The very first dialogue by Niko in the very first trailer for the game sets up the first notable protagonist to be from another country, Niko Bellic, to enter the United States of America and make more critical analysis of American culture than previous main characters have done.
Grand Theft Auto IV‘s deeper meaning circulates around Niko‘s own philosophy, and his clear, blunt critiques of American culture and life in general make the deeper ideas much easier to see and understand. Niko is normally shown to be in the right, but is also proven to be overly cynical, leaving interpretation open to the viewer. The game and its very complex plot deals with several themes:
As read on the packaging of the game, Rockstar Games asks “what does the American dream mean today?”. Niko is cynical about America, saying “capitalism is a dirty business” and only people who are extremely greedy and/or born into wealth have any opportunity. Mikhail Faustin also laments before he dies that “America made him (Dimitri Rascalov) greedy! …This American greed takes everyone! It is like a disease!”. Niko mocks American stereotypes like “strip malls and clinical obesity”. On the flip-side Roman Bellic, as well as other characters (Brucie Kibbutz, Bernie Crane, Ivan Bytchkov and Hossan Ramzy among others) are optimistic about America and life in general, tend to do very well for themselves financially, and try in vain to encourage Niko to be more optimistic.
The American dream is also shown not to be promised to anyone, not even when they already live in America. Social circles all the way from Playboy X and Elizabeta Torres to Patrick McReary all have trouble making and responsibly saving money, not restricting it to any one nationality. Early on, The Beat 102.7 explains that their listeners “don’t know how to manage their money yet!”. Gerry describes his family’s spending habits as “Never any fucking focus! Never! …Oh yeah, wine and women as quick as possible, and remain a slave forever”. Packie eventually says after a mission “Well, Niko, that was a whole lot of effort for no fucking reward. Story of my life.” to which Niko replies “It is the story of a lot of lives, Packie. I’m getting used to hearing it”. A very interesting part of the in-game media is a show called I’m Rich, which documents the most outrageous displays of gluttony by the world’s wealthiest people, enough to make anyone feel inadequate.
Grand Theft Auto IV has an extremely complex plot with a very long list of characters. It is also the first game that allows the player to change the plot by making choices, which all have consequences. This creates an atmosphere where Niko is haunted and shadowed by his past actions wherever he goes. He tells Roman “There is no such thing as a new beginning, Roman. With every day we live, we pick up new baggage, baggage we must carry with us for the rest of our lives. There’s no dropping it and pretending we are fresh and clean, just because we get off a boat in a new place.” Prime examples include his numerous run-ins with Ray Bulgarin, most of the random characters, and working alongside Johnny Klebitz or Patrick McReary while he had, either by not having met them yet or circumstances beyond his control, killed someone close to them. In the finale, Niko feels the coffin of Kate or Roman, depending on the player’s choice, on his conscience because of his criminal lifestyle, saying they “never should have gotten close to me”. He is deeply depressed about being trapped in the criminal lifestyle (by a need of income), telling Kate McReary and others that he wishes he could leave it behind, but often adds that he knows he can’t.
- Niko Bellic: The playable protagonist, through whose eyes the player sees the world of the game. He is morally upstanding and logical despite his criminal life, but is often shown to have authority issues. He is also more cynical and pessimistic than is good for him. He seems to sort people into three categories:
- Roman, Little Jacob, Brucie Kibbutz, Kate McReary and Bernie Crane: The optimists, people Niko likes because of their positivity, and they all try in vain to encourage Niko to be more optimistic. Many are foolish and could be mistaken for comic relief, but they do offer pearls of wisdom about life and success, a realization that Niko must make at the same time. Other interesting cases are Ivan Bytchkov, and Hossan, both immigrants like Niko but with much more confidence in the American way of life.
- Patrick McReary, Gerald McReary, Derrick McReary, Dwayne Forge and Phil Bell: The pessimists, people Niko likes because they have angst that he instinctively responds to. Packie and Dwayne especially become friends of Niko because of their shared struggle; Niko confides in Dwayne remarkably early in their relationship and tells him “you remind me of me”. It’s also notable that he relates well to Jon Gravelli and his bleak sense of humor, despite an enormous age gap, other lifestyle differences and Niko‘s traditional dislike of his bosses.
- Vladimir Glebov, Dimitri Rascalov, Mikhail Faustin, Ray Bulgarin, Francis McReary, United Liberty Paper, Manny Escuela, Elizabeta Torres, Playboy X, Ray Boccino and Jimmy Pegorino: The corrupt, people Niko doesn’t like (or forced to take orders from) because of their greed or immorality. He had to take orders from all of them, considers killing most of them at least once, and inevitably kills about one third of them. This, combined with his dislike of capitalism, shows that Niko has authority issues and can’t stand corrupt people in power. With the exception of United Liberty Paper (who can be killed five years later in Grand Theft Auto V), Elizabeta (who ends up in jail) and only if spared Playboy X and Francis McReary, all of the corrupt end up dead.
- Mallorie Bardas, Karen, Jon Gravelli, Darko Brevic, Bryce Dawkins; other characters in the game.
- Michelle, Kate McReary, Carmen Ortiz, Kiki Jenkins and Alex Chilton; girlfriends Niko can date. Michelle and Kate are unlocked in the story mode; the other 3 must be met by the internet. Each girlfriend has their own opinions on what they would like Niko to drive in, wear and go to. The 3 online girlfriends can give Niko a special ability once he pleases them enough in quality and quantity of date.