Saturday, 2 March 2013

Good Female Characters

Even though I spend a lot of my time agonising over the treatment and portrayal of male characters in video games, they're not the only ones who get the short end of the stick. There are lots of very strong, interesting and intelligent female characters in games. Lots of them. However, they're often dismissed because of the way they look, the way they're dressed or simply because they're not in a game made by Valve.

By now, I'm sure you know that Aliens: Colonial Marines wasn't well-received. Well, last week on Gamespot, writer Carolyn Petit posted an article of hers, "Fear of a Woman Warrior", that, among other things, criticised Aliens: Colonial Marines for adding female multiplayer characters late in development:
"First, there's the ill-fated Aliens: Colonial Marines. A Reddit post, picked up and reported on by Kotaku, indicated that female marines, rather than being part of the game from the earliest stages of development, were a last-minute feature request. Let that sink in for a second. Female marines were a feature request, a special addition, a change made to the game at the last minute. This is difficult for me to wrap my head around. During Colonial Marines' development, people working on the game declared their abiding reverence for the film Aliens. It's hard for me to believe in this reverence, not just because the game ultimately failed to deliver an experience worthy of the Aliens name on any level, but because any reasonable understanding and appreciation of what made Aliens a great film acknowledges the important role of women in it. Women are not hard to come by in the film. In fact, they're pretty damn important. One might even say that they're the equals of their male counterparts. Crazy, I know! The notion of a vision of the Aliens universe without women in it seems like about as major a betrayal of the source material as I can imagine.
And yet, somehow, for years and years, development on Aliens: Colonial Marines progressed, apparently without anyone stopping to say, 'Hey. You know how there are women in Aliens? Remember Vasquez, the tough-as-nails marine? Remember Ferro, the dropship pilot who says, "We're in the pipe, five by five"? Remember how Sigourney Weaver was the star of all the Alien movies? Well, I just had this crazy thought. What if we put some women…in the game?!'
Women should not be an afterthought in an Aliens game."
The funny thing about this is that I already knew female marines were added to Aliens: Colonial Marines late in development and not because of a Reddit post, which was then reported on Kotaku. I knew about it because last July, Gamespot posted news about the fan petition to include female multiplayer characters in Aliens: CM. So how on earth did it take Carolyn this long and another website to learn about it when it was posted on her very own site, eight months ago?

That's besides the point though. For all of the failings of Gearbox Software, the developer of Aliens: Colonial Marines, adding female characters is not one of them. Ideally, yes, they would've had enough intelligence to realise the significance of women in the Alien series and added them early on, but they didn't. When it came to their attention that they'd dropped the ball, however, they went out of their way to add them. And yet even that effort is criticised in articles like this one. Why? They should be praised for listening to the fans and correcting their mistake, not criticised for the original error.

It isn't just the female characters in Aliens: Colonial Marines that suffer. Appearance is one of the major deciding factors for the critics about whether a female character is good or bad. In Carolyn's article, she praises Lara Croft and Samus for being two examples of female characters from highly successful franchises, only to dismiss them for their sex appeal just two paragraphs later. Or at least their sex appeal being used as a reward players/to advertise the game (which I find highly hypocritical, considering Gamespot has adverts for affiliate sites at the foot of the article, advertising features like "The 20 Hottest Daughters From The Sports World" and "Hottest WAG of Each NFL Team". Apparently, criticising female video game characters for their sex appeal is fine but Gamespot'll be damned if it's going to refuse to objectify real women to gain money from referrals!).

Lara Croft is a particularly strong example of this, much like the Aliens: Colonial Marines one. This is a character who, for years, has been held up as a (if not the) prime example of objectification in video games. In some circles, her appearance would be more important than the games she starred in. So when Crystal Dynamic made the effort to revamp her appearance, giving her a more realistic figure, it would presumably be well-received, wouldn't it? Not the case, at least for Tomb Raider. After the game was displayed at E3, she was immediately faced with criticisms such as "she suffers sexual assault" and "she makes orgasm noises when hurt". Neither of which are true, of course; it's the critics seeing what they want to see. It was the same with Aliens: Colonial Marines; if Gearbox Software leave out female marines, they're blamed for leaving out female marines. If they include female marines, they're blamed for not having them in the first place.

What feminist critics of the gaming industry, such as Carolyn Petit, are doing is creating a no-win situation. I don't want to spend too much longer on Carolyn's article but she goes on to write about a man I'm not familiar with called Ryan Creighton:
"In a blog entry posted on Gamasutra last month, Ryan Creighton, a designer on Spellirium, confessed that his game is dominated by white male characters 'for fear of someone calling me out for my non-white or non-male character being stereotypical, offensive, or - at the absolute worst - outright racist or sexist.'
"The world of writing and designing games is tremendously male-dominated; sadly, this absurd fear of creating complex, human women who star in games is not limited to Creighton, but is a widespread problem."
Carolyn criticises Ryan Creighton's decision to leave out non-white and non-male characters, calling it "an absurd fear" but given that she just wrote an entire article about the pitfalls of creating female characters -- criticising some of the examples that fall into them -- how is it absurd in the slightest? At some point, game developers like Ryan Creighton just ask "why bother?" and don't add female characters at all because women like Carolyn Petit have created a no-win situation. And we're going to see a lot more attitudes like Ryan Creighton's in the future if feminist gamers don't start appreciating that the entire industry is bending over backwards to make them feel welcome and all they're doing is throwing it back in the industry's face. They're biting the hand that feeds them, so developers will naturally start doing what's sensible and avoid female characters altogether because they don't want to navigate the minefield of getting female characters "right". As a result, female characters are the ones who are going to suffer, as feminist critics can't appreciate the good qualities of the characters that they're given.

