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Women In Gaming

In The Gaming Community, Video Games on December 16, 2010 at 5:44 pm

I, for one, welcome our new female overlords.

You hardly need to be a feminist to understand that women get a bum deal as far as their representation in gaming is concerned (though I’m sure it helps).  Were you to lay each female game character down before you, you’d see miles of corpses, stacks of lewd clothing and rows otherly-uniformed cheerleaders waiting patiently for their male protagonists; female characters with any semblance of emotional, physical or intellectual independence would occupy an easily-identified cafe table to the side of the road (the “not smokinghot” section is bizarrely empty).  Designs on artistic merit ring hollow when your entire gallery is filled with white, vaguely European men dragging their one-dimensional arm candy from cutscene to cutscene.  But I digress; this is about women, not race.

Whether it’s really that dire is a matter of perspective.  Fiction is a vehicle for interpretation, so by all means, disagree with what follows.  Some statements have more merits than others, but this is what showing your work and wrangling the written word is about.  And when it comes to this topic matter, you’d best be prepared to talk about the characters’ emotional, physical and intellectual independence as is reasonably justified by their circumstances, characterization and plotting, held against how well you can argue for and against whether their portrayal is exploitative, objectifying or empowering.  Of course, none of this is made easier by the assembly-line misogyny that comes out of Japan; nor is it by the numbers showing that women gamers are a definite minority on all but the PC, and even on that platform they tend to stick to social gaming more than your “standard” gaming fare.  Games are only sometimes written by writers, made by men for men with a heavy emphasis on marketability.  You have been warned.

Harken back with me to the days of the original Tomb Raider, before the franchise had been rebranded as Tomb Raider Starring Lara Croft or Lara Croft’s Tomb Raider or even more recently, simply Lara Croft and her Descriptively-Significant Subtitle.  Back in 1996, Lara landed on a German butcher block in Oktober (which is to say, in a sausage fest).  Game protagonists, the player characters, were almost exclusively male, and Tomb Raider came along at a time when games were just becoming graphically capable and narratively focused enough to make the shift all the more significant.  If girls wanted a like-sexed protagonist, they had to look no further than the athletic, acrobatic, intelligent self-made millionairess Lara Croft, woman to no man.  I will restate this for emphasis: presenting Lara Croft as a protagonist for a new video game franchise, where you had to play as the female main character, cannot be understated for its significance.

Does the fact that she was built like two triangles stacked on each other detract from her position as gaming’s leading woman (no jokes about how, no, her lousy games did that)?  That depends.  While the Lara value meal came with a side of sexy, it didn’t change the fact that she was a emotionally strong, physically capable and intellectually the superior of pretty much anyone else in the series.  Did her unrealistic figure and panoply of fetishes (glasses, accent, garters, natch) make her “safe” for men intimidated by such a portrayal, by reducing her to a sex object?  Or did it open their eyes to a world where “sexy” could also mean strong, smart and independent?

Given her growth as a franchise and the focus on her character, rather than her games, I’d say at least the developers thought so.

Lara Croft: 1996 and 2011

Each successive title allowed Lara to become a character, rather than a figure, and we learned more about her motivations, her family and upbringing while her list of accomplishments grew.  While her list of outfits grew like the doll of an overeager enthusiast, the voluptuous caricature in the borderline impractical outfit gave way to this striking young woman with fierce determination in her eyes and confidence in her posture.

How does this affect how she is played?  Lara is still a video game character.  When girls play her games, do they imagine themselves in her place?  Or is it more vicarious?  Are boys able to surpass Lara’s otherness (castration anxiety, et al) or are they simply playing for the doll?  Yes, she has a two-man team for her support staff, but they basically exist to ask questions for Lara to answer; they’re not exactly telling her what to do.  They make her look good.  The assertion remains: Lara represents a muted argument for the contemporary female identity, one where women may live and excel in a “man’s world” without necessarily embracing masculine or feminine traits, exaggerated phenotype notwithstanding.  On the flip side we have Bayonetta with its wholly ridiculous protagonist and her impossible spinal architecture.  Purportedly, hundreds of hours of work were poured into sculpting her ass.  She has a limitless supply of lollypops to suggestively suck on and she crosses her legs further while walking than most women are capable of after a thirty-minute warmup.  Her attacks cause her clothing to disappear and oh my god the game is even called First Climax.

