Miss Opportunity

Grand Theft Auto 5, the true death of satire, and giving audiences what you think they want

Gta statue of happinessI have a… troubled relationship with the Grand Theft Auto series.

I initially took the easy out and just dismissed it as glorifying violence and misogyny. Then, a friend at EA managed to convince me that it was actually satire. Once I knew it wasn’t just morally reprehensible garbage, that started a years-long cycle of masochism: I’d dismiss the latest release, get sucked into the hype around it, buy a copy, play around 5-10 hours of it, and be disappointed once again that the series promises much more than it actually delivers.

The huge game world inevitably turns out to be filled with facades. The people of the city are just automata, and the playable characters are paper-thin cliches taken directly from an early 90s C-tier action movie. The open world of activities turns out to be just a series of races and shallow mini-games. All the technology behind the game (not to mention the music!) is genuinely astounding, and the first hour or so of being able to drive around a real place is exhilarating. But a shallow narrative soon asserts itself over the “open-world gameplay.” The whole experience feels like having to spend dozens of hours in a beautiful world with the kind of people you wouldn’t want to be caught two minutes in an elevator with.

At this point, the whole notion of being outraged over GTA‘s amoral quagmire seems laughably quaint. It’s like holding a vigil after walking down the sidewalk and seeing the word “penis” scrawled into the concrete. The GTA series has been lapped by all the imitators it spawned, if not in scope, then in ridiculous over-the top gameplay and drummed-up controversy.

It’s “satire” only in the same way that people say simple-minded crap and then proudly call themselves “politically incorrect.” It’s a way to still revel in stereotypes and then get away with it by claiming it’s skewering American culture. The new game’s launch page shows a bunch of the most stale and shallow “Isn’t LA phony?” gags. Walking through Liberty City and seeing an internet cafe called “Tw@” doesn’t deserve a scandalized “Well, I never!” so much as a disappointed, “Come on. Really?

GTA V: Sausage Party

Of course, there’s got to be controversy when hundreds of millions of dollars in marketing budget are involved. (And of course, I’m as complicit as anyone else by leaping into the conversation with my opinion). In the case of GTA 5, the controversy is over the fact that for the first time, the game now has three protagonists, but still not one of them is female.

The complaints actually started a while back, when the format of the game was first announced. I saw an essay online — I can’t remember where it was, and I’m not that inclined to dig up a link since the essay itself was frankly pretty dumb — where the writer said she really wanted to play GTA 5, but was refusing since Rockstar had once again refused to include a female protagonist. In 2013!

To be clear, I’m entirely behind the call for more female representation in games. Everyone should be; it’s trivially true, not even a question of debate. To the ridiculously over-defensive boys, man-children, and lazy women who act as if something that’s not a problem for them couldn’t possibly be a problem for anyone else: please, remove yourselves from the conversation, and let the grown-ups talk. Previously on Spectre Collie, I pointed to an article that showed why diverse representation isn’t just “The Right Thing To Do,” but it makes pragmatic sense: it’s not some arbitrary quota imposed on creative types; more diverse representation means better characters because there are fewer tokens having to represent their entire race/gender/orientation.

Still: saying that you won’t buy the game because there isn’t a female main character seems less like a statement and more like a tantrum. For better or worse, GTA 5 already exists, so a protest isn’t going to change that game any more than it’s going to insert a female protagonist in Drive or The French Connection or Grendel. If you really want to play the game, then just play it. I’m typically in support of boycotts as a personal statement, but I’ve always assumed that statements were reserved for when actual malice was involved. I don’t believe that the lack of a female protagonist in GTA 5 is malicious. It’s just kind of dense and lazy.

The Softer Side of Hooker Killing

It’s all based on the assumption, this is just how these kinds of stories work. It’s the “institutionalized” part of “institutionalized sexism.”

As I’ve admitted before, I can be just as dense as anyone else about this kind of thing. When I first heard the complaints, I couldn’t get all worked up about it. Of course I’d like to see better female characters in games, but are we really looking to the Grand Theft Auto series for those characters? Of course a woman can be every bit as awful and maladjusted and violent as a man. But so what? As long as we’re choosing our battles, do we really want to make our battle cry, “I can kill hookers just as well as any man!”

I’ve changed my mind. Most obviously, I was getting sucked into the same line of thinking that creates Strong Female Characters. It’s relegating the question of diversity to the ghetto of “you ladies are much too classy for this shit.” But the problem is actually even more subtle than that, and I didn’t realize what exactly was going on until I read a series of Twitter messages by Rhianna Pratchett.

