Grand Theft Auto IV

We can pick the game, Niko Bellic, but we cannot change the rules.

-Dmitri, Grand Theft Auto IV

Despite all of the American politicians who decry it, the Grand Theft Auto series has always been interested in and championed of one of the most traditional concerns of American rhetoric and politics — the American Dream.

Thomas Jefferson infamously cadged his summary of the inalienable rights of men — “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” — from John Locke’s own summation of basic human rights, which he described as the rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of property.” While Jefferson revised his own list, Locke and other Western thinkers birthed within aristocratic societies where the citizens held no property rights a sense that the right to the pursuit of property is essential to freedom. Both of these ideals, though, the pursuit of happiness and that of property, are frequently ones wed to the very notion of the American Dream — that there is a right to pursue prosperity within the American system.

One might wonder a bit about the pursuit of happiness, though, and its linkage to property as the phrase might imply a right to pursue something like pleasure or merely be a hedonistic goal. Jefferson’s revision of Locke is interesting and clearly could be and has been debated by political philosophers before now. I have always tended to see this choice of words as a nod to his classical philosophical training.

In the common jargon of classical philosophy, the term “happiness” is a fairly broad one and also might be simply interpreted as the goal of philosophy itself (whose central pursuit as a discipline was summed up by my Philosophy 101 prof many years ago by the question, “how does one lead a happy life?”). As a result, to me it seems likely that Jefferson, like Locke, was attempting to establish a necessary cornerstone for liberty and freedom by positing a familiar philosophical goal. Locke might ask, “how can one be free when someone else (a king or other aristocrat) owns your own land and materials?” While Jefferson similarly might ask, “how can one be free without being able to pursue one’s own goals and personal satisfaction (rather than the goals and interests of a sovereign for its citizens)?”

The reason that I bring up all of this discussion is that, interestingly, the arc of stories in the GTA saga has seemed interested in exploring all of the rights expressly conveyed in Jefferson and Locke’s thinking on freedom and the American Dream. Liberty seems to have always been a chief concern of a series that began its story in a place called Liberty City.

Indeed, GTA III‘s innovative open world model provided what seemed to many gamers like more freedom of choice than ever offered before in the video game medium. The approach to gameplay that allowed a wide swath of decision making and flexibility for the player and allowed the player to set their own goals (even ignoring the story underlying the game itself) provided a major emphasis on the “right to liberty.” That game’s follow up, Vice City, likewise, remained a free form (or, if you prefer, sandbox) approach to gaming, but due to its more complex narrative might be seen as being largely interested in considering not just the nature of liberty but the pursuit of power, or, through the game’s protagonist Tommy Vercetti’s allocation of businesses as a means to that power, the pursuit of property. San Andreas, on the other hand, through its themes concerning the tribalism of gang banging and its main character CJ Johnson’s interest in protecting and providing security for his family seemed to largely concern a basic right to life itself within an American setting.

So it is perhaps no surprise that what is the most complicated and ambiguous right defended by Jefferson — the pursuit of happiness — that finally gets its due in GTA IV.

All three of the previous games concern the rise of gangsters from street level thug to kingpin. All three games borrow from another American genre interested in mapping the success of characters often born into difficult circumstances — the mob movie (think The Godfather II, Scarface, etc.). Such mobsters overcome these difficult circumstances through the financial opportunities that the “freedom” the United States provides in social mobility via the pursuit of property.

While certainly the heroes of these classically American stories are criminal (as the protagonists of GTA have always been), nevertheless, the metaphor of the impoverished everyman rising to great fortune in the land of opportunity is clearly one of the reasons that American audiences have previously found a way to cheer movie villains like Vito Corleone and Tony Montana. These characters represent a traditional nationalistic and idealistic image of what an American can achieve despite or maybe because of their link to criminality, which in and of itself implies a revolutionary spirit of freedom.

Interestingly, the element of films like The Godfather II and Scarface that GTA has lacked has been the one major element of this allegorical way of conveying the message of the American Dream that films like it have often found to be a clear way of conveying this theme — the immigrant’s story. That GTA has not done so before now is particularly ironic given Vice City‘s frequent allusions and nods to Scarface as its chief narrative influence. From Vice City’s resemblance to Tony Montana’s Miami to the even more direct resemblance of Tommy Vercetti’s mansion near the close of the game to Tony Montana’s swank digs from the film, the game often not only provides these visual homages to its source material but its chief plot line clearly concerns a similar story of the making of a criminal overlord.

Unlike the Cuban refugee, Tony Montana, though Tommy Vercetti is no immigrant. He is an American born Italian American with a dream. Similarly, San Andreas‘s CJ Johnson is likewise no immigrant. Curiously, however, it is notable that both Tommy and CJ still retain some quality of the outsider or refugee so necessary to the criminal American success story. Tommy has come to Vice City from out of town, and, while CJ is coming home to his Los Santos neighborhood, he does so after a long stretch in “exile” away from San Andreas and from family and friends. In other words, both characters are not only desirous of the power and fortune to be found in these “new” American lanscapes, but they are also looking to establish a home in a kind of metaphoric “foreign” land (or land where they feel alienated and foreign themselves due to unfamiliarity with the turf or time spent away from the ‘hood). They are metaphoric foreigners given an “opportunity” in this less familiar landscape.

This less overt nod to the immigrant — via metaphor as opposed to GTA IV‘s more literal approach with the introduction of an Eastern European immigrant, Niko Bellic, as the games protagonist — seems to clarify the interests of the themes of this new game, which still shares the underlying concern with the American Dream that other American crime sagas often have had.

