I like Niko Bellic, and I'm not sure what that says about me. Grand Theft Auto IV's protagonist is kind of a dick, no two ways about it. While he stumbles into a situation far removed from what he was expecting, the demands placed on him soon balloon far beyond a rationale person's tolerance. Not five hours into the game's main storyline you're killing people in cold blood for not much more than a verbal insult.
Still, despite it all, I like Niko. I enjoy his tale in a way that I haven't enjoyed the story in any other GTA title, and that makes me profoundly uncomfortable. GTA is fundamentally about 3 things, and they're all uncomfortable: violence, race, and sex. That these things speak to me is troubling and intriguing, tapping into the basest elements of humanity. It feels like there are three monkeys on my back. Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil ... it's so archetypal it's almost silly.
Ready for a peek into my subconscious? Me neither.
As an American man in his late 20s, I'm about as jaded to artistic fictional violence as it's possible to be. The Bourne films are some of my favorite movies, I've played through both of the PS2 God of War titles; I'm no stranger to digital blood. The mindless violence of movies like Saw turn my stomach, though. The grotesque thought process behind inflicting harm on another person for entertainment is utterly alien.
And yet, I had to really think about what I was doing before I realized the depths of depravity Niko sinks to relatively early in the game. An audience changed the tone for me: my brother and his girlfriend were over last weekend, and I showed them the game by completing the mission I was on. My only requirement was to hunt down a contact's enemy and end his life.
I managed to trap my quarry inside a car, pinning him between my own vehicle and a wall. It was a simple matter, then, to get out and shoot him in the head. It was incredibly pathetic, as the NPC's AI struggled for life; tires squealed and he swerved from side to side, all to no avail. He didn't even try to shoot back as I approached the driver's side door. And then it was over.
Turning to look at my guests, I saw two very different expressions. My brother was grinning, obviously enthused about the game's beauty and looking forward to his own chance at the controls. My brother's girlfriend was gazing at me with an expression I'd never seen on her face before. I identified it immediately: pity mixed with sadness.
I really enjoy reading John Davison's blog over at 1up. His new venture since leaving that site has been "What They Play", a fantastic resource for parents interested in videogames. He linked from his blog back to the four pieces they have up right now showcasing 'the worst' you'll see in GTA IV. The sex video was, of course, the one visited most often. I clicked through (like a sheep) and beheld the relatively tame sex acts.
Exotic dancers, fine. The actual imagery we see, no problem. But the implications ... maybe it was the poor quality of the captured videos, maybe it was the callous way Niko's voice actor directed the prostitutes, but it felt cheap and sleazy in a way I wasn't really prepared for. The women in those videos are sex objects, pure and simple. Not people, not daughters, not mothers, nor sisters or friends; they're essentially walking orifices.
Watching the video produced a strange mental schism. I've been telling myself the game's violence and sexuality weren't things I needed to engage in. I have a choice whether or not to include random cop-killing or the solicitation of prostitutes into my narrative. But by mentally associating myself with Niko, by decided he was 'a good guy', I'd invested something into that character. The same character pushing some chick onto his knob for a meaningless blowjob. "My character", acting in a way I couldn't understand or appreciate.
If you haven't read it already, the recent dialogue between the insightful Tracey John and the erudite N'Gai Croal is not something to miss. During a week of features about African-Americans in the games industry, N'Gai and Tracey tackle the highly contentious Resident Evil 5 trailer. Croal's statements begin with "I looked at the Resident Evil 5 trailer and I was like, 'Wow, clearly no one black worked on this game.'" The comment thread that follows is insane, running something like 360 posts long.
The thing that I took away from their dialogue is how important imagery and context can be, even if it's meaningless to others. To a middle-class white guy like me the RE5 trailer is just more of what I'm used to from the games industry: teasing images, violence, title screen. To anyone with a grounding in cultural symbology, the hooded eyes and sense of 'otherness' N'Gai describes are cause for concern - signposts of an era our country is still coming to terms with.
So what's my context with the GTA series? As I mentioned on the conference call this week, I played GTA III, and its sequel Vice City. I'm obviously playing GTA IV. So what's the most obvious difference with San Andreas? The protagonist isn't some white trash schlub or an italian hitman. He's an African-American man from LA, an individual incredibly removed from my societal context. Games are about context, about identification, about resonance, and I'm not sure I'd even be able to have a conversation with CJ were I to meet him in a grocery store.
Did I avoid playing San Andreas because I'm an overweight white guy? Did I think I wouldn't be able to identify with a story set in the gang culture of an LA-lookalike? Have I missed out on a lengthy story and some intriguing RPG gameplay add-ons because of cultural hangups? More importantly - more disturbingly - am I now choosing to identify myself with a coldhearted killer because his culture is more familiar, his skin tone more like my own?
Dealing With The Reflection
I'd like to think I'm not racist, violent, or sexist. I feel relatively confident that my day-to-day thoughts, my actions, and my writing don't reflect the close-minded bigotry I associate with haters. I'm equally certain that the developers at Rockstar aren't all gore-fetishist misogynists.
That said, it's still difficult not to think long and hard about the reflection you cast in GTA's mirror. Are you Niko Bellic's best intentions? His hope for a better tomorrow and the resolution of his pain? Or is Liberty City your debauched playground, a stage which you can use to fulfill your deepest fantasies of the id?
"It's just a game", to some extent, and I'd certainly rather a violent person take out their aggression on digital characters. I still have to ask: what does it say about us that the ability to do anything often turns into the ability to harm everyone?