The game industry has been slow to make use of women as protagonists in video games, sometimes due to the idea that the dudebros only want to play as males. Didn’t Tomb Raider in all its guises sell more than 35 million copies? But anyway, my point isn’t that female protagonists are more inclusive or less sexist; it’s that they make the games better.
1. They can emote.
This struck me when playing Tomb Raider. There,
- Lara expresses terror, pain, horror, and occasionally despair
- She cries big snotty tears when her mentor dies
- When she rescues her friend, she gives her a big hug
- She can express self-doubt (and still kick ass)
- If you do nothing, she’ll sometimes hold herself as if she’s feeling cold (as she probably is, getting rained on in that tank top)
Besides the new Lara, the best example is Beyond Good & Evil‘s Jade. Although she wields a mean dai-jo, she also takes care of children, is attached to her uncle, and relies as much on her camera as on her martial arts skills to foil the enemy.
The way our brains are set up, if we see an emotion expressed, we feel it to some extent. This is an essential tool for the storyteller. To put it another way, it’s hard to care for a character when they don’t themselves express any involvement in their situation. That’s one reason why Black Mesa, though gorgeous, is emotionally lifeless.
Of course, this power can be abused, producing sentimentality, but the challenge for video games is to show emotion at all, not to mop up excesses of it. Likewise, there are many emotive male actors, but they’re rarely video game protagonists. Whether it’s Master Chief or Gordon Freeman, the norm is steely stoicism.
The effect in Tomb Raider is not to make Lara look weak, but to make her human and real. (The second half of the game doesn’t have as much of this, and I think it suffers because of it. The climax, for instance, is by any objective standard a hellish experience, and its only effect on Lara seems to be to make her a little moody.)
The idea here isn’t that women are “more emotional”. The idea is that people have emotions, but that our current social expectations allow women to show them more openly– which makes for more relatable characters.
The Big Games these days are generally about big emotionless male bruisers who go on (carefully justified) killing sprees. People often lament the sameness of the games, but usually suggest that they need better stories. I’m suggesting that they need better characters… less John Wayne and more Humphrey Bogart.
2. They subvert the genre.
One way to make a story deeper and/or more fun is to subvert the genre. There’s some attempt at this in (say) Bioshock Infinite: the main character is a killing machine, and the game suggests (after letting the player shoot people for twelve hours) that that’s kinda bad. But ultraviolence with a smidgen of doubt is not much of a real questioning of the genre. (I found that Far Cry 2 successfully depicted the amorality of mercenaries shooting up the Third World… so much so that I lost interest in continuing to play it.)
Subverting gender roles is inherently interesting. Tough guys who have to do something female-associated can be used for extra comedy or drama (Lone Wolf and Cub, Kindergarten Cop, Some Like It Hot, Mrs. Doubtfire). Badass women are more interesting than badass men– they’re less expected, so there must be some backstory on why they’re doing what they’re doing.
I tried Saints Row 3 with both a male and female protagonist. Even with all the silly elements, playing as a male made the game seem more crass and cliched. Playing as a female, it becomes pure absurdist fun (especially with Rebecca Sanabria’s voice acting– she can be tough as nails when needed, but most of the time she communicates that the Saints boss is just having a hell of a great time).
The best reason to play Mass Effect as a female is Jennifer Hale’s awesome voice acting. But her gender helps too. MaleShep is another dull, stoic space marine; FemShep is intriguing. Little is made of her gender, but based on our own society and even the sex ratio we see in ME’s human worlds, we can guess that this is a person who has had to be twice as calm, twice as authoritative, twice as tough as any man, to get where she is.
3. People like underdogs.
If you’re going to go up against the bandits, zombies, draugr, crazed criminal overlords, mad cultists, or whatever, you’re going to need some skills, and a reservoir of strength and endurance. To do it all with a smaller body is all the more impressive (which is why it takes more skill to dominate a TF2 game as a Scout than as a Heavy).
In Oblivion, the initial skill values depend (slightly) on your sex. They removed this in Skyrim, which is more inclusive but seems a little defiant of realism.
It does worry me a bit when Catwoman swipes at a thug with her clawed gloves… that would cause pain, but it’s not going to knock him out. It’s a lot more convincing when she’s faster and more athletic than Batman, and uses her legs or her whole body to slam into a thug. 120 pounds of fast-moving superfreak to the face– that would hurt.
Mirror’s Edge never explains the gender dynamics of running, but being smaller could be an advantage in scrambling over the rooftops and fitting into tight spaces.
4. Gender and sex offer narrative possibilities.
Sex is fascinating, and that’s without getting into the biological mechanics. I always wonder what it’s like for Zoey, the only female in a group of four zombie-apocalypse survivors. Is there a lot of pressure on her to hook up? Or would it be so uncomfortable if she did that the three guys kind of agree to not bring it up?
FemShep probably makes it a point of principle to never use her gender for anything, but others are not so pure. Your character in Fallout 3 and even more so Fallout New Vegas can occasionally use gender or sex to their advantage. Perhaps the best example is Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines, where you can solve or alter some situations by seduction. (And why not? If you’re a vampire you’re already pretty much a lost soul; no need to act all chaste.)
Games take a wide, wide detour around sexual threat– the only game I can think of that mentions it is Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay, and that’s with NPCs. That’s probably just as well. Still, replacing it with cannibalism is kind of silly, and we’d might as well acknowledge that there’s an underlying danger to (say) Catwoman that Batman doesn’t really face, and that makes her insouciance all the more interesting. In Tomb Raider, it should add a certain chill to that scene where the cultist grabs her before trying to strangle her– and it probably would if it weren’t so frustrating figuring out the damn game mechanic at that point.
Now, you may well respond that the ultimate goal should be gender neutrality– that we should able to be a badass male or a badass female, a caring male or a caring female. That’s fine, and sometimes it’d be a great advance simply to have more female characters– I wish TF2 would implement Chemical Alia’s female characters. But for now, the best corrective to all the boring badass males is a little femininity.