Warning, contains spoilers of the opening levels of Grand Theft Auto IV.
I’ve never liked the opening levels of the Grand Theft Auto series, a slow progression of basic tutorials guiding you in the particular controls and processes of the game, followed by a fairly dull set of slow-burning missions in order to introduce you into the story whilst holding you back from the full-on mayhem you want to be causing. Grand Theft Auto IV’s opening is more cinematic than the previous games in the series, but ultimately the same in it’s build up. You know what’s coming, I know what’s coming, so why, for remarkably open sandbox games, is your progress so fixed and linear? I was about to have a rather strange experience however.
There was a very slight build up, but the opening story was merely creating the setting. I can clearly remember the shift from the normal run of the mill GTA game to something greater. It took place in a little shop called НОВИНКИ ПОСЛЕДНЕИ МОДЫ, otherwise known as ‘the Russian Shop’, this is the place used to introduce the player to GTA IV’s clothing system. I never know what to buy in these places, the game has normally not developed enough for me to have a created a defined personality, so I normally end up just trying on various clothes and picking the ones I like the look of (or dislike the least). The Russian Shop has a very limited range of stock, so I simply chose a new jacket and trousers that were essentially the same as my original clothing. As I was approaching the counter however I noticed a stand displaying various glasses and decided to try a few on, this was when it hit me. As I’ve already said, you know what to expect with GTA games, no matter who the person you’re playing you know they’re ultimately a crook, but as I looked at Niko Bellic’s face, wearing those glasses he almost looked…respectable.
All of the above had occurred because Niko was going on a date, having just met a friend of his cousins receptionist, Michelle. Unlike most of the people you meet in GTA IV she isn’t a crook, she’s just living a normal life in Liberty City. With my new-found sense of normality I picked up Michelle from her flat and took her out bowling. Walking down the promenade Niko and Michelle run through quite a long series of dialogue. I could have run to the bowling alley, but I was too busy enjoying their conversation, it wasn’t much more than pleasantries but I felt a connection between them. Gruff Niko Bellic trying his best to sound like a nice person, and Michelle genuinely interested in him (or so I felt). Bowling a few balls down the lane I was thinking, this is his chance, Niko could live a normal life here. Married to Michelle and working at his cousins taxi firm, it wouldn’t be the riches he went to America dreaming about, but it would be a normal, peaceful life. The conversation continued on the way to take Michelle home, cementing my idea that Niko had a chance at happiness.
Trouble had already begun when some thugs had threatened his cousin and as the story started unfolding, Niko became more aware of how big of a lie his cousin had been telling him about his ‘great life’ in the land of the free. Having already delivered a rather nasty blow to one of the loan sharks, they were even more intent upon getting the money they were owed. This is when Niko received a desperate call from his cousin, the climax had come and he was being attacked. Niko’s past was still very much clouded in mystery but there had been several references to being in the army, he obviously wanted a change from that old life but he still had the skills. After squarely beating two of the thugs a car chase begins to chase down the final loan shark, then he too is given reason to back off.
Now you might think that this would have ended any ideas beyond the expected structure of the game, that this had put a damper on my longing for Niko to live a normal life, but it hadn’t, and the reason is environment. I never would have done any of these things myself, but Niko comes from a war-torn country and lives in a very hard part of Liberty City with vandals, drug dealers and who knows how many other criminals constantly surrounding him. So when he rushed to his cousins aid and beat up the people who were after him, it wasn’t enough to dissuade me. He was defending his family, taking care of his cousin. The loan-sharks were now gone, maybe he could settle down to a peaceful life with his cousin and wife Michelle.
For a time, I believed it was possible. We know what to expect from GTA games, but for a short time I actually envisaged a game that allowed me a way out of the normal violence, mayhem and destruction (no matter how fun it is to play), I was role-playing in a non-role-playing game. It wouldn’t last of course, if I wanted to keep playing the game I would eventually have to give up on this ideal, and so Respectable Niko came to an end. But he wasn’t gone, he’d made an impact on me, and now I have shared that with you the reader (someone must be reading right?). One day we may have a truly complete sandbox, a fully fleshed out world where we can do anything we want, but until that day we still have these very special moments that elevate our gaming experiences.