Grand Theft Auto VI: Vice grip.

Grand Theft Auto VIThe Grand Theft Auto series prides itself on repetition more than innovation. It’s not known for bringing us new worlds and concepts, but brilliantly mimicking and skewering the ones we already live in. It’s no secret that I adore the series, but I also consider it to be flawed in lamentable ways. What would I like to see in Grand Theft Auto VI?

Character: I would love for the GTA series to buck the trend and provide us with a female lead. Have we seen an epic amount of grousing when someone floats the possibility? Yes! However, reactionary fans also heavily protested the introduction of the series’ first black lead as well—a move that did not harm the success of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas in the least. Given the rise of women in criminal organizations as madams, scammers, and drug mules it is only reasonable that a female character would eventually take point in a story arc. Moreover, we’ve already seen aggressive and powerful women such Elizabeta and Catalina as supporting characters.

And yet the truth is that the lead character of GTA VI will more than likely be male. Again, the series loves repetition, not only in its settings but its lead characters as well. Both Claude and Niko illustrate the plight of the bewildered transplant to the big city. CJ and Franklin are both young black men from West Coast ghettos on the fringes of gang life. With Michael we see the coda to Tommy Vercetti’s life—a career-criminal living comfortably off of his ill-gotten gains in a new world of excess and celebrity. Luis and Victor are family-oriented Dominican men trying their best to remain legitimate while their associates drag them further into the muck. And Johnny and Trevor are poorly adjusted individuals cast aside as “white trash” by mainstream society.

Which leaves us with Toni Cipriani. He is the only lead character of the Grand Theft Auto series that is without a counterpart. And I believe he will be given one in Grand Theft Auto VI. I predict the lead of the new series will be a man in his early thirties who—like Toni—is firmly entrenched as a low-ranking member in a criminal organization. However, I do not believe the mafia will be at play here, but a powerful cartel instead. Given what I expect the location of Grand Theft Auto VI to be, the lead will more than likely be a Caribbean Latino instead of white like Cipriani. But unlike Luis and Victor, the character will be able to pass for Mediterranean or southern European.

Location: And what of the location? I would prefer that the game be set in the American south in an ethnically and racially diverse city with extreme wealth disparity, gang activity, a thriving and lucrative entertainment industry, and both rural and urban architecture. I am personally biased towards Atlanta and would love to see a city that apes it called Meleager, but given Rockstar’s predictable habits the game will likely be set in the fictional Miami of Vice City. It’s a choice I certainly can’t find fault with. Miami has all the attributes and flaws of Atlanta with the addition of a beautiful beach landscape. It’s Atlanta with the added benefit of boat missions!

And yet given Rockstar’s penchant for repeating itself, we might get something even more wondrous than a return to Vice City—three cities in one. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas gave us Los Santos (Los Angeles), San Fierro (San Francisco), and Las Venturas (Las Vegas). Since that game gave us three western cities, would Rockstar be ambitious enough to provide us with three southern ones—Vice City (Miami), Meleager (Atlanta), and New Bougival (New Orleans)? Rockstar has never been content to rest on its laurels, which it would be doing by merely providing players with a chance to return to Liberty City and Los Santos. Graphics have not advanced enough for a return to those cities to seem fresh and exciting. And while tossing three cities that differ so wildly into one state requires too far a suspension of one’s belief, placing three cities in different states and using a fade-to-black cut scene while driving along the interstate or running through the woods is certainly feasible.

Oh, and more interiors, please! Safe houses! Nightclubs! Trap houses! Restaurants! Give players places to spend (or launder) all of that virtual money. And more importantly, give them places to rob to get more of it.

Theme: A satirical look at American culture, crime, and capitalism has always been the main focus of the Grand Theft Auto series. However, in 2017 the aggressively juvenile humor and “ironic” bigotry championed in Grand Theft Auto III and Grand Theft Auto V is dull and dated. A more mature approach akin to Grand Theft Auto IV and Grand Theft Auto: Episodes from Liberty City is required. Female characters and characters from marginalized groups weren’t reduced to one-note jokes but were carefully fleshed out. Ethnic subcultures were not lampooned but had their positive and negative aspects highlighted.

“Ironic” bigotry is useless when in the real world young American men glorify Nazis and protest the existence of feminism. It neither shocks one into realization nor pushes the envelope, but reinforces the hate already in existence. And depictions of sexuality in the series have been so repressed and mean-spirited one would think the jokes had been written by and for thirteen-year-old boys. Given that the series is at heart a crime drama, healthy depictions are not expected—but accurate ones are. For far too long Rockstar has leaned on stereotypes and dick jokes. I’d love to see a more sophisticated level of humor. And I’d love to once again see women as powerful and shrewd criminals instead of shrill idiots—especially if the criminal elements of the sex industry are to be highlighted (and they should be). When series such as The Witcher and Mass Effect—as far from “edgy” as one could possibly get—are more open about sexuality, there is clearly a problem. I also think Rockstar should give players the option of making the lead character straight, gay, bisexual, or asexual depending on which romanceable characters they decide to approach. It would not take much to add back the dating system from earlier incarnations.

