If you're driving north, up the west coast of Grand Theft Auto V, as I did in the 40th hour I was playing the game, you might spot a crashed car smouldering in the long ditch between the northbound and southbound lanes. The car doesn't appear there every time. The man who was in the car appears to be dead. A woman lies nearby, presumably thrown from the vehicle. She's alive, but she's hurt. She is asking for help. She's one of GTA V's strongest female characters, though in this game, she only gets a handful of lines.
The woman's name is Taliana Martinez. You learn this as you slow down enough to help her out. She'll get in your car, after which you'll be able to drive her to a clinic to get medical attention. Along the way, she'll tell you her story.
Of the three GTA protagonists, I was playing as Franklin when I met Taliana. The conversation was between the two of them.
Taliana was the getaway driver for a crew of crooks who screwed up. One of them got caught. She blamed herself, to some extent, but she didn't blame herself for the crash. The guy who was in the car with her -- her remaining partner -- had pulled a knife on her. They crashed. He got what was coming to him.
Taliana is a low-level, rough-edged crook. In that way, she was like the Franklin I had started playing 40 hours earlier. In the 40 hours since, Franklin had met another of GTA V's playable protagonists, Michael, who became his mentor. In the scene with Taliana, the now-seasoned Franklin is, however briefly Michael to this new, young criminal's Franklin.
The Taliana scene seems to occur somewhat randomly. I'd driven past the part of the highway where she had crashed before. I'm not sure why it was there in my 40th hour. By that time, I only had one major heist left available to me in the game. So, when I dropped Taliana off to get medical attention and saw that this activated her as an available driver for any future heists, I decided I'd add her to my crew. A few minutes later, while planning the game's big final heist, I chose Taliana. That action amounted to virtually pinning her black and white photo to a planning board.
I noticed that Taliana's stats -- her grades as a henchman -- were high. But the portion of the take she was asking for from this big heist was low.
Michael was at the planning scene. As I lingered on Taliana's picture, he said something. "This girl, Taliana, she's supposed to be good, and she'll work for way less than she's worth, if you'll believe that."
Taliana: a talented woman who will work for less money. Social commentary, folks. Or maybe it was just a signal from the game's designers that choosing her was the most cost-efficient option for this decision in the game. You're trying to get the most skilled help for the least amount of money to maximise Michael, Franklin and Trevor's profits and progress in the game, after all. Taliana's not playable. Her progress doesn't count.
And that's pretty much it. Taliana is a good driver. She performs her part of the heist without any problems, at least in the version of the game's grand, final robbery that I played.
And, yes, that's what amounts to a respectable female character in Grand Theft Auto V. Of the dozens of characters with speaking roles in the game, of the many women featured as bit players in Rockstar's new epic, Taliana Martinez is the rare woman in the game who isn't the butt of a joke. She's the rare example of a female character you'd feel good about rooting for.
There has been a lot of talk recently about how Grand Theft Auto games treat women.
It's come up in several of the major reviews for GTA V. In an otherwise glowing review, GameSpot's critic labelled the new game as "profoundly misogynistic," charging that the game presents "exaggerations of misogynistic undercurrents in our own society, but not satirical ones. With nothing in the narrative to underscore how insane and wrong this is, all the game does is reinforce and celebrate sexism."
Similarly, The New York Times' GTA V reviewer criticised the game's "lack of interest in women as something other than lustful airheads."
GTA V's treatment of women came up before the reviews, in essays about the lack of playable female characters in the storyline campaign of this GTA and in the 10 or so GTAs before it.
It's come up in an interview with the game's lead writer, Dan Houser, who told The Guardian that GTA V's expanded cast of three playable characters lacks a woman because "the concept of being masculine was so key to this story."
Is GTA V having trouble with women? Yes. But I want to think that a GTA V with more Taliana Martinezes is possible.
I'm torn about all of this.
Torn because there's so much I like about Grand Theft Auto V that I'd like to like everything about it.
Torn because the role and depiction of playable protagonists is so different from those of the series' supporting cast that to wish for respectable female protagonists feels like something radically different than to simply wish for a more enlightened GTA worldview.
Torn because some of the old criticisms about being able to sleep with prostitutes and then kill them to get your money back felt off-base to me.
Torn because I'm an optimist and want to believe that there are more Taliana Martinezes in the game and think that a GTA V with more Taliana Martinezes is something possible.
Is GTA V having trouble with women? Yes. Despite it's incredible scope and scale, I'm not sure it ever manages to pass the Bechdel Test. But I'm loathe to say it's got everything wrong, because I see the green chutes of the Taliana Martinezes in there and I want to believe there's still a way to get to a GTA that gets this stuff better.
Many of the defenses I've seen of GTA V's treatment of women are that it's a game -- and part of a series -- that makes fun of everyone. It is true. It does. It makes fun of politicians, makes fun of bankers, makes fun of iPhone line-waiters, marijuana legalization activists, makes fun of all sorts of people.