How is this game not forcing us to wear a GTA-sized egg on our faces whenever women and sexuality in gaming are brought up?  Gentlepersons, I present to you the exploitation/empowerment boundary.

For the uninitiated: exploitation fiction, be it literature, films, music or games, is when a work adds just enough content to not be branded as complete tripe while fully exploiting its sensationalist subject matter.  This subject matter can be over sexualized women, gratuitous violence or even the individual actors and actresses themselves.  When a given work focuses on a singular sensationalized aspect, it is given a portmanteau name to signify its sub-genre, kind of like dopey celebrities and their mayfly romances.

Bayonetta is an exploitation game.  It is exploiting its over-the-top protagonist’s sexuality to promote what would otherwise be an above-average but otherwise not noteworthy game, and the game itself is used to justify the presentation what would otherwise be an untenable protagonist.

Empowerment is something else entirely, and it’s the kind of subject that will have feminists giving each other black eyes over whether its valid.  Basically, in terms of the contemporary female identity, this posits that the traditional trappings of femininity  — skirts, dresses, makeup, coy behavior, high heels, pink, pushup bras and so forth — can still be used and embraced without kowtowing to whatever masculine hegemony that’s presumed to exist.  This is because women have been granted agency in their own lives, and may choose to act and dress in whichever manner they please.  The social convention is no longer that they must dress that way, or that men may dictate the moors of their behavior.  Ideally, anyway.

As there’s currently two options for gender (masculinity and femininity) (yes, I know it’s vastly more complicated than that, but mainstream thought forces us into either being “male” or “female”), this option is supported by those that see the flawed premise in having women simply adopt masculinity as empowerment; after all, with women as equals and all they shouldn’t need to emulate men and it’s not as if being feminine or female should be viewed as weak, especially not by women.  Furthermore, sex.  I mean, sex, especially for women, used to be heavily regulated and controlled by men, sometimes through laws but most times through social convention.  Women who were sexually open or promiscuous were locked up and a condition was invented to justify it (nymphomania, if you’re keeping score).  After suffrage, women more and more were able to dress and act as they pleased, and the social barbs for sexual independents lessen with each year.

So, sexuality is a perk of being female, and it can be used in empowerment.  For a bizarre example, look at oral sex: in this sexual encounter, the woman, of her own volition, enters into intercourse with the man and controls every aspect of the encounter; his pleasure is up to her.  On the flip side we’re trying to take a woman on her knees with a man’s appendage in her mouth and somehow not view it as demeaning.  Personally, I think it depends on the relationship and how the participants treat and respect each other, but I can see both arguments.

Bayonetta is empowering because, in her world, women run the show.  They’re heavy-hitters capable of taking down eldritch beasties and advancing the plot; men are along for the ride.  The women saunter and strike rather than simper and sob.  She’s sexy, smart and powerful without aspiring to masculinity in her gender role, and you’d never mistake her for anything but as a woman.

Of course, she was made by male developers for a male demographic; she didn’t choose to look like that, she’s just drawn that way.  A key aspect of empowerment is the choice it represents, and as a meta matter of minutae, Bayonetta had no choice in her portrayal.  Whether that undermines the grrl power is up to the beholder, as always.

Lastly, I’d like to briefly discuss an overlooked female figure in gaming: Mirror’s Edge’s Faith.

Remarkably, she's among the few adult female game characters that can see their own feet.

Faith is an anomaly in female character design.  She’s independent, capable but rebellious and not all-knowing.  She has her own goals, which are supported by her (male)  adviser.  Compare Faith’s design to a modern freerunner and you’ll see that it’s an understatement to say she’s dressed for the part; she’s light, limber and athletic without embellishment for male-oriented marketing purposes.  She’s wearing shoes that help her run, gloves that help her grab and lightweight, unobtrusive clothing from no particular brand.  Yet, she is distinctly if subtly feminine and has several touching moments with her sister and the other supporting characters.

Freerunning in Mirror’s Edge isn’t a man’s job, nor is it the playground of women; we seem to encounter both in equal numbers and they’re all more or less treated equally, specific plot elements or being the main character notwithstanding.