Allies and Enemies: I want a dog. And yes, it is important enough to deserve its own section! Jokes aside, I would love to see a return of notable characters from Grand Theft Auto: The Ballad of Gay Tony and Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. Or if not a return, Easter eggs would be nice (for example, a brief mention of President Donald Love on the evening news).


Twintelle-ing on yourself.

It’s amusing to me to watch American video game journalism outfits dance around labeling Twintelle—the new fan-favorite character found in the upcoming Arms game from Nintendo—as black. After all, it seems as if Nintendo’s development and marketing teams took great care to ensure that American audiences would identify the character as such. The character comes equipped with a handful of well-known “soft” stereotypes regarding black American and Caribbean women. There’s the curvaceous build with an emphasis on the character’s ample ass and thighs. There’s the dark skin tone. There’s the unique name with a randomly attached French suffix or prefix. There’s the incredulous tea sipping pulled directly from slang and memes originated by black women and black gay men. And finally there’s the oversized jewelry—those are damn near doorknockers, folks—curly, colorful hair, and skin-tight attire taken straight from your average Instagram baddie or cookout-attending cousin. I’d be annoyed by the blatant pandering if the character wasn’t so recognizable—and adorable.

My God, is the character adorable! I’m so mad.

I’m sure for East Asian audiences Twintelle has a different name and is considered a young Japanese star enamored by and participating in a Ganguro renaissance (which apparently entails dressing like you escaped from a Bad Boy video circa 1997). And that is just fine, absolutely correct, and a clear example of Nintendo’s marketing savvy that the company can create such mutable characters that blend seamlessly into multiple subcultures and ethnicities.

TwintelleI’m certainly not one to label every dark-skinned character appearing in an East Asian animation or video game as black. In fact, I’d argue that a sizable number are actually meant to be read as dark-skinned Asians or Pacific Islanders by Asian audiences and American audiences. But there are simply too many context clues regarding Twintelle to believe that Nintendo had zero designs on tapping into the brand loyalty and overwhelming support that black audiences provide when approached with positive representation. Black individuals are recognizing themselves in Twintelle because that is exactly what I believe Nintendo wanted to occur. His mama named him Clay, I’mma call him Clay.

What is sadly familiar is the backlash from those who profess to be “beyond” race but seem determined to squelch the joy of any black girl or woman who sees a link between a positive image in the media and her own blackness. The response is repetitive, intrusive, and shows that said individuals are not the impartial observers they claim to be, but are very much the product of centuries of successful anti-black propaganda. Were this not the case, identifying blackness in something that is considered good by the masses would not trouble them so. For them, blackness is to be emphasized and reserved for criminal suspects and objects of ridicule alone.

Ignore them. Celebrate. Embrace every pleasant surprise in the media you find. And brush up on those combos before June 16.


Take Two: Interactions with IDW Publishing.

I love Rockstar Games.

But I’ve said that before. I admire the marketing savvy of its sales teams, the satirical slant of its writers, and the beauty of its game design. Rockstar Games is an industry titan and its accolades are well deserved.

Max Payne 3 cover artSo when its parent company, Take Two Interactive, announced its foray into the comic book industry I was ecstatic. I envisioned a series of Grand Theft Auto graphic novels that bridged the gap between Grand Theft Auto III and Grand Theft Auto IV. I anticipated the release of a Max Payne miniseries in the same vein as The Punisher sans the justified censorship of the Disney corporation. I imagined a satirical look at internet bullies and red pillers with a comedic action series based off Bully.

And I believed the successes would extend far past the realm of Rockstar Games to other intellectual properties under the Take Two banner such as Bioshock and Mafia—two 2K Games darlings.

That, however, did not happen.

What did happen was the launch of Double Take, a small company focused on a slate of comics set in the Night of the Living Dead universe helmed by former Marvel publisher Bill Jemas. That company has now gone under for a host of reasons I shall not go into here. Others, however, have provided an interesting post-mortem.

What I am focused on is how best to get the future I envisioned onto the printed page. I do not believe that Take Two Interactive should launch yet another comic company; I do believe it should partner with an existing one—IDW Publishing. In a short amount of time IDW has become the king of licensed publishing, challenged only by perennial purchaser DC Comics. It has the skills to successfully push favored brands in the comic book marketplace while adhering closely to themes and designs established in other media.

For Take Two Interactive a partnership with IDW is outsourced research, marketing, and development. The comics produced at IDW would provide frames for new games to be built upon. The books would also bolster brand allegiance during the space between game releases. For example, characters introduced in the comics could pop up as new options during multiplayer games. And most importantly, Take Two Interactive would have the opportunity to use IDW as a talent scout and poach artists and writers accordingly.

IDW PublishingBut what would IDW get out of the deal? Well, increased exposure is nice, but I’d argue that increased revenue would be much nicer. Were I an IDW representative I would push for a fiscally conservative licensing package given all that I would be bringing to the table. But in the back of my mind I would also acknowledge that, if successful, a Take Two imprint would increase the size of my company allowing me to overtake BOOM and nip at Image’s heels. I would also be certain to act as a liaison for the individuals at my company working on creator-owned projects who might have an interest in pushing their works into additional entertainment realms.

