Grand Theft Auto 5 is a masterpiece. The most recent iteration of Rockstar’s iconic series cost hundreds of millions and almost a decade to produce and the result is a culmination of everything the series have been driving towards. A massive world packed to the seams with detail, dozens of different mechanics and hundreds of hours of distractions to while away the hours. Its characters are a delightful mix of criminals, celebrities and psychotics, sometimes all in one individual, and the protagonists in particular are some of the most well realised main characters of the last gaming generation. However it’s not without flaws. While gameplay and visual glitches are to be expected in something with this many moving parts, there is a more troubling issue seemingly woven into GTAV’s fabric. How it deals with women.
Now before I go any further with this, I should throw in a couple of disclaimers. Firstly, I’m not trying to suggest that anything in GTA is morally wrong, should be banned, or that anyone who likes it is some kind of monster. As I said, I like the game tremendously. Nor am I trying to suggest that there is a link between seeing something in a video game and replicating it in real life. I’ve killed thousands of videogame enemies in my time, and relatively few actual people. And finally, I am not trying to suggest that it is the duty of a writer to change their story to fit in with mine or anyone else’s beliefs. Artists gonna art. And thirdly, I wouldn’t want to give the impression to anyone who hasn’t played the game that GTA is built with any kind of prejudice towards women. The game isn’t flattering to anyone. All the characters are unpleasant in one way or another and all ends of the political religious and moral spectrum are ruthlessly lampooned by Rockstar’s writers. With all that in mind, I’m simply pointing out what I find to be less than ideal elements of the game’s design and story.
So then, female characters. Well firstly, the decision to make all three of the game’s protagonists male is definitely a missed opportunity. Given that all of the previous games had a single lead character, you’d think that creating three would mean some attempts at innovation. But sadly Rockstar went for the safe option. Making any one of the GTA triptych female would not only have added some interesting diversity, it would have made the characters more interesting period. In place of Michael, Franklin and Trevor picture Michaela, Frances and Tricia – the angsty ex-criminal mother of two annoying children, and a vapid husband; the gang member trying to climb above her limited lot in life and the violent, meth smoking, teddy bear humping sociopath.
Wouldn’t any of those be more interesting than the characters we were given? Even before the game’s release Rockstar stated that the reason for not having female characters was because the plot of GTAV revolved so closely around male identity, but video games are already pretty well saturated with angsty man pain. From Bioshock Infinite to Gears of War, angry men with absent wives are an increasingly boring trope. And anyone who doesn’t think women aren’t just as capable as men when it comes to greed, anger and violence clearly hasn’t met any.
Then there’s the way that each of the characters relates to the women in their life. First off is Michael’s wife Amanda, who spends her time wasting their ‘ill-gotten gains’ on clothes (when she isn’t shoplifting) and having affairs with the tennis coach (and probably her yoga instructor), she’s depicted as yet another millstone around Michael’s neck. You’re supposed to believe that they love each other but they spend so much time hurling obscenities and sharp objects at each other that it’s a little hard to believe. Then there’s Franklin’s aunt Denise. It’s clear she regards her nephew as the sole remaining trace of her now deceased sister, that doesn’t stop her from treating him like dirt at every opportunity, going so far as to blame him for his mother’s drug problems. She also seems to think that as a ‘feminist’ her job is to constantly blame Franklin, and by extension all men, for all of her problems. Those parts of her dialogue are funny, until you remember that not only are there some people that agree with her definition, but others who think that those ‘some people’ are everyone who isn’t them. By comparison Trevor interacts with the women in his life in a pretty positive light, if only because he treats pretty much everyone he meets with the same blend of anger and sexual flirtation.
There is one final issue to raise, and it’s not something that’s part of the game’s story. In fact this problem isn’t specific to GTAV at all. It’s been present in all of the series other games, and it’s taken me a while to figure out quite why I take umbrage with it. Put simply, it’s the issue with prostitutes. Now there are several major news outlets that would have you believe that every GTA game is simply a platform for the corruption of today’s youth. As everyone from Fox News down is keen to point out, you can have sex with prostitutes, and then kill them! It’s like Sodom and Gomorrah, but worse, because it’s not in the bible.
People who’ve got more than three brain cells to rub together then usually rush to the game’s defence, pointing out that not only can you kill literally anyone you come into contact with in GTA, but the game never asks you too and more over there are consequences to doing it, e.g. police chases, bullets and/or death. But the slight flaw in the argument is that actually, it does reward you for killing sex workers. In game they provide a ‘service’ both euphemistic and literal. Having sex with them allows you to restore health but also costs you money. Killing them immediately after doing the deed, allows you to keep your restored health, but gets you back your money. It’s a small thing, and the game never encourages you to do it specifically, but given that videogames often rely on the player’s ability to exploit the systems they’re given, it’s a little troubling. The mechanic is present in plenty of games, but the health vendors in question are not usually a group of people who are systematically dehumanised and very often murdered in real life.
Imagine, if you will, a modern day sequel to L.A. Noire, where instead of having to question witnesses or examine evidence, you just have to find arrest and possibly ‘justifiably’ kill the nearest black person. And instead of punishing you in any way, the game simply applauds your commitment to realistic police procedure and gives you an A-rank. Have I overthought this unnecessarily? Probably. But I don’t think I’m wrong. (I mean of course I don’t, I just wrote a few hundred words about it and uploaded them to the internet. But you know what I mean)
As I said before, it’s not like anyone in GTA comes across particularly well. But in a game where there’s a large minority of women in any capacity, it seems a shame that none of them are people we were supposed to root for. It was by no means obligatory to have a female playable character or even a member of the cast who’s both fleshed out and in possession of some faintly redeeming traits, but it’s 2015. You’d think it might have been part of the conversation at some point. Ultimately it’s a creative choice and as such down to subjective opinions, but I can’t help but think the game is poorer for it. Hopefully GTA 6 will have some ladies in the driving seat. And hopefully that driving seat happens to be in a car that’s full of stolen money and riddled with bullet holes. Come on Rockstar, women can be murderous criminals too.