I'd never played a Grand Theft Auto before. I mean, I understood the draw, but ever since I'd played Mafia, I felt no beckon to follow The Sopranos through an open-world Manhattan de-make. Wise guy this, blip-blap that. The whole rigamarole sounded like a chore, really. On top of that, my new girrrrrrrrlfriend and I clearly had better things to do.
So I bought GTAIV. It was finals week, and my classes were either easy or easy to ignore, so I found myself with actual days-worth of time to give to Liberty City. I started the game, and she sat down on the futon, now folded out for the... let's say eighth day in a row. Man, I loved that futon.
She wanted to study, and I wanted to procrastinate the night away with GTAIV. She was supportive, though, so she stayed and studied near me while I got ready to steal cars and smash storefronts. Keep in mind, neither of us were well-versed in the delicate dance of courtship at this point, and I was (not to put too fine a point on it) a total tool.
I'm not sure if it was the accent, the allusions to war, or the bad facial hair, but she was immediately entranced by Niko. What anthropology student wouldn't be? His aimless violence, his gauche cursing, his repeated references to involvement in a military conflict. He made the perfect case study for Western apathy to Eastern European power struggles. And he bowls!
It turns out that Rockstar wrote Niko to be "from that gray part of broken-down Eastern Europe, a war-torn area," meaning that his nationality was created intentionally indeterminate. That didn't keep gamers from posting about this question back in 2008, or from making claims about his "deliberately unspecified Balkan ethnicity". And it didn't keep her from wanting answers.
She asked, "Hey, so... where is Niko supposed to be from?" I think she was looking at me.
"Unno," I grunted, eyes on Niko.
"Well, his accent sounds Serbian," she came back, "but, if he was involuntarily drafted into the military, then he must have grown up in..."
I threw a grenade into the intersection and three cars exploded. "Uh-huh," I said, eyes on Niko. I had fallen in love with him too.
By the time I started running missions for Ray, we had a full-blown love triangle on our hands. In an attempt to involve herself in my interests, she'd taken to the Niko's roguish charm and clouded history. In trying to involve myself in anything but work, I'd found a best-of-both-worlds scenario: chasing Niko's revenge target and getting credit for time with my girlfriend. Niko laid down for just about anyone.
It doesn't sound like it, but that may have been the high point in our relationship. I still cared about the campaign, Niko's one-liners were still flying, and she was still there with me. I wish I had noticed the warning signs earlier, or been good enough to listen. Niko was trying to tell me something.
I think she felt the same way. It had become clear that Rockstar didn't want us to know exactly where Niko was from. She gave an exasperated guess — Serbo-Croatian — and just like that Niko was just another thug in her boyfriend's control.
Meanwhile, Niko had finally exacted revenge and was free to live the American dream in full. He'd become a rich man over the last... what was it, three days? He could retire to his penthouse and live out the remainder of his days in peaceful seclusion. He wasn't built for that, and I knew it.
With the compelling force of a narrative behind me, I think she expected me to break things off with Niko. But something kept me coming back, and it wasn't the sense of discovery that had permeated the rest of the game. A destructive impulse had me in its grips, and GTAIV had all the tools to exercise that demon. The civilian casualties numbered in the thousands.
Before the end of the week, I had one of those moments where I realized what had happened and how I got there. I'd let Niko, rather GTAIV, become one of our only points of common interest, and our relationship was in shambles. I found myself caring for him less and sensing my real broken relationship more. When I started hijacking choppers and base jumping (remember, this is prior to The Ballad of Gay Tony's wingsuits) just so I wouldn't have to stop playing and face the music, I knew that I had to end it with him.
At least we were there and not in some facade, not in Niko's hollow American dream, shadowboxing a sadness by turning to distractions for solace.
And when both of our interests in Niko were spent, when I managed to peel my gaze from Liberty City to turn and see a lonely pair of eyes staring back at me, I felt a kind of relief. Now, instead of destroying a city, I would have to start rebuilding a friendship, but at least we were there and not in some façade, not in Niko's hollow American dream, shadowboxing a sadness by turning to distractions for solace.
Ok, so it wasn't as dire as I make it sound. With Niko aside, she and I did find ourselves in a fractured relationship, one that would continue in disrepair for another year before we called it quits, but we were talking. GTAIV, of all things, had taught me how to be a little less selfish, though I didn't hear it at first. Later, I would be able to look back on that period of denial with a healthy perspective.
I have been single ever since.
Image credit [GTA Wiki]