I would advise the two companies to start small—but not too small. Start with one major intellectual property such as Bioshock or Grand Theft Auto. Should that partnership conclude successfully? Continue to build.


Bully for you.

A screenshot from ManhuntI’ve never been a fan of Westerns, but the many Americans who are will soon be able to enjoy the return of Red Dead Redemption to their consoles and computers. Rockstar Games sits upon a deep bench of intellectual property, and while I adore the Grand Theft Auto series, I believe two additional cult favorites should return—Bully and Manhunt.

Manhunt should be revived because America is in desperate need of a cathartic release. Much in the same way that the 1970s vigilante and Blaxploitation hero have made a resurgence, the time is right for a character that gives voice to those who believe they are voiceless. It is the perfect point in time to provide a powerful avatar to the disenfranchised (or merely disgruntled)—one that they may live vicariously through. Were I at the helm of such an undertaking, I would make certain that the lead character be mute and fully customizable. And as much as I clamor for female leads (especially for the Grand Theft Auto series), I would make the character male to best fit the initial setting of a privatized prison for men. The villains of note? Avaricious elite who use the marginalized for profit and corrupt officers who abuse them for sport.

While I would stress full customization, I would in no way ignore the impact that race, nationality, religion, and sexuality have on one’s life—especially in prison. These elements would affect gameplay, altering alliances, opportunities, and privileges. I would lean heavily on real-life data in design, and would hope that players would discuss said data as they shared tips and commented on unique walkthroughs. The goal would be to create a work that allows individuals to see themselves and have their grievances validated, but also see “the other” as human. In fact, reaching out to the other—by either playing as a different type of character or having a conversation with one who did—would allow one to enjoy different cut scenes and exclusive side stories. In real life we don’t have much of an incentive to step into the shoes of another. Our games—our stories—can provide that incentive.

A screenshot from BullyWhere Manhunt would pinpoint where we are devoid of power and provide an emotional salve for said lack, Bully would highlight the areas of our lives where our actions leave an impression. It would show how much speaking out and speaking up can change things for the better—both personally and for the community at large. Harassment is a topical issue. And I think the more we only encounter people who are different as static images and words on a screen, the easier it is to abuse them. It is ironic that a connection to virtual characters might allow children to be more empathic to peers in real life, but if our technology allows for that, should the option not be explored?

I wouldn’t back away from sensitive issues. If today’s teens are experiencing it, creative adults should be brave enough to confront it—and be able to do so with humor, honesty, and grace. To provide not only an amazing and entertaining game, but also a “life simulator” for the more socially disconnected to explore potential consequences would be highly beneficial—and lucrative.

It would also be controversial, but Rockstar Games has never been one to back down from controversy.


San Myshuno.

The more monstrous the real world becomes the stronger the lure of a virtual one grows. Electronic Arts will release The Sims 4: City Living, the third expansion pack in the series, on November 1. Though Electronic Arts and Maxis have briefly touched upon nightlife with The Sims: Hot Date, The Sims 2: Nightlife, and The Sims 3: Late Night, this new expansion pack for The Sims 4 will be the first time the series has stepped away from the comforts of suburban life to fully embrace the look and feel of a metropolis—the new world of San Myshuno.

The game successfully cobbles together elements of San Francisco, Tokyo, New York, and Seattle, each borough borrowing architectural elements from its patron city. As for the Sims who populate San Myshuno, Electronic Arts has pulled heavily from East Asian, South Asian, Caribbean, and West African clothing designers to outfit its digital citizens. The result is a truly global city like none other. Las Vegas would perhaps be its closest real-world counterpart, but even Las Vegas is decidedly American beneath its international façade.

Still, there are concerns. While the series has wisely jettisoned the gypsy matchmaker non-playable character, it has introduced a love guru with The Sims 4: City Living. Hopefully Electronic Arts has taken great care to avoid offending players by shirking any portrayal akin to one found in a ham-fisted Mike Myers vehicle. And while the new game places a heavy emphasis on street festivals, the lack of community lots prevents the full integration of all three expansion packs in a city environment. There simply isn’t enough space provided to have every lot type; some lots must be sacrificed. Hence, no book club meetings in a local library (as one would find in The Sims 4: Get Together) or a place for Sims to run a bakery (as one would find in The Sims 4: Get to Work). It is my hope that Electronic Arts rectifies this by adding a small companion commerce district to San Myshuno as they added Magnolia Promenade to Willow Creek. This would be a perfect addition for the next available stuff pack—or perhaps even a free update akin to Newcrest.

Unfortunately the new series has simply become too expensive to consider purchasing a new expansion pack on release day, but I definitely look forward to getting The Sims 4: City Living during the holiday season.


To market, to market!

If your product makes a segment of your audience feel inherently less than another group, you’re doing it wrong—be it creating or selling. This applies to comics, to movies, to television, and to literature—any form of entertainment.

