Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Beyond the Girl Gamer 1.4: Best Supporting Actress

Beyond the Girl Gamer: Introduction | 1.1 | 1.2 | 1.3

In this series, so far the character discussion has focused on protagonists and player characters -- our heroes, as it were. But the worlds in which we game are teeming with sidekicks, companions, antagonists, villains, and other NPCs.

And when I say teeming, I mean it.  First I sat down to list off "just a few," but even limiting myself only to games I personally have played in the last two years, I immediately came up with: GLaDOS, The Boss, Naomi Hunter, Liara T'Soni, Jack, Miranda Lawson, Dr. Chakwas, Rose of Sharon Cassidy, Veronica Santangelo, Christine Royce, Chloe Frazer, Elena Fisher, Lucy Stillman, and Madison Paige.  That batch was just my immediate first thought -- clearly, there are hundreds or thousands more we could discuss.

Cass, Dr. Chakwas, Chloe, Elena, GLaDOS, Jack, Liara, Lucy, Madison, Miranda, Naomi, and Veronica.

There's more than a bit of variety in types there, to be sure.  Some of those characters are presented in a deliberately sexualized way; many, interestingly, are not.  Some of these characters defy stereotypes; some reinforce them.  (And despite the variety in their names, there's not much racial diversity in this collage, nor in the characters I named but didn't grab images of.)  But what they have in common is that most of them do actually get to be characters.  We don't know as much about them as we hope to know about our player characters, but many of them are at least given histories as plausible and deep as those of the main characters.

What I want to see in a female member of the supporting cast is a woman who helps to serve the story by what she does, rather than by what is done to her.  And let's face it: fiction (not just gaming, but also literature, television, and film) is chock-full of women whose purpose as a plot device is to be victimized.  This is where we get the Women in Refrigerators trope.

As with many of the issues of representation in media, the issue is more an aggregate one than an individual one.  One story of a man avenging his raped and murdered wife would be one thing, but hundreds of stories about a man avenging a raped and murdered woman add up to another thing entirely.  The same applies across all problematic, over-used tropes: the incompetent father, the black criminal, the Spanish-speaking housemaid...  By itself, any of these stories could stand as a story of one incompetent man, or one victimized woman -- but together, they add up to an ugly and problematic cultural picture.

One of the best things about Portal (the first) is that GLaDOS serves the plot entirely, 100% by what she does.  Nothing has been done to her and she is not in any way a victim: she is the guide and antagonist, full stop.  On the other hand, by Portal 2 this has changed.  Her motivation is now based on something that was done to her in the first game: she's pretty damn pissed off about you having dismantled her in the boss fight.  But her "murder" at the end of Portal isn't exactly what I would call "victimization" and even through being transformed into a potato she maintains her vindictive core.  Whichever way you look at it, circumstances force her into a passive role, rather than an active one, and that is indeed where so many female characters find themselves.

For the most frustrating example of passivity (in the "what is done to her" sense) in modern gaming, I nominate Madison Paige of Heavy Rain.

Oh, Madison.

You first meet her while she is asleep in her apartment, in her underwear.  She putters around with insomnia for a while (where the player can look at her digs and even have her take a shower).  Then she's suddenly attacked by a team of shadowy men assaulting her, a (surprise, dream!) sequence that always ends in her capture and death.

This is your first impression of Madison Paige.  Not with her family (like Ethan Mars) or at work (like Norman Jayden or Scott Shelby), but inexplicably the victim of a violent physical attack.

Further scenes with Madison have her escaping a horrific serial killer with some pretty damn creepy rapist overtones, removing half her clothes to get access to a slumlord, removing the other half of her clothes at the slumlord's violent insistence, playing nursemaid to the male lead at least twice, spontaneous sex with the male lead, and being trapped in a burning apartment (although there "woman in refrigerator" is actually the non-death answer).

And that's if you do the "good" Madison who survives the whole game as a character in play with all the "right" choices: boobs, nursing, boobs, nursing, ass, sex, boobs, and repeated victim or near-victim of graphic, horrible, sexualized violence and attempted rape.  Even my extremely mild-mannered, no-strong-words, no-drinking, no-swearing, even-tempered father-in-law remarked aloud that the best (and only memorable) thing about her was her rear end, and that the only understanding he got from her scenes was that she was fun to watch.  And I think that's about all Quantic Dream intended.

I recently wrote about the role and presentation of some female companion characters in Mass Effect 2.  I had wanted to write that first so I wouldn't repeat myself here -- so if you're curious what I think about Miranda's rear or Jack's outfit, look there.  In terms of writing, though, I do give BioWare full credit: all members of your party seem to be roughly equally developed.  They each have a loyalty mission (most of which seem to involve some serious daddy issues) and they each have roughly the same amount to say when you're just kicking around the Normandy.  Although some of their physical assets may be overdeveloped (and isn't that always the way), their stories at least aren't underdeveloped, at least as compared to the male characters.

