The feature of Grand Theft Auto 4 that was the most interesting was the disappointment both in human nature and more generally that runs throughout the game. The version of New York that Rockstar created this time around also held two other games. The Lost and the damned and The Ballad of Gay Tony which offer a similarly disheartening take on the human experience.
From the first moment that you arrive in New York into your cousin’s dismal bed suite and listen to his delusional exploits with women you know this is going to be a dark game. In a theme that reappears in Red Dead Redemption we learn again and again that people cannot fight their natures. Most of the rock star protagonists try to avoid killing and their natures. They choose to boringly ranch cattle or drive taxi cabs until they are inevitably drawn back into it all. (This is with the notable exception of Luis, in the Ballad of Gay Tony, who practically five minutes into the game is firing high powered weaponry at enemies in golf carts.)
Alongside this pessimistic view of human nature there is a sense in which all of the characters are trapped. Dwayne, a super clingy ex-con is a prime example. He lives in a run down apartment. He is usually alone but accompanied by one hobo friend if you elect to kill him during the game. He leaves depressing voice messages about missing your phone calls because he was in the shower. He tells you about how he cannot read or get a job and he tells you after one drinking session that you are his best friend. He also tells you that his girlfriend took advantage of him and that he thinks of ending it all.
At the end of these games there is further disappointment. In Red Dead that manifested as the suits or government forces deciding that you really were an anachronism and that there really would be no escape from the past for John Marsden. Niko Bellic finds that his attempts to escape his past will result in either his cousin or his girlfriend being tragically caught in the crossfire of a revenge attack during a wedding at the end of the game.
In The Lost and the Damned the GTA4 biker gang spinoff there is the same downer ending. The game began with your character bringing the gang in a more productive direction only to have the leader released from prison and return to chaos as the business model. The game is one long decline as you try to get on with the leader of the bike gang until he betrays you and you burn down the club hang out. This return to chaos and unfortunate turn of events for the number two man in an organization reminds me of this scene from Austin Powers 2 – The Spy who shagged me.
Furthermore it seems to be a trope of enemies that they all ultimately let you down. They never deliver speeches or explanations. There is none of the drama we crave but something of an anti-climax in every killing. In the Lost and the Damned the main antagonist, the leader of the biker gang, says nothing as you point a gun at him. He then taunts you and asks you whether you are waiting for a speech. The point being made seems to be that death offers no narrative explanation of antagonists motivations, no catharsis and no narrative closure.
In the case of Red Dead you come back as your son and hunt down Edgar Ross the man responsible for the death of your father. Not only is he unrepentant but he suggests that it was John Marsden’s nature and actions in life that got him killed. So not only is there no emotional relief in killing Edgar Ross but a dramatic reinforcement of the same idea that one cannot escape one’s nature. The death of his father did not provide relief in the sense that his way of life is being carried on by his son.