How can my statement be true? Gendered marketing has proven effective in the past, no? And there is direct evidence that marketing a product to young men while snubbing young women has led to a segment of women consuming the product nevertheless. In addition, it has allowed for those companies to create a “girls’” version of their product, essentially crowding the women who felt ostracized—due to being deemed inferior consumers of the “regular” product—into a new lucrative market, a pink ghetto. If this method has worked so successfully in the past, why should it not continue to do so in the future?

Why? Because this type of marketing—essentially insulting a segment of potential consumers—only works in a society where inequality has already taken root. To reiterate, telling your consumers that they are inferior will only make them want your product (in order to prove their worth) if they truly questioned their self-worth to begin with. With a rise in parity and self-esteem old marketing methods are slipping into obsolescence as certain companies find their products no longer sell as well.

What does this mean for traditionally “geek” markets that catered to white men such as comics and video games? For companies that did not choose to produce material or advertising couched in inequality? Nothing at all. They will continue to cater to a shrinking, but fiercely loyal and dependable audience. There is nothing wrong with a company narrowing its focus. However, to narrow focus by insulting those who fall outside the intended market endangers a company’s health. It will result in a vocal groundswell of women and people of color who will push back against the products and marketing tactics they have been insulted by.

Those who are only able to enjoy products that glorify racism and misogyny will grow furious as companies scramble to placate the growing number of female consumers and consumers of color unwilling to accept such packaged hatred. In fact, their fury has already been felt in the harassment of notable female creators and critics. However, their fury is no match for the sheer number of women who have entered—and are continuing to enter—the market.

Screw you! You social-justice warriors won’t take my pin-up art and shooters from me! Sugar, for the love of God, sit down. No one is trying to. Women and people of color enjoy them just as much as you do. I’d assemble a keyboard army with the quickness should Empowered be pulled from shelves and I love the Grand Theft Auto series more than any reasonable person should. (However, let’s be honest, Houser and Humphries are incapable of writing an interesting and well-rounded female character.)

What female fans and fans of color want is parity. Luckily, parity is created via addition—new products, new characters, new creators, new markets, new points of view—not subtraction. Let us be clear, the only thing being removed is bigotry. And that is something no man who considers himself a human should believe is worth fighting for.


A pleasant view.

 

Sims 4 charactersA lot has happened in 50 years! Can the idyllic town of Riviera, a haven for youthful adventurers from far-flung lands (as well as the neighboring town of Pleasantview), quell rising tensions before friendly rivalries become all-out feuds?

Clockwise from bottom center: 

Beau Broke is determined to make it big in Riviera. A man of meager means, but rich in willpower, will Beau finally be able to reverse the Broke history of misfortune?

Lucy Burb dreams of recreating the idyllic family life her parents provided. Yet while Lucy fantasizes about white-picket fences and baby carriages, her suitor’s wandering eye may make her dream a nightmare!

Can Carlo Lothario break the Lothario curse as he has broken so many hearts—or is he doomed to never find true love? Could the mysterious mother who abandoned him be the key as to why he is unable to commit?

Tina Caliente is determined to succeed where her mother has failed: by hook or by crook she’ll marry her way into the Goth fortune! But how can she win Alexander’s heart if her mind is continually on Carlo Lothario?

Sullen and stand-offish, Alexander Goth has difficulty making friends, and has cut off all ties to his family. Yet, strangely, he is fond of the roguish Carlo Lothario. Can the brotherly bond between the two help Alexander come out of his shell?

Given her childhood as an orphan, Marsha Bruenig cannot help but cling to the new-found friends she considers her family. But will her pursuit of popularity only lead to the population of Riviera considering her a pest?

Chandler Platz loves robots, sci-fi festivals at the local cinema, and rockets. What he doesn’t love? The idea of romance with the ladies of Riviera! Can Chandler keep his head out of the clouds when he’s so focused on the stars?

Ollie Dreamer inherited his father’s artistic talents and his mother’s shy, sensitive nature. Can Ollie overcome his timid ways and win the heart of Sophia Gilscarbo? Can he follow in his father’s footsteps and romance the woman of his dreams?

Sophia Gilscarbo, the heiress to the Goopy carbonara sauce fortune, is Riviera’s resident party girl. Will Sophia be able to tame her wild ways and settle upon a culinary career before her grandmother cuts her off completely?

(Note: I just made this up myself. Not official information for The Sims 4, folks!)


Four got.

Earlier I discussed some of the features that I still hope EA/Maxis will add to The Sims 4. I’ve spent the time since my last post pouring over preview videos and I am absolutely floored by the gameplay. What I see is the game that I’d hoped The Sims 3, a completely lackluster experience, would be. The Sims 4 seems to be a reincarnation of The Sims 2, with simplified controls and improved graphics—exactly what I so desperately wanted.

