[Before you get too far into reading this, you should know I am going to spoil some of the end-game events of Grand Theft Auto 4. Sure, it’s a few years old now, but if you are anything like me, it probably took you that long to get around to finally finishing it.]
It was with no small degree of trepidation that I started playing Grand Theft Auto IV again. For years, it’s been twisted up in my mind with the glorification of violence and wanton destruction, yet here I was going back into this world to, I decided, finally finish this game I’ve had on my shelf for just as long. It was time.
It’s violent. Nearly all of the missions I took on had me shooting dozens of people or arranging the deaths of many others. By the time I got to a point in the game where a character quips that Niko has the blood of (just) hundreds of lives on his hands, I openly laughed. It was that absurd to me.
Of course, Niko had seen and dealt death countless times. As the game would reiterate to me over and over when I failed a mission — and I often did — Niko had been in a war. He was a veteran of at least one campaign in Europe and he was being asked to wage another one in the streets of Liberty City. If there was ever a game, I frequently thought, that needed Fallout’s frequently repeated mantra of “War. War never changes,” it was Grand Theft Auto IV.
It wasn’t all death though. One of the early bright spots was dating Michelle, as the game goes out of its way to promote through conversations with your cousin. However, it was often a dark comedy in the making as I would murder some people, escape with one of their cars, avoid the police, and then accept a date with Michelle. After, I would drive off, with the same car, to my next mission to kill more.
I don’t know what happens through most of the game. After watching a few of the cut-scenes, I decided to skip them any time I had the option. For the most part, the game became me driving across the city to various locations, having a brief conversation, and then being pointed at my next target. Long before Niko laments he is merely a weapon for one side of a gang or another, I had already come to that conclusion: I was a weapon in human form. That was the message of this game.
Then came Kate.
Maybe it was just that I had been playing for twelve hours straight at that point, or that I was feeling particularly lonely on Christmas Eve morning as I spent it by myself, but I really liked dating her. For the first time I’d seen, she was honest with Niko. She was trapped in a life she didn’t want with her various brothers vying for control of the city. She wanted to go out and see the city with someone.
That would have been enough, but it was what she said when drunk that really moved me. Taking her to a bar would show a side of her I personally found more appropriate to the world. While staggering about, she would bluntly tell Niko how terrible he was, how he was nothing more than a murderer, and state that her life was a horrible wreck. I did this a few times.
I would like to write that I was shocked about her eventual death, but I wasn’t. It was just another in a long line of plot threads that were being wrapped up as the game came to an end. As soon as I was forced to pick one side of a conflict over another, I knew the game was coming to close. Every other mission, it seemed, I was being forced into picking and then killing off a rival to close off those series of missions. Kate’s death was just another in a long line.
No, what got to me was not the death of Kate, but the hope of life afterwards.
After she died and Niko woke up in his bed dressed back in the same clothes as he started the game in, I did what I had done every time before: I pulled open the map and looked for the next goal toward finishing the game. There weren’t any markers. I paced around the apartment in distress.
Roman called saying he would take care of things this time and was arranging something. All I needed to do was wait on him. In the meantime, I was free to do whatever I wanted in this open world. I had miles of virtual landscape to explore. There were bars, restaurants, and shows plenty to visit at this point, but I wanted none of them. I was looking for an end to the game. I had been playing for fifteen hours straight.
I stole a car, because this was grand theft auto after all, and drove around the city. I experienced, as I had throughout the very long day of playing the game, the bull-in-a-china-shop perpetual edge of chaos as I drove at top speed through stop lights and toll booths. Police chased me for a few blocks, but then gave up. I grew bored with the game waiting on Roman.
When my phone began to ring from “Unknown Caller,” I opted to answer it. Maybe, I thought, it was some assassin mission or another government deal for me to work through. I was ready for any new wrinkle the game would throw at me. Ready, that is, for anything but a call from Kate.
I was sure she was dead. Others had mourned her. Roman and Little Jacob were getting together weapons for me to take my revenge. She was dead. She had to be.
I listened to her call and then, when prompted with the option to go on a date with her, I immediately agreed. Niko made no comment about this turn of events, but I knew — knew — he would want this. As I blinked at the screen and tried to get my sleep-deprived mind in order to navigate the traffic of the game, I rushed to make the date in time.
With minutes to spare and after at least three police chases on the way, I arrived. I sat outside her apartment and honked my horn. I moved the camera around to see if, perhaps, she was walking from another direction. I waited.
The game told me I didn’t arrive in time.
Kate had cancelled the date. The same Kate I was sure was dead and whose death was the catalyst for the events I was about to enact to end the game had cancelled on me. For the first time in my sixteen hour session, I was honestly upset at the game.
This wasn’t just frustration at my inability to shoot the right people at the right time. I wasn’t angry now at the obnoxious number of time I had to retry missions, or even the way the driving never really felt right to me. No, I was mad at the unfairness of this world.
For all the power of destruction I had, not to mention the ability to change the world with my in-game phone, I couldn’t arrange this for Niko. There was no creation in this never-ending non-aging hell of a world. I could remove people, sure, but not add to the world in any way.
When the achievement popped up and read, “You Won,” I knew I hadn’t. The game had. It had beaten me. It pulled me into a world of violence, kept me there for eighteen hours straight of playing, and left me emotionally wrecked afterward. I wasn’t happy that I had managed to take out yet another person. It wasn’t good that Niko ended up on “Liberty” island after his long struggle.
He wasn’t free, not in that world. Not now.
I looked at the clock. There were still a couple hours left till Christmas morning, and I knew it was time to stop playing. I took the disc out, put the game away again, and sat in the darkness trying, finally, to find some rest.