To start with, she made it absolutely clear that it wasn’t a demand for a female character, so much as lamenting a missed opportunity. (And since she’s committed the double crimes of being a woman and being the daughter of someone famous, of course there was no shortage of morons trying to be dismissive, or making her comment out to be the exact opposite of what she was actually saying. Seriously, guys: grow the hell up). By introducing three separate protagonists, GTA 5 is ostensibly about seeing the world through different perspectives. So wouldn’t it have simply been more interesting to include a perspective different from what the games have shown us before?

And there’s even more to it than that: even before the introduction of three protagonists, the series has always been about dropping the player into a world that should be completely alien to them. A lot of talk is made about the open world playground of the GTA games, but really, your freedom is within very narrow parameters. You’re never presented with a choice of whether you’ll be an antisocial murderer; the only choice is how you’ll do it.

So the question isn’t, “Why would women want to be doing all this awful stuff?” like I’d originally assumed. The real question is, “Why would anyone?” Not in the sense of being prudishly dismissive of the games, but in the sense of actually analyzing the appeal of them. That appeal is the opportunity to be transgressive: it’s not an outlet for our inherent desire to murder people and crash into stuff; it’s an explicitly fictional playground where the rules are completely different from our real lives.

Which means that if you’re claiming that the game is in any way aspirational, or that the nature of it demands male characters, or that players wouldn’t be able to identify with a female character, what you’re actually saying is this: male players have an easier time identifying with rapists and murderers than they do identifying with women.

Which is gross.

Are You Not Entertained?!

Screen Shot 2013 09 11 at 5 23 30 PMThe most recent round of complaints about Grand Theft Auto 5 were encouraged by this interview with Dan Houser in The Guardian. Houser voluntarily acknowledges the complaint that there are no female protagonists — and seriously, give him credit for not just trying to act like the question is dismissible and doesn’t need to be addressed — but he answers by saying:

Houser is very direct and has strong views on […] the lack of playable female characters (“The concept of being masculine was so key to this story”)

And that’s a huge cop-out.

It’d only make sense to say that “hyper-masculine” action stories are incompatible with female protagonists if we were all living in some bizarre alternate universe where Kill Bill didn’t exist. It’s not even some obscure counter-example; if you’re trying to make some claim about action stories, or trying to pass it off as a pragmatic argument that male audience just won’t accept female leads, then Kill Bill is the elephant in the room.

It’s even harder to swallow when you look at the character descriptions for GTA 5. One of the leads is a low-poly Michael Madsen-as-Tony Soprano who’s having to adjust to domestic life after a lifetime as a career criminal. So, pretty much like Vivica Fox’s character. And a suburban mom fending off attacks with a box of her kid’s cereal sounds a hell of a lot more interesting to play than the old stereotype of a gangster with a shrewish, over-privileged wife. (Every description of “Michael’s” character that I’ve read mentions his wife yelling at him. Which sounds… fun?)

Or there’s “the volatile individual that’s prone to destructive outbursts and violent rampages”, but who, I can’t help but notice, is a schlub in a T-shirt and not an eyepatch-wearing psychopath wearing a nurse’s uniform.

Sure, having playable characters in games that represent the actual diversity of the audience of the game simply makes sense. But the more compelling argument is that it’s simply more interesting.

I’m kind of baffled by this Polygon article about GTA 5 that takes all of Houser’s claims about innovation at face value. It kind of reads like the millennial mass-market newspaper columns with titles that had puns on “Cyber” or “Byte”, that wrote about Second Life and breathlessly described it as a “virtual world” in which your “avatar” could do anything that human imagination allowed. While in reality, those of us who actually played video games could see that none of this stuff was all that novel or transgressive.

Instead, everything that I’ve seen and read about Grand Theft Auto 5 makes it look like the textbook example of a franchise that’s been the victim of its own success. When you’ve got hundreds of millions of dollars poured into a project, you become risk-averse. You market towards this imaginary audience comprised entirely of Beavis and/or Butthead. Of course those guys exist, and as we’ve seen, they’re extremely vocal. But that’s exactly the opposite of what you should be doing with such a huge franchise: including more diversity in the story doesn’t limit the audience; it expands it.

And being risk-averse, sticking with the expected, is absolutely deadly to satire. The casual, Flintstones-era misogyny isn’t actually shocking; it’s tired. Taking pot-shots at new-age types and liberals isn’t challenging; it’s more like an old MAD Magazine parody of a comedy movie, a cartoon of a cartoon. Putting a cup of Hot Coffee in the hand of the Statue of Liberty isn’t insightful commentary on the video game industry, and giving it the face of Hilary Clinton isn’t political satire.

