, he would of still been in.

I think the main difference between the two games (in terms of character development, I go ape shit if someone tries to compare the two; they're not alike!) is that Mafia went balls-out on the characters and story. And boy did it pay off. GTA IV did an interesting story, but I sometimes wonder if they didn't struggle between balancing rocket-launcher rampages and developing the character and story.

On a side line, I wish they wouldn't put "moral" choices in a game. I'm playing a story, so tell me the story. Do the most powerful outcome, a second outcome only weakens the two overall.

In games such as Mass Effect it's different, but they were oh so very tacked on in GTA IV.

While the article is quite thought provoking, I can't help but feel that the art of the game is being analyzed for being deeper than it really is. There is no real evidence that Niko wants a steady job or a family. While Rockstar made a decent effort in making Niko a more "human" character by lunging him into America a poor man, there is nothing to suggest that he wants a family. However if there was a female lead that pulled him in a domestic direction, (other than Kate, she was merely just an option and not framed in a cinematic fashion), than we'd feel Niko's pain. Ultimately the latest installments of GTA are flawed by characters of no consequence. The biggest moment in GTA 4 for me was when the business and apartment was torched as the mission prior lead up to that and the characters suffered in the form of the plot. They had to leave their old way behind. This never really happened again. It's strange too how Niko appears so soft and conflicted about pretty much anything that comes his way and then I'm suddenly given control over a rocket launcher and a machine gun, killing thousands of police and mowing down pedestrians. To enjoy the full narrative, I felt I had to invent a problem for Niko that simply wasn't in the game. I imagined Niko suffered from an undiagnosed mental condition. It's the only thing that would allow the sandbox style mahem and heavy narrative to co-exist. I feel the writer of this article has done the same. He was forced to imagine the parts that filled in the gaps between the gameplay and the story. Would the game as a whole be better if this wasn't a sandbox? Would the game be worse?

You want deeply affecting gameplay, there it is. Shut up about MW2 and its terrorist level, this is one of the really affecting moments of gameplay. I couldn't have articulated it like this, but its what makes GTA 4 a game worth finishing, rather than one you just jump into.

I agree about how GTA IV is a different GTA. It was much more of a social commentary and a look into the "bad" side of a criminal life. Not the one where you ice higher ups to end up with all the money and houses. This was one where you kill to get by and wish you weren't in it to begin with. Good article.

Excellent article on Niko and the recent GTAs, and the perspective of modern outlaw gunmen in this series.

Woodsey:

You make a good point - I think the biggest problem when trying to make Niko a real character was in fact the very nature of the game; the sandbox.

I see it as a give and take. It's difficult to contain personal reflection in such a macroscopic pursuit as worldbuilding, but every now and then it works. What got me were the emails: Smack dab in an obnoxious mission to pose as a gay man online, you're sent to get your sea legs for the Internet. Thanks, Brucie. This is exactly where I want to be, holed up in some two-bit internet cafe. I flip through the ridiculous websites, I sift through a page of spam...

and all of a sudden I stumble across that beautiful email from Milica, Niko's mother. She's writing to ask if I'm well. I lie to her. For the rest of the game, I'm such an idiot that I find myself logging on to every computer I stumble across, just to see if her next email has arrived.

This is the kind of thing I wouldn't want as a plot point, or scripted event. Perhaps perversely, I like how peripheral it is, how easily missed. It works as a world point: a momentary reminder that there's a bigger world out there than the fishbowl of Liberty City.

Woodsey:

On a side line, I wish they wouldn't put "moral" choices in a game. I'm playing a story, so tell me the story. Do the most powerful outcome, a second outcome only weakens the two overall.

In games such as Mass Effect it's different, but they were oh so very tacked on in GTA IV.