All in all, Faith is a stellar character with her own goals and real flaws, while being seemingly unaffected by the detritus that typically surrounds our female leads; both Lara and Bayonetta have massive mediastorms centered on their figures, with the latest on Lara being that her 2011 reduced her curves, which are apparently an indelible part of her character.  And we’re still not sure if we’ve been trolled by Bayonetta.  All the same, the number of playable female characters and female leads in games is on the rise, which is significant; not every woman needs to be a support NPC or the villain.

However, I do think the future of gender portrayal in gaming is looking up, or at least on the mend.  There will always be games that make us second guess this, just as there will always be movies that do the same, but more and more we’re looking for better characters and game companies have designs on the untapped potential of the female demographic.  Even if a game character seems at first glimpse to be nothing but eye candy, there might be more to her characterization and deployment that justifies her “empowerment.”

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You Are Not A Horror Game Fan If This Game Remains Unpurchased

In Video Games on December 10, 2010 at 6:24 pm

I’m not actually a fan of horror games, or more accurately, a horror game fan.  Hollow words, I realize, from the man that started his internet career on a horror gaming site and still maintains friendships with holdovers from that horror gaming site, and most especially given the title of this post, but I digress.

I’m a fan of good games.  I like interesting ideas, brave concepts, well-executed ideas and creativity in general (but not too creative; let’s ground things with a proper narrative and keep our tone consistent, shall we?).  These combine to form the derived characteristics that determine the game’s overall quality.  Different genres vary in what they need to focus on to keep their game good, and for horror games that value is immersion.

Succinctly: the less you recall that you’re playing a game, the more a game can scare you, as there’s less and less separating you from the fate of your avatar.  Sometimes this is as simply an engrossing presentation, a plot that “doesn’t let you go” as book jackets are wont to tell.  Graphics can bump things up a bit, but this is to taste; the more detailed it’s supposed to be, the more glaring the graphical inconsistencies and limitations.

The interface plays a huge part.  For years we’d been protected through pausing and saving, granting a reprieve or an opportunity to shove the controller at someone less traumatized.  Resident Evil used to give us entire rooms with comforting music where enemies would never spawn or enter; even Resident Evil 3‘s Nemesis dared not enter.  Even Silent Hill allowed us to break from combat to reassess, bandage up and tarry forth anew.

Knowledge is power, and knowing that the game is and isn’t capable of can be damning to a horror game’s brio and panache.  Fear arises when you are assailed by unseen foes from every shadow, and death lurks just out of the corner of your eye.  When you learn that such events are scripted into the game and not something your enemies are inherently capable of, then fear leaves the game like so many enlightened patrons of Hannibal Lector’s fine cuisine.

So it’s natural that players should be limited in time, scope and ability to  divine the inner workings of a given horror game.  Camera angles should be claustrophobic and uninformative; health should be given as the shuddering breaths of your avatar, fully measured in their final moments; saving shouldn’t secure the area; and menus need not apply.  With all of this, all that’s left is you and them, and they’ve got a head start.

Amnesia: The Dark Descent knows all of this.  It even tells you it knows when you boot up the game, as it basically tells you the game will automate a few of the more mundane processes like saving, and explicitly tells you to just concentrate on playing the game.

There are menus, but the game is skimpy on how much it tells you.  For example, you have a lantern, but it needs fuel and can give away your location and attract attention.  How long does it burn?  How sensitive are those prying eyes?  Don’t know and the game’s not telling.  Does that grunt mean the enemy saw you?  Maybe.  Try hiding if you’re that scared.  Does this place hide you enough?  We’ll find out, now won’t we?

Amnesia takes place entirely in the first person and your interaction with the environment is mouse and physics based, which means to turn a crank, you need to pantomime the turning motion with your cursor.  This does wonders for immersion, as these simple actions are all rendered in real time and you aren’t spared with a cut scene.  Become startled or frightened and your hand twitches, you’ll be set back because your fear prevented you from moving forward.  And the plot is one of those great, scratching-inside-of-your-skull insanity-laden western kind of psychological horror, the kind you might also see in something by Lovecraft.

The developer that made this game also made Penumbra, another criminally neglected series of horror games, but I do believe Amnesia outshines its predecessors.  It’s also available this weekend on steam for a song (9.99 USD) so if you have a PC capable of doing it justice, I’d go for it.