Friday, May 6, 2011

Beyond the Girl Gamer 1.3: Perspective and Identification

Beyond the Girl Gamer: Introduction | 1.1 | 1.2

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
I have put rather a shocking number of hours into those two Fallout games since 2009.  Well over 100 hours into Fallout 3 and all its associated DLC, and about 90 so far into New Vegas (including Dead Money).

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.


  1. I can't think of one since EQ that didn't (unless you count
    Diablo 2
    as an MMO) allow you to pick your sex regardless of character (save for Valkyries in
    Dark Age of Camelot
    which would have been a bit odd).

    Yeah. That was actually one of the things that hooked me very early on in my five-year EQII career: character gender was an appearance-only issue, and you could roll male or female in any class, and any race. Not only that but once you did roll that female fighter or scout, that plate or chain breastplate and greaves set you equipped actually covered your body the same way it did on a male toon.

    Diablo II frustrated me for that reason. Although I didn't really ever play online, I did consistently play Amazons and then stab things to death with my javelins. I rarely have it in me to care about stats so much that I'll pick a male-only character class when there's a female class available. (Although I do have a pro-rogue, anti-mage streak in me that could probably make me pick a male stealther over a female finger-waggler.)

  2. This is a very cool blog, K. Cox! Well done!

    Btw, I found this after a link-clicking journey that began at TNC's blog :)

  3. Thanks!

    (And I think I owe roughly 60% of my readership to the Golden Horde, so you're not the first and I hope not the last!)

  4. I'll have more thoughts on this later, but just as a point of historical observation, its not really true that Dragon Age "went back" to a un-voiced PC; DA spent several years in development, and was quite far along when the ME project started up. If memory serves, the first DA release date was before the first ME announcement came along.

    I'd also take some issue with the idea that moving back to a silent PC is a priori a step back. Its a design decision, with some pluses and some minuses. Where any given player, designer, or game will fall out on evaluating those pluses and minuses will vary depending on any number of factors, and will vary wildly from game to game. But I think its a mistake to say (as it seems to me you suggest) that a unvoiced[1] PC is less diverse (however defined) than one with a fully voiced player character.

    [1] And by voiced/unvoiced here, I'm speaking only of games with a largely voiced NPC cast, where a design choice to leave the player's lines unspoken is or is not made.

  5. My boy Wanderer and girl Courier felt basically the same to me. I think my decision to play them as rough but moral made much more a difference than gender or appearance. Of course as you say in FO you don't get many views of your character and there isn't a voice and I'm just not very imaginative. In ME you have the dialogue and cutscenes where you clearly view and hear Shepard.

    I really like Cmdr. Red Jenny Shepard. I hope they don't make a Mass Effect movie primarily because I think it would suck but also because they'd use a dude. I picked up a dude Shepard to play through ME1 making different choices (infiltrator, renegade, male) but I have no particular attachment to him. Basically, I need to spend more time with women?

  6. Speaking only for myself, after playing Baldur's Gate II, KOTOR, a bit of Dragon Age, then ME and then going back to Dragon Age I found the return to unvoiced protagonist quite negative. I only have one example of a voiced protagonist so maybe Shepard's just incredibly awesome (well, we know she is) but none of the unvoiced player characters really speak to me.

  7. I actually feel kinda bad for Mark Meer/Manshep. Meer's performance in ME/2 is perfectly good, even very good by the standards of video game VA actors. I'd even argue that in the first third of ME, he's somewhat better than Hale. But after that first third, once Jennifer Hale has loosed up into the character, she starts delivering one of the finest voice performances in gaming, and by ME2 an extraordinary performance by any standards. The Mass Effect games are really well written on a sentences and lines level (even when on a story/world logic level it can occasionally get hackneyed) but even when the writing stumbles, Hale sells it. Meer can't do that, and because there is still a wide streak of the adolescent in gaming culture, it gets reduce to "FemShep Rules! ManShep SUCKS!" So, like I say. I feel bad for him. But Juliette Shepard, cranky paragon infiltrator, is still my go to character.