If anybody knows about snickering, self-satisfied, juvenile humor in video games, it’s me. But the trick, I believe, is acknowledging it as gleeful idiocy, and not trying to pass it off as multi-layered commentary.

So I’m skeptical that the people at Rockstar are actually trying to make satire with the Grand Theft Auto games; I think it’s more just a disclaimer. It’s to acknowledge that they’re not taking any of this seriously. And I don’t think that the proper reaction to the lack of a female protagonist should be condemnation but disappointment. The game looks cool (and to be clear: based on the screenshots alone, I’m still likely to buy it, and likely to be disappointed at the story), so it’s a drag that all this time and effort was put into something that doesn’t try to show us anything new or surprising.

It’s not a demand or a protest, but just a question: you’ve got a huge blockbuster that’s inevitably going to reach an audience of millions of people. Shouldn’t you be taking it more seriously?

14 thoughts on “Miss Opportunity”

  1. I could not agree more about how much I’d like to play a GTA game in which the main character was Vernita Green. Perfect world, Rockstar would turn Los Santos over to the Fullbright Company for DLC. Let someone else tell a story with the amazing sandbox they always build. Wouldn’t even have to involve auto theft, honestly.

    The single best thing about GTA IV was the city, which, facades or not, felt lived-in and real; this is also going to be the most interesting thing about GTA V, as far as I can tell. They clearly spend a fortune on people who know architecture and urban planning. I guess it’s the Housers’ baby, but would it cost that much to stop hiring writers from the Kotaku comments section? Right now the amusing joke to I’m-so-embarrassed-for-the writer joke ratio is like 1 to 100. And I wouldn’t care, and neither would you, except they build such a beautiful world.

  2. I think I’m your opposite in that I’m predisposed to like a game set in New York over one set in Los Angeles. But still, some of these screenshots are overwhelming my better judgment and memories of past disappointment.

    The semi-tragedy of GTA is that as the technology improves, everything else gets worse. The pre-GTA 3 games made a commentary on agency and violence better than anything I’ve seen since, just because it was implicit in the game mechanics.

  3. I don’t want to hear feminists debate on the video game of the decade. Your debates on satire and depleted female roles are invalid. Play GTA Online if you want to walk around as a chick.

    1. Agreed. I don’t think a female protagonist is of any financial benefit to Rockstar. Everyone just looks for a venue to thrust their opinions. There are no minority characters? Lets complain. There are no women? Let’s complain. How many GTA fans actually want to play as a chick? GTA’s target audience is dudes so if you don’t like that and want equality, find it elsewhere. People are rather annoying. It’s never been a game about chicks so people should stop trying to mess with the formula. Why should Rockstar have to explain themselves for that?

      Actually this whole post seems like a whine-fest. If you don’t like the game/direction, play something else. I don’t like how people, rather than create their own content that suits their opinions/beliefs/interests, they attack the successful people who are creating the content that doesn’t suit them.
      When I don’t like something, I find something else.
      I’m black and I get very irritated when people want to turn established superheroes black. Or gay. If you can’t create heroes of your own that fit into your demographic then just stop.
      I was playing some Tony Hawk Pro Skater and I wanted a black custom character and when I found the game didn’t allow me to create one, I tossed it in the bin and started playing Pro Evolution Soccer. STOP WHINNING!!!

  4. Kudos to you, sir, for being brave enough to speak your mind! Anonymously. On a low-traffic personal blog.

    But anyway: Seeing the goofy responses to this post — like that one and elsewhere — has given me an idea how much of the “controversy” around including over half the world’s population in a video game is rooted in just plain defensiveness. GTA fans don’t want anybody talking shit about their game, but they especially don’t want anything to change.

    What’s ridiculous is how easy it is to get it all right, and people still just refuse to do it. They act like it’s imposing some draconian set of rules that’s going to suck all the fun out of a game, when it’s really as simple as making a character that’s different from the exact same thing you see in 10000 other games. Again, Saint’s Row IV did it, and I don’t get the impression it’s a feminist treatise.

    On one side you’ve got people saying, “see if we can add a female character; it’s easy and it makes the game 1000x more interesting because it’s something we’ve never seen before.” The other “side” is saying “OMG censorship nothing can ever change you’re destroying the community with your political correctness!” Who looks stupider here? Hint: it’s not the “feminazis.”

