April 20, 2011

GTA4 – What stuck? Part 2/3

Continuing the three-part series about things that stayed with me after finishing GTA4, this time I’ll discuss the women of GTA4!

“Nico’s cousin’s girlfriend” – Female characters in GTA4

GTA4 has a large cast of interesting characters. That’s what GTA games are, in part, famous for: Tragicomic stereotypes of criminals who – while often unflattering – carry vivid personalities and are carefully crafted. Yet the GTA series has never been the go-to franchise for strong female characters. This kept bothering me for the whole duration of GTA4.

I still don’t know who this woman is even though she’s featured prominently in the game’s PR materials.

Why do female characters get so little attention in the game? Surely immoral female criminals would fit well in the series’s character roster. In GTA4, there are very few women who have any meaningful impact on the story. Kate, Michelle and Elizabeta are the ones with the most screentime, and if you count in Nico’s cousin’s girlfriend Mallory that brings the number of central female characters up to four. That’s not a very large number compared to the around twenty or so focal male characters that Nico encounters during the game.

I know the traditions of crime and cop fiction are very male-centric, so it follows that the GTA series reflects it. After all, the series is derived from those same traditions, though bent through the lens of parody and caricature: At its core, the GTA series is every cop show, every action movie and every crime story from the last 30 years. The whole series is essentially a massive collection of intertextual zeitgeist parody. Reuse, remake and reinterpret material from a select few genres and you have, well, you have GTA as it is now. And so, in this context of parody and derivative content, I shouldn’t be surprised about the lack of female characters in GTA. Yet I am.

From all the cultural awareness the GTA series displays, I think it’s very safe to assume the developers at Rockstar have a great deal of cultural savvy and have a very acute sense of what’s going on in contemporary western society. Listen to any of the radio stations in Liberty City or observe the innumerable delicious clichés of Vice City to convince you if you don’t believe me. These people know the world they live in, as well as the vast (pop) cultural traditions that their games so heavily draw from.

And that’s exactly why I’m so surprised about how none of that cultural awareness has translated into more and better female characters. Developers at Rockstar are in a perfect position for crafting iconic female characters, yet they do not, which puzzles me greatly.

Sure, lacking notable female characters could be the result of a conscious attempt at creating pastiches of the aforementioned products and traditions of crime fiction. And sure, as such the GTA games work very well. Yet it’s obvious the good people of Rockstar are adept at deconstructing and reconstructing cultural clichés. They know what’s going on, and use that knowledge in creative ways to recreate and reveal (often painful) truths about the society, in ways that connect with gamers worldwide. Scheming politicians, thriving racism and the ruthlessness of capitalism in GTA demonstrate the lengths to which the developers go to show and deconstruct the worst our contemporary cultures have to offer.

In GTA4 this deconstruction and parodying happens with, for example, many political and pop cultural themes, but curiously not with female characters. The women of GTA4 are sort of there, and sort of not there. Neither blatantly embodying the asymmetry of gender representations in fiction nor empowering gamers via strong and enjoyable female crooks and lowlifes. GTA4 has a wide spectrum of male characters, whereas the female characters just sort of tag along for the ride without the flair and panache of their male counterparts. There, but not fully present; represented but not parodied; included but not empowered.

In other words, from the way GTA4 handles its characters, it seems obvious the women are neither carefully constructed parodies meant to embody that which is wrong with culture, femininity and(/or) female characters in fiction today, nor are they made enjoyable in their own right, as characters amongst all the other characters of GTA4. They do not benefit from the delicious pop culture influence in the various ways the male characters do. They are not totally bereft of it, to be sure, they just seem to be made with less gusto and depth than their more numerous male counterparts.

 Elizabeta Torres

It’s not that I didn’t like the women in GTA4. I did, some of them at least. I’m just greedy and want more! I mean, look at Elizabeta Torres, the only female employer (uh, mission-giver?) in the game. She’s a really cool character, very much in line with the rest of the game’s roster of scumbags. She doesn’t feel at all out of place, and as such is a very good example of a functioning female character in GTA4. She’s performing a role other than that of a romantic interest and, not surprisingly, it works just fine. So why not make more characters like her?

