How Rockstar's Vision of America in 'Grand Theft Auto IV' is More Relevant Than Ever

How Rockstar's Vision of America in 'Grand Theft Auto IV' is More Relevant Than Ever

Niko Bellic from 'Grand Theft Auto IV' Glixel

An unlikely celebration of New York that subtly acknowledges the power of invitation and inclusion

An unlikely celebration of New York that subtly acknowledges the power of invitation and inclusion

Grand Theft Auto IV might seem an unlikely defender of the poor and the tired. It is, after all, part of a series that trades principally in violence, a series about young men in brutal pursuit of power, and about internet cafes called 'Tw@' – but it also knows about despots. Way back in 2001 Grand Theft Auto 3 introduced Donald Love, a New York billionaire, property magnate and Donald Trump-analog who runs for office only to be brought down by corruption. It knows about borders and walls, too, with its ever-more-realistic recreations of American cities gated by barricaded bridges – a restriction blamed in 2008's Grand Theft Auto IV on fears of terrorist attacks. Above all though, it understands the importance of immigrants to America's past and present: GTA IV – which is now playable on Xbox One thanks to being added to the backwards compatibility catalog – is a New York epic about a modern migrant's journey.

This shouldn't really be a surprise. Rockstar makes games about America, its back catalog is an archived exploration of the culture and geography from the perspective of Sam and Dan Houser, British creative leads so fascinated with it that they both moved there. GTA IV and GTA V are set in cities that reflect the country and its possibilities: one the landfall of European immigrants, the first staging post of the American dream, and the other its complicated culmination. Red Dead Redemption, Rockstar's Western-themed period take on the GTA formula, was released between the two in 2010 and sits in the middle, in a fictionalized Southwest, catching the notion on its way to V's brutal parody of LA. Those three games together make a perfect trilogy about America as both a place and an idea – they're games obsessed with space and geography, and in love with a land of open-armed opportunity.

GTA IV is the beginning of this cycle, and the end of another. Released in April 2008 on a still-new generation of consoles, it's a clean break from the PlayStation 2-era Grand Thefts that made Rockstar the coolest publisher in the world. They were the first to deliver that sense of constant amazement that's now fully part of the GTA experience, derivative stories and flimsy controls unable to touch our gleeful disbelief at these three-dimensional worlds, and all the things they let us shoot and drive over. GTA IV's redesigned New York stand-in Liberty City retains this sense of wonder but moves on from punkish cartoon playgrounds to a more serious study of a city. It was GTA, but grown up.

GTA IV is a tribute to New York, itself a scarcely plausible few square miles of human achievement. And, in lovingly recreating and celebrating the city, it also celebrates those humans who made it possible. It's no accident that the first trailer for GTA IV was a pastiche of Godfrey Reggio's Koyaanisqatsi, a film comprised of two hours of stunning photography that stares open-mouthed at the impossible density of modern civilization. Cribbing the film's rhythms and timelapses is a perfect Rockstar moment, one that looks at the terrible power of the city and says "We have made one of these." The music is perfect, too: of all the tracks from Philip Glass' Koyaanisqatsi soundtrack, the trailer uses "Pruit-Igoe" – named for the vast Modernist Detroit housing project we see demolished in the film – an extended anxiety attack at the relentless size of man's engineered ambitions.

Of course, it's tempting to see that trailer as a typical, swaggering Rockstar play – a style-over-substance "fuck you" to middling game trailers. But really it's another demonstration of just how well GTA IV gets New York. There are smart choices all over the game's soundtrack – New York artists from Gil Scott-Heron to LCD Soundsystem played on stations themed around the musical movements that have defined how the city sounds. But there is something especially right about putting Glass front and center, a composer who drove cabs across town in his early career, writing music through the city's sleepless nights to be performed in converted industrial lofts in SoHo. His music is as close to a measured heartbeat of the city as it's possible to get – jagged, frantic, alive – and the game is never better than during those nighttime drives to do unspeakable things while Glass' music sounds like an alarm through the stereo.

Glass has something in common with GTA IV's leading man Niko Bellic, too. Like so many who helped shape New York, Glass' family were immigrants, and his Lithuanian parents made the same journey from Eastern Europe to New York that Niko takes at the start of the game (though they probably weren't running from a gang of human traffickers). In taking Niko as a hero, GTA IV tells one of the oldest of New York stories, one of fresh-off-the-boat beginnings and a brickwork Brooklyn neighborhood, with specifics updated to reflect the modern city – the Yugoslav conflict rather than a world war, Russian and Albanian crime networks replacing Italian.

The obvious question about Niko, like any GTA protagonist, is whether there's anything to actually celebrate in his trail of destruction. Niko himself is both likeable and unashamedly merciless, which is exactly as he has to be. He kills easily and often, but he's also dry and dauntless, and so very tired of doing bad things. GTA IV is too smart a machine to let let us simply have at the world and feel fine about it – the genius of Niko is that he gives us a reason to participate in violence while leaving us room to feel ambiguous about it. "War," he tells his cousin Roman, "is where the young and stupid are tricked by the old and bitter into killing each other." There are, of course, many immigrant histories that are not defined by violence. But violence is the only language that GTA speaks, at least fluently, its only way of articulating the story of a man like Niko.

In other words, GTA IV doesn't try to sell an optimist's dream of America. Niko arrives to a nothing apartment and finds his cousin's boasts of riches are tightly-held self-delusions, but its faith in what America represents is somehow the stronger for it. The city itself, the constant unfolding marvel of GTA IV, is evidence of what those like Niko – the tired and poor – are capable of achieving. It is a clear-eyed view of a place welded together from multitudes, the alloyed strength of the melting pot. It's a game that celebrates a New York built by newcomers to a new world, its own immigrant story subtly acknowledging the power of invitation and inclusion. Now more than ever, that's a power worth remembering.