Girls

Kung Fu Master (C64)

Kung Fu Master (C64) has probably the first videogame woman I ever saw. Couldn't find a picture of her to use here. Just to break the norm on stories about females in games, this is the only image in this story.

I can’t believe I haven’t written about women as characters in games before, certainly I’ve talked about them quite a bit. Inspiration to finally do a piece on this was this article, where the Bitmob community attempted to collectively write about good female characters in games, ones not created just as damsels in distress or there to titillate men. The turnover was really poor. This is what I might have submitted.

I don’t think it’s important to focus on female characters that kick ass. I think it’s important to focus on characters period. As an industry we do horrible things to characters and arguably females get the worst of it. So here as an inspiration is a bunch of characters done correctly.

Uncharted series: Elena Fisher and Chloe Frazer

The Uncharted character drama and love interests have been really interesting just because of a couple of basic things they do. For one thing, every character (except for the lame bad guys… doing bad guys right is difficult, granted) feels like they’re standing on their own feet. They are not there just for the protagonist Nathan Drake to reflect off. You can imagine them going about their own business and having their own ambitions. You can’t predict what’s going to come out of their mouths.

But in terms of drama, the one key thing is that there’s tension in Uncharted. The way Nathan and Elena meet is that Nathan leaves her standing on a pier, intentionally screwing her over. Not a typical video game set up for a love story! In the second game, Nathan can’t make up his mind between Elena and Chloe. Much like Indiana Jones, Nathan Drake is not a perfect nice guy hero – he’s flawed, and all the better for it.

In addition to the character drama written correctly, both Elena and Chloe kick all kinds of ass during the games. They’re very much on the same level in terms of script importance and role activity level as Nathan’s mentor Victor Sullivan – except as females, they’re suitable for heterosexual Nathan’s romantic interests. Also, crucially, it feels like the romance flows both ways. Again, there’s tension. Tension’s good.

Heavenly Sword: Nariko

Nariko’s strength comes from the story – her fate is sealed the moment she decides to pick up the Heavenly Sword, a god-like weapon which sucks the life out of its wielder. Tragedy is something games don’t do enough. She does not have much in the way of character and there is next to no character drama going on, the individuals lost in the grand sweep of epic (literal sense) events. Just being the strong-willed, doomed star of this powerful, simple story is enough. Her visual design is very strong without being hyper-sexual about it.

There’s also a minor character in the game called Kai, who’s just a really cool rogue type girl who could’ve had more screen time in the game.

Portal: Chell and GLaDOS

While being unremarkable is rarely the sign of a strong character, the protagonist of Portal is just that for a long while in the game. Silent like her stablemate Gordon Freeman, her face and body remain unseen, save for fleeting glimpses. You get curious about her. Who are you? Why are you there? Chell’s circumstances and capabilities define her, as they more often should in videogames.

Then there’s the conflict with GladOS. She starts out as another insane rogue AI, but quickly develops more personality. The conflict adds to Chell’s signifigance, too, adding dramatic weight to her plight, and emotional consequences to player agency. At its climax the confrontation brings to mind Ripley vs Alien Queen, a touch of the far too little used motherhood theme creeping in.

Mirror’s Edge: Faith

Faith doesn’t have a lot of personality and her story isn’t very interesting, but the visual design alone is arresting. One of the most striking visual themes of past years is here carried effortlessly over to the protagonist. The other characters have none of the same flair, making Faith stand out even more. Plus she’s just a nice guy, of course you want to hang out with her on the sun-soaked roofs. It bothers me that likely most players made her pick up a gun at some point. I love it that I was given a choice not to.

2 Comments

  1. Ra Amador

    Dear Joonas,

    Thank you for a good article and for a very important look at a topic usually left undiscussed.

    Even though the mainstream video gaming media is heavily driven by the decades-old stereotypes and more importantly, influenced by the expectations of the consumers the situation is showing signs of a change.

    As video games are gaining more and more visibility and popularity through new forms of gaming (e.g. various music and dance based games that allow whole groups to participate at the same time) the global community of gamers develops and diversifies. This means that in order for it to keep up with the changes in consumers’ demographics the video gaming industry should adapt accordingly or risk losing potential clients.

    Perhaps, during this evolutionary process the architects of this form of entertainment might choose to offer equal opportunities for all parties involved.

    Perhaps a rebirth is at hand.

    Yours Sincerely,
    Ra Amador

  2. Joonas Laakso

    Yeah, it is starting to change. But there’s no real revolution, just evolution as more women are joining the industry. There should be a revolution – we need women to join the industry in a great flood of new ideas and perspectives. It would be refreshing! It seems that there is an invisible wall that young women can’t see past – whereas guys often do seek out employment in the game industry, girls just don’t. I’m not sure why that is, maybe it’s the old “tech is for boys” problem of perception? Regardless, games are not a tech industry, so creatives of all kinds should be looking to join the fun.

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