Or, more to the point, why not make more characters better than her? I’m not asking for any Mary Sues or anything, just that Nico’s only female boss would have been a bit more enjoyable if she would not have been so terribly dependent on Nico and on outside help. Especially her ending was a bit dubious (nervous breakdown, claiming to leave criminal life because it’s a “man’s world”, and needing Nico to clean up her mess), and made me painfully aware of the fact that probably the most incompetent drug dealer in the game happened also to be the only female one. Sure, most of the male bosses are dysfunctional trainwrecks too, but their stories involve some sort of character-driven climax, be it an execution at the hands of Nico or a downfall of some other variety. The point is, their falls are big, notable events, with drama and excitement. All Elizabeta got was an assisted fade off the stage. The missions Nico does for her are very dramatic to be sure, but all the while Nico is fighting off police helicopters and riot squads, Elizabeta is slowly inching her way off the limelight and being nervous in her safehouse.

Aside from all that griping, she brought a lot of much needed variety to the game. Not as a token female boss but as a genuine combo breaker for the succession of Russian mobsters and ghetto gangstas that otherwise permeated the game.

To writ, despite all my whine, in Elizabeta Torres Rockstar found a change of pace the kind of which I would love to see more in mainstream games as well as in GTA. Elizabeta is a welcome addition to the canon of female characters I’ve found interesting in some way.

As for the other female characters I mentioned...

Michelle

Related to Elizabeta, Michelle’s betrayal was an enjoyable plot twist, even if it did seem somewhat surprising that the story of her betrayal intertwined so closely with Elizabeta’s downfall. In one brief moment the game centered around not one but two female characters, only to soon wipe them both off the stage without much fuss.

I was a bit taken aback by how nonchalantly Michelle’s backstab (much like Elizabeta’s fall) was shrugged off. Michelle apologized to Nico, told him she had had no other option but to bust Nico, and then sauntered off, never really to be seen again. Likewise, Elizabeta asked for Nico’s assistance and then promptly disappeared, leaving no sign of her existence. I can’t help but wonder whether their stories had been different had they been male characters.

In any case, the whole plot arc with Michelle beautifully showed just how little power female characters in the game have: turning from a submissive girlfriend to a hardcore drug-confiscating agent worked so well in Michelle’s case because we have learned not to expect much from the female characters in GTA. It wasn’t as much the betrayal itself that shocked but that it was perpetrated by a two-dimensional “date option” who, in fact, had more to her than I had initially expected.

To be fair, though, it did very neatly make me realize not only how the vast majority of women in GTA4 are two-dimensional, but also that that’s what I had been expecting of them all along. It didn’t even cross my mind that a “girlfriend character” could turn her coat so completely. I don’t want to be someone who thinks like that, but there I was. And I have GTA4 to thank for that. Who would’ve guessed?

Kate McReary

Along with Elizabeta and Michelle, Kate was one of the major female characters in the story. The problem I had with her portrayal was that she sort of “wasn’t there” for a lot of the time. Once she’s introduced, she appears on the background in many cut-scenes and Nico can go out with her, but the character as such remains very distant. Her keeping her distance is of course part of her character, stemming from an unhappy past, so I can’t really criticize the her for that. Nevertheless, it did leave her very detached from the rest of the story for a lot of the time, which did not do her justice. Especially because she gets promptly fridged as soon as the player chooses the “good ending”. Kate had the potential to be a great counterweight for Nico’s slide to recklessness but her rather small presence in the story undermined her character too much for that. I loved her presence in the game, there just wasn’t enough of it. There are ways of fleshing out distant and reclusive characters but GTA4 wasn’t very good at utilizing any of them.