The immigrant’s story provides an interesting and useful way to explore the right to pursue happiness or new goals and dreams. While Rockstar has chosen to return the player to their fictional version of New York, Liberty City, the setting of GTA III, a new landmark and the revision of its name marks this interest early on in the latest game.

About a quarter of the way through my playthrough of the game, I first glimpsed what I thought was the Statue of Liberty off the southern coast of Liberty City. This landmark didn’t exist in Rockstar’s original version of the city, and it seemed appropriate glimpsing it when I did given that I had spent the early part of the game as a character attempting to find a new place in America.

This iconic symbol of the immigrant’s dream (or the American Dream itself) reminded me of my early transformation in the initial portion of the game from foreigner (listening first to the strains of a Russian radio station when being picked up by my cousin at the dock in Liberty City and shopping for clothes that looked more European than American in stores owned by other slavic immigrants) to something like an American citizen (switching the dial to American rock and rap stations and picking out some blue jeans and sweaters that made me look a bit less out of place). I was soon to discover, though, that this was not the Statue of Liberty but instead a revision of the statue, Rockstar’s version: the Statue of Happiness.

Given the interests of the character of Niko Bellic, this revision almost immediately makes sense. From Niko’s attempts at assimilation (via simple things like embracing American radio and clothing, to eating hot dogs, or more complicated ones like dating American women), this attempt to change directions and alter the past by becoming something new seemed something quite akin to the notion of pursuing happiness, American style, especially if happiness is a progressive ideal setting up future goals for the immigrant to achieve.

Additionally, this emphasis on transforming the main character’s identity by ridding Niko of the trappings of his past is even present in Rockstar’s choice to make some gameplay changes. There is a notable increase in the number of hit related missions in this game as opposed to the more diverse mission sets of past games that included, of course, grand theft auto and other types of thefts, drug distribution and dealing, extortion, etc. Some of this alteration appears to be due to Rockstar’s efforts to improve the combat elements of the game. While the game retains auto-targeting, a new cover system makes gun play eminently more tactical and much richer than in the past. This change allows for combat specific missions to be more complex and full of depth, but its emphasis also changes some sense of the importance of the driving elements of past iterations of the series towards a more significant mastery of skills usually reserved for the player of combat focused shooters.

That isn’t to say that diversity of mission types and opportunities don’t exist in GTA IV (just that there are significantly more missions aimed at targeted kills). You will still need to steal cars and get up to a number of other types of dastardly shenanigans. Because of this change, though, Niko seems largely specialized as a hit man rather than being a kind of “jack of all trades” like the criminal protagonists of the prior games.

These changes in gameplay and character have a clear thematic consequence. Niko is very interested throughout the game in killing for the sake of revenge but, perhaps, even more so for the opportunity of wiping out his own past and eradicating his previous life. In other words, the immigrant is assimilating in simple culturally identifiable ways (by experimenting with new clothes, food, women, etc.) but also in more complex psychological ways (by wiping out those who made his past life unhappy and ushering in a new way of life — a new chance at happiness). Niko’s hits are as much about gaining money as they are about adopting a new American persona. There is an underlying irony in this vision of murderous capitalistic success as a means to murdering the past and achieving happiness. The game also offers a number of missions that allow Niko to choose between narrative paths. Interestingly, the final choice of missions leads to a tension between these ideas. During this sequence, Niko can choose to kill off a man who has betrayed him or swallow his pride and work for him in order to make a lot of money. Ironically, either choice still results in acquiring the goal of the other. If you murder, you still make money and vice versa. In other words, such choices are intrinsically linked to one another.

As a result, this version of GTA seems even more self aware of the relationship between its perpetual emphasis on satirizing and critiquing the American Dream through its thematic concerns with liberty via the anarchic freedom of criminality and its connectedness to the game’s mechanics emphasizing the same qualities, the ability to choose and having anarchic control over the actions of your avatar in the game. Yet, the dissolution of liberty into happiness marked by the Statue (which I said early on in my play through to my wife would have to be the location of the final mission, given its clearly emblematic role in the game, and, of course, it is) also shows that this awareness extends to Rockstar’s realizations about the limitations of liberty and freedom in their thematic analysis of American culture and in gaming worlds themselves.

As the quote that leads off this article suggests, you can choose the game but not the rules. While we, as players and consumers and citizens, like to think that we have freedom, the rules of the system we choose only allow some options. This statement made by one of the game’s main opponents to Niko is one of the most self referential and self aware statements that the game makes about its own themes and even its infamously anarchic gameplay style. It also is a statement that may again clearly show the relationship between GTA‘s themes of liberty and freedom and its seemingly libertarian approach to gameplay itself. Just as the ability to play a game that provides freedom, like GTA, is only as free as the rules of that game allow, so, too, does the ability to pursue happiness and personal satisfaction depend on the inherent systemic rules that the nation or economy one calls home provides.

In this sense, Rockstar may have found a way to respond to the continual backlash against its unique simulation of criminal behavior. To condemn GTA as a game that thrives on wanton cruelty to achieve happiness is to condemn other “systems” (like the America portrayed by Rockstar as fixated on a pursuit of happiness) whose “rules” do likewise. GTA provides a game where criminal choice is one of the few options available, but the vision of America provided by GTA suggests a “game” of similar nature grounded in capitalism and greed. In other words, Rockstar may only be pointing out that those American politicians so irritated by their constituents’ choice of game to play might want to consider the rules that underlie their own game first.

RATING 9 / 10