The depiction of women in games is under no uncertain terms a difficult topic to discuss in a public forum. It’s a sensitive topic; one that tends to touch a lot of nerves any time that it’s brought up, and justifiably so. It’s also an important topic to those such as myself that want to see stronger female character representation in games. Below are my own thoughts on the subject, which I will note are my own opinion and are not necessarily shared by the rest of the staff. Whether or not you agree, I hope that any discussion that branches from this remains civil.
Basic (and Not-So-Basic) Characterization
When people question the depiction of women in video games, what exactly is the question? Is it the need for more strong female characters? If that’s the case, what exactly is a strong female character?
By my own estimation, strong characters in general, regardless of gender, are well-written, well-defined characters that are more than two-dimensional. They’re characters that display strengths, weaknesses and deeper, more complex personalities. They don’t necessarily have all of the answers, nor are they necessarily able to do everything themselves. A strong character is one that evokes a sense of being realistic.
In that sense, I consider the new Lara Croft from the upcoming Tomb Raider reboot to be a stronger character than the original. This has nothing to do with the ability, or lack thereof, to kick ass and take names. Rather, it has everything to do with the character’s overall core and the way in which she is presented. And in the case of Lara Croft, I personally don’t find the original incarnation to be a strong character. She can kill dinosaurs with dual-pistols blazing and is strong both physically and emotionally, but strength of body and mind don’t equate to strength of character.
Just for comparison’s sake, I would say the same thing about Kratos, the protagonist of God of War. While the original game painted his story as more or less of a Greek tragedy, he is a character that has grown less and less sympathetic which each sequel. The rage that originally served as a driving force for his justifiable vengeance turned into an overwrought petulance of the world’s most violent fourteen-year-old. For many, he is defined by a singular personality trait, and in a way that has taken him almost into the realm of self-parody.
So where some might define “strong” as “powerful, self-determining, unquestioningly independent,” that’s not necessarily a complex or well-written character. That could just as easily describe a Mary-Sue; a thinly-veiled self-insertion of the author into his or her own work that has all of the answers to everything and to whom people swoon at the site of. Sort of like Kratos.
Of course, video games, being an interactive medium, present unique wrinkles in terms of how characters are at times defined.
Boys, Girls, and Writing for Both
One figure often cited as a strong female character is Commander Shepard of the Mass Effect series for her attitude and ability to get things done. And while that is certainly commendable, Shepard is not really that representative of the ideal. Choosing to play as a female version of the character may appeal to those that wish to play as a female lead, but in truth the character is essentially the same as the male Shepard, save for her list of romantic options. That’s not successfully writing a female character; that’s just writing a template to fit either gender.
Though, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It does, after all, put the character on equal footing in a position of power regardless of gender. The player is also able to frequently determine their particular Shepard’s personality via dialogue choices, though these choices most often fit into a simplistic paragon/renegade relationship. What’s important is that it ultimately doesn’t matter what gender Shepard is, as playing either side presents a mostly identical experience.
Now compare Mass Effect with Persona 3 Portable. In the previous iterations of Persona 3, it was only possible to play as a male lead. The characters all respond to the protagonist as they do in part because he’s male. In Persona 3 Portable, the developers added the ability to play as a female protagonist. And though the basic plot is still the same, the details of the character interactions and even some story events are changed in ways both subtle and overarching. The game doesn’t treat the protagonist as a template in which gender only matters if romance is in the cards, but as a part of the character’s identity, and the narrative diverges at points because of this.
Where P3P succeeds, and where Mass Effect comparatively stumbles, is in the game’s ability to identify the protagonist’s gender as more than a binary M/F selection. Shepard may be a good character, but (s)he’s a good, gender-neutral character that shows no true diversity of personality based on that choice. In Persona 3 Portable, the selection of gender determines some of the friends the protagonist hangs out with, how the other party members respond to him/her beyond romantic interest, activities attended during the school year, and which angle the player comes from during some of the more unique, very gender-specific moments. Shepard does as a soldier does, but the protagonist of Persona 3 Portable does as a high school boy or girl would do. Both characters have their strengths, but if asked which game features the stronger protagonist, I’d hand it to P3P. Less dialogue, yes, but she’s more character than template because the game as a whole treats her as such.
Archetypes vs. Stereotypes
So we’ve discussed what makes a character strong, but does that mean that we shouldn’t accept characters that are less than three-dimensional? Is there no room for relative simplicity? The answer to that really depends on the context. No one would expect Jean Valjean to show up in a Dr. Seuss book, just as the Cat in the Hat would look out of place in Les Miserables. With that in mind, let’s take a look at a character that definitely doesn’t fit the common idea of a strong female character; Princess Peach.
Yes, Princess Peach; a character drawn in a very thin manner and whom serves as almost the antithesis of characters like Lara Croft and Final Fantasy XIII’s Lightning. She’s the epitome of stereotypical femininity with her pink dress, her high-pitched voice and a general dainty demeanor. In other words, she’s a pretty, pretty princess.
While Peach represents one of the oldest, simplest tropes of story-telling in the damsel-in-distress, it’s important to remember that the games she appears in are likewise all very simple stories. Super Mario Bros. is, in video game terms, a fairytale. The hero marches through a series of castles, drops a giant turtle-monster off a bridge, and then rescues the fair maiden.
