“… And I killed a hooker as soon as I put on the mask.” says Ntacman.
“why did you kill her?” queries The Author.
“she was jeopardizing my stealth ranking.” rationalized Ntacman.
My instinctive response was, “Man, I would pay good money for a game that detailed the story of that prostitute” which resulted in an inquiry concerning where I get my drugs.
This is both a funny anecdote and a real problem. We are in an era where video games are becoming a viable medium for storytelling, and yet women serve one of three roles: The Savior of the Hero, the Damsel in Distress, and The Funbags of Destiny. Occasionally we get cases like Samus Aran, but the best attempt of a coherent back-story we ever got out of her was about how she became the ultimate bounty hunter and savior of genetic diversity across the universe by desperately seeking the approval of a man that wasn’t even her CO anymore. Seriously, Team Ninja, the gameplay of Other M was awesome, but to have Samus Aran, Queen Bitch of the Galaxy, refuse to use the bulk of her world-ending arsenal (literally, anyone remember The Fall of Zebes?) on the orders of a cute boy? Dude, how little respect do you have if you can make Samus the tragic sidekick in her own story?
Now, I promise this entire essay won’t be about what’s wrong with Metroid : Other M, but we need to talk about this as a community. As I said before, from a gameplay perspective, Other M was a stunning game, and to many out there, that’s all it had to be, but for people of my generation, (oh dear, roll out the breathing tube and the wheelchair) Samus was an icon. She was strong, independent, and packed an arsenal greater than the whole of the Space Pirate civilization in a suit that was neither revealing or demeaning (and if you lived in The Author’s household, she was also a cat, I was 7 years old with a crush, I have a thing for angry women, get off my back). She was almost a divinity in her own right. An unstoppable force of ‘Capital G’ Good with few compunctions against confronting ally and enemy alike to save the innocence of a baby, but now, unless we act quickly, the CoD generation will know her as ‘the hot blonde in the battle armor with nice tits that cried over the space-jellyfish’.
Okay, my grievances with Other M are not even close to being out of my system, but I’ve said all I can say without my aunt singing me off stage. We need real women in our games. I won’t posit this as a subject for discussion, or an opinion. I posit this as an objective fact. We have ridden Mai Shiranui (or however you spell it) and Ivy Valentine as far as they can take us and if we don’t either switch rails or throw the brake on that train, then the tracks will end abruptly at a cliff-side. While sexuality, both gross and sensual, are definitely a capability of our medium, (sexuality in games, essay seed, first one of the night) we are not peddlers of pornography or practitioners of sexual slavery. In this essay, I plan on discussing the current roles of women in video games and a more respectful way to tackle the issue of femininity in games.
Now, I understand that as a male I can never hope to have any real grip on any female perspective, but I’ve watched a lot of the YouTube channel Feminist Frequency lately and hope that maybe a male voice speaking in support of Anita Sarkhesian might get some of our more vitriolic associates to shut up and listen. Let us begin with the intro of this essay.
A life cut short, no older than 25 years old. Shot down after an existence of strife and confusion. This is the story of 90% of the “bitches” in games like Grand Theft Auto and Payday. Did she have kids? How many? A boyfriend? A girlfriend? When was the last time she talked to her parents? Did she have a pimp or was she freelance? Why was she in the alley behind the bank on the day that Ntacman decided to make a withdrawal? Was that her usual corner? Was she going to take out a loan to start her hair salon? Maybe she was trying to get out of the life, maybe she was never in the life and was just taking a shortcut. We will never know because she wasn’t important, she didn’t even have a name. I bring up this woman because she serves as a perfect cross section of every streetwalker, drug dealer and pimp in every game of the Urban Mayhem genre, regardless of sex (I know my mom is reading this, Urban Mayhem is the genre designation for games like Payday, Grand Theft Auto, and Saint’s Row, and while this is not the entirety of what happens in these games, what you see in the news is an element).
