Down and Out in Liberty City: Examining Character Arcs
As I mentioned earlier, finishing The Lost and Damned has made me enjoy Grand Theft Auto IV more than I did. I want to talk about this for una momenta, focusing on story and character within the zeitgeist of a game environment how that affects enjoyment of the game mechanics.
You may consider me rambling. This is unlikely to be coherent.
- I thought it was an extremely beautiful game, with a mind-bogglingly awesome level of attention to detail and simulation
- I felt that the story was well written.
- I also felt that the story was brutally depressing and that its bleakness made the game less fun: everything was futile in the end
- I felt that a great deal of the “fun” from previous Grand Theft Auto games had been excised in search of a more perfect simulation
- I felt that, had the “fun” elements been retained, the sheer nihilism of the storyline might be more easily accepted
Today, having finished The Lost and Damned, I believe that the writers had developed multiple characters and plot lines. I think they had to choose which single one of their beloved children they were going to send to school, and which ones they were going to lock in the closet. We have been introduced to two of these characters: Niko Bellic (GTA IV) and Johnny Klebitz (LaD); since there is at least one more “downloadable content” episode in the wings (that we know about) we can safely assume that there is a third, as yet unknown character waiting in the wings.
(The Batman sense says that it will revolve around a Hasidic diamond smuggler named Isaac. Why? Because there is an achievement earned in GTA IV called “Impossible Trinity” that you gain after completing the “escape from the museum” mission – a mission that includes Niko Bellic, Johnny Klebitz, and Isaac.)
I believe that the writers picked Niko Bellic’s story to tell first specifically because it was so goddamned bleak. The reason why I think this because, compared to Johnny’s, Niko’s adventures are far more epic and final in nature.
Niko is a man who, once upon a time, had a moral code. Then, in some unknown Slavic war, he had his ideals stripped away, his morals crushed, and his soul pummelled. In the end, there was nothing left inside of him except a thirst for revenge.
His entire reason for coming to America is to find the man who betrayed his unit and kill him. One emotion: revenge.
As the game progresses, we learn about Niko. Even though we control him – push left on the thumbstick and he walks to the left, press the ‘Y’ button and he steals a car – even though we control him, we are still merely observers.
Niko is a nihilist. He doesn’t believe in a god. Maybe he did, once, but that faith was burnt away long ago. His dialog tells us that he considers himself to be merely an observer in the world, that he accepts everything with a grim belief that nothing he does is going to change where he and what he has become –
And yet, in perhaps the most human side of the writing, we see that he still struggles and does not want to be this person. He wants to have a better life; he wants to move on.
He tries to assimilate into the universe. His love for his cousin, Roman, is a guiding force in this, and at times we think Niko might succeed.
(Perhaps we should say that it is Roman’s love for Niko that helps bring him back. Roman is Niko’s opposite in every way: he loves life, the universe, and everything. He does not believe in failure. Roman believes that a man’s fate is his own to write.)
We learn that his thirst for revenge will never earn satisfaction. The traitor is unmasked, but he has become a sad wreck, addicted to heroin, trapped in a prison more hellish than anything Niko could devise. A bullet would be mercy.
Here is one of the game’s choices: you can kill the traitor or not. Niko’s loving cousin, Roman, pleads for mercy on the addict’s behalf: there has been enough killing.
At the end of the game, we, the players, are given an ogre’s choice: die fast or die slow. Niko can either choose to compromise his ideals, in which case his beloved cousin is murdered and his girlfriend leaves him for being a coward, or he can hold fast to his one moral code, in which case his girlfriend is murdered.
We are the observers. We are mute witnesses to Niko’s ultimate decline, fall, and failure to become a better, more whole person.
Watching the credits for GTA IV roll, one can easily envision a last, final scene. An unfilmed, unwitnessed, and complete series of moments:
Niko goes back to one of his grimy, shithole “suicide assistance dungeon” apartments. He sighs and sits on the edge of a dirty mattress for a moment. Stares at a photo of his cousin, Roman (or Kate McCreary, depending on one’s chosen ending). A single tear; the grim click-clack of a nine millimeter round being chambered; a single gunshot.
All that’s left is for the neighbors to complain about the smell. And why? Because Niko is alone and will be forever.
Niko’s story arc is done. He failed. There’s nothing more to say here.
In contrast, I could easily see a “sequel” to The Lost and Damned. Johnny Klebitz’s story is not a child born of a uncaring void of despair. It is grim, gritty, and grungy, but it is also one that ends with a new beginning.
The final scene in The Lost and Damned shows Johnny and the remaining members of the Lost Motorcycle Club standing in their trashed club house. Johnny wheels Angus, a wheelchair-bound member of the gang, out the front door while the others pour gasoline about the building and set it alight.
The dialog between them is one of sadness and yet also one of construction and hope: “We had some great times here, it’s a shame we have to torch it, but we can start over again.”
Like Niko, after the credits roll Johnny is living in a suicide assistance dungeon. And yes: his best confidant was killed (actually by Niko, ironically).
But Johnny still has a family – a big one – and they love him. He can still go rumbling about the city with his crew busting heads and taking names. They can start over again.
And, having been an observer to Johnny, you know that he will start over again, because, unlike Niko, Johnny is a secret optimist and believes that his fate is his own.
Johnny’s story arc is not done. He took a lot of punches, he was betrayed by some of his brothers, his family suffered, and their home was destroyed, but he has not failed. Johnny will not – cannot – fail simply because it is not in his nature to stop trying.
I had a conversation some weeks ago with my friend Dave wherein I indicated my disappointment with GTA IV. He pointed out that my disappointment did not, in any way, mean that the game was bad. I had gone in with certain expectations and those expectations were not met.
But that’s because Rockstar (the developers) made a different game. They already made Vice City; they didn’t need to remake it. They wanted to make something more. It is my failure as an audience to not appreciate the experience for what it is.
This is what I mean by “I like the game more now.” Because I am seeing it with different eyes. I am not filtering the experience by attempting to place it into a different box. GTA IV is not a “game about driving around a city and shooting people”; it is an “experience about nihilism”. The Lost and Damned is conversely an “experience about overcoming adversity”.
Marc asked “why don’t they just make a big-ass movie if they want to tell a story?” That is a very fair question, but I think I have an answer. With a movie, we have at best two, maybe three hours to observe a character. GTA IV gives us at least sixty hours to do so – and we do so in an interactive manner.
Today, I think I identify more with Johnny than Niko. This could simply be because Johnny is American.
However, I understand Niko much better – and that has everything to do with the time spent observing the character.
This is something I am going to have to think about in my own writings. I don’t know if what I am taking away are the lessons that the writers intended – or even if they intended lessons at all. But that’s one of the great things about good art: it’s all in the observer.