As we reach the end of the year, it’s time to reflect on various trends we’ve seen in the gaming realm over that time. Now, looking back, I’m ready to declare 2013 a pretty great year for video game women.
Now, let me be clear. I’m not waving a “Mission Accomplished: Sexism Over” banner, and I understand that writing this article as a guy, I lack a certain authority on the subject. But I do know what I’ve seen and experienced throughout the year, and I believe there’s at least a very visible positive trend regarding how women are portrayed in games as of late.
Obviously there’s still a long, long way to go before 90% of the leads in games stop being grizzled white males, but I think we’re at least on our way. I wanted to spotlight a few games this year that contributed to raising the profile of virtual women in major or minor ways, a trend I hope continues in 2014 and beyond.
This may be a somewhat controversial choice, but in my eyes, the Tomb Raider reboot was not only a great game because of its design and mechanics, but also because it was female-led, a refreshing breath of fresh air in the genre. Obviously it’s not a revolutionary concept, as there have been many Tomb Raider games before this recent prequel installment, but this is the first one in a long while where Lara Croft’s cartoonish sexuality wasn’t the main focus of the game, or of the coverage surrounding it.
While the young, wide-eyed Lara Croft we see here is certainly an attractive virtual young lady, her appearance doesn’t overshadow the more important aspects of the game. Square treats her the way they would treat any brawny guy thrown into the same situation. The teenaged Croft is beaten, skewered, shot and stabbed, and does the same and worse to her enemies. While the narrative may be almost too accelerated, turning her from innocent explorer to hardened killing machine rather quickly, by the end, Croft is a fully-fledged action hero on par with any guy we see leading games these days.
Yes, she wears a tank top in the game, but Square was quick to provide a myriad of other more conservative clothing options for Croft. And really, the tank top is no more scandalous than a guy with a shirt unbuttoned a bit too low (I think Edward Kenway of Assassin’s Creed 4 actually had an outfit that was entirely shirtless).
The point is that a female lead can be sexy without being hyper-sexualized, and being attractive doesn’t have to take away from her being a badass female action hero, something video games, and popular culture in general, could use a lot more of. Croft also had the good fortune to star in a mechanically excellent game, and brisk sales and high scores hopefully mean that we’ll be seeing more of this new, refined version of the character in the years to come.
BioShock Infinite and The Last of Us
This pair of games, which some would say may be the two best of the year, can be grouped together because they essentially use women the same way in their narratives. There is a central problem in the sense that both Ellie and Elizabeth are technically damsels in distress, an overused device that’s the plot of far too many video games, but I think their relationship to the protagonist represents a subtle but important shift for the trope. In both of these instances, and Telltale’s The Walking Dead with Lee and Clementine, if we can dip back to 2012, the male lead isn’t saving the girl for romantic reasons. Rather, the relationship in all three of these games is far closer to a father looking after a daughter, even if the pair aren’t actually related. While it certainly would have been more progressive to have say, a hardened forty-something woman protecting a chipper preteen boy in The Last of Us, I guess we have to take baby steps.
Though it is the men leading the way, the women are more fleshed-out characters than we’ve seen previously with personalities that make them far more likable than their male counterparts, if you ask me. Similarly, the way they’re integrated into gameplay turns them into assets rather than liabilities you must constantly protect.
Infinite’s Elizabeth “can handle herself” as you’re told during gameplay, and as such you never have to worry about her life bar. Rather, she helps you take out bad guys by tossing you ammo and health packs, or opening rifts in reality. In Sony’s The Last of Us, Ellie is more directly involved in combat, and will often outright shoot bandits or jump on their backs and fill them full of holes with her knife. Again, no protection required.
So while these girls are technically in distress and seem to need a man to come save them, their characters are well-rounded, completely unsexualized to the hero, and prove useful and capable in a firefight. Seems like a solid step in the right direction to me.
I think the Forbes comment of the year has to go to someone who told Daniel Nye Griffiths that Gone Home was the “feminist Duke Nukem.” The idea is that the game deals with gender and sexuality issues in the same way the Duke parodies masculinity, only Gone Home is doing it with a straight face.
As funny as the quip may be, I don’t think it’s accurate. While Gone Home has its share of issues, namely its length and lack of meaningful problem solving, I think it’s a great way to explore a different kind of story using video games, and uses female characters, even if they’re unseen, to great effect in ways most games don’t.