I know all I have done so far is complain and moan about GTA and Metroid, unfortunately this is an issue that currently has far more questions than answers. Part of the issue is what I mentioned in my first essay. When we were kids video games were marketed as something to shut your 6 year old up while you cooked dinner. Unfortunately, even amongst those of us who grew up as gamers, this stigma has stuck. Subconsciously many of us still think “Ah, it’s just a game!” (Just a game, another essay seed, I really need to write down a list for these). This causes many of our devs to think, “Hey, boys like boobs and vaginas, why don’t we just throw a matching set in as a reward, let the kids use them as they please.” but this is no longer acceptable and it probably never was. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve thrown San Andreas in the disk tray and taken out my frustrations on the local criminal element more times than I care to count, Hell, for the sake of full disclosure, I’ve even loaded up Soul Calibur 2 and set up automated battles to watch simply because the female move sets were more ornate compared to the male ones which were primarily about being pseudo-mobile walls of steel, and I’m not saying we need to stop this all together. I’m just saying we are ready for more.
Let us continue into the first of the 3 roles I mentioned earlier, The Savior of the Hero. Find enclosed Alex Vance. “What are you talking about? Alex was an awesome female character!” Stop right there. No she was not. I’m going to recap the story of Half-Life for you before I make my argument. Gordon Freeman was a theoretical physicist of great renown, working on a project at Black Mesa that aimed to build the first functional portal device. He succeeded horribly. His team succeeded in inventing a quantum tunneling device that worked by boring a hole through Zen, the Borderworld, the quasi-real space between this universe and the infinite others. He fought back the waves of aliens, and dealt a critical blow to a creature we all assumed to be some sort of leader, but before he could finish closing his portals, the G-man came and removed him from time and space. 20 years later he gets dropped in City 17 where he narrowly escapes the Combine (a universe-spanning empire from another plane of existence) and meets Alex Vance, the cute, spunky freedom fighter serving as second-in-command to the resistance.
Do you see the issue? She is a veteran of a 20 some-odd year war with an alien race so advanced that the assumed racial leader of humanity could say naught but “Do what you want just don’t kill us”. This war has been going on for longer than she’s been alive. Yet she faces every day with a smile and a flirtatious wink, scratching behind the ear of her giant robot, named Dog, who plays fetch (and not, say, paint the streets with Combine blood). This is not a grizzled war veteran. This is not the leader of humanity’s last line of defense. This is a happy pixie waiting to be swept up in a whirlwind romance with Sam Becket from Quantum Leap. Of course you like her, that is her only purpose, she exists to give Gordon a reason to fight the Combine (and not, say, use Black Mesa’s tunneling device to find a universe that he hasn’t messed up yet). This is not the behavior of an individual who has spent the entirety of her 20 some-odd year life experiencing the inter-dimensional version of the Trenches of France.
There is an offshoot of the Savior of the Hero that requires a quick mention. Anita Sarkhesian referred to her as the “Girl in the Refrigerator”. I would go into detail as to the origin behind the term but I’m not that kind of Orc (voice acting, one for the list). Long story short this is a variant of the Savior of the Hero in which the woman serves her role by dying ‘heroically’ to give the real hero of the story a reason to undertake his mission. A perfect example of this is Aerith Gainsborough (or Aeris, depending on your localization, my first playthrough was on a disk that listed her as Aeris. Oh dear, Translations and Localizations, another for the list). Squaresoft incentivised her massively. She was the perfect healer. She was fun to watch in cutscenes, she was sensual and sexy without being crass or even overt. You even got a romantic date with her if you got 100% on the sub-quest where you had to (hilariously) dress Cloud as a woman (sexual diversity, I should make a game of how many seeds I can squeeze out of each essay. I’m going to be writing for a very long time).