There’s nothing intrinsically insulting or demeaning about Peach’s role in this dichotomy; that’s just who she is. She, Mario, Bowser, and the rest of the Mario cast aren’t meant to be complex; their adventures and stories are very simple, and when they do grow beyond their normal boundaries (as in the Paper Mario RPGs) they tend to be comical in their character portrayals, playing off of the tropes that define them, including Peach’s propensity for being kidnapped. In a sense, a Mario game doesn’t need to be any more complex than that. Where some female characters are bold, take-charge, and heroic, others aren’t. But in all fairness to Peach, she has on occasion demonstrated some hilarious ingenuity in actually planning ahead for her inevitable kidnappings.
So while Peach is the embodiment of feminine stereotypes, she is also the embodiment of an archetype. And while the damsel-in-distress is an archetype that has become overplayed, her history and status in the medium, in a way, allows her to transcend that. She’s not necessarily a role-model, nor is she a “strong female character,” but she lives up to her role in the simple elegance of the Mario games. And in that context, she plays the part perfectly.
As an example on the other end of the spectrum, there’s Ginchiyo Tachibana of Koei’s Samurai Warriors series. Ginchiyo is, in many ways, the polar opposite of Peach. She’s aggressive, assertive, rushes out onto the field of battle and alternately cuts through her opponents with a serrated sword before blasting them with lightning. In terms of strength, she has plenty to spare, and she’s not content to be seen as a damsel.
Ginchiyo appeals to me in part because of her forward, focused attitude and the way she looks while cutting down her enemies. But at the same time, I can’t call her a strong character. She and the rest of the Samurai Warriors cast exist as flanderizations. They are fictionalized caricatures of existing historical figures, inspired by elements known about them from history. As such, she and the rest of the cast are very simple in terms of their personalities that are entertaining, but that lack of complexity also prevents them from being labeled as strong characters, much like the original Lara Croft.
The Lines of Acceptability
So while a strong female character might ultimately be preferable, a female character doesn’t necessarily need to be complex or realistic to be considered a good one. Part of it is the context of the game itself, how they fit into its world and among its other characters. However, this isn’t meant to excuse blatantly awful characterization.
The female characters of Duke Nukem Forever are intentionally oversexed to play into the over-the-top male power fantasy that is Duke Nukem, but have little else that define them other than their desire for Duke and the thin, sexual stereotypes they represent. Yes, DNF is terrible, but the depiction and treatment of the female characters as little more than objects is part of what makes it so bad. In the game’s later sections where the player stumbles across women that the alien invaders are using as breeders, Duke’s reaction to finding his lovers, the Holsom twins, moments away from giving birth (and dying in the process) is repugnant. Better female characters (and less sociopathic treatment of those characters) wouldn’t necessarily make the game good, but it would at least be a great deal less insulting.
But the line of what’s appropriate isn’t always so clear, and sometimes, mature storytelling tackles horrid subjects that some might find objectionable. When such subject matter is broached, one needs to understand the context of the event to deem whether or not it’s acceptable. If a character believably behaves in such a way that, should the opportunity arise they would commit grotesque acts against another character, female or male, and if the tone of the subject matter is appropriate, then it’s not unreasonable from a narrative standpoint for such to occur. The answer to whether it’s appropriate or not lies in the context of the story and characterization.
Tying Things Together
So in a mature storytelling environment, we shouldn’t deem subject matter that shocks us as out of bounds. Bad things sometimes happen to good people, even the main characters of stories, and sometimes those bad things make us uncomfortable. And it’s good that we become uncomfortable when such occurs, because we’re demonstrating empathy for the character or characters involved.
It’s also worth noting that the more complex a character is, the more we can accept when something truly awful happens to them. The more human their reactions and their responses to stimuli, good or bad, the more we can identify with them. This is why I personally find the new Lara Croft character more interesting than the original incarnation. That’s why I wasn’t offended by the characterization of Samus in Metroid: Other M, who despite flaws in the writing demonstrated more degrees of personality and character than she ever had before.
But depth of character also isn’t necessary for enjoyment. The other Metroid games are enjoyable without greater knowledge of who Samus is, even though I personally prefer her to demonstrate more character. Ginchiyo and the other characters of Samurai Warriors are enjoyable because, despite their simple personae, they collectively form a colorful pastiche of personality.
So while more strong female characters are always a good thing, we can’t just point to an archetype and say that more female characters should be like that, because whatever “that” is, I can guarantee that it won’t appeal to the entirety of the female gaming audience. The answer to the question of how to improve the standing of female characters in games isn’t to focus on a specific type of female character, but to offer a wide variety, from complex to simplistic, from warrior to damsel. Different people prefer different things, and we don’t always prefer the same thing all of the time.
The key is diversity, both in how female characters are depicted and to whom they’re targeted. And while this might sound like a cop-out answer that’s not so different from the status quo, maybe we just need to go further. The more women of any type that take the lead roles in games, the more likely that girls and women of all ages will find protagonists or subject matter that appeal specifically to them. Whether that means more western otome game releases like Hakuoki, more complex characters like the new Lara Croft, or more ridiculousness akin to Bayonetta, there just needs to be more in general. Give us more female protagonists to gravitate toward across the medium, and we might find that the answer is ultimately all of the above.