Though you play as a girl, a college-aged woman come home after a backpacking trip around Europe, you never see, hear from or really learn anything about your character. Rather, the focus of the game is on your younger sister, who is coming to terms with her newfound sexuality, and discovering she has a crush on a girl at her school. The tone of the game alternates between dark mystery and touching drama, and though it hints at a much darker finale that what actually takes place, it’s an important game, even if it’s a flawed one.
There simply need to be more games like this, and even if it is a touch heavy-handed at times, as for the most part Gone Home represents a beautiful way to tell a story through the medium of games, and it just so happened to be about a young lesbian. There’s no reason you can’t play the other 300 action/shooter/wargames out this year if Gone Home isn’t your thing, but for those wanting a change of pace, Gone Home is a story-centric game that doesn’t need combat to fill its pauses, and manages to deal with gender issues in an industry that usually flees from such topics.
Beyond: Two Souls
Beyond is probably the most divisive game of the year, as critics and gamers tended to either love it or hate it. I fall in the latter camp, and again, any compelling game that features a female lead is a step in the right direction in terms of diversifying the types of titles on the market.
Hollywood’s Ellen Page made the jump to video games for Beyond, and the result is another story-driven game from the team that gave us Heavy Rain. The central paranormal plot may not be nearly as interesting or coherent as the Origami Killer mystery from Heavy Rain, but Page does a phenomenal job in tandem with the animation team, and there are a number of scenes that resonate with me, even now. Page’s Jodie is again, mostly unsexualized, which eliminates the potential “Tomb Raider” complaints, yet is portrayed as capable, brave and selfless.
It’s strange that one of my favorite gaming sequences this year wasn’t some epic battle sequence or shocking plot twist, it was getting ready for a date with a coworker in Beyond. I only had an hour to prepare, and had to clean the house, cook dinner and get dressed. Somehow, it was far more stressful than being thrown into a room with armed enemies looking to kill me. And sure enough, I was wielding a gun a few scenes later, and Beyond presents a full spectrum of genres for Jodie to jump through, not just “traditionally female” ones like the date night I’ve described.
Beyond may have had its issues, but again, it’s another example of a high quality, female-led game, and one that doesn’t rely on titillation to sell.
The all-female fighting game has some cartoony sex appeal, but it’s mostly just plain fun, and has amassed a cult following this year. How many games can you even name that have an entirely female cast? Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag
Yes, we have yet to see a female lead in a non-spin-off Assassin’s Creed game, but I was pleasantly surprised with Mary Read’s role, as the character managed to steer clear of being a love interest for Edward, which would have been a bit predictable.
Call of Duty: Ghosts
It may not seem like a big deal, but now you can run around shooting people as a female soldier in Activision’s Call of Duty, a change from the endless parade of playable men the series has seen since its inception.
Sasha “Scarlett” Hostyn
The world of eSports is overwhelmingly dominated by guys, but this year Canadian pro Starcraft player Scarlett proved that a girl can be one of the best gamers in the world. Scarlett’s Zerg play was absolutely stunning throughout the year, and she had a host of great showings at tournaments and events where she faced off against top Korean pros.
This year, Feminist Frequency’s Anita Sarkeesian started releasing videos in her “Tropes vs. Women in Video Game Series.” A few years back, Sarkeesian became an internet sensation when she put up a Kickstarter to fund the proposed series. She was only asking for a few thousand dollars, but when internet trolls started harassing her for the idea, she raked in a huge amount of cash: $158,000 after requesting only $6,000, to be exact. Since then, Sarkeesian has been a constant target as critics accused her of taking the cash and running, as she didn’t release any videos for quite a while.
Now she’s released four, and though they are coming out at a snail’s pace, they’re a fascinating look at some of the issues facing women in gaming. Her first videos focused mainly on the “ damsel in distress” trope which I touched on earlier, and all of them are absolutely worth watching. No, her logic and fact checking aren’t always completely without fault, as her detractors are quick to point out, but overwhelmingly the points she makes are good ones. All her videos make you think and question your entrenched ideas about games, whether you agree or disagree with her points.
I expect if Sarkeesian were writing this list instead of me, she’d find quite a lot of issues even with the “postive” portrayals of women I’ve highlighted. But even so, that’s not a bad thing. There’s no reason someone like her shouldn’t be pushing all game developers to constantly be doing better in their representation of women, and I think it’s working. Not to give all the credit to Sarkeesian herself per se, but a general shift toward more diverse roles for women in games can be felt as you play through the titles I’ve mentioned here. I think there’s a wide range from badass leading ladies to quieter, emotionally resonant heroines, and hopefully we’ll only see more of each in the future.