You spend the entire first third of the game romancing the flower girl from the slums, and what do you get? A ‘fun’ cutscene at the end of disk 1 where one of the 3 greatest sex symbols in all of gaming skewers her like a holiday roast, providing the overcompensating mercenary in purple (character inspiration, take a drink) with a reason to hate and eventually murder his own brother (twice, 4 times if you consider all the clones, and 5 times if you count Sephiroth’s defeat and Kadaj’s death seperate cases, oh, and recurring villains, that’s 2 in 1 sentence for those who are counting). Also, for the record, she couldn’t have been that important if Cloud was having post-victory sex with Tifa less than a month later (December 27th 0007 εγλ and January 14th 0008 εγλ respectively, check it, beginning of disk 3).
Moving on before I have an aneurism. Let us continue to The Damsel in Distress. I know Anita Sarkhesian already talked about this in Tropes vs. Women, but because I’m a completionist, (achievements, take a drink) I shall iterate on her statement. I direct attention to Dinosaur Planet. It featured a fox named Crystal whom wielded a magical staff and fought to protect the planet of dinosaurs. You may not recognize it by this name, because the game was never released in this form. It was swiped by Shigeru Miyamoto and re-purposed as Star Fox Adventures, featuring space mercenary Fox McCloud. The name Crystal is starting to sound familiar right? That is because the point of the game was to rescue an anthropomorphic fox-girl named Crystal. The main character of Dinosaur Planet was now relegated to Damsel-in-Waiting while the ‘real’ hero took her staff and used it to fight back the dinos.
This is not a lone example, it is merely one of the most extreme, I won’t spend the next 3 pages talking about Peach, but let’s quickly go over her back story. Kidnapped by Donkey Kong, Kidnapped by Bowser, kidnapped by Bowser again, kidnapped by Bowser again, repeat ad nauseum. There was one game where she wasn’t kidnapped and we found out at the end that it wasn’t because of any level of competence, it was because Mario was having a dream where his girl didn’t get yanked. If you’ve watched our affiliated YouTube channel, (see Need Additional Pylons) Carson even posted a theory as to why she keeps getting grabbed (spoiler, she isn’t getting kidnapped).
This brings us to female role number 3 in our lineup, The Funbags of Destiny. I coined this term myself due to a very interesting and (at times) funny observation. For the purpose of rhetoric, have you noticed that the woman chosen by Destiny, beloved of the gods, or whatever variant the particular lore set you love uses also has a pair of gravitational anomalies attached to her chest and weighs less than 140 lbs? This brings us to Ivy Valentine, Grand Summoner Yuna, Mai Shiranui, Jaina Proudmore and the entire cast of Dead or Alive Beach Volleyball (yes, mom, that was a game, they tried to sell the piece of rot on a mechanic that has thankfully never since seen the light of day called ‘Jiggle Physics’. Not our proudest moment as an industry). I wont go into great detail, as the term largely defines itself, but the Funbags of Destiny is a trope in which developers attempt to draw attention away from the male-centered story of a game by putting playable (or at least story-affecting) women into predominant roles. Being a man, I know that this is never done with the intention of reducing all women to the role of fan-service (TRIGGER WARNING! Mom, that’s when a female character is put in unrealistically sexual circumstances, be it the chainmail bikini or the implied rape scene from the Tomb Raider reboot) but that doesn’t change the effect.
“Author, why are you taking potshots at the female form? So what if women are beautiful?” stop right there. Breasts are made of, among other things, fat. I spent 20 minutes writing this paragraph because I had no idea where to even start tackling everything wrong with that statement. I will start with the following : have you ever even seen a real woman? Let me qualify that, by ‘seen a real woman’ I’m not even referring to the obvious sexual context. Jokes about male gamers and sexual experience aside, have you ever stepped outside of your house and looked at a female? Disregarding any sweeping generalizations, have you ever seen 1 with Double Ds and no body fat? Have you ever even seen a female with massive genetically anomalous breasts that didn’t have posture issues? Do you mean to look me in the eye (or in your situation, screen) and tell me that someone, male or female, carrying around 20 lbs of luggage 24 hours a day is anywhere near capable of a 10 foot high triple side flip to helmbreaker?