I agree with you in this case most of the time. In fact, I wrote an article a couple of months back arguig that the only true 'morality games' are the ones we play against ourselves, and something that resists systemization even at the best of times.

http://www.escapistmagazine.com/articles/view/issues/issue_211/6281-Kill-Billy

In GTAIV's case, I wish that the "kill or spare" dynamic wasn't bundled so neatly into the "Do you kill this guy in an awesome way" play mechanic. One mission, I'm chasing some random hood across the rooftops on behest of that louse, Vlad. He's getting away, (because I suck at jumping,) so I pull out my gun, take aim and pick him off. Instead of feeling rotten that I've slid even deeper into Liberty CIty's life of corruption, I'm feeling pretty terrific. I mean, it was a great shot.

Someone tells me later I could have spared him if I chased him all the way to the edge, where he falls off. Instead of stomping on his hands, you hoist him up and let him escape. Hell of a way to spare somebody. If I really liked him, I would have chased him all the way to the edge, helped him up, then bought him a milkshake.

That said, I think there is something at work in the game that's a little more simple than a half dozen choices tacked on in a hasty attempt at a 'morality game.' I think it would be unforgiveably cynical if through your choices could somehow weasel your way to anything resembling a "good end." That's the fatalism I'm referring to in my article - the sense that Niko is so thoroughly buggered by the end of the game that no amount of in game do-goodery is going to save him.

If Niko wants 'morality-game' style vindication, he had better get on that whole 'saving orphan kittens' thing. And let me tell you, orphan kittens are a real pain to save. You give them all the gruel they can eat, but nooo, they want more. And the paperwork! Don't get me started on the paperwork.

hey that was nifty I like the subtly through the article pointing out the contrast between the video game world and the real one.
"He may have been free in New York, but He is a prisoner in Liberty City." poetic.
These articles are always well written and I always appreciate the work that goes in them.

Brendan Main:

If Niko wants 'morality-game' style vindication, he had better get on that whole 'saving orphan kittens' thing. And let me tell you, orphan kittens are a real pain to save. You give them all the gruel they can eat, but nooo, they want more. And the paperwork! Don't get me started on the paperwork.

Incidentally, when Rockstar gets around to making that game about saving orphan kittens in New York City, I hope it looks Exactly. Like. This.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L3xafme2PWA

As has been said by everyone else, excellent article.

stonybrowder:
While the article is quite thought provoking, I can't help but feel that the art of the game is being analyzed for being deeper than it really is. There is no real evidence that Niko wants a steady job or a family.

Wrong - he says this both to Kate and to Packie (later in the friendship missions for those two). It is also a repeated theme in the game, you just have to listen to the dialogue properly to take it in. Before the final mission, Niko wanted/wants to settle down with Kate.

While Rockstar made a decent effort in making Niko a more "human" character by lunging him into America a poor man, there is nothing to suggest that he wants a family. However if there was a female lead that pulled him in a domestic direction, (other than Kate, she was merely just an option and not framed in a cinematic fashion), than we'd feel Niko's pain. Ultimately the latest installments of GTA are flawed by characters of no consequence.

"Characters of no consequence"? Let's check up on that one...

Roman - gives you a taxi ride when you need it, also has a serious issue with gambling which causes strife for Niko. Consequences.
Brucie - gives you a helicopter ride when you ask, also has a roid rage issue which gets you killing people who don't need to die. Consequences.
Little Jacob - gives you a cheaper gun shop, also has a problem with smoking illegal substances, leading to botched drug deals and conflicts with his boss, Badman. Consequences.
Mikhail - anger issues, kills people irresponsibly and gets you into strife. Consequences.
Dimitri - so coldly rational that he betrays you for money. He may die as a result. Consequences.
Dwayne/Playboy X - give you gang backup, the conflict between these two ends in a choice for Niko in who lives (and gets fleshed out as a character or not) and who dies. Consequences.
Packie - gives you the ability to make car bombs, also has family conflicts with his various brothers which Niko ends up taking sides in. Consequences.

In conclusion, what a nonsense statement.

The biggest moment in GTA 4 for me was when the business and apartment was torched as the mission prior lead up to that and the characters suffered in the form of the plot. They had to leave their old way behind. This never really happened again. It's strange too how Niko appears so soft and conflicted about pretty much anything that comes his way and then I'm suddenly given control over a rocket launcher and a machine gun, killing thousands of police and mowing down pedestrians.

