Nico and the Magic Phone

Let me tell you a story.

If you’ve played Grand Theft Auto IV before, it’s probably a story with a lot of parts you remember. Unwashed immigrant, off the boat, kills a lot of people for redemption only to figure out that there is no redemption in murder, only more murder. It’s a truly touching story broken up by random drive bys.

I like my version better, though: Unwashed immigrant, off the boat, finds a magic cell phone. He uses this phone to get through his missions in the most hilarious of ways possible, usually a rocket launcher, killing a lot of people for redemption in over the top vengeful ways, only to realize there is no redemption in murder, only more death. It’s the same touching story broken up by over the top violence.

My friends, there is no other way to play Grand Theft Auto IV other than to cheat.

Hardcore gamers tend to look down on cheating. I know myself, I didn’t want to cheat in the game because I wanted to play it pure, I wanted to play it with a modicrum of difficulty. Where’s the difficulty, where’s the fun in being able to kill anyone I want, to be able to heal myself to full health at any time?

The fact is, it’s almost more difficult to play GTA4 with cheats than without. Without cheats, you are cautious, poking your head around corners and taking potshots. You are driving the fastest, safest, most well balanced car, because you’re afraid of dying and having to replay so much of the level. With cheating, it’s different: suddenly, you start running into rooms with a rocket launcher. The bike becomes your mode of transportation because you can always get more health at the destination. Travel goes from being a chore to being the most fun part of the game, as you take every ramp, as you try to angle yourself properly in collisions with oncoming traffic to send Nico flying to the most satisfying voice acting in gaming.

It makes the game gleeful and chaotic, which is what open world games need to be to be engaging. It’s simply what was not engaging about Red Dead Redemption, where your actions felt consequential and the most chaotic you could feel was tooling around town lassoing individuals by the neck and dragging them behind your horse. In missions, there was no chaos.

What’s best is, the magic phone narrative does nothing to screw up the plot of GTA4; in fact, it makes it make even more sense. What would Nico Bellic, immigrant extraordinaire, do if he came to America with a magical cell phone that provided him with the strongest weapons and near infinite health? He’d want revenge. He’d use it to make scads of money for no purpose other than to have it, because his phone does not generate it. And he’d find the same hollow emptiness in murder than he did with lesser weapons, with lesser cars. He’d even have more fun on the way, which would just make everything more meaningful. They say that comedy only makes the punch at the end more real, and twenty hours of extreme fun are well countered by seconds of tragedy all powerful Nico could not prevent.

Cheating in Grand Theft Auto IV is the only way to play. Trying to play it normally just adds hours more busywork into a game already inundated by it, which bogs the whole experience down. It’s amazing to me that cheating wasn’t the natural form of the game, because it makes everything flow that much better. Rockstar seemed to expect everyone to cheat, and made a game that responded specifically to the player’s intention to mess with it, even when it doesn’t make sense. For instance, a lot of early missions are easily solved by having a rocket launcher, giving the game an entirely different pace. Instead of gradually ramping up car chases, you get the ability to end them before they begin. You even get an immediate six star rating if you go to any other island, which creates lots of little meta games that can be played. Trying to run the blockade to reach the butt end of Alderney is one of my favorites, along with flinging Nico from a helicopter to try to hit a car. Fantastic stuff, indeed.

That’s the fun of Grand Theft Auto IV: the things you create yourself. I’ve written recently about imagination fueling good game design, and it’s even more true in a game like GTA4 than it is in Portal. The easiest way to immerse a player in a world is not to try to make every detail as specific and interesting as possible, but instead to give the player the ability to play your game the way they want to, all the while guiding them to the conclusion you desire. While some might view a lack of focus, the mere giving the players the ability to go on a murderous rampage, as some sort of narrative dissonance, instead it’s providing the player the ability to live the game they want. The brilliance of GTA4 is that this sort of play is fun, but it also builds into the main structure of the narrative; what the player wants to do has been preempted by the developer, who want to let the player do what they want to do, but also want to build on what they know the player’s going to do in the space of the main narrative.

It’s a stark contrast to Red Dead Redemption, which allows you to kill hundreds of people and then denies your fun for the sake of narrative. Grand Theft Auto lets you revel in your fun, in Nico’s magic phone, but then understands that a good gaming narrative accepts your foibles and builds upon them, taking your penchant for mass mayhem and plays it off as a crucial part of the story being told. Good game narrative is not telling a story like a movie and letting the player press A through the action sequences, but rather taking the things the player does in scenes you set and then getting them for their actions. It’s what GTA4 does: it gives you power, and then tells you that power is not all there is to life. Power does not save the ones you love. Just because this power is obtained through a magical cell phone and not because of hard work does nothing to diminish the narrative: rather, it makes it more powerful, driving home the crucial point that no amount of things will ever fill the hole in Nico’s heart.

Nico’s magic phone, you could say, is canon. And I would say that it’s the only way to play. Even if it will hurt him, who could deny Nico the power of his phone? Even if we know the conclusion will be dire, who could deny a man who has the power to create anything?


  1. I need to give GTA4 another chance one of these days, but I hated the game. Personally, I wish I could have smashed the magic phone. Fuck the ‘friends’ constantly asking for help.

    Red Dead Redemption’s pacing is better, because missions only trigger when you want them to, but you are correct in saying that GTA’s game world (especially in how it interfaces with the narrative) is more malleable.

    I’d be really interested if Rockstar attempted a RPG with branching narrative. Instead, their games are a weird sandbox gameworld with a fixed narrative that you have no (or very little) choice over.

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