The ladies I love
The discussion of women’s under-representation or, rather, unpleasant representation in video games is one that’s been going on for a bloody long time. It reached new and more heated levels in May, when Anita Sarkeesian, creator of Feminist Frequency, decided to start a Kickstarter project titled Tropes vs. Women in Video Games. The series will — not surprisingly — look at the various ways female characters have been squeezed into less than positive stereotypes in an effort to pander, presumably, to the libido’s of young men on top of a whole bunch of other issues that quite a lot of folk are understandably miffed about.
The Kickstarter was an unmitigated success, but one cursed by human stupidity, with the most embarrassing humans crawling out of the woodwork to offer their “views” on the subject. Their views, of course, being “enlightened” things that I’d rather not waste my time repeating here. They aren’t exactly hard to find. Cocks and kitchens feature prominently.
Now, I’m a feminist in so far as I think women should have the same rights and respect as men. But I also make terrible, off colour jokes that can easily be interpreted as me being a misogynistic arse-hole. I’m probably the last person who could bring anything insightful to this particular debate. So it’s a good thing that other, classier people have chatted up a storm on the subject and presented us fine folk with hours and hours of videos and fine reading. There’s also a lot of hateful, disgusting vitriol too — if you like looking at car crashes. Instead of getting bogged down in discussing the liberation of the fairer sex… can I say fairer sex anymore? (Help me out ladies, I’m sinking already) Okay, I’ll err on the side of caution. Instead of getting bogged down in discussing the liberation of that other gender, I’m just going to spend some time reminding myself that sometimes developers offer up some great female characters that I really gel with.
I like to bring up Beyond Good and Evil as much as I can without annoying everyone incessantly, but this time it’s actually relevant. Jade, what a gal. There isn’t much about her that isn’t likable. She looks after orphans, travels across the sea and into space, she helps to protect Hyllis — her rather beautiful world — and she’s an utter bad ass; as proficient in combat as she is at snapping pictures. She’s easily the most competent of all the characters in the game, yet she remains down to earth and extremely relatable. All the Coles, Nathans and Macus’s out there do nothing for me other than causing my eyes to roll right back into my head and hurt my brain considerably. Jade, on the other hand, is a character which I would happily play for hours on end.
Is she a trope? Well, maybe. There’s certainly going to be people that consider her a bit of a Mary-Sue, but I believe that she’s a far too sincere character for that criticism to be leveled against her. While I confess I have a thing for lassies with green lipstick, a thing that’s been with me ever since I first opened a Batman comic that starred Poison Ivy ( I know, I know, scantily clad, love serums, over the top sexuality, I’m terrible), Jade’s gender is just her gender, it’s not an excuse to slap on a pair of barely contained tits to try and get unimaginative folk drooling. I appreciate that. It’s hard to take a heroine seriously when she has such horrible taste in clothes. Jade is far too practical for that.
After playing a game like Age of Conan, where women are at best conniving and at worst half naked victims, it might be hard to imagine the same studio would have been capable of making one of the best female protagonists in our beloved hobby. Hard to imagine, but true nonetheless. The protagonist in question is April Ryan, the game? The Longest Journey. And what a game it is. One of the all time greatest adventure games in my humble (but not too humble) opinion.
April is a struggling, bohemian art student, which would normally turn me right off the game. She also has visions. I suppose on the surface that makes her something of a walking female cliche. But appearances can be deceiving, and that’s something of a theme in the adventure. She’s flawed, but very capable, the journey she goes through is a right of passage from child to adult. Her observations are frequently wry and sarcastic, often self deprecating but she grows a great deal. Games are filled with terrible coming of age stories, predominantly male ones at that. The Longest Journey provides us with a much rarer glimpse of a young woman coming into her own, without the help of an overtly masculine hero.
What might be a sticking point with some gamers is why Ragnar Tørnquist wanted a female protagonist. It wasn’t a cynical move to grab the female demographic, which is at least a good thing, rather it was because empathy is seen as more typically feminine. While it’s a positive trait, it’s still a generalisation. The thing is, I don’t think I would have enjoyed playing a male lead in this role. It’s not because I don’t think us gents can empathise, rather it’s because I can’t imagine any other character in the role besides April, she’s iconic. Sarah Hamilton, who lends her voice to April, does a great job in making her so believable. She continues the role in the sequel, Dreamfall, and we’re presented with an almost different person, wiser, a bit harsher, but certainly more of a woman than the girl she used to be.
When I was a wee beardless dwarf I really thought I had a shot at being a pirate. I couldn’t sail, I was cowardly, I don’t like fish, I was too young to drink, and most of my conflict involved cutting barbs and jabs absent any actual swords. So what made me think I could be a pirate? Guybrush Threepwood is to blame. And like the lovable, but inept, pirate I have a real soft spot for Elaine Marley. If Monkey Island has a heroine, it’s her. It would have been all to easy for Elaine to have been defined by the men who seek her affections, Guybrush and LeChuck. Certainly, most of the games involve them vying for her attention, even though Guybrush has had it for decades. In those types of love triangles, the woman usually gets the short end of the stick, especially if the hero is an idiot and the villain is an undead arse. Not a great choice. But Elaine is the toughest, smartest and most patient of all the series’ colourful cast.
