Popular Games Are Inherently Incapable Of Leading — So Why Must They?
Grand Theft Auto V! There. That should guarantee a few more people read on through…
Of course, this week is going to be all about Grand Theft Auto V and after its worldwide release yesterday, together with the review shitstorm that has erupted, there’s every likelihood that it’s going to be everywhere you go for the foreseeable future. So it’s going to be a case of having to deal with it, even when you’re sick and tired of talking about it. That time frame is getting shorter and shorter, each big game release.
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Remember BioShock: Infinite?
Anyway, I thought I’d chip in with my own two cents about Grand Theft Auto V, specifically related to those who are criticising the game for not having a female lead. Let me emphasise right now that at the time of typing this, I have not played the game, nor am I aware of exactly how other female characters are portrayed in the game. I’m simply addressing those who are claiming that because of GTA V’s popularity with the masses, it should be attempting to lead the charge in doing something different.
That is to say, GTA V should have a female playable character because it’ll bring about an industry-wide shift of focus for female characters in games.
But I say thee nay.
If Call of Duty is the current usurper to the gaming throne, then Grand Theft Auto is Aemon Targaryen. Both are insanely popular and both have a lot of pressure to innovate and do things differently because they have enough of an impact on the games industry that if they do something, then others will follow. And each time, they don’t.
That’s not entirely true. Grand Theft Auto IV tried to do things differently with Niko Belic, the Serbian with all the ludonarrative dissonance of a crazed killer with a conscience. The game took a more serious approach and had a melancholy tone at times, with an ending that very clearly explained life in the best way possible: It doesn’t matter what you choose; either way, you’re fucked.
Then Ballad of Gay Tony came out and introduced both a Hispanic black playable character, Luis, and a homosexual main character, the titular Gay Tony.
So it’s not to say that GTA didn’t try before. It certainly did. But are we allowed to put all of this pressure on Rockstar Games because they didn’t want to do a thing this time around?
Popular games are popular for a reason. If they changed what they were, then they would not be as popular. Thus, they cannot ‘lead the charge’ when it comes to doing things differently. If they tried that, then, well, exactly what happened with Grand Theft Auto IV and Saints Row 2 would happen. A game would come along doing what they already did, and gain all the popularity away from the game that was originally popular.
Grand Theft Auto IV was criticised by a lot of people for trying to do things differently. Panned for not being the crazy, ridiculous, balls to the wall sandbox action game that everyone grew up playing. It was a sign that the series had matured, sure enough, and I appreciated it a lot. But it was also a source of much hate aimed at Rockstar Games. So can you honestly expect them to not play it safe?
Pacific Rim was an amazing movie that released a few weeks ago, and you know what? It performed horrendously in terms of sales because people opted to watch Grown Ups 2 instead. Did they watch it because they were unaware of Pacific Rim? Sure. That’s likely. Did they watch it in spite of Pacific Rim? Hells to the yes.
Popular games are popular because they appeal to the masses. And Grand Theft Auto V is not about art or an intricate but subtle message. It’s about fun factor. The same way Call of Duty is about fun factor. Popcorn games, you might call them.
It’s about killing hookers, getting to six stars and seeing how long you can last, and spawning a motherfucking jetpack to fly around the map. (I’ll bet half of you pre-ordered it just to input that cheat on day one.)
Are you having fun? Yes? Awesome. Job done.
Not: Are you having fun? Yes? Well imagine how much more fun you could have with a female protagonist, or a commentary on sexism in the gaming industry?
Some games are going to be the same games, always. It’s because that’s what made them popular and that’s why they’ll stay popular. Sure, they’ll try some new things. Who knows? We might get a transexual playable character in one of the future DLC packs. But should we criticise a popular game for being popular by doing what is popular?
No. We should criticise other developers for trying to be popular too, instead of differentiating their product.
And if you really must have a strong female lead, then go right ahead and pressure Ubisoft to make Beyond Good & Evil 2. Please. I beg you.