For all their dizzying riches, most stories about the mob end badly for everyone involved. They’re tragedies in the classical sense, where great but flawed characters pursue their goals with ambition and cunning until they are finally laid low by fate. We admire these figures for their highs, but remember them at their lowest: Tony Montana, drug-addled, lashing out like a dying animal; Michael Corleone, hardened by betrayal into a vicious tyrant; Henry Hill, forced into hiding, living the rest of his life like a schnook.
This tragedy does not always find its way into the games inspired by these stories. There is an essential paradox of design: If games are ultimately about freedom and victory, how can they tell tales of epic failure? Most stop at the halfway point of these iconic stories, letting players embrace the vicarious pleasures of the mob life without the vicious crash that accompanies it. But Grand Theft Auto 4 sees it through to the bitter end. It’s the Rise and Fall of the House of Bellic.
It’s easy to misunderstand the settings of most sandbox games as devoid of drama or consequence. Your entire world is comprised of options, most of them criminal. Do you feel like stealing a car, flipping it and blowing it up? Maybe climbing a tower with a sniper rifle and popping people’s heads like cherry tomatoes? Knock yourself out – in Grand Theft Auto, no misbehavior is so grievous that it can’t be washed away after a quick trip to the police station or the hospital. That conceit works well for gameplay, but it hinders the narrative by suggesting a world in which even the gravest actions have no meaning. How could we buy Lady Macbeth’s “Out, damn’d spot! Out, I say!” if she could have just headed to the nearest Pay’n’Spray?
In most games of the series, this carnage is endorsed by a protagonist willing to “play the game” and cash in on this chaotic life of crime. Grand Theft Auto 3‘s speechless Claude is your standard videogame cipher, willing to do any mission without complaint or comment. Vice City‘s Tommy Vercetti is ruthless and unforgiving, willing to do anything it takes to be the biggest and the best. Even San Andreas‘ CJ, though troubled by his mother’s death, quickly finds his way back to the petty gang squabbles of thug life. Though their positions and philosophies are quite different, all these men want in. But Niko Bellic wants out.
It’s not that he’s sick of violence. It’s that he’s bored to death by it. A lifetime in war-torn Europe has left Bellic cynical and mercenary. For him, crime is neither about personal gain nor vicarious pleasure; it is simply a job that he can do, and do well. Through Bellic’s jaded eyes, the endless pleasures of sandbox gaming seem less enticing. Yes, he’s willing to torch a few cars and crack a few skulls, but only if someone is paying, and only if the price is right. As for the gangster’s dream of girls, glitz and glamour, he quickly sees it for what it is: a fleeting illusion to be grasped at by any wretch with a gun. Bellic wants none of these things. He wants a steady job, a home, a family. But before all that, he wants revenge.
You learn over the course of the story that Bellic has been betrayed terribly in his past. It was years ago, in another life, but it remains with him. Weighed against this knowledge, the crime stories of Liberty City seem somehow penny-ante by comparison – games of Cops and Robbers played while the real machinations of the world creak silently along. Bellic sheds no tears when bad things happen to bad people – he has seen worse done to better. At one point, he has a conversation with a long-suffering mobster’s wife, who inquires on the quality of his soul. He responds with a wartime memory – a dark parable about dead children lined up alongside a church, their throats cut out. To Bellic, the hand that could do such a deed is beyond redemption. As payback for his own betrayal, he demands very little: He deserves to understand what happened. And the man responsible deserves to die.
In Grand Theft Auto 4, the series’ freewheeling misanthropy is replaced by something harder and more sinister. In previous games, it’s all right that people are shot, stabbed, robbed and run down because that’s just how the mob does business. But for Bellic, it’s because people can expect no better. Much has been made of the game’s satirical reflection of New York City, but this world of corruption and casual violence is all Bellic has. He muses that, given the right circumstances, he might settle down and retire from crime altogether, though there is the sense that he understands the impossibility of such a life. How do you go clean in a world where you can steal any car at the push of a button?
Later, when he finally confronts the shell of a man who sold him out those years ago, Bellic has a choice: Kill him where he stands, or show him clemency. In another game, perhaps this decision would affect the outcome. But things aren’t so simple here. Yes, sparing the coward’s life is proof that Bellic is still a man of principle, capable of forgiveness and mercy. But as he knows all too well, his is not a world in which good men go unpunished.
Things take a turn for the worse. A human trafficker from Bellic’s past emerges, intent on collecting on old debts, with interest. He is not so easily paid off: As a man who deals in bodies, he demands his pound of flesh. Late in the story, Bellic is faced with a desperate mobster’s final deal, one that would have him thrust back into the hands of the very people who want him dead. It stinks, but by this point the whole city stinks. He is given a choice on how to play his cards, but any fool could tell you how it plays out: The drugs disappear. The deal goes bad. There is heartbreak, betrayal and blood. Someone close to him, an innocent, is killed. Having bent his anger and despair towards those scum who deserve death, Niko has no way of shielding those who deserve to live. The city has cars and money for the taking, but it will not permit Bellic the one thing he wants – a life worth living.
In light of these impossible odds, what could otherwise be a game of choices becomes a tale of a man running out of options. No set of decisions can save Bellic from the oppressive “kill or be killed” spirit of the city. It’s no wonder most characters end up dead, victims of their own philosophy. We’ve seen it before: The problem with Tony Montana’s “Don’t get high on your own supply,” is that by the end, he did. The problem with “get rich or die tryin'” is that most people die tryin’. Looking upon the bloody outcome of the final, botched deal, Bellic eulogizes the dead. Though he is not a prayerful man, his words echo a verse from the Book of Matthew: “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”
Usually the final missions of a Grand Theft Auto game offer closure – a chance to finally reap the rewards of all your mayhem, then sit back and count the spoils. Vercetti’s rise to infamy in Vice City ends with a bloodbath in his palatial home as he mows down all opposition – think Scarface with infinite ammo. In San Andreas, CJ returns to his neighborhood as the very model of success, reuniting his hood and purging traitors and crooked cops from their ranks. But Bellic’s tale ends with cold resignation, not triumph. Instead of turning to some mountain of wealth, his thoughts turn to the mountain of bodies left in his wake. It is as if he is haunted by the very people he struck down while on the job, those faceless hordes of men and women crushed under car tires and sprayed with stray gunfire.
Bellic has seen firsthand the atrocities committed under the rule of war. But the city has its own set of rules, different, but every bit as cutthroat. All he has managed is to trade one battlefield for another. Early in the tale, in justifying an unpleasant betrayal, an employer tells him: “You know, if there is one thing that I have learned, it is that we must obey the rules of the game. We can pick the game, Niko Bellic. But we cannot change the rules.” The tragedy for Bellic is that the game has already been chosen – his is a Grand Theft Auto world, one that will follow him to the ends of the earth. He is smart, savvy, and capable; perhaps he would have had better luck in another game. He might have been free in New York. But he’s a prisoner in Liberty City.
Brendan Main hails from the frosty reaches of Canada, where people are too polite to steal anything but paperclips and furtive glances. When not living the rest of his life like a schnook, he blogs at www.kingandrook.com.