Let me stop you right there, I know the obvious statement. “What is your problem with letting us have something fun to stare at?” Nothing. Nothing at all. Every person on the planet needs something fun to stare at occasionally. This is true for individuals of any sexual configuration. My issue is that the question, “Is it eye candy?” is as far as we’re getting. I’m not even saying that all games need to make use of fully realized female characters. Hell, I’ve read and enjoyed The Twilight Saga (all 4 books) and there isn’t one (with the ironic exception of Bree Tanner) fully realized and fleshed character in there. No medium on the planet expects 100% of their entries to have fully realized examples of any sexual configuration. My problem is that among all the video games I’ve ever played, (which is a lot) I can name 3 fully fleshed, strong females. Samus Aran, Grand Summoner Yuna and (maybe) Cortana, if I’m feeling generous (and no, I will not include FemShep because your gender in Mass Effect is variable with the male variant of Shepard being the default in promotional material). That is 3 individuals in the literally hundreds of video games I’ve played containing thousands of female characters. That is pathetic.
I would like to take this opportunity to step back a little. The folks at Extra Credits helped me realize a few things in their Diversity series. Our medium has barely gotten it’s head around male issues, such is true. Games like The Walking Dead are just now starting to talk about subjects like fatherhood with any level of maturity, and it wasn’t until GTA 5 that we saw a protagonist that really discussed the issues faced by males that aren’t muscle bound jarheads. Hell, Spec Ops. The Line is the first game that I know of that even acknowledged that one-man-armies like Duke Nukem or Doomguy might actually suffer from some pretty intense PTSD as a result of their superhuman feats of combat prowess. Admittedly, I haven’t played Spec Ops. yet but you can bet your sweet behind it’s on my list (realistic war heroes in games, I’m on a roll tonight).
After every paragraph I write I do a quick editing sweep of the whole essay to make sure its all coherent, and I just realized I’ve done a lot of complaining and not a lot of resolving. With that in mind I would like to talk about steps we can take to begin to resolve the quagmire that is gender diversity. There is no silver bullet, Hell, I’m not even certain there’s a bronze bullet, or even a ‘thanks for trying’ bullet. I could say it would be fixed partially by taking more women in management roles at our studios, but that will happen with time. I would suggest not assuming that weeping, cooking and breastfeeding are every woman’s top 3 activities, but that sounds accusatory. I could recommend applying the Bechdel test to every game you make, while that is a solid suggestion its only good for identifying a female perspective, not guaranteeing a strong female character.
Instead I’m going to pull a Bobby Fisher and just start throwing job seeds out there to anyone listening. Maybe if we start with these exercises in the independent field the craze will spread. I hope someone will read this essay and decide that one of these game seeds is a good idea. I would take a swing myself but I’m currently too broke to bankroll my own video game. Upon reflection, managing my own firm may be pretty fun. Before my aunt starts singing I’m going to stop daydreaming and start listing some story seeds. Please feel free to try any of these. I don’t put my real name on any of these essays so that if anyone wants to try out anything they read here there’s no one who can make a reasonable lawsuit. Just try it out, it worked like a charm with progen.
Here’s the first idea. Metroid : Other M attempted to use motherhood as a frame of reference for Samus’s actions. I suggest going the next step and making your game entirely about motherhood. This can be done in multiple ways. We can tackle the love involved with being a mother, think Heavy Rain except instead of a 30-something white male we could make it a Latina single-mother who comes home to a surprisingly empty house. We could tackle the sacrifice of motherhood. Okay, I can hear people in the background snickering. Something about 9 months and an eternity trapped in the kitchen. If I thought of it at least a thousand of you did too. Ill wait for you to get it out of your system. Okay, let us continue. Imagine playing a game where you are a middle eastern wife and mother. You live in, let’s say, some town in Massachusetts, United States. You have 2 lovely kids, but your husband is a real monster, so you divorce him and run off to, let’s say, another town in Massachusetts, but he follows you and you are forced to flee again. The entire game revolves around finding safe houses across the country and investing in home defenses to protect your children. This game could play like any tower defense. It could even play like a big title such as Heavy Rain. How far would you go to protect your children? Would you run? Would you kill? Would you die?