    Also: what the hell is a “depleted female role?”


  5. Hey Chuck,

    I spoke with you on twitter about your blog. I reread it (about 4 times) and why I do have issues with it, I want you to understand that I don’t disagree. I think it could have been easy for Rockstar to include a woman in the game. Hell, it would probably be the most interesting of options, like you said, but I think my ultimate issue with the blog is the fact that there could be an interesting ideas in the game we know very little about story-wise. Taking to task something that we haven’t experienced is often troubling to me, even if the previous entries in a series or franchise give us the idea that we may know what’s coming up. That’s simply unfair to the creators. Certainly we aren’t entitled to tell Rockstar what they want to do, that’s part of freedom of expression, but we can definitely suggest. Thanks for the discussion.

    Also, if and when you are correct after I play the game, I will definitely come back let you know.

  6. I guess I’ll have to be another. I get the frustration with most games being made by men for men. Tomb Raider written by the same Rhianna Pratchett is something I greatly enjoyed. Hell I enjoyed more than any of the GTAs. And I’d love for GTA to have had a female protagonist.

    However, “I’d love”, not a, “You’re doing it wrong.”

    I get it that it could at times probably feel, to a woman in a few specific games, like it would feel to me to walk into girls night out party with male strippers shaking their balls at me. I don’t want to be there. But I don’t have a problem with that specific party existing so I don’t agree with picking on specific developers doing things they like for their audience, who likes it too.

    A bunch of guys making stories about guys. That’s what they are and that’s fine. Not exiting for you, still exiting for many others. And if they aren’t doing something malicious why question them with such fervour.

    The collective outrage, to me, is not fine. I can’t shake the feeling of underhanded condemnation and implications of malice between the lines. “No we aren’t forcing any rules on you, of course not, but we are if you want to be presented as a decent guy not a coughmisogynistcough… we mean boring. Otherwise we will keep fixating on your gender choices. But we aren’t forcing you, of course not.”

  7. @DynamiteAdam: That’s why I was careful to point out that I was talking about the series as a whole and not just GTA 5. I’ve played all the major games in the series, and they’ve been consistent in tone; the biggest difference has been that Rockstar’s narrative gets more intrusive as the budget goes up.

    The only thing that would change or invalidate this blog post is if GTA 5 comes out, and it turns out that the story really does say something about the concept of masculinity, and it says it in a way that only three male protagonists can. But let me say that I’m extremely skeptical that’s going to happen. You do make a valid point that “skeptical” is not the same as 100% sure, but that’s why I go on about how they use “satire” in the rest of the series, and on the launch site for the new game — there’s no indication that they’re suddenly going to go for a major shift in tone or depth, any more than they’re going to stop including car chases.

    Even if I hadn’t played enough GTA to get what it’s about, there’s an even more obvious problem: if you’re telling a story about what it means to be masculine, and you’re introducing three characters with different perspectives, then including a woman protagonist just obviously has so much more potential than any of the stereotypes we’ve seen so far. Again, the “offensiveness” of it doesn’t bug me so much as the laziness. None of the characters as described sound interesting at all, like anything I haven’t seen 100 times before — if I get GTA 5, I’ll be buying it in spite of the characters, and not because of them. It’s just a huge missed opportunity and wasted potential not to include a character that makes me think, “Now that sounds like an interesting story.”

    If it does somehow turn out that Rockstar has managed to defy everyone’s expectations and tell a story with genuine depth that actually says something about “masculinity,” you better believe I’ll write about it on here. Not just as a retraction, but because that would be hugely exciting. I’m all about improving the state of video game storytelling, and if one of the biggest franchises in video games suddenly started to tell stories with more depth than a Fast and Furious movie, I’d be all over that shit.

  8. @Anon-2: First, that business about how calls for inclusivity are actually hidden accusations of misogyny: that’s exactly the kind of defensiveness I was talking about. It’s what turns pretty straightforward statements about the diversity of the audience and equal representation, into ridiculously hyped-up “controversies.”

    The internet’s a big place, so sure, you can find people who want to scream at Rockstar for being complicit in the patriarchy. Just like here in the comments, you can find guys killing time until their testicles drop by shouting “We don’t wanna play no chicks! No girls in the treehouse!” That’s how bell curves work, and I don’t want to be associated with either extreme.

    For the rest of it, I think you’re just missing the point. I have a lot of issues with the idea that creators have to make arbitrary changes to established characters, and I have for years. But there’s enough about that to fill another blog post.