Though as much as I lionize The Sims 2, the game isn’t without its faults. What is absent from The Sims 2 is an adequate level of customization. Players of The Sims 2 may scoff upon reading this, but the customization that we enjoy has been granted to us by the modding community, not game developers. I had to seek out darker player skins created by fans in order to have any hope of creating a reasonable facsimile of the actual neighborhood I once lived in. Later, I downloaded SimPe, a program that would allow me to alter character files, in order to make ten percent of the NPCs in my neighborhood gay and add new NPCs with bronze and ebony skin tones.

What I want from The Sims 4 is greater control over the appearance of my neighborhood. I want greater control over my neighborhood’s “story.” Allowing players to create NPCs in the CAS (Create A Sim) would be a huge step forward in achieving this. Let players make a grumpy nanny or flirtatious maid—or an entire neighborhood of green-skinned shopkeepers! Personally, I’d like the ability to prevent supernatural characters from appearing entirely. We shouldn’t have to depend on mods to remove them.

I hope that players will be able to alter not only a NPC’s personality and appearance, but her history as well. I loved the fact that the NPCs featured in the custom neighborhoods of The Sims 2 had existing relationships. In fact, I used SimPe to provide NPCs with family and friends. In my Pleasantview, the town thief was the husband of the maid and would prey upon her wealthy clients. The staff members of a popular bistro were all members of the same family. These stories existed apart from the tales I wove for my playable characters. I enjoyed creating them.


Enter the dragon.

Sexual harassmentI must shamefully admit that some of the responses quoted in the second panel of Jim Hines’ comic once mirrored my own. I could barely contain my irritation when an individual would come forward to discuss his or her personal experience with racism or sexism in the entertainment industry (publishing, film, gaming, etc.) and yet refuse to name the individual who participated in the harassment or discrimination. How could one allow a bigot to stay in power and thwart the career of another black creator or prey upon another woman? As a victim, how could one willingly condone the cycle of abuse when the mere utterance of a name could “slay the dragon”?

I was so focused on winning the public war that I overlooked the private battle. These men and women have families to support, a desire to create that consumes them, and a reputation to uphold. To be marked as one who “named names,” one who made the company look bad—as opposed to the one actually engaging in the unsavory behavior—would jeopardize one’s career by alienating those in power. Coming forward, yet remaining vague regarding details, would allow the company in question to quietly rectify the situation while still alerting fans to the bigotry that continues to plague the industry.

Sometimes, often, the dragon is simply too powerful to be slain. But sometimes, often, individuals come forward privately, not publically. A female creator is told confidentially why it would be best for her to avoid a particular colleague or limit time alone with him; a black creator is quietly informed as to why certain individuals will not be receptive to his work. These hushed anecdotes act as precious guides, allowing creators to tiptoe past the dragon and navigate his lair successfully—or simply to find treasure and glory in a less guarded lair.

This is not to say that those who have named names have not chosen the proper path. As a reader (or player, or moviegoer), it can be quite satisfying to hear one acknowledge the source of a problem that, quite honestly, is evident in the work produced. Female fans and consumers of color are often dismissed as delusional when discussing institutionalized sexism and racism within the industry. When an actual creator comes forward and names names, there is a moment of vindication that is generally lost when a vague accusation is brought forth. For when a vague accusation is brought forth, reactionary fans will often label the whistleblower coming forward as a liar or bitter incompetent.

It is so difficult to make one’s way as a woman or a person of color in the entertainment industry that I would rather an individual do what is best for one’s career and the careers of one’s peers than to consider the wishes or comfort of a fan such as myself. The industry can only improve if these men and women are able to remain within it. If a quieter form of resistance is required, so be it.


Grand theft autonomy.

“I loved gaming when I was younger, but as I got older I learned pretty quickly that it wasn’t a world that loved me back.”

Laura Beck

I can’t find fault with Laura Beck’s statement. In fact, it is a statement I have made myself in regards to other mediums where race is concerned. But I feel that Beck’s exasperation with the three male leads in Grand Theft Auto V is misplaced. Michael, Franklin, and Trevor exist, not because Rockstar is fearful of a female lead, but because Rockstar Games is determined to retell the cherished stories of GTA’s past. Grand Theft Auto V is not about innovation, but renovation—replicating the very same characters and situations that brought the company its previous success. Michael is Tommy Vercetti, Franklin is Carl Johnson, and Trevor is Phil Cassidy. Niko of course, is a modern-day Claude Speed, which is why he was chosen as a stand-alone character to launch Grand Theft Auto IV in the same manner that Claude, and Claude alone, championed the new sandbox version of the Grand Theft Auto franchise we have all come to love with Grand Theft Auto III.

I’ve discussed this at length before, but a quick summary is in order: Claude and Niko represent the poor white immigrant’s journey through New York City’s underworld; Michael and Tommy are symbols of established and firmly entrenched organized crime; C. J. and Franklin represent wayward but hopeful youth trapped in inner-city black communities decimated by the emergence of crack cocaine. The comparisons between lead characters can be taken even further, playing upon the similarities between Victor and Luis, young Latino men with family obligations thrust into a world of debauchery and excess, and Johnny Klebitz and Toni Cipriani, low men on the totem pole in criminal organizations chock full of duplicity and double-crossing.

