Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Niko and Caro, American Dreamers

Warning: This post contains spoilers for the plot of Grand Theft Auto IV.

It's been ten years now since I graduated from college, and that fact put me in a bit of a reflective mood for much of the past few weeks. Thinking of what I've done with the past ten years, and where I hope to be when another ten years have gone by.

When I graduated, in May of 1998, the future was anything but certain. I mean, a degree in theater from a small liberal arts college is not exactly a license to print money, and at that point, I still didn't really know what I wanted to do professionally. But I had a dream for my life. Not a big dream at all, really. It's quite simple, but it's mine. Maybe it's yours, too.

It's a dream that was expressed pretty well in this exchange on Showtime's entertaining Dexter:

Dexter: Do you have a dream for your life? Your future? Yes?
Rita: Of course. Do you?
Dexter: It might sound weird. I want to someday be content. Just feel comfortable, like everyone else. I want...
Rita: ...a normal life?
Dexter: Yeah, a normal life.
Rita: That's all I want. Just that.

Dexter, in case you don't know, is a sympathetic character who kills people, and he has the same dream for his life that I have for mine. That seems appropriate here, as I've been spending a lot of time lately with another sympathetic character who kills people: Niko Bellic, the protagonist of Rockstar's truly superb Grand Theft Auto IV.

Yes, as I was playing GTA IV, I was also thinking a good deal about my life, and my dreams for my life. My life since college has had its ups and downs. After graduating, I fell into teaching. That was a job that I think I knew immediately, as a transgendered person, I wasn't going to stay in, because it was neither safe nor, some might argue, appropriate, for me to attempt to transition while teaching high school students. Some people may have been brave enough to attempt that path. I am not one of them. And I suspect that, even were it not for my gender issues, I would have wanted to seek out other professional experiences. Teaching is simply not my calling. Since then, I've worked in coffee shops and customer service call centers, trying to inch my way closer to my dream, and also to work towards getting a job doing something that I'll find truly satisfying.

Niko Bellic comes to Liberty City with dreams of his own, dreams that have been fueled by letters from his cousin Roman, who wrote of living a life filled with cars, women and money in the land of opportunity. When Niko arrives, he finds that Roman has overstated his success just a tad, and that in fact Roman is deeply in debt, and in trouble with just the sort of unsavory characters Niko came to Liberty City hoping to get away from. What's Niko gonna do when he arrives in LC and needs to make some money, get a job at the local Bean Machine? No, that's what suckers like me do. Niko is not the latte-slingin' type. He's been through a little too much. He's a little too broken. Early on, a character named Dimitri Rascalov (Niko should have known better than to ever trust someone with that name) says to Niko, "We can choose the game, Niko Bellic, but we cannot choose the rules of the game." Niko has, for better or worse, chosen his game.

It's not unusual for a good film or book or television show to make me think about my own life in some way, or about the world around me, but a video game? That's pretty much unheard of. GTA IV, though, did just that. I'm not saying that the characters could stand shoulder-to-shoulder with those on The Wire, but I am saying that while The Wire is, in my opinion, the best television show in recent years about the America we're living in today, GTA IV is the best videogame ever about the America we're living in today, and that, like all truly good crime fiction, it is not the immoral or amoral product so many right-wing crusaders would have you believe it is, but it is, in fact, deeply moral, a story of choices and consequences.

There's a moment near the end of GTA IV where I really believed that Niko might end up with a simple, honest life, that he might fly off into the sunset, heading for the American Midwest with a nice woman at his side, leaving the crime network of Liberty City that he's fallen into behind. Of course, I realize that I was naive to think this, but it's just that I'd come to feel really attached to Niko as a character, and that I really wanted it for him, wanted him to have his own little American dream, and when it was all taken away from him in an instant, it was genuinely upsetting. Money is the closest thing you have in Grand Theft Auto to a score, and by the end I'd racked up well over a half million dollars, but as another character declared, "You won!", it all felt so hollow to me, and, I suspect, to Niko as well. Yes, Niko wound up with tons of money, and had established for himself a seemingly pretty safe and secure place in Liberty City's underworld, but at what cost?

It would take forever for me to list all the reasons I love this game so much. I love the razor-sharp satire of things like the Republican Space Rangers cartoon, Weazel News and the Bastion's Buddies right-wing radio talk show. I love the huge, diverse, vibrant soundtrack, filled as it is with wonderful details like jazz great Roy Haynes DJing the jazz station and sharing poignant, heartfelt anecdotes about the musicians he's featuring, but, in a nice touch, referring to events as taking place "here in Liberty City" instead of New York. I love the exhilarating beauty of unplannable moments like finding yourself flying over the city by helicopter on a rainy night as Pruit Igoe by Philip Glass swells up on the radio. I love the living, breathing city, where people walk down the street talking on their cellphones, or wash shop windows, or do tai chi in the park. But most of all, I love the characters who populate it, and the story it tells. When Niko finally comes face-to-face with the man who betrayed him so many years ago, a moment he has built up in his mind, been obsessed with, for years, he finds that the man is an utterly pathetic figure. This is one of the moments where the game gives the player a crucial choice. You can kill him, as Niko has intended to do for so long, or you can walk away. GTA IV certainly isn't the first game to offer choices of this kind, but it sure does it better than any game before in my opinion. Your choices in games are frequently between the most saintly of goodness and the most diabolical of evil, and so they never feel quite real to me. I'll do one to see what happens, then play again to make the other choice, but I never feel any real investment in it. It's just a game, after all. But so well-drawn are the characters in GTA IV, and Niko in particular, that I really felt personally invested in these choices. In this case, I chose to walk away. In the moments that followed, on a quiet car drive back home, Roman said some things to Niko about forgiveness, about letting go of the past. Things that were simple and true. That was beautiful. And while Niko's victory against the predatory forces of the underworld may seem hollow, there are other victories, smaller but more meaningful. Niko meets a young woman who had, like so many, come to Liberty City from the Midwest with big dreams of making it as a star, but had fallen into drug addiction and prostitution. Niko helped her get on a train back home to her parents, and she sent a nice email to thank him and let him know she was doing all right. That meant something.

Of course, like so many, I'm already wondering what's next for Grand Theft Auto. How do you follow this game? Will Rockstar continue along this more serious, contemplative path for the next few games in the series, or will we see things veer back towards the more cartoonish violence of earlier games? Will we return to the neon-drenched streets of Vice City, or visit someplace entirely new? And, I can't help but wonder, when the next game rolls around, will I be any closer to my own little dream? In any case, I won't stop trying, and that's what matters. I'll just keep on cranking up the LCD Soundsystem and walking through this world like the badass superstar I am.

1 comment:

Matthew Meadows said...

Great post.

Also yes, LCD Soundsystem rocks.