By Draugen 51 Comments
Less of a campfire tale to delight and amuse, and more of a reckless tap-dance through a minefield this week, as I try to tackle the slightly controversial topic of women's depiction in video games. And let's be honest right from the start; it's quite sad, isn't it? Let's establish that right now. Apart from a few noteworthy examples, female characters are over-sexualized and passive or preternaturally bad-ass and extremely over-sexualized. Neither of which is good characterization in my book.
(Oh really, Draugen? Mr. Never-been-published... Tell me more about characterization.)
A lot of bloggers have tackled this subject before, and probably quite a bit better than me, so instead of storming at it head on, I'll sneak around the outskirts, and focus this post around the thing that bothers me the most. Utility.
Warning: Games spoiled in this blog post: Prince of Persia: The Warrior Within, Various Tomb Raider games, Mass Effect 1+2
The Quickest Way to a Woman's Heart
"The right tools for the right job." That's what my father taught me, when I was young. A mountain hiker wears sturdy, comfortable boots and layers of clothes to keep warm. A firefighter wears a helmet and clothes that don't catch fire even if it gets quite hot. A hockey goalie wears enough padding to not be killed by the small rubber missiles launched at him at 200 mph. These people all dress from utility. They dress so that they are equipped for the task they are faced with. With that in mind, could someone please tell me what task this young lady us dressed for? Take your time.
You back? Hey! Eyes up here, buddy!
That's right, that's Shahdee from Ubisoft's 2004 game Prince of Persia: The Warrior Within, and in my mind, a, if not the prime example of all that is wrong with women's depiction in video games. But instead of going into all the pandering atrocities this character consists of, let's get back to utility. What task is this woman equipped for? It would have to be something indoors, seeing as she's hardly wearing anything at all. And given that the first time you meet her in the game, she's on the deck of a ship in a raging storm; I have an issue with this already. She is obviously a warrior, so wearing some kind of armour is something I'd at least consider, but it doesn't look like she's... Oh no, wait, there is. I just couldn't see it without squinting.
Now, I'm not going to claim to be any kind of armouring expert, but to a layman like me, it seems like the prime function of any kind of body armour would be to protect major organs, most of which are located in the human torso, something her metal bikini somewhat fails to do. Even the inside of her thigh, which houses one of the biggest arteries in the body, is completely exposed. And here we come to the heart of my problem.
I cannot respect a character that is designed with a bigger emphasis on titillation than utility. Stylizing the character is one thing, and it can be done really well, but sadly, stylizing a female character these days just means giving them impossible proportions and breasts big enough to give the most adept yoga master back-pains for life. I'm not even going to go further into the body design, because it's been discussed by smarter people than me before, and this little article isn't about that. But we should all be alarmed when even I, Draugen, a prototypical disgusting, hairy sweaty man who unabashedly enjoys ogling the many iterations of the female form, am embarrassed to talk about my hobby because it seems incapable of portraying women as anything but an object of desire for the male eye.
Shahdee is the banner figure for a trend that if it continues, will prevent video games from ever growing up as an art form. But all is not hopeless. Occasionally, someone gets it right. And I will get to that in a moment, but first I'd like to discuss another character, one which you may disagree with me actually does a few things that should be applauded.
Namely, Lady Lara Croft. I completely understand if anyone with strong feminists sensibilities reading this just got a drop or two of their green tea down the wrong pipe just now, when I claimed that the prototype for the over-sexualized female character in gaming has any merit as an antithesis to what our friend Shahdee represents. Believe me when I say that I completely see that point of view. However, going back to the criteria I'm focusing on today, utility, Lara stands head and shoulders above most of her sisters. Some of the time. Well, at least, there is an effort involved.
She knows how to equip herself for any climate or environment. If she's exploring ancient Himalayan ruins in sub-arctic temperatures, she wears clothes that keep the cold out. If she's diving, she wears a wetsuit. If she's trudging through the tropics, she wears something breezy. Everything about the character does not work quite as well, though. She is clearly designed as eye candy to the player. In her first few outings she had an impossible large chest, which quickly became her key identifying attribute, which is a shame, seeing as she has a lot going for her. She is well educated, she is supremely competent and above all, she is driven. Not driven to find a man to protect her, but driven to seek out adventure. In recent games, ms. Croft has received a bit of a redesign, making her appear slightly closer to human, but she still has a lot of characteristics pandering to the lowest common denominator. But all in all, I'd say she is a step in the right direction. There is nothing wrong with an attractive character, as long as she has other redeeming features that ensure that she is not defined solely by her looks. I cannot respect a character like that. In the end, Lara doesn't quite get a pass. But a B for a manner of effort.