There is always a disparity between what the player will choose, and what the character on the screen will want to do as part of the plot. True, a good game often has a character that has a personality to match all possible actions, but in GTAIV the options are so vast that disparity is unavoidable.

The fact is that GTAIV gives you more chances to live peacefully than any other GTA game (fittingly to Niko's character, without losing the actual ability to be a violent person). Hell, San Andreas had gangs who attacked you wilfully before you DID anything. But if you are just walking around in IV, the worst that can happen to you on the streets is you run into another criminal, who you can still run away from, or get run over by accident (both of which can happen to non-criminals). There are also more options to get friendly with characters, which is something you could never do before. Yes, the missions require violence, but business and pleasure are two different things with characters. For Niko, violence is business.

To enjoy the full narrative, I felt I had to invent a problem for Niko that simply wasn't in the game. I imagined Niko suffered from an undiagnosed mental condition. It's the only thing that would allow the sandbox style mahem and heavy narrative to co-exist. I feel the writer of this article has done the same. He was forced to imagine the parts that filled in the gaps between the gameplay and the story. Would the game as a whole be better if this wasn't a sandbox? Would the game be worse?

On the contrary, there are no imaginations in this article. Every part of what was said, by memory, was proven by the dialogue between the characters. Fair enough if you didn't listen, but it's not worthwhile to presume to know a game if you didn't take in the full content.

Great article and a good point at the end, Niko Bellik in another universe?

I'd like to see that, even as a parody cameo...
As long as his idiot cousin doesn't show up ill be fine with it!
Seriously that guy was not funny or in the slightest bit entertaining, I played this game too say that i had and to be honest he was the most likely to make me throw the controller through the screen.

Lovely ending paragraph. I'm replaying the game knowing full well what lies ahead, knowing what the end result of his actions will be. In the end he has the money and the cars to live out his life. To get into his Bobcat and just drive out until no one knows about him. But even then he would not be left along for as Dr. Manhattan says at the end of "The Watchmen" " Be wary Ozymandias, Nothing ever ends."

Brendan Main:
Someone tells me later I could have spared him if I chased him all the way to the edge, where he falls off. Instead of stomping on his hands, you hoist him up and let him escape. Hell of a way to spare somebody. If I really liked him, I would have chased him all the way to the edge, helped him up, then bought him a milkshake.

By missing this I think you missed a chat that underlines one of the key subject of the game. The runner explains that he tried to flee from eastern Europe by coming to Liberty City, but, since the only people he knew here were from eastern Europe, he feels like he did not manage to escape at all. One of the most poignant moment of GTAIV as far as I am concerned.

EDIT: One of the best if not the best piece I read in The Escapist since the first issue btw.

RicoTheSaboteur:

By missing this I think you missed a chat that underlines one of the key subject of the game. The runner explains that he tried to flee from eastern Europe by coming to Liberty City, but, since the only people he knew here were from eastern Europe, he feels like he did not manage to escape at all. One of the most poignant moment of GTAIV as far as I am concerned.

Well, there's demonstrable proof that I am a terrible person. That milkshake is getting punched up to a banana split. WITH CHERRIES. Sort of a "Sorry you came to America to escape your crime-riddled past only to discover that The American Dream is a star-spangled crock of crap" present.

Seriously, though, I had no idea. I think that this type of brief interlude I missed might warrant another playthrough. I appreciate the heads-up.

