Tuesday, September 7, 2010

"Holy crap, I'm a GIRL!"

In the very early stages of Portal, the orange and blue portals are set up so that you can see yourself passing through them.  Listening to the audio commentary, you learn that the developers created this room so that you, the player, would understand how the portals really worked; you needed to understand that orange and blue were two sides of the same coin, and that you were passing through the coin, no matter where its sides lay.

But I passed through the portal, saw myself, and understood something else entirely.  "HOLY @&*%, I'M A GIRL," I shouted happily, to the eternal annoyance and confusion of my roommate.  ("What, you didn't figure that out twenty-odd years ago?")

Overwhelmingly, fixed (as opposed to characters you can fully customize, as in an MMORPG or recent BioWare titles etc.) video game protagonists are straight, white, and male.  This is not news.  Sometimes there's a strong narrative reason for a character to be the way s/he is; other times, not so much.  Sometimes the player character and his fixed narrative have a strong place in the game (any iteration of Metal Gear Solid, for example) other times, the character is more transparent and the player is truly conceiving of him- or herself in the first person.

And admittedly in Portal, the fact that you are Chelle doesn't matter much.  Sometimes you catch a glimpse of yourself, but the game exists primarily in the first person and every player I've ever known felt that he or she was in a one-on-one battle of wits with GLaDOS.  The character has no back-story given, so you write your own.

But: Portal presents a game where nothing about the player character really matters, so they flipped the coin and it came up female.  And that's something we really don't see often, and definitely not enough.

I've been working on posts around this topic for a month, and keep coming up with thousands of words, rather than the few hundred which are suited to a blog post.  Luckily, a blog gets to keep going.  I'll write more about the whys, hows, and what-to-dos another time.


  1. i'm going to pretend that this is an open thread about gender and gaming, so we don't have to use tnc's open thread every couple of days to discuss things.

    i'll come back with a real response to this post after work tonight.

  2. I am more than happy to host and entertain that conversation. :)

  3. it's funny--i knew in advance before playing portal that the main character was a woman, and it still kind of amazed me when i first saw myself.

    mirror's edge marketed their protagonist heavily, a hipster-grunge woman (of color!). so it wasn't a surprise for anyone. but you still step into her shoes.

    i bring these up because, as far as i can remember, these are the only two significant first-person female protagonists. there are increasing numbers of third-person, female-centric games or solid female characters, but the fps-action genre still is almost exclusively male.

    on the one hand, you have a protagonist that could be either male or female with no change in the game dynamics whatsoever (though the relationship you have with glados takes a somewhat different tone once you know that your character is female). on the other hand, you have a game in which the character's gender is explicitly written into the story.

    are there other first-person female characters that i just can't think of? i'm wondering how each of these games differ, as an experience.

  4. I wish I could have played Mirror's Edge more, but I was one of those who became physically ill from the demo ( http://www.penny-arcade.com/comic/2008/11/3/ ).

    I'm trying to think of female action heroes and all I keep coming up with are the predictable Lara Croft and Samus Aran. Admittedly, action-type games are something I'm relatively new to playing but I don't think it's just me.

    I've been playing Half-Life 2 (for the first time, admittedly) recently. I enjoy it but I find myself thinking, this character could have worked fine as female. And then I wonder, would it have been as widely enjoyed and as highly-rated? Maybe I'm a pessimist...

  5. no one lives forever!

    it dawned on me this morning that my favorite female character up until i got around to "the longest journey" was cate archer of the "no one lives forever" games. she was basically a less sexualized, competent austin powers--maybe a female james bond? but again, without the predatory sexuality.

    what strikes me is that, in the marketing, agent archer is predictably sexualized: tight body suit, stylish hair, the come-hither look that is directed right at you the consumer. (though the sequel's box art has her with a clenched fist and a gun pointed casually downward, and her expression seems to be "you wanna mess with this?"). but in the game itself, she's just a spy--she sneaks around, tossing coins as distraction or incapacitating guards with the blade in her hair clip, leveling sarcastic quips at her situation with a better-than-bond sort of humor. and if everything goes to hell, she runs and guns her way to the exit as surely as duke nukem, commandeering vehicles and diving out of helicopters and kicking all sorts of ass.

    she's a bit like lara croft, only you're not staring at her the whole time. the game and the character are smarter, too, and wittier. and throughout, it satirizes the whole macho spy-man concept--you never forget that the protagonist is a woman, and that you are looking through her eyes. when she voices surprise, or frustration, it's your surprise or frustration.

    it's been a few years since i've played either of the games, so take my recollections as incomplete. but agent archer is, at every point, an agent in her story--and i loved that her personality saturated even the in-game parts of the plot. her sexiness just doesn't come up, and aside from the marketing, it just isn't even presented as such.