  8. I'm not really a person person, so I have a hard time critiquing acting or voice acting (unless of course it's ridiculous). So for me Meer's voice was fine, and since I played John Shepard as an arrogant jerk I guess any stumbling in the delivery came across to me as part of him being bored, annoyed or disgusted at whomever he was talking to or about. He's a sneaking assassin not a charming spy like Bond. He sneaks up on people and kills them, he doesn't chat them up, so a less fluid delivery was fine by me. I guess he's a lot like Miranda, all business with no time and no interest in people. Hmm, I wonder what Miranda will look like now that I have a good video card?

    Red Jenny Shepard is a soldier used to leading and so I'm glad Hale makes her likable and personable.

  9. We're everywhere

  10. I also feel bad for Mark Meer, because his background actually is in improvisational comedy, not dramatic acting, where Jennifer Hale has a video game resume longer than many actual gamers. Meer went into ME1 with quite the handicap. I do think he improved noticeably in ME2, particularly if you play Renegade. Meer tends to play it with a sort of black comedy angle where Hale plays it annoyed and monotone.

  11. Great minds. I was going to say that in my follow up to @RedJenny:disqus , actually. Meer's renegade performance in ME2 is pretty compelling. One of the things I like about it, not least for how it enables these discussions, is that its a very different interpretation of the character. Hales renegade is a seriously Pissed Off combat vet. Meer's is a dangerously unbalanced person with a military grade arsenal and very serious impulse control issues. That difference is why I like Hale for my cranky vet.

  12. I actually only played the female Shepard in ME2. I keep meaning to go through it again with the male version just to see how it's different. In the first one he seemed more like a neighborhood bully than anything I'd seriously call a "renegade." I'm not necessarily surprised it's a better performance, since the whole game is so much better than the original, but I didn't expect it to be much different.

  13. Well, I didn't actually mean "backward" as if it was a bad thing, more of a strategic retreat. Voicing nearly every line of dialogue six times would have been an incredibly massive task, and they'd have been insane to attempt it. The disk space alone would have been crazy. I dislike Dragon Age for a lot of reasons, but the lack of PC voice acting isn't one of them.

  14. The protagonist of Mirror's Edge is female.

  15. oh gosh, how could i forget that? i played that game just two months ago and loved very many things about it.

  16. Tell me about Mirror's Edge.

  17. the story is mostly forgettable and the gameplay can induce nausea...

    but if you're not susceptible to vertigo, it's awesome. for one, it's a refreshing change from most first person games, in that you are primarily running away rather than standing and fighting. for two, the lackluster story is based on a neat premise, i.e., the invisible world of couriers (and, having read a fascinating journalistic report of bike messengers a few years back, i find it to be doubly interesting). for three, it's pretty.

  18. Forgettable, nauseating, and pretty. Yep, that's how I like them!

  19. I'm one of those who got pretty much instantly very physically ill just with the Mirror's Edge demo. I don't tend to get that way from most first-person games anymore, UNLESS they move very fast or have a lot of angle changes -- a couple of the later test chambers in the first Portal got me pretty badly too but I can play something like a Bioshock or Fallout now where I wouldn't have been able to a few years ago.

    But yeah, for me Mirror's Edge is permanently and forever off the table. Barf bags and headaches are not features I look for in my gaming.

  20. I guess I'm just a horrible art-gamer...I skip all the dialogue as fast as possible and just read the subtitles. Or at least I think I's been a while. Basically, if the option exists to skip spoken dialogue, I always take that. I'm on a schedule here people!

    Yet another reason I prefer books > movies & TV.

    BUT. Femshep ftw. My aged matron femshep kicked some ass. Well, mostly she just shot people in the head in slow motion, but I think that counts.

  21. That's what kept me from playing Half-Life 2, unfortunately. I couldn't play it for more than 10 minutes without having to lay down. It's the only game that has ever had that effect on me. Something to do with the camera angle, maybe? I remember looking online and finding that it wasn't just me.

  22. It doesn't help that when you fall in Mirror's Edge, you fall THE ENTIRE WAY DOWN, until just before the character hits the pavement. I don't get that kind over vertigo, but that seriously freaked me out the first few times I took a spill off a skyscraper.

  23. RedJenny James A

    Gentlemen, you will no doubt be glad to hear that my -very next post- is an in-depth discussion of FemShep in Mass Effect 2. :) I intend for it to go live this weekend, or Monday if I end up too pressed for time.