Michelle, Elizabeta and Kate were the plot-related female characters of the game, but the woman who most impressed me in terms of “moments that stuck” was Kiki Jenkins, one of Nico’s “girlfriend options”. (I guess you could count Michelle into that category as well. The difference between her an Kiki is that Michelle appears in the main plot while Kiki is relevant only if you befriend her.)

Kiki Jenkins, "LawChick"

You meet Kiki on an online dating site where she’s using the screen name “Lawchick”. She’s characterized as an idealistic dreamer who is a bit naïve but has a strong sense of justice. She works as a lawyer and can help Nico by essentially pulling strings so that cops are less interested in chasing him. She’s about as far from Nico as any character in the story gets. Yet Nico seems to connect with her somehow. I found the dynamics of their relationship interesting, even if their love did not last for long in my playthrough.

Which brings me to the exact Moment That Stuck.

In true sitcom fashion, after the first date she tells Nico she loves him. I was sort of conflicted about Nico, a bona fide assassin and skullcrusher, dating someone who so clearly was from a whole different world; someone who seemed so unreserved and desperate in her commitment. I wrote that off as some backwater chivalry from my part. I mean, who am I to judge who she can fall in love with. If she loves Nico, maybe Nico ought to try to make an effort at being a somewhat decent boyfriend.

Still, it kept bugging me and I was pondering about the situation while on some generic mission. I had guided Nico on top of a tall crane from which he shot a gang leader and some gangsters without a second thought. Because someone had asked him to do it, and because the game told me to, as Nico Bellic, pull R2 and get it over with. I paid no special attention to the mission as I was so preoccupied with the whole love affair mess with Kiki.

And at that moment it struck me. Nico was killing people in cold blood for no grander reason than to earn money and maybe get a step closer to his goal of killing someone from his past. And I, as Nico’s controller, kept moving from violent act to another, only to give my hands something to do while I kept pondering his and Kiki’s relationship.

It was an epiphany in the midst of all the desensitizing violence of GTA4. I realized that if Nico was indeed going to continue his criminal career (as he undoubtedly would, as the game wasn’t nearly finished yet) there would be no way for him to be a positive element in Kiki’s life, and at best their whole relationship would be built upon lies and deceit about Nico’s background and career. There wasn’t really anything I as a player could or even would do to make the relationship better. In short, Kiki Jenkins awoke a conscience in my Liberty City self.

It just felt wrong to first murder people and then call her out for a casual dinner. It wasn’t as if she was after random sex with an interesting man. She was actually in love, and if Nico cared for her in the slightest, the best thing he could do would be to break up with her. Or, maybe, if I cared for her in the slightest, the best thing I could do would be to break up with her.

So I guided Nico to the other end of the crane, facing away from the bloodshed, watching the sun rise from behind Algonquin’s skyscrapers, and called Lawchick to break up. It felt strangely personal, something I certainly hadn’t expected to feel in GTA. Lots of other emotions, yes, but not anything relating to love and relationships on that level.

There was a profound sense of regret but also of relief, and of Doing the Right Thing. I’ve never had to end an affair so I don’t know what it feels like but I could imagine I felt a rough simulacrum of it. Sort of a watered down version of despair, relief and confusion. It was a short and banal moment but it stuck. I often found myself thinking about it for the remainder of my time with the game.

GTA4 probably wouldn’t be a very strong contestant in a race for the game with best female characters, but it’s clear the potential is there. GTA4 can lure out strong feelings even in a person like myself who has a very indifferent overall opinion of the game, and building from those very personal feelings GTA4 has some very strong moments with its cast, regardless of sex. And it’s not related merely to the emotional side: Purely on the basis of writing and plot-twists, Michelle and Elizabeta delivered some of my favourite scenes in the whole game, demonstrating Rockstars’s ability to include convincing female characters in its fiction.

Rockstar has all the skills and tools to create interesting characters, and I believe it would do good for the series as well as for the fans if those resources were put to a better, more varied, use.

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