I bought Grand Theft Auto 4 on launch day in 2008 and played it religiously for just over a week before returning it (because I was about to fail three high school classes). So three years passed, and I didn’t touch the game. I never once wondered how the story of eastern European immigrant Niko Bellic ended. Three years, and I don’t know that it ever crossed my mind.
Last week I re-read the article "Video games: The addiction" by Tom Bissell. He talks about what it was like to be addicted to GTA4 and cocaine at the same time. The whole cocaine part was interesting enough, though I’ve never tried the stuff. What grabbed me was the way he talked about Niko.
Bissell described Niko as a poor "yokel" who only wanted a better life, stuck in a game where you can do anything except find a way out. The way he talked about how deeply he identified with this character made me realize something, too. It may have been about three years too late, but I finally realized that I had a stronger emotional tie to Niko Bellic than perhaps any other video-game character.
And I had no idea why.
I had to do some serious thinking. What did I have in common with Niko? Nothing, really. I grew up home-schooled and sheltered. I’ve never been involved with drugs or violent crime. I was never one to push boundaries.
I did have friends, though — older, cooler acquaintances who pushed those boundaries for me. Their influence led me to start lying, cheating, stealing, and ignoring my conscience in every way possible short of actually committing a crime. And it led me to buy GTA4 when it came out (without telling my parents…sorry, parents).
I realized the reason I related to Niko Bellic was because I know what it's like to be pressured into things, even if I've never done anything on his level. "What have games given me?" Tom Bissell wrote. "Experiences. Not surrogate experiences, but actual experiences, many of which are as important to me as any real memories."
Selling GTA4 after only a few days of playing it was one of the first good decisions I had made in a long time. To be honest, it was easier to quit because I really wasn’t comfortable with some of the things that I was doing in the game. After I made Niko have sex with a prostitute, he said, "Strange. All that effort to feel this empty." That’s how I felt.
I guess I started making some more of those good decisions, because my life is a lot more satisfying now. I have good friends who support me in my dreams, and I get along great with my family. But I still feel so strongly for Niko Bellic, and here's the reason why: I got out, but he’s still in there.
My story goes on, and now I’m free, but he will never be able to escape from his programmed prison. So now I’m wondering how his story ends and if there’s anything I can do for him. Now I’m thinking about going back and seeing if I can do it again.
Things changed for me. Could they change for him?