Rockstar brings nothing new to the table, but what is brought is so comforting and satisfying that the complaints are few. That said, there are clear issues regarding gender within the GTA franchise. I hope, just as the time between Grand Theft Auto III and Grand Theft Auto IV allowed Rockstar to fix the glaring racial stereotypes found within the franchise, so will the time between Grand Theft Auto IV and Grand Theft Auto V allow Rockstar to rectify its skewed depiction of women. However, clues to Rockstar’s enlightenment will not be found in Grand Theft Auto V‘s lead characters, but in its NPCs. Specifically? Its sex workers.

The obvious omission of male prostitutes from Grand Theft Auto IV proved that Rockstar’s desire for an element of realism was not to be had at the expense of alienating sexist players who could not handle seeing men placed in a sexually submissive role. Male hustlers are an obvious fact of life in New York City—and in Los Angeles. Should their presence be lacking in Grand Theft Auto V, kowtowing to bigoted players will likely be to blame. And I will certainly not be sticking around for the next installment of the series.

But unlike Beck, I feel that Rockstar is laying the groundwork for a new female lead character. After all, they have almost run out of characters to recycle! I believe that in a year or two we will all be lining up to purchase Grand Theft Auto: The Legend of Packie McReary, featuring Patrick, a Korean protagonist clearly reminiscent of Huang Lee, and a female drug runner and madam of Mexican descent. After all, to have a story set in a city suggestive of Los Angeles that does not feature Latino and Asian communities is criminally stupid—just as it is to have a story focused on crime that does not involve women. Women are notorious for being drug mules and participating in illegal sex work, and have been a part of Los Angeles’ street gangs for decades. Plus, the addition of female thieves to be used in heists in Grand Theft Auto V is likely Rockstar’s attempt to ease bigoted fans into a more progressive and inclusive stance regarding female protagonists.

But the question is not whether fans will purchase a game starring a female lead. We know they will. Lara Croft is a testament to that. The question is whether the boys’ club at Rockstar Games can provide a female lead that is well-rounded, well-written, and fun to play. A female lead will need to focus more on stealth, speed, and firepower instead of street-brawling skills demanding of upper-body strength. Will Rockstar make the adjustments necessary to accommodate this? Plus, given the mockery of trans women (the deep voices of the prostitutes Niko frequented were inserted for amusement) and the flat, stereotypical depiction of women in Grand Theft Auto IV, I’m not confident a female lead would be given the fleshed-out personality provided to male leads. The Grand Theft Auto franchise is populated with shrill harpies and dim-witted party girls. We really haven’t come that far from Catalina and Maria, and the blame can be laid squarely on Rockstar’s writers for that.

It can also be laid on the writers that inspire Rockstar’s writers. After all, the Grand Theft Auto series borrows heavily from America’s most beloved crime dramas, dated dramas that focus on the lives of men. If Rockstar wishes to venture into the uncharted waters of a female GTA protagonist, it will need new source material. Celebrity, technology, and changing social mores have revolutionized the roles of women in criminal enterprises. Twitter, Instagram, and reality television allow high-end call girls to discretely advertise to wealthy clientele—and contraband can easily be shipped right along with the woman a lovelorn musician, CEO, or athlete has unwittingly paid to transit. Finally, all one needs is a pretty girl and an iPhone to obtain the layout of a mansion for a later armed robbery. Three crimes for the price of one—and one hell of a fun GTA side mission!

Unlike Beck, I will be purchasing Grand Theft Auto V—and I will be closely examining how the game lays the groundwork for the next GTA installment—an installment that hopefully makes Beck and her peers finally feel welcome.


Dreamfall: The Longest Journey.

It is well known that I am a fan of the Grand Theft Auto series of games and a fan of The Sims 2. What isn’t as well known is my absolute adoration of The Longest Journey and Dreamfall. Because of this adoration, I feel like a bit of a dope that I wasn’t aware of the successful Kickstarter launched to fund Dreamfall Chapters, the third and final installment in the series. Actually, I’m glad I wasn’t aware, because I would have seriously considered dropping a stack to have an NPC designed to look like me. Those are some compelling Kickstarter rewards!

The crew at Red Thread is immensely talented and every red cent that the group has amassed is certainly deserved. For fun, I’ve added a short interview that developer Ragnar Tørnquist kindly agreed to back during the launch of The Longest Journey. It’s an interesting look back at a time when the industry wasn’t as open to protagonists and genres that defied a narrowly defined norm. You’ll find the Q & A after the jump!

Continue reading Dreamfall: The Longest Journey.


Four.

The Sims 4

I am elated by the announcement of the release of The Sims 4 in 2014! I still play The Sims 2 occasionally and am thankful that I didn’t waste money on the third incarnation of the series. Having sampled The Sims 3, I found the interface to be unwieldy in regards to building houses and altering landscapes. In addition, the characters themselves seemed less expressive than the characters of The Sims 2. The bloated “pudding faces” that characters from the third game came equipped with certainly didn’t help to sell me on the product.