Here's a scene early in the game where it makes fun of the worst versions of the people who might be playing the game (the voice you're hearing is Michael's son, the perpetually obnoxious, lazy pothead Jimmy):
Here's the jogger Mary Ann, one of the few female quest-givers in GTA V. She's both a spot-on send-up to people obsessed with running (I should know) and yet also one of many of GTA V's women who are presented to mock how men and women do or don't get along:
Profane and lurid as the game is, it's occasionally refreshingly progressive. You can see that in this scene from an optional mission available to Michael early in the game. But... watch it play out... watch it go from expressing a tolerance for homosexuality rarely seen in games (let alone expressed by their protagonists)... watch it get past the mockery of a TMZ-style paparazzo... and you'll see a very GTA-style sex scene, one that makes all parties involved look like idiots and casts the woman involved as a slut. Yes, this not-safe-for-work scene has it all:
Does GTA V actually give men and women equal skewering? Here's Michael and his wife Amanda, from another mission fairly early in the game:
Michael comes off better, I think, though he takes his lumps, too. But there's this difference in Grand Theft Auto between the Michaels -- the playable characters -- and the Jimmys/Amandas/paparazzi/starlets of a GTA world. Grand Theft Auto's supporting characters have always been fools and jerks and jokes. That's true for the male ones and the female ones. GTA V's supporting cast doesn't just lack respectable women; it lacks respectable men. Of the former, it certainly has more: the heist organiser Lester, the game's fictional movie producer and maybe Michael's friend Lamar aren't presented as satirical targets. On the female side of the ledger, I'd count Michael's ex-girlfriend, the aforementioned bit player Taliana and that's about it.
Grand Theft Auto games' main characters have been the ones we the players are meant to take more seriously. They're the ones who go through the game worlds rolling their eyes at the fools around them. This is the role Michael plays vis a vis his family. It's the role Franklin plays as he mocks his aunt's newfound sense of new-age empowerment. It's the role that Trevor bucks at by being an eccentric himself. But it is the role that perhaps was best available for a respectable female character in the game. And it's the role that Rockstar, in all of their Grand Theft Autos, has never cast for a woman (something I've repeatedly lamented for years). Imagine how different GTA's male and female supporting cast would feel if a female protagonist was witnessing and reacting to all these freaks and fools. I imagine it'd stretch the game's writers to explore some interesting new themes as well.
We don't, however, have a GTA V that stars a woman. Instead we have a GTA V that is wallpapered with jokes about sex addiction, skin care and strip clubs.
You be the judge about who the targets are here... women? Men? Women who think this way? The men who think this way about women who think this way?
We have a GTA that lets me get a lapdance from a topless woman, the surest sign of fan service to a presumably straight male gamer who won't be wondering where the male strippers are.
We have a GTA that lets me press a button to "make it rain"...
But let's also pause for a minute and talk about that, because Grand Theft Auto's handling of interactivity vis a vis women is worth some discussion.
Let's talk about that "make-it-rain" button. This, in a game that also lets me play darts in a bar, this in a game that lets me take selfies with my camera phone, this in a game that lets me pick up fares if I steal a taxi. Grand Theft Auto games are always making the littlest things in its world interactive. That's part of their charm. If it has a strip club, of course they'll add a make-it-ran button. And if there's a soda machine, it'll pop out a drink when you press its button. These games are full of interactivity, in as many ways as the designers can think of.
In an excellent essay for the New Yorker, Simon Parkin recently wondered how evil a game should allow you to be. A corollary to that is asking how interactive a game should be. If it has strip clubs, should you be able to order lap dances in them? If you can get lapdances, should you be able to touch the women? If the woman asks you to take her home, should you be able to do that? GTA V, like the GTAs before it, is perpetually answering "yes."
Who the targets are here... women? Men? Women who think this way? The men who think this way about women who think this way?
In the process of answering "yes" to all sorts of interactivity, Grand Theft Auto long ago let its male protagonists solicit prostitutes. In answering "yes" it long ago let you pick up money from people you killed. In being boyishly cheeky, it let you restore your character's health by sleeping with prostitutes. In being interactive at every turn, it let you give money to the prostitute for the service and let you claim the money from the prostitute after committing the main interaction available to the player vis a vis most of the characters in GTA's world: killing them. As an interlocking gameplay system operating in the milieu of a world where men behaving like pigs and you only being able to play as a man, the result is that you've long been able to kill prostitutes after you sleep with them. The sequence of actions is repulsive in the literal sense. As a gameplay system, it fits with the game's overarching design philosophy. (It's also rendered nearly irrelevant in GTA V thanks to the introduction of an automatically-regenerating health system.)
For critics of GTA, now is a good time to discuss whether GTA's designers should be saying no to some of the things they make interactive or should simply say yes to more. I'd vote for the latter. Perhaps Grand Theft Auto V itself will prove to be a laboratory for that as it expands next month into the ever-expanding Grand Theft Auto Online. I'm going to play that game as a woman, to see how its missions feel and to see if, in time, she gets to make it rain at a male strip club.
When I think about GTA V and its handling of women, I keep going back to Taliana Martinez. I've begun thinking about her as a visitor from some alternate-world GTA.
She's the kind of character who seems like she could have had a whole GTA all about her. Think about how she enters this game,
Picture the mission that introduced her that I described at the start of this piece. Picture the events she described that led her into that ditch. Imagine if those events were part of this other GTA V and that we played them as Taliana. Imagine that she is who you're playing as when she meets with Franklin. Franklin's just some sidequest guy.
Picture Taliana as the star. I can imagine her violent entry into GTA V as some sort of crashing through from this alternate GTA V. In that version of the game, the three playable protagonists include two men and a woman -- her. They meet early on, and in their 40th hour of play time, they try to rob a bank or something.
The heist goes wrong, and we're forced to play as Taliana, flooring it in the getaway car, streaming up the west coast of a fictional California. Then the other surviving main character pulls a knife on her.
We crash into a ditch that lies between the northbound and southbound traffic. The knife guy dies.
And, in the surprise coda, we survive, picked up off the side of the road by a criminal named Franklin who gives us a chance -- one last real chance -- to help a crew pull off a final score. Whatever happens next could match the real ending of the GTA V we have (no, I'm not going to spoil that for you.)
I'd play that. I hope Rockstar would make that. I'd never think about a GTA the same way again.