Artwork: "Grand Theft Awesome IV" by Patrick Brown
All things considered, I felt that Red Dead Redemption had a stronger story than Grand Theft Auto IV. There are several reasons for that, and they are encapsulated by the games' respective endings.
Despite all of the problems I had with Red Dead Redemption's story up until its dénouement (and believe me, there were a lot of 'em), I felt like its clever finale did supreme justice to the themes, characters and narrative arc that led up to it. After I completed the game, I returned for a spell to Liberty City and realized that GTA IV had the makings of a story that was as strong as if not stronger than that of Red Dead Redemption. Unfortunately, it squandered its promising setup with an overlong and thematically muddled final act.
I wanted to take a minute to talk about why I think that was, as well as to offer my own alternate GTA IV ending. Fair warning - I'm gonna spoil the crap out of both games, so proceed with appropriate caution.
For starters, a quick recap of Red Dead Redemption. There were many themes at work in Dan Houser's wild west story, chief among them the idea that change is brutal, inevitable and final as it violently sweeps aside the past to make room for the future. John Marston was a relic of a bygone era, and the tragic irony of his quest was that in his role as an unwilling instrument of change, he was destroying the last remnants of the only world to which he had ever belonged. From the outset, there seemed to be no way for him to escape the inevitability of his own destruction.
That theme was continually revisited throughout the game's story, sometimes clunkily, sometimes deftly. And although the narrative lost a lot of focus during the Mexico missions, that central theme returned with a vengeance during the endgame. All along, I had been painfully aware that the only logical resolution of the game's arc involved John shuffling off this mortal coil, but I just couldn't see how the game was going to pull it off while also allowing players time after the story to keep playing the game. I should've had faith, but after GTA IV's biffed ending (which I'll get to in a second), I didn't.
So after a mournful mountain-side shootout brought John's time as a government regulator to a close, he returned to his ranch at Beecher's Hope to settle down with his family. By showing John living a peaceful, ordinary life, the Housers allowed players the time to appreciate the uncomfortable fact that there was no place for John in the new world he had helped create. This was driven home by the fact that most of the quests involved actively preparing young Jack for the time when his father would no longer be around. There was a funereal tone to those missions, a building sense of dread that made the army's inevitable raid that much more wrenching.
And when the Army did come, all agency was taken away from the player and John's true powerlessness was laid bare. The one-man army we had guided through firefight after firefight, the man who at one point defeated what seemed like half of the Mexican Armed Forces... this time, there was no saving him. John died, and in one of the most brilliant bits of videogame slight-of-hand I've seen, Jack took over the story and stuck around afterward to mop up sidequests and completion statistics. The future literally took the reins from the past and the cycle began anew.
Contrast that with Grand Theft Auto IV, a game that relied as heavily on thematic material as did Red Dead Redemption, if not moreso. GTA IV's themes centered upon the rot at the heart of the American Dream, as well as the belief that no man can ever leave his past behind. Niko Bellic was broken and could never change; even (or perhaps especially) in this new land, his past and his true nature would eventually catch up to him.
Time and again GTA IV showed us that those who seek power in America are in some way compromised or corrupt, its cast a ghastly parade of cheats, liars, self-deluded psychopaths, hopeless drug addicts, criminals and murderers. Could Niko hope to rebuild himself if doing so meant serving these people? During the game's spectacularly well-written and -paced opening chapters, GTA IV seemed primed to spin one hell of an epic yarn.
I hadn't played the game in a year or so, so upon revisiting it I was struck by just how impressive those opening chapters were. The body-language and voice acting in Niko and Roman's opening scenes were, to my eye, superior to those featuring Marston and Bonnie McFarlaine in RDR. The writing is better, too - as fun as some of RDR's period-appropriate language was, none of it worked as well for me as the early scene in GTA IV featuring Niko, Roman and Vlad at Roman's cab depot. Roman's smiling desperation, Vlad's angry bluster and Niko's terrifying, quiet menace ("Tell this fucking yokel to stop staring at me!")... it was a hell of a scene, and it sticks with me to this day.
Perhaps even better is the scene at Faustin's house in which his wife Ilyena entertains Niko while they wait for her husband to arrive. She pours Niko some tea from her family's old tea set while talking guardedly about the old country and for a moment, Niko's carriage changes completely. He slumps and holds the cup in both hands as a strange, open expression crosses his face. It felt like a momentary glimpse of the young man he used to be, a flicker of peace that stood in haunting contrast to the broken killer he had become.
In addition to the great lie of the American Dream, GTA IV also tackled themes of trust, brotherhood and betrayal. Throughout the story, Niko was repeatedly faced with doomed pairs of men and women, people who had formed alliances, business relationships, and friendships only to have them disintegrate into betrayal and murder. (This theme was further explored in both The Lost And The Damned and The Ballad of Gay Tony.)
Inevitably, one member of each pair would live and one would die, often with Niko himself being forced to choose which of the pair would be knocked off. Mikhail Faustin and Dimitri Rascalov, Elizabetha Torres and Manny Escuala, Francis and Derrick McCreary, Playboy X and Dwayne Forge, Jimmy Pegorino and Ray Boccino... time and again, Niko was cast as the angel of death, an unfeeling, objective judge trusted by each party to do what was in his (or her) best interest.
During my recent time with the game I found myself wondering, what are the Housers trying to say with all these failed pairings? And more importantly, what of the parallel they are drawing with Niko's own relationship to Roman, his albatross of a cousin? After all, Niko himself is attached to this lovable loser, a joke of a man who pulls Niko down with him at every turn. Time and again Roman is Niko's undoing, getting into debt, gambling away all of their money, getting kidnapped, wasting his shot at the American Dream just as he so clearly wasted it before Niko's arrival. Where are we going with this?