Throughout recent gaming history, there have been a few really good female characters that don't cause the usual eye rolling I tend to experience when booting up a new game. Jade from Beyond Good and Evil, and Alyx Vance from Half life 2 are two examples that usually come up when this discussion arises. Me, I'd like to finish this article by going to one of favorite game universes, Mass Effect. The obvious place to go here would of course be the female version of the player controlled protagonist Shepard, otherwise known FemShep across the internet. Sure, FemShep is in many ways a good example of a strong female character, but there is one problem I have with putting her forth as the poster for the proper way to write a video game woman who you can respect.
She was written as a man.
The Mass Effect games give the player the option of customizing their Shepard character, down to appearance, back-story, personality and gender. But apart from the voice acting, which is stellar, there is nothing to give FemShep her own character traits to separate her from her male counterpart, because the character behaves the same way regardless of sex. This results in the character taking on a lot of masculine virtues and mannerisms, which isn't a bad thing, considering that Shepard is a supremely accomplished soldier with the fate of galaxy resting on her shoulders. But the mere fact that she is simply a female version of another character makes me want to look elsewhere. Like for example Dr. Liara T'Soni. Now I have to preface this part by saying that Liara is not technically a woman; she is an alien, from a species that... You know what, forget it. Liara is in every way a female character.
Now, what are the chief characteristics of Dr. T'Soni? When you meet her in the first Mass Effect game, she is working as an archeologist, specializing in the Prothean civilization, an extinct species which a strange relevance to Shepard's ongoing mission. Though she has achieved her doctorate at a young age, she comes across as somewhat naive and timid, and more or less remains so for the duration of the first Mass Effect game. She is a romancable option for the player character of Shepard, whether Shepard is male or female. It is in Mass Effect 2 that Liara really comes into her own, and more specifically the DLC called Lair of the Shadow Broker. When Shepard encounters Liara in the game, two years after the events of the first game, she has gone through some tough ordeals, which has led her to a career change. She is now working as an information broker, buying and selling information, one of the hottest commodities in the Mass Effect universe. It is immediately apparent that she has changed in a significant way. She nurtures an obsession.
This may not seem like much, but to me, this is a truly refreshing bit of storytelling, because obsession is usually a character flaw seen 9 times out of 10 in male characters, very rarely in female ones. When Shepard asks Liara to come with him on his mission, she flatly refuses, and not until Shepard offers to help her accomplish her own goal does she agree to team up again. Utility. She doesn't drop everything that's important to her just because the handsome hero comes calling. She has her own agenda, one she even takes too far little while later. When Shepard gets knocked down in a fight with one of the villains, and said villain proceeds to flee, Liara gives chase, without even throwing a glance in Shepard's direction. Not a nice thing to do, but good characterization for a character like Liara and the place she is in emotionally.
**Please note, I'm about to spoil the ending of Lair of the Shadow Broker**
After a rip-roaring chase through a metropolitan skyline, and a brutal fight through the antagonist's hidden space station, Liara and Shepard find themselves face to face with the intimidating final boss. And it is Liara, not Shepard who takes charge. Shepard is along for the ride, and actually goes toe-to-toe with the boss at one point, but in the end, it is Liara who not only figures out how to defeat him, but also executes the plan. It is in every way her show, and she is the one who comes through in the end. And only after her enemies are conquered and his empire is now hers, does she let her shields drop, and you see that underneath, she still has all her insecurities and her doubts intact. She just doesn't succumb to them when the situation calls for her to hold it together.
I'm pretty sure I lost my own direction at one point during the writing of this blog post, (I'll blame the fever I've been hallucinating my way through this past week for that) so let me return to the post's initial point.
When creating a character, be they male or female; equip them for what they will be facing, physically and mentally. And if your character is going into a sword fight, for the love of God, put armour plating on them, no matter how tempting it is to show off her lovingly rendered cleavage.
Because the quickest way to a woman's heart; it goes right through the rib cage, just like with the rest of us.
(This has been previously released on my stupid web-comic blog, but let's face it, no-one reads that.)