Still Playing: Grand Theft Auto IV

Killing all the men in games has exhausted my senses and disintegrated my trigger finger. All Michael may hear is Radio Ga Ga in the latest GTA V trailer, yet the only din my ears are picking up are the constant wails of Liberty City wiseguys. Sandbox slaughter is the norm in the genre Rockstar has come to define. Digital murder peppers everything from Just Cause 2’s balmy peninsula to the relentless ‘homicide by anaconda-shaped sex toy’ in Saints Row: The Third. It’s why I’ve recently been drawn back to Niko Bellic’s downbeat tale. Thanks to an accidental revelation, I’ve found you can play the role of martyred peacemaker in GTA IV… albeit one who cripples a lot of folk.

At this point I must confess a smidge of an obsession for the 2008 open worlder. I’ve played through Rockstar North’s Rotten Apple adventure four times. It’s now reached the point where I feel so comfortable navigating its intensely familiar hive of sociopathic streets, I could draw you a mental map charting a taxi-stealing, pigeon-shooting, unique stunt jump-strewn journey through the Edinburgh developer’s twisted love letter to New York.

And yet somehow, I’ve only just realised you can spare enemies during a fifth run-through. Opt for the game’s manual aiming over the overly handheld lock-on system and you can merrily fill gangsters’ shins with a concentrated, incapacitating, but crucially non-lethal, dose of lead.

Reaching the graffiti-smeared corners of South Bohan roughly a third of the way through GTA IV, I flicked to the stats screen and was greeted by a welcome surprise. I’d ‘only’ killed 21 people. Now, this may seem trivial, but this numerical wrap sheet represented a concerted effort on my behalf to play the part of Niko The Merciful. By repeatedly forgoing the obvious headshot and shooting foes’ legs until they keeled over, I’d purposely spared two thirds of the virtual low-lives the game had forced me to fight.

The highlight of these ludicrously self-enforced attempts at murder-free play? A battle with Mikhail Faustin on the roof of his gaudy Perestroika cabaret club, which saw one of my knee-bound bullets send the Russian kingpin spiralling onto the rundown Broker streets below. Bizarrely, the game subsequently failed to register his death because of said tumble.  As Tom Cruise’s hitman in Collateral would coolly quip: “I only shot him, it was the bullets and that fall killed him”

No doubt you’ll think me mad, but dodging the role of death-dealer became hugely important to the in-game narrative I was painting. Namely, a tapestry where the body count was at least semi believable. Though Bioshock Infinite’s musings on the nature of fate were persuasive, any empathy I had for Booker or the perceived value of Elizabeth’s life was immediately torpedoed to pieces when I realised I’d killed over 350 people by the time I reached the frenzied Zeppelin finale.

Games pay little heed to the towering piles of corpses you amass. ‘Affable’ Nathan Drake slaughters more people than Jason Voorhees managed in a month of Friday the 13ths. In contrast, Elizabeth Báthory, a countess of 16th century Norwegian nobility and one of history’s most prolific serial killers, butchered a mere 80 souls. Hell, rebooted (supposedly reticent and vulnerable) Lara rifles through that grizzly tally within the first two hours of Tomb Raider. It’s not the morality of digital murder that bothers me, just the shredded credibility of the numbers involved.  Mired in martyrdom, this clawing desire for any semblance of believability is why I spared those hoodlums in GTA IV.

That the game can facilitate my esoteric madness is testament to Liberty City’s craft and detail. This is a metropolis that feels uniquely alive, with a level of believable bustle that transcends the dead-eyed civilians found in a Sleeping Dogs. A working internet allows you to browse wonderfully dark dating profiles. Bin men joylessly ferry around the regimented avenues of Algonquin on their morning rounds. While working, deeply satirical TV channels feel more apt than ever with their terrifying peeks into our reality-obsessed culture. Niko’s city exists irrespective of his presence, not because of it.

No, history hasn’t been kind to GTA IV’s antiquated, brazenly harsh lack of mid-mission checkpoints. Yet the game is imbued with a level of sharp personality that still readily glistens in the memory, half a decade on from its release. Personally, I’d rather cruise around Alderney listening to adverts for America’s Next Top Hooker in my banged-up Esperanto saloon than joylessly mow through balaclava-wearers in a hundred military shooters.

Though unabashedly silly in places, GTA IV feels relevant to our world like few other games. True, its often farcical caricatures of Eastern Europeans pining for the American Dream is drawn with the broadest of brushstrokes. But covering the subject of immigration at all feels vastly more pertinent to a medium striving to spin genuinely adult yarns than the generic galaxy-saving quests games love to send us on.

Like Metal Gear Solid 2’s tranq-happy escapades, GTA IV gives you a refreshing (if clandestine) scope to avoid playing the virtual Reaper. Now, if GTA V will just allow me to passively disarm dudes with gaming’s most adorable Rottweiler, I’ll really be set.