No matter. In the teaser image provided for The Sims 4, the faces shown are reminiscent of the characters found in The Sims 2—a good sign. Now, I readily admit to being biased. I found The Sims 2 to be a near perfect game (once all of the essential hacks had been downloaded and inserted, of course). So, what would The Sims 4 need to possess to make me abandon my favorite game of all time?

The ability to drive as a selected character. I’ve often stated that I wish that I could find a game that was the perfect blend of The Sims series and the Grand Theft Auto franchise. My favorite activities in games are often world-building and exploring. Hopefully, The Sims 4 will allow players to drive through the streets they have assembled.

Useful neighborhood decorations or “rabbit holes.” As someone who prefers games with urban landscapes, playing The Sims 2 can be frustrating. I would love to have a bustling city overrun with skyscrapers. This cannot be built given the limits of the game. Since towers cannot be created, they should (and have) been provided by game developers. However, two or three buildings are not nearly enough. There should be dozens. I also find it hard to understand why developers for The Sims 3 provided “rabbit holes” for buildings that would have been much better served as playable community lots—for example, the diner, the bookstore, and the bistro. In The Sims 4, these non-playable structures should be reserved for the following: towers, office buildings, shopping malls, schools, police departments, hospitals, and fire stations.

Expansion packs focused on lifestyles rather than life stages. I do not want to see expansion packs focused on college life, childhood, career exploration, or retirement! This material should be included in the base game! I would prefer to see a simple suburban life presented in the base game, with a new type of environment provided with each expansion pack—urban, pastoral, futuristic, and magical. New environment-appropriate activities and characters should be featured in each world.

Characters of different heights. Something tells me this wish may be impossible, but I’m tossing it out here just in case!

Greater diversity in hairstyles. I really wish developers would not depend on fans to provide material that should be found within the base game—such as several modern hairstyles for kinky or tightly coiled hair.

That’s all, folks! As I’ve stated previously, it wouldn’t take much to bring The Sims franchise from good to great. I look forward to seeing what Maxis has in store for The Sims 4.


Payned reactions.

Max Payne 3Lord knows, you can love a work and yet find it immensely problematic. Though I enjoyed Max Payne 3, Rockstar’s latest release in the Max Payne franchise, I have to admit that concerning matters of race, I find the work unsettling. A white hero slaughters endless waves of black and Latino men, his only allies a fair-weather friend who is on the take and a cop who is too cowardly to effect any change in a society he admits is riddled with corruption. He asks Max to act in his stead, essentially begging a white man to do his work for him.

As I said, problematic.

Of course, we do not expect Raul Passos to save the day in a game titled Max Payne 3. However, I think the work provides a classic example of a larger problem in video games and in geek culture in general where race is concerned. For the most part, men and women of color are sidekicks, not heroes. And yet in regards to villainy? That is the moment when it seems all too easy to include us in droves—as zombies, as faceless military grunts, as gang members, as savages.

Balance is needed. I am reluctant to set aside Max Payne 3 as an example of the problem when Rockstar Games has done such a credible job in the past of bringing racial balance to its selection of heroes—Luis Lopez, Carl “C. J.” Johnson, Huang Lee. Though, to be fair, I have just listed a selection of criminals, criminals placed in a positive light, but criminals nonetheless.

Other companies, such as Ubisoft and Valve, have followed Rockstar’s lead and should be commended. However, I generally identify Rockstar as a trailblazer in regards to race due to their selection of lead characters that cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, be identified or classified as white. For even when protagonists of color are presented to fandom, skin colors are lightened and features are often “softened” to ease race past more bigoted consumers. Yet the problem does not merely reside with the maker of the game but with the player as well. I clearly remember fan requests for “white” player skins in order to cloak the blackness that racist players apparently felt was too offensive or jarring to endure while playing Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.

And yet I see no demands for brown or tan skins for Max Payne.

Perhaps the “shock and awe” method enacted by Rockstar is the best method to push change? “Here’s our lead. He’s black. Deal with it.” Of course, making said change is a lot easier when done from the safe cocoon of a lucrative franchise. It’s something to think about—not only in blogs, but in boardrooms as well.


Auto motives.

For those who bemoan the fact that characters from the Grand Theft Auto III era have not and will not appear in Grand Theft Auto IV and Grand Theft Auto V, I present to you the fact that they have appeared and will appear—simply in different incarnations. Rockstar Games has once again presented to its fans the world it built during the Grand Theft Auto III era. Yes, there is a new engine. Yes, the graphics have improved. However, the stories? The stories are the same.

This is far from a complaint. I was lamenting the lack of a female protagonist when I realized why we were not provided with one. Adding a lead character of a different gender would be a deviation from the pattern previously set forth. Rockstar Games has done an astounding job of updating the stories we all once gravitated to for this new era. And technology has advanced enough that providing an old story in a new way makes the story itself seem novel as well.

However, we still have a hard, quiet man of action struggling to make sense of the big, Northeastern American city. Claude’s story is Niko’s story—that of a young newcomer wading through the refuse of Liberty City’s underworld. We see them both form friendships that cross cultures, discover rich patrons, and bounce back from the duplicitous actions of former tentative allies—all in all, the immigrant’s rise to riches, the outsider made good.

