I don't care about Grand Theft Auto. It's a Rockstar game. I don't like Rockstar games, in part because I think the writing in them is pretty awful, uniquely noticeable only because they explore interesting genres and have very distinct voice acting that really only gives the impression of having good storytelling.
In my Twitter feed, however, there's been a very great deal of people moralizing about GTAV, demonizing it, raging about it, and naming/shaming those who disagree with them. This bugs me; I mean, first off, people who go down that path tend to be people like those who call for the banning of video games. It's a mindset that we're traditionally at enmity with, because it comes from the kind of people who hold up "God hates fags" signs at funerals for soldiers.
It gets a little weird when people are demanding a thing that's not inherently bad.
In this case, it's the portrayal of women. And hey, let's get this out of the way: women in games are awesome. If you've ever done this before, you know it's really, really, really hard to disagree with the way someone goes about wanting something that's good without making people draw the conclusion that you hate women, and that's just ridiculous.
I love playing Female Voice 1 in Saints Row. Always have. When I write fiction, my protagonists tend to be female—I've had teachers label me a feminist. I'm the kind of guy who grew up wishing that Digimon and Power Rangers featured either a female lead or at least an equivalent number of male and female characters.
My Twitter feed feels like an incessant stream of hate directed at Rockstar, not because of their historically bad writing, but because women in the game are either not portrayed as good human beings, or because there is no playable female protagonist within the game.
People are saying that you can't have a good story without female protagonists... and... I don't even... this is just a whole new level of stupid masquerading as wanting to be on the right side of a discussion.
Let me see if I can explain why.
Alright, first, right off the bat, Rockstar never portrays anyone as good in their games. Their stories are extremely misanthropic, and part of the reason they're bad stories to begin with. They feature a faulty, kid-who-wears-a-black-trenchcoat-and-sunglasses-indoors take on the world. If you come into a Rockstar game expecting that they will be treating people well, then you must not be familiar with Rockstar's writing at all.
Or... well, maybe, as harsh as this sounds, you don't understand storytelling. If you think Rockstar should be portraying women well in games, it's possible that you're doing it because that's the prevailing mode of thought about storytelling, not because you understand how good stories work and want Rockstar to tell good stories. Because, well, this is my feeling on the matter, if you were, then you'd point out that everyone in Rockstar games is written poorly, and instead of saying that Rockstar hates women, or instead of specifically calling out Rockstar's treatment of women in games, you'd say, as you should, that Rockstar simply has really bad writers.
Now I'm going to turn that on its head and explain why it might actually be okay. I don't think Rockstar is doing this—though I can't exactly afford to go buy a copy and find out for myself—but if I suddenly became a Rockstar writer and was tasked with telling the story I think Rockstar is trying to tell, my female characters might just end up acting the same way because of the protagonists in the game. See, in some stories, it's worth writing from a characters' perspective—tell a story from the point of the criminal, and a cop, who in any objective sense of the situation is a good person, might become the bad guy. It's a really, really hard thing to do, but telling a story from the perspective of very bad people with very bad opinions of the world can result in women treated poorly, but the story has to make explicit the idea that the perspective is that of the characters, not the artists or the audience.
In other words, it's possible to represent a gender negatively and tell a great story, but it's next to impossible to do.
It's because of this need by people to Take Sides, to turn a very complex issue into something overly-simplistic, to focus only on how one gender is treated without understanding the context that I'm convinced that many of the people talking about GTAV don't understand storytelling. But it's really obvious when they say things like "if the game doesn't feature a playable female protagonist, it's a bad game," or "there is no good reason not to have a female protagonist in a story like this."
Here's a simple example: The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly. It's one of the greatest films of all time, in part because it focuses on a very masculine experience. It does not need the female perspective, nor would it benefit from having it. The story is practically perfect in its form and function. On the flip side of things, we have Once Upon a Time in the West, again, a tremendous film, but this time, not so focused on the masculine experience, but on exploring the nature of Westerns. Once Upon a Time in the West is partially about vengeance, which it tackles from two different perspectives—Harmonica's and Jill McBain's. Both movies are good, but one benefits from having a female protagonist more than the other.
Different stories benefit from different perspectives. There is never a need to portray all possible sides, to say "hey, this story is bad unless it uses everyone's perspective." One of the tweets I read today said that it was important to feature a female protagonist because half the people on the planet were women—well, if that's the case, then should every game feature an Asian character, because half the people on the planet are Asian?
If I were to write a story about, say, African American culture, then should we say "well, more people in America are white, so we should get their take on things too?" Most people would react to the suggestion with disdain, even anger. And most of us would generally consider them to be right, too.
To break it down:
1. Story's about X.
2. Group 1 complain it should contain Y.
3. Group 2 responds with frustration.
4. Most people consider Group 2 to be right.
Usually, in this situation, Group 2 is considered the right group. But if we plug in 'man,' things change a bit. Story's about men, Group 1 complains it should be about women, and Group 2 responds with frustration... and people begin acting as if Group 2 are at fault, where in any other situation, Group 1 would be.
So why do I care? I don't like Rockstar games, after all.
It's 'cause I care about stories. I care about understanding stories, why we tell them, and how. I'd like people to get the most out of stories, and that includes helping people understand what we should target our criticism at (bad portrayals of women are often a side effect of bad writing, so we should focus on the cause, not the symptom), and understanding when our criticism isn't valid (it is not necessarily right to demand a white perspective in a black story, or a female perspective in a male story; storytelling is very much a case-by-case basis thing, and great stories can be told with or without both perspectives).
I think if we target the wrong things, we'll just end up with a lot of arguments on Twitter that never really go anywhere.
I don't really like talking about this stuff. I don't like getting down on people, their perspectives, and stuff, especially when talking about the divides between us. I think it's an important conversation to have, but, I dunno, I feel dirty after talking about it, because I know people are going to crawl out of the woodwork, accusing me of being a concern troll or whatever. I want the best for people, I really do. It's why I post.