That's enough about the article but certainly not the end of the good female characters. Let's talk about Soul Calibur because there's no shortage of good female characters there. Yet nobody ever praises Talim, Xianghua, Seung Mina, Hilde, Amy, Cassandra and (at a push) Tira because they're too busy criticising the breast sizes of Ivy, Taki and Sophitia. Three great characters, all dismissed by feminist critics because of the way they look. It baffles me that women would do that, since they're judging other women on their looks far, far more harshly than any male gamer ever would. They're the ones seeing them as sex objects to get rid of rather than interesting characters to keep. The same applies to the Dead Or Alive series, albeit to a lesser extent; the women are the poster girls for the series and the men receive far less recognition. However, the makers of Dead Or Alive have also made no effort to hide the titillating aspects of the series, with titles like Dead Or Alive: Extreme Beach Volleyball under their belts.

Women in fighting games in general tend to be given the "they're objectified, so they're no good" dismissive attitude. I'm going to take a moment to discuss the double-edged sword that comes with a phrase like that; male characters who are judged on their appearance aren't taken seriously. I think being a female character who is dismissed because of her appearance is much worse, however, because there are so many great ones out there who don't receive the recognition they deserve because of their outfit or breast size.

Take Tekken as an example. For Tekken Tag Tournament 2, Namco Bandai offered a swimsuit alternate costume for every character in the game as a pre-order bonus (and later through a free update). They did provide swimsuit costumes for both male and female characters, interestingly -- here's the trailer, if you want some examples -- but what surprised me was the differences between swimsuits for different male characters. Attractive, muscular male characters, like ninety percent of the Tekken cast, are given the skimpy fundoshi outfit (which you can see a real-life version of here, if you don't mind seeing a man's behind). Then there are the characters like Wang, Dr. Bosconovitch, Bob and Ganryu; old or overweight. Unattractive, in other words. They're given old-fashioned beachwear that completely covers their entire body, like the kind seen on this TV Tropes page.

As surprising as it might sound, I was actually mildly offended that they'd do something like that. The Ganryu outfit, in particular, is confusing, since he only wears a sumo mawashi for his regular costume anyway. It was the costume for Bob that irritated me though, in no small part because Tekken Tag 2 added Slim Bob; a thin version of the normally-overweight Bob. He first appeared in Bob's Tekken 6 ending and was added as a playable character in TTT2.

You can customise each character's appearance in Tekken Tag Tournament 2 and Slim Bob, like most of the other male characters, has an option to be shirtless. Regular Bob doesn't. As mentioned above, Slim Bob has a fundoshi swimsuit costume, like all the other attractive male characters. Regular Bob doesn't. Slim Bob even has an outfit reminiscent of Lee Chaolan's bondage outfit (which I've featured on this blog before), as it has a similar emphasis on his perfectly-sculpted abs:

Call me picky but I can't help feeling that there's something ... unjust about giving a thin version of a fat character some alluring costumes and not giving the fat version the same treatment. So for all the talk from feminist critics that male characters are a lot more varied than female ones, that's true but they also face the barbed treatment of being judged on their looks. Attractive men are given outfits to emphasise their physical attractiveness, unattractive ones are given a sheet to put over their hideousness, essentially. Maybe this is all just a personal gripe I have with Tekken.

Would I like to see more varied female characters in video games? Yes. Does that mean game developers are doing something wrong right now? No. They could just be doing things more right, if that makes sense (although I certainly will say that Gearbox Software messed up by not giving female characters a larger role in Aliens: Colonial Marines from the start). So I recommend feminist video game critics stop judging characters like Soul Calibur's Ivy based on their looks because they're only hurting female characters in general. We could certainly use a few more characters like the wonderful Mitsuko from Bloody Roar but that doesn't mean we need fewer Ivys. If appearance was taken out of the equation, I think feminist critics would be a lot more appreciative of how many great female characters there really are and how judging them on their appearance is actually very petty. Hell, even Nariko from Heavenly Sword has faced criticism for her appearance and the most skin she shows is her midriff. Small-chested, no shots of her rear, no sexual dialogue ... and yet I've still seen her turn up on lists of sexualised female characters, presumably by people who've never played the game. Although if you've read anything I've written on Heavenly Sword before, you'll understand why I don't consider her a great female character.

And that's before we get to the great female characters who don't face this kind of dismissive criticism. Chell from Portal. Jade from Beyond Good And Evil. Jennifer Mui from Mercenaries. Mona Sax from Max Payne. Elena Fisher from Uncharted. Alyx Vance from Half-Life. Zelda. Jill Valentine and Claire Redfield from Resident Evil. Almost every female Final Fantasy character.

A lot of these characters aren't given the recognition they deserve because they're overshadowed by talk of how video games feature nothing but women with big boobs and a tendency to get kidnapped. Not only do I think that does a disservice to the developers who worked so hard on these characters, I think it does a disservice to the characters. If great female characters are truly what you want in games, feminist critics, try to realise it when you have them. Understand that being sexually attractive doesn't negate the other qualities of a character and -- it's been said before but never hurts to hear it again -- male video game characters are sexually appealing too. Not because it's a "male power fantasy", which is an eye-rolling explanation I hear batted around far too often nowadays, but because traits given to our male heroes, whether muscular and square-jawed or androgynous with perfect hair, look appropriate to gamers in the West or Japan, depending on the game.

And if you're looking for more great female characters, Awesome Lady Tropes has you covered.

As always, feel free to leave a comment or send me an e-mail at