Grand Theft Auto V brings us newer versions of Tommy Vercetti and Carl Johnson. The names and decades have changed; however, the premise remains the same. C.J. and Franklin are both young black men living in Los Santos and engaged in small-time criminal activity. They will both likely provide a bridge connecting the worlds of inner-city poverty and wealthy celebrity. Finally, Tommy and Michael are both men who were deeply enmeshed in the world of organized crime and had to take drastic measures to sever ties. Both were successful and managed to benefit financially afterwards.

The characters even resemble each other physically to the point where fans questioned if they were actually seeing a return of the characters they once loved.

For the most part? They are.


Raiding the fridge.

Ah, poor Ron Rosenberg, executive producer of the upcoming and latest game in the Tomb Raider franchise. His words have been dissected, examined, and strewn across the blogosphere. And I, like many others, slide in hand, have decided to take my turn at the microscope.

“When people play Lara, they don’t really project themselves into the character.”

Ron Rosenberg

The problem with Rosenburg’s statement is that Rosenburg refers to people when he actually means men. Women, such as myself, who have played multiple games in the Tomb Raider franchise can and do identify with the lead character—even when the similarities are as minor as being the same gender as the heroine. To believe otherwise is to underestimate the audience, something that has been done frequently and consistently in the gaming industry. This underestimation results in a staleness that stems from the refusal of many companies to explore new worlds, new cultures, and new stories. However, there are a handful of companies willing to buck the trend. These companies are often rewarded for their risks with success—Rockstar (Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas) and Valve (Left 4 Dead) being two that spring to mind. Though grumbling initially occurred, and the grumbling was quite vocal and widespread, fans did welcome protagonists such as CJ and Louis. Still, let us set aside the slight moral growth of fandom for a moment and assume that though men can accept a protagonist of a different race and “project themselves into” that character (which men of color have been doing since the development of video games), playing as a character of a different gender simply obliterates said projection. What if we accept what Rosenberg says as true?

“They’re more like ‘I want to protect her.’ … When you see her have to face these challenges, you start to root for her in a way that you might not root for a male character.”

Ron Rosenberg

That you? Once again, male. And yet, men are not the only purchasers of video games. Men are not the only purchasers of action adventures. I have purchased and played multiple games featuring a fearless and headstrong Lara Croft. I’ve enjoyed that incarnation of the character. Others, female and male, have as well. However, the desires of these individuals are not as important as the need to cater to the chauvinism of a certain subset of men who cannot fathom the idea of a woman, even a pixelated one, as a heroic and powerful lead. And I truly believe kowtowing to the sexist urge to “protect the little lady” will make for a slightly less enjoyable game.

Had I wanted to protect Niko Bellic, a character I adored but did not identify with—and yet still had no problem “projecting myself into”—I would have simply refused to begin the story provided by the developer. I would have taken the character on an endless array of bowling excursions and shopping trips. I would have played Grand Theft Auto IV as I play The Sims 2. Luckily, I do not play action adventure games to protect the protagonist with whom I have allied myself. I play them (1) to be privy to a great story and (2) to amass as much power for the protagonist as possible. I am a calculating strategist and a voyeur, not a caretaker. And I do not think I am alone in being that type of gamer.

“[W]e’re sort of building her up and just when she gets confident, we break her down again.”

Ron Rosenberg

I want to delve further into the goal of amassing power. Not only do action adventures provide gamers with a great story, they also provide a form of escapism—a power fantasy to mitigate the stress and tedium of everyday life. I play games because within them, vicariously through the characters I play, I can accomplish things I will never have the chance to even attempt in my lifetime. I can explore alien planets, ram the driver who cut me off on the freeway, and brazenly breeze through shoot-outs with ease. I can be immensely powerful.

“Lara Croft will suffer. Her best friend will be kidnapped. She’ll get taken prisoner by island scavengers. And then, Rosenberg says, those scavengers will try to rape her.”

Jason Schreier

It has often been said that rape is about power, not sex. It is the removal of one’s power and agency through a sexual act. Ergo, it is the last act to which the lead character of a power fantasy should fall victim. And this rule is closely followed—when the character is male.

It is interesting to note that in Grand Theft Auto IV, one learns about two horrific rapes by playing side missions. The lead character, Niko Bellic, admits that he has kept the news of his aunt being brutally raped and murdered from his cousin. Later, a supporting character, Packie, admits that he and his brothers were molested by his father as young children. However, Niko is adamant that he has not been raped during his stint in prison and snidely makes a comment concerning the difference between European prisons and their American counterparts. In a later sequel to the popular game, lead character Luis Lopez, also an ex-con, clearly indicates that he was not raped in prison and was able to fend off all attacks. We do not want to see the protagonist, our vessel for the adventure, as weak or vulnerable. The protagonist acts; he is not acted upon. Why should this outlook change due to a change in gender? Does such a simple switch make the vessel unsuitable?

If so, perhaps the problem is with the player, not the game.