As it turned out, the unfortunate answer to that question was "kinda nowhere, actually." By the time Niko was doing jobs for the Alderney mob and tracking down enemies of the state for a nameless government agent, things had gone pretty well off the rails. And even though the same thing happened during the middle act of Red Dead Redemption, that game was able to pull it together in time for its endgame. Sadly, Grand Theft Auto IV was not.
Rather than building a climax out of the themes it had established, GTA IV muddled its handling of Niko's overarching quest for vengeance by adding Florian Kravich to the mix for some pointless sidequests before serving Niko's ultimate target, Darko Brevic, up on a silver platter. That entire sequence missed the mark for me, mostly because it took place before the game's proper finale and also because it gave me a choice with no tangible consequences. Killing or sparing Brevic certainly mattered from a character standpoint (as Tom Bissell notes in his book Extra Lives, Niko has Roman turn off the radio in its aftermath because "The wound this scene has left is too dirty to sterilize with anything other than silence"), but as a culmination of Niko's story, I felt it left something to be desired.
That's partly because it didn't address the themes the game had already laid out, but also because afterward, the story didn't end. Instead, players were given a choice about whether to make a deal with the treacherous Dimitri Rascolov or to take revenge upon him. The revenge option offered the "best" ending, sparing Roman and leaving Kate to die in the crossfire at Roman's wedding. The "deal" option caused Roman to die and Kate to live, but only because doing the deal caused Kate to sever all ties to Niko. I opted for revenge, attended the wedding, lost Kate, chased down and killed the narratively inconsequential Jimmy Pegorino, and kept Roman alive for the remainder of my time in Liberty City.
But that didn't quite sit right, did it? For Niko to bop around the city with Roman in tow, calling up Little Jakob and Packie to have drinks, doing stunt jumps and killing pigeons without a care in the world? After all that talk about how he'd lost his soul, after causing so much death and destruction, after having (or rejecting) his hollow revenge on Brevic and losing his last reason to be in America? This man deserved to be punished, to have the cruel masters he had served turn on him just like they turned on John Marston a hundred years earlier.
So now we come to it - how I think Grand Theft Auto IV should have ended. It actually wouldn't surprise me if somewhere among the copious amount of great critical writing that GTA IV has inspired, others have proposed something similar. I believe that the story's themes all but explicitly call for this type of ending, and I wouldn't be surprised to learn that some version of it lies crumpled in a corner of the Houser's writing-room, a first draft deemed too dark for a multi-million-dollar mainstream action game. But even if that's the case, I still wanted to share, because it's the ending that I feel Niko deserves. Here goes:
After the bank heist in "Four Leaf Clover," Niko is set for money but still can't escape the untouchable Russian mobster Ray Bulgarin. As much out of necessity as anything else, Niko gets in deeper and deeper with Bulgarin's syndicate while performing a series of increasingly awful tasks, the last of which involves him doing something truly, impossibly horrible - say, destroying a hospital to silence a witness. Niko pulls off the job but in the process kills scores of innocent people. It proves to be too much even for him and his soul is finally, irrevocably shattered. In his anguish he tells Kate what he has done, and she leaves him.
Over the same period of time, Roman has begun to develop a penchant for cocaine and has continued to gamble away the money Niko has earned working for Bulgarin. Perhaps at one point, players would mysteriously lose several hundred thousand dollars, only to get a call from Roman apologizing and promising to win it back. But while lying to Niko about being reformed, Roman has gotten so far into debt with Bulgarin's people that there is no longer a way out. After one of Bulgarin's enforcers comes after Roman for payment, he calls Niko for help. Niko arrives just in time and kills the man, only to realize that it was Bulgarin's own brother.
After a revenge attempt destroys Niko and Roman's Alderney apartment and claims the life of their friend Little Jakob, Bulgarin calls Niko with a final offer: Niko can either execute his own cousin or both Niko and Roman will be hunted down and killed. Players are given a 48-hour deadline as two icons appear on the map - a red gun over Roman's safehouse in Alderney and a red gun over Bulgarin's warehouse in East Hook.
If players choose to go to go to Bulgarin, they will fight their way into a warehouse, where they are surrounded and attacked. There is no way to escape the building and no end to the waves of enemies. Eventually Niko is killed... and the game ends. No post-credits exploration, no epilogue, no way to reach 100% completion. By refusing to bow to power, players must sacrifice their own gaming ambitions.
There is no way out of this choice. Waiting until after the 48-hour deadline will result in endless waves of Russian goons chasing Niko until he is permanently killed. The only way that Niko can continue to peacefully exist in Liberty City is by the grace of those in power, and the only way to earn that grace is to commit the unspeakable act to which the story has been building all along. Niko must kill Roman, the one person in his life who has always been there for him; the one person who has always betrayed him.
Wouldn't That Have Been Badass?
I certainly think it would've been. But more than that, it wouldn't have even come to mind had it not been for Red Dead Redemption, and that fact alone that makes me pretty hopeful about the Housers' future games. Upon revisiting GTA IV, I'm awestruck by their ability to build a world and use it as the foundation to tell a story, and after seeing the ingenious ways they broke their own rules in RDR, I'm sure I'm not the only one who holds out hope that their first true masterpiece is but a few years away.
In the meantime, I'll leave you with another groovy illustration by deviant art maestro Patrick Brown. It's a tribute to all the characters, places and events of the Grand Theft Auto IV saga, and it's worth enbiggening to see full-size.
Imperfect though Niko's story may have been, I still feel that GTA IV was an unprecedented work of interactive fiction and a hell of a cool game. I can't wait for the next one.