I’ll admit it, I like damsel’s in distress. It’s nice to be needed, especially when you’re needed by a pretty dame. I’m not condoning the cliche, but I refuse to apologise for being okay with it. That said, fuck that Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty fairy tale rubbish. I believe the damsel in distress scenario can be empowering for both men and women, but it’s a delicate balance that almost never works. Elaine and Guybrush’s relationship is one of the exceptions to that rule. My favourite governor is constantly being captured by LeChuck, it’s been happening for years and that zombie just won’t take the hint.
It usually falls to Guybrush to sort the git out. But he stumbles around, cracking jokes and getting into trouble, falling into the role of hero rather than being made for it. Elaine, on the other hand, is his superior in every imaginable way. So while she often finds herself in tricky situations, she frequently gets out of them in spite of Guybrush’s rescue attempts, she saves his hide on plenty of occasions to boot. The adventures subvert the dynamic between the “hero” and his romantic foil constantly and it makes it one of the most satisfying series in gaming. Also, did I mention that she’s a politician, a leader and a diplomat?
Here’s the unfortunate thing, though: All these women were written by men. I won’t for a moment suggest that men shouldn’t be writing women, nor do I hope this implies that I only like female characters if they are written by dudes. But damn, I’d really like to see more women writing women in video games. They sort of have that whole being a woman thing tied down. Of course women are perfectly capable of making shit, half arsed, wank fantasies for men as well, but I think they have insight that we simply lack, through no fault of our own.
It’s the unfortunate situation this industry finds itself in. Why the fuck should women even try to write a video game when they see all the abuse their peers get? Or the torrent of hate thatAnita Sarkeesian was confronted with when she had the gall to point out something obvious, yet often ignored? Those on the fringes immediately jumped up and unleashed their impotent rage. And I do mean fringes. The voracity with which they conduct their hate makes them seem larger than life, but I genuinely believe that there are far more level headed, thoughtful people in this industry than repellent shits. If only the decent folk were capable of being loud as hell.
Because I refuse to curb my verbosity, but at the same time I don’t want to write a god damned dissertation (again), I can’t or, rather, won’t list all the ladies I love. There are, however, a lot more than these three. There’s GLaDOS, channeling HAL 9000, an AI who won’t be asking humans how to feel love — unless she’s being sarcastic — and she has no need for boobs, so she has none. No boobs? Madness, shouts EDI. Then there’s Zoë Castillo from Dreamfall, she may traipse around in her underwear on occassion, but there’s nothing wrong with having a nice bum when it’s coupled with a sharp mind and the promise of an amazing adventure. She’s more sexualised than her counterpart, April Ryan, but she’s still a robust and interesting character. Besides, being sexy is great. Just ask me. Oh, you are? Yes, it’s great. I’d be remiss to not mention Cass, from Fallout New Vegas. A bitter, gun toting alcoholic. She’s more grizzled cowboy than desert rose and remains one of my favourite characters from the game, and possibly the series.
There are two female characters that I can’t quite put my finger on, though. The first being Samus Aran of Metroid fame. And I mean the real Samus Aran, not the butchered version seen in Other M. Considering the amount of mute male heroes gamers can project themselves onto, there should be at least some women in the mix too. She’s strong and tough, but maybe that’s just because she’s been going around shooting stuff and exploring for decades. Other M could have been an opportunity to show a more well-rounded version of her, instead we got some lassie acting like a dramatic teen who seemed completely disconnected from her previous incarnations.
The second is the infamous Lara Croft. Ignoring her ridiculous attire, in the games themselves she comes across as relentless, powerful woman who manages to overcome ridiculous obstacles and shoot tigers in the face. But that marketing… It may have gotten Tomb Raider plenty of adolescent fans, but it did nothing to make it appear like a mature piece of entertainment. Lara drama seemed to have died down, but now it’s flared back up again. At this juncture it’s probably unfair to call her latest outing Uncharted 4: Watch Out for Rapists, but it’s certainly easy to see why some people might view it in such a way. That said, I’m not in the habit of making sweeping statements about games I haven’t played, so we’ll just have to wait and see.
I promised myself this would be a positive article about positive female characters, but I’ve deviated a wee bit from my initial self imposed mandate. But that’s the nature of the discussion, it’s hard to avoid the mires when there are so many of them. Regardless, I’d like to end it on a more hopeful note. I believe, unequivocally, that there’s far too much talent in this industry for women to play second fiddle to muscle bound male counterparts. In any medium this massive, there’s going to be a lot of stereotypes, for men, women, age groups, and sexualities. It’s human nature to be a wee bit lazy. But it’s worth remembering when developers get it right, and it’s worth holding on to, because there sure as hell will be a lot more missteps than successes.