How Niko’s intrusive phone grounds Grand Theft Auto IV in the modern world

Nico's-phone

This isn’t the only way in which the device is shared between player and avatar. When you change the background or ringtone on Niko’s phone, he doesn’t express any sort of enthusiasm over it. He doesn’t seem the type of person who gives a damn about these sorts of things, but the game realises that you might be. Call up 948-555-0100 and the folks at ZiT will identify the song playing on the radio, an action that can only possibly benefit you. The phone is also where you go to activate codes, both complicated (typing in long chains of numbers activates various cheats that disable your Achievements) and simple (call 911 if your car won’t start and the engine magically comes back to life).

This streamlines a process that was tucked away in the menus in the older games, but by using this device, it also means that you don’t have to leave the game world to make such changes. These codes are typed in on the screen space between the game world and the player; you’re within Liberty City as you alter it, and you never leave Niko behind, because mobile phones are all about being constantly connected.

Just as in the real world, the phone is a symbol as well as a communication device, and your social standing isn’t necessarily dictated entirely by your contact list. The protagonists of the Episodes From Liberty City expansions carry phones as well, and each one says something about the individual holding it. Niko’s final phone (designed by Whiz, a pastiche of various American mobile companies) is the sort of reliable but unspectacular prepaid model that was all but off the market by 2010. The Lost And Damned’s Johnny Klebitz still holds on to a beaten-up chunky phone, the kind designed to withstand a lot of damage. Meanwhile, The Ballad Of Gay Tony’s Luis Lopez has a touchscreen model that would have still been considered fancy when the expansion shipped in late 2009.

Niko’s phone is but a small piece of the American Dream he so desperately chases throughout the game, Johnny’s is a reminder of just how often he’s come off his bike, and Luis’s is fully in line with that expansion’s psychotic recession-proof opulence. Each portion of Grand Theft Auto IV has a lot to say about how these characters have interpreted their place in Liberty City, but you need look no further than their phones to get a good idea of where they stand.

For many, Niko’s phone was emblematic of everything that the Grand Theft Auto series had lost in its transition to the current console generation. The relationships that Niko mostly appreciates and enjoys, and the phone calls that come from them, can be a burden for a player who simply wants to gallivant around the city, joyriding and blowing up cop cars. But the phone is a reminder, too, that Niko isn’t alone in Liberty City, and that the city doesn’t belong to him, nor Johnny, Luis, or even you as the player. In a game where anonymous pedestrians can be mowed down with little repercussion, it’s the phone that best reminds us, and Niko, that we’re all connected.