Niko Bellic is a man frozen in place. When he arrives in Liberty City, he’s alone, destitute, and alienated, but hopeful for a brighter future that seems, if only for this moment, attainable. When the credits roll on Grand Theft Auto IV, though, he’s the same—sans the hope. He might have earned some money, doing things he’d rather not discuss, and a few houses to his name off the backs of those he’s killed. But he’s gained no status and no real place to call his own, just a ledger of ugly acts and the untimely deaths of people he’s cared about. Niko Bellic’s story is a cynical one, Rockstar’s blatant evisceration of the American dream from the perspective of an outsider for whom that dream has no place.
Rockstar’s approach to this theme has varied over time, however, and Grand Theft Auto—as much as it is a series that values anything beyond cheap laughs and vehicular manslaughter—has oscillated in its view and use of the aspirational fantasy at the heart of so much of the Americana it skewers. Grand Theft Auto IV feels like a grim repudiation of the dream of finding self-made success in even the darkest places, but at times, this is a fantasy that GTA has emulated and encouraged. The absence of certain elements of that fantasy—particularly the economic mobility and entrepreneurial opportunities afforded to players in both Vice City and San Andreas—speaks almost as loudly as any other element of Niko’s story.
Take Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, Rockstar’s ’80s Miami pastiche, for example. By the end of the game, you’ve toppled a drug cartel, replaced it with your own, and now everyone in Vice City fears the name Tommy Vercetti. What are you going to do with your free time and mounds of cash? Why not go straight and start up a legit business, like a cab company or something? You have the money, after all, and the entrepreneurial skills to bring a business—a black-market business, at least—back from the brink. A cab company, a film studio, even a print shop—with a few down payments, these businesses become the property of Vercetti LLC, and you can spend time revitalizing them and making them profitable. Each business starts netting you cash, which you can drive around town and pick up in the form of ostentatious gold dollar signs peppered around the map.
The property management process, which typically features a purchase and a few missions before rewarding you with an infinite cash supply, reappears in an expanded form in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, and while the path is a bit rockier for Carl “C.J.” Johnson than it is for Tommy, it’s fundamentally the same. As C.J., you slowly work your way up through the ranks, starting as a lowly gangbanger in Los Santos before an unexpected exile has you going into business with your sister’s boyfriend and opening a car wash/chop shop. Eventually, you can invest that money in a shop run by David Cross and, from there, a variety of other businesses around San Andreas. Before long, you return to Los Santos in glory, claiming a mansion on the outskirts of the city and working as a manager for a hip-hop star.
Both games present this escapist entrepreneurial fantasy, casting you as the ultimate criminal turned venture capitalist. It’s satirical, sure—a dark take on the small business owner that suggests the only way to get rich in America is to murder bushels of people—but it’s an unrepressed, joyous satire. Tommy and C.J. are your monsters, and you get to revel in their success. Your little pieces of property dotting the map illustrate your progress in a concrete way, and your infinitely growing bank account is freeing, particularly after the scrounging for ammo and cars that always occurs in the first few hours of these games.
What’s more, managing properties helps forge an even greater connection to the games’ cities. One of the principle joys of any GTA is driving around, enjoying the scenery, and getting to know the ins and outs of Rockstar’s meticulously crafted urban environments. Buying up businesses is a way to create pockets of space in these cities that belong to you. You’re investing that much more intimately in these virtual places and fostering a sense of belonging. C.J. and Tommy aren’t just digital tourists taking road trips around their respective cities to admire the scenery. They are participants: business owners inspecting their handiwork and collecting the fruit of their labor.
But no such opportunity to look down from atop the mountain of your ill-gotten gains waits at the end of Niko’s journey. The property management was excised as part of the general paring down of Grand Theft Auto IV that saw unnecessary distractions removed to refocus on Niko’s character and the realism of his grimmer, grimier Liberty City. At first, it was a distressing absence—the removal of a key component of Grand Theft Auto’s identity and the experience of playing it. But ditching the property management feels more intentional than, say, the loss of the truck driving mini-game or any of the other odd jobs that got cut in the leap to the next generation of consoles. GTA4’s Liberty City is a far less hospitable place than any of the previous locations, and the loss of the property management is a huge part of why—nothing in that cruel facsimile of New York City ever feels like it’s yours. But then, nothing in Liberty City ever feels like it’s Niko’s, either.
Grand Theft Auto IV might be the pinnacle of GTA’s attempts to be something more than a city simulator peppered with random violence and dick jokes. It’s a tragedy—the story of an immigrant who can find no place for himself in America and loses most of what little he cares about. Niko never becomes a business owner or rises to the top of the pack, because how could he? The loss of the property management from its endgame is symbolic of the closed doors that surround Niko Bellic. His story rends the entrepreneurial fantasy of Vice City and San Andreas, their ironic celebration of upward mobility turned into a doubting of the American dream’s basic principles. Sometimes success is simply out of reach, and often violence just rewards you with more violence. The structures that close Niko in, combined with his own violent past, keep freedom permanently out of his reach. That makes for a less satisfying game. It also makes for a more honest story.