How about a second game seed? We could tackle the trouble of being a woman in a man’s world. Off of the top of my head let me see if I can get a good game idea. You are a space marine, brownshooter marine, whatever (note to mom, a brownshooter is a sub-genre of shooter that focuses on the ‘hardcore realistic’ aesthetic of being in the military, named for the current obsession with desaturated browns and grays to simulate ‘real-war’ environments). You serve as a soldier in any real or imagined military you want. You believe in the cause just as much as Master Chief or Sargent Ramirez, but does that mean you have to deal with the men throwing tampons at you in the barracks every time you get grazed by a bullet? Does it mean you have to deal with daily mess hall duty because of your sexist CO? At what point is it okay to punch that one other Jarhead in the mouth for ‘stumbling’ into the wrong shower 2 or 3 times a week? You tried reporting it to your CO but as you voice your complaint further up the chain, the response shifts away from “Nut up and deal, soldier.” to “Maybe someone of your stature would be better suited away from combat duty.” and eventually to “Doesn’t a woman have better things to do than flirt with men then report them for reacting?” culminating in disciplinary hearing after disciplinary hearing for disrupting squad morale. Would it be still be fun to play Halo if you don’t get to lead the raid on High Charity because your constant ‘trouble making’ has prevented you from getting past the rank of Corporal?
I am going to try to squeeze a third one out because, as you know, 3 is my favourite number. I’m going to aim a little bit outside the examples of the last 2 story seeds. How about we try to do a gender swap? Lets make a game about being a man in a woman’s world. Admittedly, this seed is not nearly as easy as the low-hanging fruit listed earlier, and is rife with opportunity to mess it up. Because of this I will try to be as specific as possible to avoid the giggles of the CoDheads. Lets start simple, you live in a world where Han Solo is a woman, Leia is the Jedi of legend, and Luke is the bimbo chained to the slug. In this universe, women wear business suits and men tend to the homestead. Women shoot first, women shoot aliens, and this universe’s Kratos is known only as an extra in a disgusting minigame. You are a man in this world. How does life feel? All of your best gear resembles little more than a loincloth held in place by scotch tape. Your biggest role in this universe is someone for a woman to use as an object then forget about when it’s time to slay the dragon. How does it feel to be little more than the pressure release valve for the more aggressive half of your civilization?
This seed has far more places to go wrong. Its easy to say something like this, “A world where women want nothing but sex? I get to stay home all day and enjoy a good game of tickle and poke every night? Sign me up!”. I had to pause again here because I had no idea how to even tackle how messed up that statement is. In this universe you are not what we consider a man. Yes, you are genetically male, yes, you have all of the associated anatomy, but in this universe you, your father and his father were all taught to be the weaker half of the world. You believe in your heart that being allowed to shoot guns and have lots of women is a morally corrupt thing to wish for. If you meet a woman that’s worth settling down with then you lose all association with your family, as well as your name, if you want something other than a place to sleep and lots of offspring, then you’re a degenerate and an anomaly. Just try to keep in mind that this version of Arthas is expected to stay home and weep while Jaina seeks her grim destiny in the north.
This list is far from exhaustive, these 3 plot seeds were just off the top of my head in 5 minutes and I could come up with another 5 or 6 with a full afternoon to meditate on it. We don’t even have to plumb the depths of womanhood to come up with strong female stories. I’m a male of indeterminate age, have been my entire life, and I could come up with these 3 ideas in less than 5 minutes. I’m sure that you could too. Come on, we’re gamers, we came up with a story about a multi-incarnate elf paladin with a fairy companion that didn’t come across as completely lame. We made a badass out of a drug-addled Italian stereotype. Hell, we told a compelling story about a nephilim seeking to depose the very megacorporations that made us a cultural force 10 years ago (listen to me, angel/demon hybrid. Inaccurate terminology in games, on the list). Don’t tell me we can’t come up with a good story just because the main character lacks male genitalia.