The following article contains spoilers for GTA IV.
How does one define honour? It’s an abstract concept which has a definition that’s hard to pin down, but generally the notion of honour seems to relate to a person’s worth and their relation to the world around them. An honourable person looks after the people they care for and stands up for the good in the world. But what about the person who does dishonourable things to secure the safety and security of the ones they care about? Are they still honourable?
That brings us to Niko Bellic, the protagonist of Grand Theft Auto IV; he’s a thief, a murderer and a drug smuggler. However, despite these very accurate descriptions, Niko isn’t a bad man. In fact, he comes to America for the generally honourable notion to avenge his friends who died due to betrayal.
At this point Niko has the drive to succeed like his cousin in an honest way; he knows Roman is a business owner and he believes he can replicate that success. Of course revenge also motivates him but he knows through hard work he can become rich and successful. The American Dream is something everyone who goes there believes in, but only a few succeed, as Niko discovers when it is revealed that Roman is poor and in a mess. Yet Niko stays to help his cousin – it’s an honourable act.
However, Niko soon becomes embroiled in a world of crime. Naturally Niko isn’t a an innocent party when he looks to help Roman; after all he fled Europe after a crime gone wrong, but here he looks for a new start, a place to redeem himself – yet another honourable notion.
As we experience Niko’s journey, we witness a great fall; from the small act of throwing a brick through a window right up to flying helicopters through Liberty City’s skyline in an attempt to assassinate someone, it’s clear that this is the behaviour of a very dangerous man rather than a seemingly honourable one.
But it’s because of our relation to Niko that we have insight into why he does this – as players we witness a man who becomes trapped in a vicious, violent cycle which is only exacerbated by outside influences who use him as a tool.
Liberty City is a corrupt place where different gangs fight for control over the underworld; Niko only gets involved when he learns of Roman’s debts, so takes it on himself to help work out a compromise to save him. This compromise leads Niko to getting involved in some shady dealings that quickly spiral out of control leading to him executing Vlad, Roman’s loan shark. This execution leads the cousins down a much darker path as gangs take notice of this murder, leading to the men fleeing Bohan.
Left with nothing, Niko does whatever he can to make amends to Roman and so remains in the criminal world, because this is where he knows how to make money. Niko doesn’t want to struggle like Roman did because he saw how it almost destroyed his cousin; instead, he wants the big money quickly in order to build a good life. And with this, Niko accepts he is a criminal but he clearly isn’t happy with it.
There is the image of Niko as a hypocrite, complaining about violence while conducting a high amount of it, but during the main story we see a man that truly struggles with his decisions. He does not take pleasure in the crimes he commits, nor does he purposefully target innocent bystanders. Any time Niko ends up in a gunfight he is fighting for survival against people who are trying to kill him, though one can argue that in shootouts involving they police their reasons are justified.[drop2]Niko keeps climbing the criminal ladder, eventually rubbing shoulders with the Mafia and working with them. However, as his status rises so do the demands from all sides for him to do things for them. Of course, Niko can’t please everyone no matter how hard he tries. And then the fall comes.
This isn’t the fall of losing money or possessions but instead a psychological fall after Niko fails in the mission that means most to him: looking after the ones he cares for. Depending on how players respond in one of the final missions, Niko loses someone close to him – either Roman or Kate end up paying the ultimate price for Niko’s actions, losing their life as Niko lives on.
This is the biggest loss for Niko; he already proved he could come from nothing and make something of himself, so financial loss would have been a minor setback for him. But knowing someone he loved died because of his actions? There’s no way Niko can get over something like that.
Eventually Niko gets his revenge on the people who betrayed him and killed his friends and family, and it’s almost a throwback to the beginning of the story where he knew who to target for his revenge of losing his squad, though now he lacks the vigor he once had. He gets his revenge, he keeps his riches, but in the end Niko is a broken man – he doesn’t have a happy ending due to the loss of his loved ones.
Throughout GTA IV, Niko tried to act with some honour, but it becomes abundantly clear that such a notion is not an advantage in the criminal world. Even with his list of crimes including murder and armed robbery, Niko is still too honourable for the violent underworld of Liberty City.