Friday, September 24, 2010

Strong vs. Violent (Part 3...)

I was looking back over some Twitter stuff the other day, and I discovered one of the very first things I actually tweeted, during a panel at PAX East 2010:
Strong and violent are not synonyms. If we keep acting that way, we keep undervaluing womens roles
I'd forgotten, between now and then, that I completely nailed in under 140 characters the fundamental thought that seems to drive so much talk about women in gaming, both as characters and as players.

We say, "It features a strong female character," and we tend to mean, "A female of reasonable sexiness who doesn't ever show girly emotions, and who shoots things."  But I don't think "strength" and "violence" should be synonymous.

Admittedly, this points to a much larger problem in gaming: what would we consider a non-violent strong male lead?  The best I came up with offhand is the Metal Gear Solid series; you can be a reasonably non-violent Snake much of the time, and he is a character given to serious emotion and lots of it.  MGS3 and MGS4 each contain several hours' worth of emotionally driven cut-scenes.  (Aside: I wonder how many gamer guys would be convinced to sit through a 3 hour movie with that much convoluted emoting?  But put a controller in their hands...)  And still his primary objective is generally to blow stuff up and win boss fights.

It's hard enough to think of true 3rd-person games driven by female lead characters (narrative games with a defined arc -- as opposed to games where the player has a hand in creating or defining the character).  It's even harder when you start looking for female leads who wear sensible clothes and don't travel heavily armed.

I know perfectly well that the example I need here of a strong female character is The Longest Journey but I've never actually finished that game.  I promise it's on the playlist and that I'll revisit this topic by year's end.  Meanwhile, the fact that I have to resort to an 11-year-old European adventure game to make the point at all is telling.


  1. finish it!

    and you should really play "indigo prophecy" if you get the chance. i'm liking the female lead a lot more than the one from "heavy rain" so far, though the one from heavy rain was pretty cool too. (there are certainly troubling things about the games/stories, gender-wise, but there's some neat stuff there too).

  2. @enstar: it's up next. Husband wanted it on the "we play together" playlist and as soon as we finish the current title (Gabriel Knight 2) TLJ has been bumped to the top of the "us games" queue.

    Indigo Prophecy is one I was in the midst of when my entire games collection was stolen a few years ago, so I wasn't able to finish it. (Ditto TLJ -- and worse, it was a copy I was borrowing.) Heavy Rain... Madison Paige just pissed me right off. Husband started calling her "Miss Gratuitous," as in, "Oh look, Miss Gratuitous is in her underwear AGAIN." Although interestingly enough, on first playthrough, we had a Madison-only ending (Ethan and Jayden out of the picture) that I liked better for her than the "happy ending."

  3. Since we got on the topic on the open thread at TNC's today, it might be appropriate to bring up Final Fantasy VI again. That game had not one, but TWO strong female leads, one (Terra) of whose strength was defined by her discovery of love, which is most unbecoming in a genre known for farming hordes of enemies to build yourself up.

    Then again, it's a 17 year-old Japanese game, so I suppose that doesn't get us very far.

  4. @esteemed author:

    what bothered me the most about heavy rain was the way in which madison's character is introduced--the sex/violence stuff that sets the tone for the rest of her appearance in the game (not to mention the nearly-rape scene later). it wasn't until a second playthrough, though--also a madison only ending--that i was able to find anything about her character that i liked.

    the only reason i brought her up is because she isn't a gun-toting, ass-kicking badass. i don't think she, or the game, is a great example of positive female representation (especially considering the creepy voyeuristic lens always cast on her), but i do think she stands as a character with her own job, her own personality, her own identity--at least until she (slash the writing team) cops out and sells her out to the main character.

    i guess what i'm saying about heavy rain is that it's a step toward a female character that has actual depth. i would love to see the next game they put out be headed by a female protagonist, since i can kind of guess that the company is heading in that direction at some point.

    @benjamin: i almost brought that one up, too. terra, in particular, is one of the most compelling 16-bit characters ever. the whole sequence with her and the orphaned children is beautiful, and sad.