As the United States celebrated its Independence Day this past week, it feels like the most appropriate time to look into something that is somewhat of a touchy subject for most, and that is the true heart of the “American Dream”. Many would politicize, satirize, or even ostracize this notion of the American Dream in numerous ways, but very rarely is it explored through the confines of the video game world. We see jingoistic characters and xenophobic hypocrites all the time in videogames; they are character tropes that are not uncommon. But from the other side of the spectrum, from the point of view of a newcomer, that is rare.
And that is where Niko Bellic comes in. The star of the critically acclaimed Grand Theft Auto IV is often seen as a unique character in terms of the GTA protagonists. Being a radically different character thrust into a country he doesn’t know, burdened with a personal vendetta and a code that is difficult to digest, Niko Bellic is not just another immigrant in a melting pot, but a tool for Rockstar to show the audacity of American culture as a whole.
I won’t lie, I am not that fond of GTA IV. I felt the tone was uneven and that many of the attempts at satire found in the game miss the point. And as such, I will try to avoid talking about this satire much, as an episode of Pixilated Pretension would be more appropriate. But the reason I keep coming back to the game was due to Niko and his struggle to stop fighting, a struggle he will eventually lose because of the nature of what he does.
Niko is an emblematic character on several fronts. He starts as a fish out of water, a man in a country he doesn’t recognize. Niko is also a representative of a borderline sociopath, someone who has no qualms about killing people to protect or to destroy his enemies. But perhaps the most important aspect of Niko Bellic is how he embodies the traits of a cynical hero, one that sees the hypocritical aspects of daily life in America, from the way people act, to the way freedom is justified.
Niko, working as a merchant marine, sneaks off a ship and arrives in Liberty City to meet his cousin Roman, who has integrated himself into American culture freely. Niko, expecting to believe Roman’s lies about how rich and amazing America, gets his first culture shock by learning the truth right away about Roman: he is somewhat of a layabout who has a gambling problem and a dead end livery cab service.
As the story progresses, we find Niko and Roman eventually being forced into hiding by a Russian mobster named Dimitri Rascalov. Niko, of course, uses this to find odd jobs for those around him, outrageous characters that embody this hypocritical aspect of America. Many of the people Niko meets show off a hyper-satirized look at the culture of America. From paranoid drug dealers to secret homosexual lovers for politicians, each scenario Niko is found in just adds to his cynical edge on life in general, that life is, above all else, pointless.
It is a very dark character trait, but it is one that makes Niko unique. Years of war in Eastern Europe, witnessing the death of his entire squad by the betrayal of one of their own, Darko Brevic, has lead him down a pathway where he wants to take revenge against him. He even came to America to find and kill Brevic for this act–really the only reason he tolerates what he sees as bullshit around him.
This becomes such a driving force for Niko that it pretty much engulfs his own being. He does odd jobs around Liberty City for two reasons. The first is to protect his cousin and his loved ones. Early in the game this is the driving force for Niko, to make sure Roman is safe from the likes of Rascalov or others who wish to kill or him. Another is to sedate his vengeance against Brevic, which is what the latter half of the game entails.