It has been a while since I’ve written a piece on storytelling in games, but last week’s post on timelessness got me thinking about one of the tropes I hate to see both in game storytelling and storytelling in general. When it comes to narrative, one of the most popular structures is “The Hero’s Journey“: a guideline for the general path of a main character in a story.
However while The Hero’s Journey is a reliable structure seen in countless tales, there is a habit for writers today to subvert this structure and make a weaker story in the process.
Last month there was a great piece on Gamasutra regarding male gaze and its current effect on the industry. We are seeing a lot of articles and critical discussions looking at women in games and the industry. A few weeks ago I posted about the challenges behind designing female characters in games and this post is effectively the sequel to that one.
Once again before we get going I have to remind everyone that the following is my opinion and that I’m not speaking on behalf of male or female gamers.
Male Vision Tm
Before we talk about content, I want to touch on one of the problems at the heart of the matter. Male Vision is my upgraded term for Male Gaze: where it’s not just the camera or player’s perspective of the game viewed from a heterosexual male, but the entire world of the game. How many games have we played where men and women wear completely different styles of clothing? Or where the female role is played down to the point that it appears that women don’t exist.
When this argument comes up, most critics will respond that in these types of games, that men are also featured buff and don’t wear a lot of clothes. But what these people don’t understand (or choose to ignore) is that these male characters were designed to appeal to the power fantasy of men, and any sense of eye candy for women is just a coincidence. In God of War for example, it doesn’t matter how muscular or the lack of clothing, Kratos was designed to appeal to the fantasy of beating the crap out of anything that moves with your awesome strength .
God Of War
If you look at the evolution of the Soul Calibur series, each one featured the female characters wearing less and less clothing, while having their bust size increase. The problem in my opinion isn’t that characters are being designed too sexy, but that the general consensus is that Male Vision is the right way to go every-time.
Both men and women can look sexy without wearing next to nothing. There are many examples in pop culture of both sexes dressing in normal attire and can still be seductive without being sexualized. But in many games, it’s always women that have to look like they just came from stripping while the men are wearing normal clothing.
Another common rebuttal is that women should just play games that aren’t offensive to women. In a perfect world that may not be such a bad thing… but we don’t live in a perfect world.
Choices and the Lack there of:
Any kind of creative or consumer based industry has products that cater to different preferences. With the reason being to provide variety and to increase market share. Pepsi didn’t make caffeine free or diet sodas to make people happy. They did it so that regardless of the person’s preference, there was a suitable Pepsi product for them. And more importantly, if they didn’t do it and Coca-Cola did, they would lose out on a lot of profit.
It is the basic right of any consumer to not be forced to use a product they don’t want to. But the problem is what happens when there is only one option?
Personally, I can’t stand to watch soap operas and if I’m flipping through the channels and stop on one, I quickly change the channel. Now, should I blame the network and petition to have soap operas removed? Hell no. Because I have at least two hundred other channels that don’t have soap operas on them.
But, let’s say we live in a world where every major channel has nothing but soap operas on it. And no matter what channel I watch, there is always a soap opera on. At that point, I have the right as a consumer to voice my concerns because of the lack of variety.
If you look at Anime for instance, there are a lot of anime series aimed completely at the male demographic. One sub genre is dubbed “the harem situation”, in which there is one man who is always surrounded by beautiful women who each want to be with him. But there are plenty of Anime series that appeal to women with strong female leads and even the female version of the harem situation.
In the game industry however, there aren’t as many choices which is why this problem is focused on the most in this specific industry. Going back to the fighting game genre, can you name one fighting game that isn’t set to appeal completely to men? At GDC, I watched a playable demo of Girl-Fight and something tells me that it is not going to be showcasing strong female characters.
Both character design and plot development in games seems to be focused on Male Vision in the retail market. Thinking about it, there is one game that comes to my mind where the male lead isn’t in charge, and that would be Catherine. The plot dealt with Vincent, who was stuck between dating two strong women and unable to make up his mind and be assertive about whom he wants to date. Vincent was a delta personality: shy, withdrawn and not able to make important decisions. This is a complete 180 from the normal in charge male video game character.
While the game was about solving puzzles in a horror situation, the theme of the game dealt with commitment in a relationship. For the majority of the game, Vincent was the weaker of the two sexes and completely at the whim of the two female characters. Even with the horror themes, there was a mature story about relationships and growing up waiting to be discovered.
The other part of the problem is that it’s not enough to throw a female lead into your game and call it a day. In my last post on the subject, I discussed various negative examples of female characters that did more harm than good.
Not only are there very few games that have female leads, but the list of female characters that have their character developed over the course of the game are even shorter. One of the many problems with Metroid: Other M was that the designers completely ignored the development of Samus over the years. Instead, they tacked on relationship issues and childish behavior to a character that is traditionally seen as being strong.
The Ridley scene was completely out of character for Samus both considering her personality and the timeline of the game’s events. All made worse by the conclusion of this scene, where the toughest bounty hunter in the galaxy had to be saved and given a pep talk.
One of the best female lead characters in a game would arguably be Jade from Beyond Good And Evil. Even though Jade was a strong character, she was also defined as motherly and compassionate to her friends and the orphans she took care of. This was one of the few times where a female character was defined so well, that the story wouldn’t be the same if we replaced her with a male character.
Beyond Good And Evil
According to the *Entertainment Service Association, 47% of gamers in 2012 were women and there are more adult women playing games then boys 17 and younger. This is an increase of women playing games up from 40% in 2010. With that increase, it’s surprising from a basic economic standpoint, that more games aren’t being developed to appeal to women. Or at least, balance out the number of games aimed at men.
That would go a long way towards both moving away from the boy’s club mentality and to help diversify the # of mainstream titles released. But it’s going to be a hard mountain to climb, with so many advertisements and viewpoints aimed specifically at men; perhaps someday we’ll see different game ads to appeal to the different sexes.