    The difference here, though, is that the characters already feel arbitrary because they’re so lazy and predictable. Again, it’s: Goodfellas version of Tony Soprano, low-level black drug dealer, and white trash psycho. Anybody trying to argue for the artistic integrity of those characters has his work cut out for him.

    I saw somebody on NeoGAF getting all irritated that I brought up Kill Bill and I was “making demands” that Rockstar turn GTA into something that it’s not. Again, missing the point. The examples from Kill Bill show how you can make these characters 1000x more interesting without losing anything. It’s purely a win-win scenario, so why are people so threatened and intimidated by it?

    While I’m at it: same person on NeoGAF said that Kill Bill wasn’t about masculinity but a callback to 70s female heroes of exploitation movies. No, that’s Jackie Brown. Kill Bill has Uma Thurman wearing Bruce Lee’s tracksuit, for God’s sake. And Lucy Liu taking on a table full of male gangsters with a monologue about not questioning her authority. Of course it’s a movie about masculinity.

    The bigger problem, though: you’re making lazy assumptions about “Rockstar’s audience.” Just like Rockstar is. It’s 2013, we have to stop acting as if the video game audience is the same as it was 10 or even 5 years ago. Saying “it’s just not for you” is as dumb and arrogant as my “why would women even want to be represented in a GTA game?!”

    We’ve got dozens of examples of people outside the predictable 16-24-year-old male demographic — both women and men — saying, “Yes, we do want to play this game.” And you can’t sustain a game with a >$200 million dollar budget by playing to the same narrow audience over and over again. This isn’t like your titty bar example, where they can go on saying that they are just playing to some narrow audience. This is all but guaranteed to be the biggest-selling game of the year, and for better or worse, it’s going to represent “video games” in the mass media at large.

    You think that’s unfair? We should all be so lucky to be the victims of such injustice.

    So you’ve got people saying they want to play the game because it looks fantastic, but they’re either feeling excluded because all the women are nothing more than background objects. Or like me, they’re feeling excluded because the narrative is just willfully juvenile and stupid, but it still won’t shut up and just let me play. How and why would anyone be so arrogant to say that we just don’t matter? That we should play something else because this isn’t for us? That’s not even defensive anymore; it’s just plain aggressively assholish.

    This is the definition of an “I’d love” argument. Hence the repeated mention of “missed opportunity.” And that’s not mutually exclusive with a “you’re doing it wrong.” I’d love a game that was this pretty and this huge in scope, but that wasn’t so dumb and lazy.

    And again, the whole thing is stupid because it’s just so easy. Making a female lead character wouldn’t fix all the problems with the GTA series, not by a long shot. It’d still be a hell of a lot more interesting than what they’ve shown us so far. In fact, we should all be kind of embarrassed than in 2013, having a female lead character would be such an interesting novelty.

  9. I think it is sort of sad that off the top of my head, the last time a Rockstar game had a playable female narrative character was Red Dead Revolver from back in 2004, which was another story with multiple characters telling the same story.

    I was evangelical about the GTA series on the PS2 in the mid-2000’s, and in fact, GTA San Andreas was the reason I ended up getting a PS2 in 2005. I loved those games and I hyped them in much the same way that your friend at EA did… as these cunning works of satire, and in retrospect, I realize that I had set the bar really low. I still enjoyed playing them and it is fun to putter around in their environments, but really, as works of satire, they could have been a lot better. I played more games and had experiences beyond that box.

    I am a straight white male gamer in his mid-30s. I want to play more games as female characters, and I like having that option. I enjoyed Mass Effect, Dragon Age Origins and Saints Row The Third playing as a female character, and having experienced that as a consumer, I’d like more of that, and I think it is more than fair that potential paying customers should tell the people making things for them to buy that that is something they want is more than fair.

  10. I don’t know what people are really making a fuss about; I think a female protagonist would be fine and could have been done without much problem.

    I mean, as long as I’m still able to commit comical levels of high-speed vehicular manslaughter, assault and MDK, knifing old grannies and blasting cops with automatic weaponry, then the sex of the avatar I’m using to do so shouldn’t matter – a female will do the job just as well as a male.

    Oh and the story could be interesting I suppose, in between all of that.

  11. I agree with many points of this article but I can’t help but see more whining for not getting what you want more than anything.

    Might I ask should males be upset that skull girls does not have a male fighter? Or that perfect dark has no male characters?

    A story is a story, that’s why gta online has the option to make a female character.

    I would have loved to see a female protagonist in the main story, but I don’t see a reason to bash a story because there wasn’t.

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