For Christmas, I managed to get the three games that I’d been looking forward to the most at the end of 2017 – Shadow of War, Mario Odyssey, and Wolfenstein II. I intentionally stopped buying games around September, so my loved ones would have some options for gifts this year, instead of looking at my ever growing TO BE PLAYED pile and cursing my name.
All three star white male protagonists, as per usual, but Shadow of War had something interesting via a Expansion Pass – a black male protagonist and a female protagonist coming in additional story content.
This got me thinking, and not about how I was right that the microtransactions in Shadow of War were totally not a big deal at all and people were blowing it out of proportion because it’s a single player game. Instead it had me looking back over 2017, and some of the incredible games released that all starred female heroes or had strong independent female characters, and wondering if this trend is going to continue into 2018?
Industry Sexism: digitally engrained
It’s not breaking news to say that female representation in the gaming industry has had quite a few problems over the years. I’m not informed enough to lay out the many Bechdel test failures, not to mention all the hyper-sexualized characters that have been used as bait or eye candy since our princess was first in another castle. Anita Sarkeesian and Feminist Frequency speak to these issues far better than I can, but one aspect I decided I could talk about with all these new women characters was the play style itself.
What I mean is that gaming companies seem to cater to a particular female play style – in that female characters are often required to be played much more cautiously than male ones, and the industry has been rewarding that style of play for quite some time. It was something I first noticed myself playing Shadow of Mordor right after playing through Crystal Dynamics’ Tomb Raider reboot.
On the surface, there are some similarities in gameplay: stealth, hidden rewards found through special senses, sneak attacks, silent bow kills, and exploration. Yet when looking at our player characters, the difference in how the game is oriented to a certain play style is stark.
Talion can walk into an orc village, do his Batman-with-a-sword impersonation, and start decapitating left and right without any penalty. Many of his missions involve you walking into a trap set by a Warchief in order to draw them out, and to prove yourself against his underlings before you get a chance at the top dog. After a brutal decapitation, Talion sheaths his sword, makes a crack about the dead enemy, and heads on to the next battle.
Lara? Take a look at this early level at about the 2 minute mark:
“Just go along with them Lara!” She’s captured, bound, and pistol whipped. Then she has to sneak through the level avoiding detection, but if one of the many gun toting antagonists find her, it’s a instant death. If you make it to the 4:30 mark in that video, she’s discovered, pulled out of hiding, sniffed creepily and then finally gets her chance to fight back…which after dispatching her enemy she proceeds to break down in tears.
That’s a pretty dramatic difference. To be fair to Tomb Raider (which I loved and played voraciously) she gets over those jitters and ends up murdering half the island over the rest of the game, but that stealth mode of cautious and silent advancement still feels like the preferred method.
This is just one of the many examples of a female player character being perceived as weaker and who’s play style seems to emphasize avoiding danger. It extends all the way back to the first female protagonist of note in my own gaming career- Princess Peach in Super Mario Bros. 2.
Making the girl wear the pink dress and giving her the slowest lifting speed and lowest health seemed fine if you also give her the best float jump in the game, but on reflection – you’re essentially being rewarded with the ability to avoid enemies and to complete difficult jumps easier. Also, is it her dress that lets her float? Has anyone addressed that? It’s one more example of – Let’s protect that weak and frail girl character, and show how great the male is when he wades into danger.
If you want more context in how this boys vs girls divide has been with video games since the Nintendo Entertainment System reinvented the industry, this article No Girls Allowed by Tracy Lien is an amazing read, and far more eloquent to this ongoing built-in bias.
2017: A New day rising?
In the past year, we’ve seen some cracks in this ongoing play style divergence. Just look at the list of very strong women characters we’ve seen in incredibly popular games – Aloy in Horizon Zero Dawn, Chloe and Nadine in Uncharted Lost Legacy, 2B from Nier, Sensua in Hellblade, Iden Versio from Star Wars Battlefront (ok, popular might be a strong term here), Chloe from Life is Strange, and Billie Lurk from Dishonored. These are all characters who fully carry the game’s narrative on their shoulders, and while stealth might be a part of the game, it’s not the default play style for these ladies. They can and do kick ass and take names as much as needed, and are not portrayed as anything different than what they actually are – a vessel for players escapism.
With most of the women in the list above appearing exclusively on the PS4, and the Xbox still playing catch up this generation, the only company that seems to be keeping the status quo is Nintendo.
Their two biggest releases last year reworked that same old chestnut of a captured princess waiting for her pudgy mustachioed knight or her silent elfin hero to come smack the dragon/pig -demon around. When pressed on whether or not the player character could be female in the early days after the first BoTW trailer launched, the excuse Eji Aonuma came up with landed with quite a thud.
I will say that Breath of the Wild might be one of my favorite games of all time, and that playing Super Mario Odyssey with my son is near perfection. I just hope that with Samus Aran coming back in 2019, and with a BoTW sequel in development, maybe Zelda can finally get her chance at saving Link, or Peach can avoid getting Bowsernapped in the first place.
Optimism for the future
Call me crazy, but if this is the tip of the iceberg, then I’m happy we’re seeing this shift finally happen and I’m optimistic this trend can continue. With 42% or more of the gaming audience being women, more representation is always welcome.
If Aloy becomes the avatar of what we see in the future – protagonists whose gender is beside the point, then she’s leading by pretty excellent example. As a woman from a matriarchal society, the game doesn’t have to constantly show her as competing against the male dominated world. Lara might be subjected to binding and sniffing, but while her power comes from escaping it, Aloy’s power is just in her character set. She’s competent, she’s an ass kicker, and she’s a compelling character first and foremost. Also? She’s fun as HELL to play, which I’ve done without my previous cautious and protective nature I gave to Ms. Croft. If the next steps are Aloy like protagonists, or Overwatch styled characters, where the sheer variety of play styles is independent of their gender, then we might be on to something much more representative and valued for this multi billion dollar industry.
If 2017 was the start, can 2018 keep up this drive forward, using gender, race, culture and more to truly be representative of the diverse audiences that play games? With billions of dollars on the line, it feels like this can make both cultural and monetary sense. Let’s hope this is the tipping point, so that in the future everyone gets a chance to see themselves represented in a pixelated avatar on screen.