Not all female sidekicks get that level of development.  Elena Fisher of the Uncharted games is a journalist who's fairly kick-ass (and certainly competent) in her own right.  But she and other similar characters (Lucy in Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood leaps to mind) blend together by being underdeveloped.  I really would have loved a few more lines in Uncharted or especially Uncharted 2 just letting us know why Elena was around, and what she ever would have seen in Drake.  Her character was so close to being awesome that I really wish they'd taken a few extra steps and brought her farther to the front. (On the other hand, Uncharted 3 seems to be setting itself up with a prominent female villain, so I do look forward to writing more about this franchise at the end of the year.)

There's always so much going on in the supporting cast of a video game that sometimes it's hard to unpack all the steps that are involved.  Are there even any women?  If so, must their gender serve a specific narrative purpose or is it the "coin toss?"  If there are women, are they granted the same character status as men?  And how do they dress, walk, speak, and present themselves?  I've only mentioned the tiniest handful of games here, because I'm just one gamer and this is just one post.  There are thousands more we could discuss, some of which I would agree "do it right," and others... not so much.  (And I'm sure they'll come up in the comments.)

Next chapter: we transition to section 2, writing, by tackling the "coin toss," the default avatar, authorial presence, action, and intent, and examining the worlds in which our characters move.


  1. Some other positive examples:

    Alyx Vance and Judith Mossman in Half Life 2 and the Episodes.

    Bonnie McFarlane and Luisa Fortuna in Red Dead Redemption. While John Marston does save McFarlane from being hanged, it must be said that he owes her for saving his life at the beginning of the game. Luisa Fortuna is treated like meat by Abraham Reyes, but she's not tarnished by it in any way I can think up, and while she dies, she goes down swinging (and in this game, not dying is rare).

  2. One example I always forget about when the topic comes up is Hammer, from Fable 2. Love her.

  3. elaine marley.

    what do i get for winning the thread?

  4. You know I love me some Monkey Island forever and ever, but actually Elaine is one of those who serves the plot more by what is done to her than by what she does. The impetus for getting off Melee Island in the first game is that Elaine's been kidnapped; the whole plot of the third game is that Elaine's been cursed (and into stone, so she's literally not helping you out any). And as I remember in 2 you're mostly on your own.

  5. I kept meaning to pick up Fable for ages, but then started hearing about how flawed it was and didn't follow through at all. Would picking up Fable II without having played the first work well?

  6. One of these days I really have to finish Half-Life 2. I've started it 2 or 3 times and enjoyed getting a few hours into it each time, but then somehow I end up walking away for a year and forgetting what was going on and having to start over.

  7. Definitely no need to play the first game. There's no direct story link, just vague settings and mentions of the long past age of heroes. And as you said, the first game isn't super amazingly awesome.

  8. This is what other people must feel like when I tell them that I have never yet seen Ghostbusters...

    Seriously, you need to play it. I was asking myself why Alyx wasn't on your list, and the only reason I could think of was that you hadn't played it. Now I know. Go play it, and make an effort to stick through it, including the Episodes, where Alyx (and Mossman) show up a lot more. It will not at all be time wasted.

  9. Also because I limited the list to recent-release games I've played really recently. I could probably do another 1500 words on women sidekicks in the FMV adventure era of the 1990s but I don't think that would hold anyone's attention. ;)

    You're more than right about HL2, though -- it's one of those that I need to fill in eventually if I'm going to keep writing about gaming. Same as eventually I had to see The Godfather, even though I missed it in film school. ;)

  10. true, but her damsel-in-distress bit is subversive in the way that the rest of the games are (1-3, at least; i haven't played beyond that).

  11. It's all a matter of degrees, eh - mostly white women in there. Steps and baby steps.

    I agree with your take on ME2, everyone seemed pretty much equally fleshed out.

  12. It's all a matter of degrees, eh - mostly white women in there. Steps and baby steps.

    Yeah, that one really, really jumped out at me after I made the collage. I can think of a few non-white female protagonists (Chell, Zoe Castillo) but even then it's only a number I can count on one hand, and when I think about sidekicks I can only come up with Grace Nakimura, from the Gabriel Knight games. In general Fallout 3 and New Vegas are actually pretty good about giving you a racially diverse Wasteland, but in 3 your companions don't have much story or depth (thinking of Star Paladin Cross here, who's a black woman) and in New Vegas your only non-white companion is a Mexican ghoul. (On the other hand, you have explicitly gay companions, both male and female.)

    Steps and baby steps... It's not really my specialty to write about but it's definitely a huge and frustrating thing.

  13. There was no Monkey Island 4. *jedi hand-wave*

    You may want to give Telltale's recent Tales of Monkey Island an outing, though. It definitely feels like one of their games in terms of style, pacing, performance, etc. but they really did an excellent job capturing the character and writing elements that made the first three MI games shining classics. Plus they brought back the voice cast. Dominic Armato FTW.

  14. Yeah, OK, so maybe everyone doesn't play through Half Life 2 every year or so...

  15. Yeah, I'm not really equipped to do much more than notice it. Having a multiracial family makes these things stick out a lot more. It also makes me thankful for the variety of games we have these days that let you customize your avatar. Something my kids will have that I of course didn't even know was missing.