There's a kind of game character that's pre-defined for you, and you just play through his or her story. He is Nathan Drake, Ezio, or Solid Snake; she is Lara Croft, April Ryan, or Samus Aran. We've talked about some of those female leads before, in this series.
But then there's the other kind of character. One where you pick your character's gender and looks, where you decide if he's a short white guy or if she's a tall Asian lady. And we haven't talked about them, yet. Being given choice in the kind of character we play can change how we identify with that character, and how we feel about that character.
There are also two different ways we see our characters in video games. We are either looking at them (third person) or looking through them (first person). And the way we do or don't see that character on screen can also change how we identify with that character, or how we feel about that character.
Choosing and seeing a character are two big elements in character identification; the third is hearing your character. None of us heard Guybrush Threepwood in his first two outings, because as awesome as Dominic Armato is, the tech just wasn't there yet. But we all heard April Ryan, and we all hear Nathan Drake. In 2011, the choice of whether or not your player character speaks audibly is no longer a technical one, in an AAA game, but an artistic one.
And where so far many of the leading ladies featured in this series have come from older gaming titles, this post will finally bring us firmly into the 21st century. The altered dynamics of player-chosen gender as well as of visual perspective have been a big thing in three (well, six) big games of the last few years:
- Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas
- Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2
- Portal and Portal 2
The Lone Wanderer and the Courier, the way I play, are always female. The Courier looks a lot like me. She shares my outlook and moral core, and she moves through conversations the way I personally would like to move through conversations.
In short, I move through the Mojave Wasteland, making decisions about the future fate of New Vegas and all its denizens. Why? Because Fallout: New Vegas is best played as a first-person game (although you can switch into third-person at any time), and the Courier is completely unvoiced. As I read her dialogue, before I select the best option, I hear it -- I hear myself thinking through it and making a choice. Thus, the Courier is as female as a character can get, because I'm female and strongly self-identify as such.
To other players, I imagine the Courier is thoroughly male or thoroughly genderqueer, because those players strongly self-identify as such, and are given a chance to fill in this character's shell with their own values and morals.
And then, in mute protagonists, there's Chell. I've just recently written extensively about Portal 2, including spoilers, but with Chell the gist of it all begins from that "Holy crap, I'm a girl!!!" moment in the beginning of Portal. That moment felt great -- and then it stopped being relevant, because the fact of the matter is, it's an entirely first-person game, unvoiced, and so I assume most players just put themselves in the protagonist's spring-loaded shoes and felt that they were dismantling GLaDOS.
Portal 2 does a better job of reminding you consistently that you're represented in this space by a female body, with Wheatley and GLaDOS giving fairly constant references to "she" and "her" when describing you, and a high number of puzzle solutions requiring you to place portals in such a way that you can see yourself. But the player not only remains unvoiced -- she also remains entirely mute. There is no player dialogue; there are no dialogue options. Indeed, there are no actual choices to be made, and so although it's great we're a girl and all... I know I felt "female" playing that game but I don't think one could say the same of all players.
Interestingly, the unvoiced first-person works both ways: despite the very explicit, defined player character in Bioshock being male, between plot exposition points I stopped thinking of him that way and simply perceived of myself as moving through Rapture. Then again, female consumers -- of all media, books, games, movies, and TV -- are used to having to put themselves into the space of a male protagonist. It's second nature at this point, after spending my childhood planning to grow up to be Robin Hood and Indiana Jones.
But there is one very notable game (franchise) out there right now where you have the choice of your player character's voice and appearance. Commander Shepard (cosmic badass) is a fully voiced, third-person, completely fleshed-out character -- male or female depending on the player's choice. Commander Shepard will have the same lines, the same attitude, the same behavior regardless of gender.
FemShep is notoriously awesome. Female players love her. Male players love her. In the first Mass Effect game she was considered to be the superior character for voice acting reasons. Go Make Me A Sandwich has rhapsodized on Shepard as female protagonist done right:
She never winds up playing second fiddle to her team members because in the end it’s all about helping her get the job done. And, ohmigod I can’t possibly articulate how much I love BioWare for this. Honestly, sitting right here I can’t name a single female video game character besides FemShep that is 1) not sexualized 2) in charge and 3) the main character.
And all of this is improved by the massive amounts of choice the player gets in deciding the fate of the universe. FemShep is a character whose decisions affect the entire galaxy, again not a role that you often see female characters in. And she gets to do all manner of epically awesome things. FemShep isn’t just a person – she’s a force of nature. So when people ask me what exactly it is that I do want in games? This. I want this. More of it. A lot more.
Interestingly, though, although I am protective of "my" Shepard and her perspective on galactic doom -- because obviously, that's totally how it happened, duh -- I don't relate to her the way I relate to an unvoiced player character (third-person or first-person). She speaks with a clear voice that isn't mine, and her dialogue options are often constrained to things I would prefer not to say. But that's a complaint for another day.
Character design and game design are informed by a lot of different technical needs and artistic wants from game to game -- there isn't a one-size-fits all solution, and nor should there be. But FemShep stands out among modern game characters for being the very, very rare example of a third-person visualized, fully-voiced, true female lead character. More often women are part of an ensemble cast (Final Fantasy XIII), or are left to the voice of the player (Fallout 3), or are completely invisible and completely mute (Portal). Mass Effect does indeed stand out in the current crop of big-budget games.
Next chapter: We move from examining player characters into the supporting cast.