stonybrowder:
While the article is quite thought provoking, I can't help but feel that the art of the game is being analyzed for being deeper than it really is. There is no real evidence that Niko wants a steady job or a family. While Rockstar made a decent effort in making Niko a more "human" character by lunging him into America a poor man, there is nothing to suggest that he wants a family. However if there was a female lead that pulled him in a domestic direction, (other than Kate, she was merely just an option and not framed in a cinematic fashion), than we'd feel Niko's pain. Ultimately the latest installments of GTA are flawed by characters of no consequence. The biggest moment in GTA 4 for me was when the business and apartment was torched as the mission prior lead up to that and the characters suffered in the form of the plot. They had to leave their old way behind. This never really happened again. It's strange too how Niko appears so soft and conflicted about pretty much anything that comes his way and then I'm suddenly given control over a rocket launcher and a machine gun, killing thousands of police and mowing down pedestrians. To enjoy the full narrative, I felt I had to invent a problem for Niko that simply wasn't in the game. I imagined Niko suffered from an undiagnosed mental condition. It's the only thing that would allow the sandbox style mahem and heavy narrative to co-exist. I feel the writer of this article has done the same. He was forced to imagine the parts that filled in the gaps between the gameplay and the story. Would the game as a whole be better if this wasn't a sandbox? Would the game be worse?

To enjoy the full narrative, I simply didn't go around shooting random civilians, which I find incredinly drab. My attempts to drive like a sane person failed because every other driver assumed I would be driving recklessly and when I ended up stuck in traffic they assumed I was holding it up because I was a jerk.

I also think GTAIV has a great story, which unfortunately is buried between mountains of irrelevance. You're following an interesting plot thread here, then suddenly you have to do these inconsequential missions for this uninteresting characters for a poorly explained reason.

Something I realized some time ago is that every character in GTAIV is either an interesting and well-developed character or something dropped unchanged from Rockstar's Bag o' Stereotypes That Look Offensive But You Can't Quite Put Your Finger On Why. I find it curious that Roman is one of the most hated character, as he very clearly belongs to the first categories. The latter friendship 'missions' with him are some of the most well-written and touching lines in the game (much better than when a certain character hints at the fact that he was raped by his father by saying "I was abused by my father, oh golly!")

Woodsey:
A really great article and a joy to read, although I must say I never felt they took Niko's character far enough.

Tommy Angelo in Mafia (I'll mention that game in every thread, even if it kills me) was a much more fleshed out character, although in the end, the characters are driven by the same thing; desperation.

And what happened to Tommy in the end was even worse than what happened to Niko; and the final monologue is fantastic.

I love the ending for Mafia. It's so fitting somehow, yet still a bit of a shock.

Good writing, I really enjoyed reading this article.

Dark Templar:
That was the best thing I have read all week.

Pretty much yeah, best thing I has read all week. And I'm reading a novel xD

Good read. This article makes me want to play GTA:IV again, paying more attention to the details.

There's a more practical reason sandbox games try not to end on this kind of plot note. The end of GTA4 was so empty and hollow that, however artistically interesting it may have been, I put down the controller and never again set foot in the world of GTA4.

This was not the case with GTA3, VC, and SA... the benefit of ending "on top of the world" in those games was that you then got to spend a great deal of time enjoying your mastery of the environment; effectively giving us a chance to fully appreciate the sand in the box. I know there are many people who immediately jump into the open world and enjoy it regardless, but those are usually the same people who have never bothered to finish the main plot of any GTA game in the first place.

Fallout 3 suffered from this as well, only worse, because your inability to keep enjoying the sandbox world was actually enforced, and not simply based on your own despondent lack of interest. Of course you could always simply load your pre-end-game save in Fallout 3, but just as with GTA, without even the trappings of plot or immersion, the sandbox world loses its hold on me.

Brilliantly written article, best thing I've read on this site I reckon.

I recently played San Andreas and i'm finishing GTA4 right about now. And it's true GTA4 has a much deeper story. It would seem that by just adding an inner motive to a character it makes him way more dimensionnal and thus more loveable. But it's still a game. The gameplay is better in San Andreas. However, I dare anyone to tell me that visually, San Andreas looked better. Shame on those who said Rockstar could have done better with the graphics on GTA4. Don't tell me that when you drove around in Algonquin all you saw was grey.

Sorry, drifting away from the subject at hand. Great Article!

Really liked the bit at the end. Nico's character and story just doesn't fit into the reputation earned from earlier games. A different game could of done this story justice in my opinion.

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