This week on Extra Punctuation, Yahtzee Croshaw explains why Niko Bellic from Grand Theft Auto IV (GTA 4) is one of his favorite video game characters. This video is sponsored by Raycon. Go to https://buyraycon.com/escapist to get 15% off your Raycon purchase!
Extra Punctuation Transcript – Niko Bellic
So once again the seed for an episode of Extra Punctuation is planted in a throwaway comment from a previous episode, sorry, I can’t help being an effortlessly interesting guy. Back in my video about Saints Row I fleetingly mentioned while contrasting it against the dowdy brown realism of Grand Theft Auto IV that GTA4’s protagonist, Niko Bellic, is one of my favourite video game characters. And it was suggested that maybe I could go into a bit of detail on that, so that, I dunno, game story writers could get some clues on what presents I want for Christmas.
I should clarify that when I say Niko Bellic is one of my favourite game characters, it’s entirely divorced from the gameplay. Sometimes you like a game character because it’s fun to play as them and have their adventures, the way people like their Saints Row protagonist or Sonic the Hedgehog. That’s absolutely not the case in GTA4, where moving around in the Euphoria engine is like navigating a roomful of wet cement after sixteen pints, and you’re occasionally obliged to go bowling with a twat. Yeah, I know you can opt out of going bowling with twats but the game always seems really disappointed when you do. No, Niko Bellic is a character I like as a character. Someone I find interesting to watch and learn more about and would want to have a drink with. In that respect he stands out from every other GTA protagonist, and most other video game characters except maybe the merchant from Resident Evil 4.
This subject has of course been lent relevance by the recent GTA6 leak, in which amongst other things we learned that the next game will feature a female player character for the first time, if you don’t count custom ones you can make in GTA Online, and you absolutely should not. Good news for diversity and anyone who likes to theorise on the worth of an underwired bra as battlefield equipment, but the precise biology of a protagonist is always superficial, at least compared to whether or not the character is well written.
Happily, Rockstar generally deals in well-written games. As I said in a previous video, Rockstar sandboxes are the exception when it comes to tarring all open world games with the Ubisoft brush. Rockstar’s games have always had a very strong character focus. No protagonist of Grand Theft Auto or Red Dead Redemption is ever called upon to save their world from an occupying or invading evil force. Or heroically marshal the people or liberate every individual district, at least not as a matter of course. There’s a strong sense that if the protagonist dropped dead the world in which they live wouldn’t change one iota, or even look up from its satirical parodies of television news. The focus is always on the characters’ personal goals and struggles that matter largely only to them.
And as I said, even among a generally high standard for Rockstar character writing I find Niko Bellic the most compelling. He’s the only GTA protagonist I’d call sympathetic. While other GTA protagonists can be complex and interesting, and even to a certain extent relatable, they all sooner or later must reflect the fact that they are, well, the protagonist of a GTA game, a cathartic violent open world in which the player can at any moment start gunning down roller bladers on a whim. So all of them have a psychotic streak, but while Niko does comes across like he could very believably flip out at any moment, it’s not out of insanity or frustration – it’s because he’s haunted by a history of violence that he can never escape from because it’s fundamental to who he is.
So as the game opens Niko is a poor Eastern European immigrant from a country that never gets directly identified, although he talks Serbian whenever he switches to his native language so it’s obviously Serbia, probably didn’t need to be coy about that one, Rockstar. In dialogue it’s established that Niko was jaded by warfare in his home country and has come to America to seek a more peaceful life working for his cousin. Joke’s on him, though, because he’s a GTA protagonist, so obviously he very swiftly starts doing jobs for shady characters that escalate into more and more serious criminal activity.
But then after a particularly violent episode early on Niko confesses to his cousin that he’s been hiding his real reason for coming to Liberty City – he’s actually hunting for a man who betrayed his unit during the war in an incident that left Niko the only survivor. So here we learn that Niko isn’t some poor sucker who’s been dragged back into a world of violence, he’s the one who’s been carrying the world of violence around with him all along.
So far, fairly standard. A violent protagonist has a violent past. He’s also a dry cool badass who takes no shit. None of that’s rare in video game protagonists, one might almost call it ubiquitous. The rare part is that he is all of those things and also comes across like a human being. He’s not broody and humourless like a Master Chief, he’s not an implacable force of will like a Kazuma Kiryu, he’s not openly contemptful of people who can’t match his capacity for violence.
My favourite scene in GTA4 is the one where Niko comes to mob boss du jour for some story mission or other and gets entertained by the mob boss’s wife while they’re waiting for him to show up. And after the wife, clearly starved for social interaction, opens up to him about her frustrations, Niko in return opens up about some things that haunt him about his current and previous life, including a brief glimpse at some of the horrific memories from the war he keeps bottled up. It’s a simple scene, but I love it because in this conversation with a complete stranger who won’t judge him and who he’ll probably never meet again, Niko reveals a sliver of his innermost self. We see how vulnerable he really is and how badly he wants to be able to talk about these things that eat him up inside.
To be honest with you, though, it’s hard to point to one thing that makes Niko stand out as a great character because he’s just well-rounded in a very human way. He puts on a pragmatic facade but he’s got clear vulnerabilites and he likes to have fun, too. He’s troubled, but he’s not tortured, either. He’s cynical and embittered but he shows a lot of empathy for other vulnerable people. He’s guarded, but seems to appreciate the company of people who are, let’s say, very emotionally unguarded, which is lucky, because the GTA universe has no shortage of such people.
In summary, the real noteworthy achievement here is that a cathartic sandbox game can have a protagonist who’s both completely believable in that role while also being completely relatable. Being a hired gun with bottomless capacity for violence isn’t his whole identity, it’s just his job that he’s good at. And I’m good at things too. Relatable! He’s an immigrant, I’m an immigrant. He’s got a complex inner world, I’ve got a complex inner world. He can carry ten different guns at once, I’ve been known to get all the shopping out of the car in a surprisingly small number of trips.