4 years ago
Warning. There are potential spoilers for Half-Life 2: Episode 2 and ICO in this article.
There’s no doubt about it, video games can be pretty damn sexist. There are so many different flavors to choose from too! You have the classic damsel in distress, you have the complete lack of women altogether, you have the horrible treatment of women by the gamer community, and of course there’s always good ol’ fashioned objectification.
Out of all those categories, Lara Croft tends to be singled out as the poster girl for the last one. I mean look at her!
Enormous boobs, short-shorts, seductive poses in advertising, she’s shamelessly trying to attract a male audience.
Well, that may have been true in the past. But Crystal Dynamics is shaking things up! You see, they’re giving Tomb Raider a little reboot. They were even kind enough to provide a trailer, how thoughtful! Shall we give it a little watch?
Yeah. This went over about as well as you’d expect. To say that this trailer has been controversial would be a massive understatement. People have analyzed pretty much every moment of this trailer, and everyone is getting into a screaming match over it. There are so many different people arguing over so many different aspects of the game that I frankly don’t know where to begin.
Well I guess first things first, what did I think of the trailer? Honestly, I think it looks promising. I totally get where the critics are coming from on this one, but I think we all need to keep in mind that it’s just a trailer. We won’t know if the criticism is justified or not until the game is actually released, because we’ve only seen little snippets of footage that are out of context. But speaking as someone who’s never had even the slightest interest in any other Tomb Raider games, I think it looks exciting. I like how the violence carries actual weight and is gruesome enough to disturb me as opposed to being artificial and thoughtless like most games. Overall it’s a game I’m going to keep my eye on.
Like I said though, I totally understand the criticism. There’s some stuff in that trailer I’m not going to touch with a ten-foot pole like the “near-rape.” I’m neither a woman nor a victim of any sort of sexual assault and therefore not anywhere near qualified to address those subjects.
However, there is one particular recurring comment that’s bugging me. I’m referring to the women who watch this trailer and say they’re disappointed that Lara isn’t a “strong, independent woman” like she used to be and therefore they can’t project themselves onto her like they did in the old games. And to those women I only have this to say.
You are part of the problem.
What problem, you may ask? The problem of video game narratives and characters being routinely boring because audiences don’t want real characters with actual development, but rather one-dimensional empowerment fantasies. People who say that they don’t want Lara to show any sign of weakness really aren’t much better than the wankers who buy Call of Duty because of a weird military fetish.
Let’s back up for a minute.
A common criticism I hear about video games is that there aren’t enough strong video game heroines. At first this doesn’t seem like a lot to ask, right? There are plenty of strong men in video games, so it’s only fair that the ladies get their own gun toting bad-asses right?
Let me explain a little something about storytelling. Without any characters, you have no story. A story is only as compelling as the people in it, and in my estimation this is the crux of the problem with video game narratives. We have too many avatars and not enough actual characters. There are exceptions, the twist in BioShock is only effective because Jack is a blank slate that we project ourselves on to and Majora’s Mask works because the emotional weight of the narrative is on the citizens of Termina and not necessarily Link, but generally most stories need a main character we can empathize with.
Notice I said empathize with, not necessarily relate to. One common complaint that women have is that they can’t relate to the male characters in video games, when really it’s not about relating to a character, it’s about understanding their plight and wanting to see them succeed. Here are some characters I empathize with.
Notice how these are all women, and I can confirm that I am, indeed, a male. You can easily be engaged with a story even if the character is not the same gender as you are. For the record, I’m not trying to imply that women should get over it and stop asking for female protagonists. I’m all for diversifying game characters and I agree that there is a dearth of playable females. I am saying that anyone complaining that they can’t relate to a male character is experiencing a narrative in the shallowest way possible.
Some people will take a look at my examples and notice that those three characters are not game characters. I can already hear some of the responses, “But it’s a game so it’s different than movies! The gameplay changes everything!” Good try, but sorry, that’s not true. The only time that applies is if you’re playing an open-ended RPG like Fallout or Skyrim and you’re customizing your character’s abilities and personality, in which case you can make your female protagonist as strong as you like. Linear games like Tomb Raider still follow the conventional rules of storytelling. The only impact that the gameplay has is that a character's actions and personality in a cutscene must be consistent with their actions and abilities within the game mechanics.
So, what does all this have to do with Lara then? Well, I’ve seen some people argue that the reboot is going to make Lara a crying weakling as opposed to the calm and collected bad-ass that she was before, and it therefore isn’t going to empower them as women. And I’m sorry, if empowering women means that our female characters are going to be as stoic, dull, and lifeless as our male ones, then I frankly don’t give a shit about empowering women. I understand everyone’s apprehension about this. After all, look what happened last time somebody tried to characterize a strong female game hero.
We can’t say for certain if this is going to end up being another Other M situation because, again, it’s just a trailer. What I can say for certain is that Other M’s problem wasn’t that they gave Samus fears and weaknesses, but the fact that it was a horribly written game that had severe dissonance between the game mechanics and story.
Fear is a powerful emotion, and it’s one that’s universal. Seeing somebody in their darkest hour, watching a person completely break down and lose control when confronted with their darkest fears is seriously powerful stuff. It’s a shame that only the dwindling survival horror genre ever uses fear as part of the mechanics. Fear, combined with empathy, is one of the best ways to compel somebody through your story.
The developers have created a game where a young woman is put in a dangerous scenario. Her friends have been kidnapped and she’s stranded on an island filled with dangerous men who want to kill her. The old, one-dimensional Lara would have no reaction to this at all. A real human being would be scared. The fact that they’re trying to humanize Lara should be commended. It’s entirely possible that this is going to end up being another Metroid scenario, but I repeat: It is just a trailer. If nothing else, I respect the fact that Other M and Tomb Raider are trying to humanize their lifeless avatars.
I just wish this desire for strong female characters would shift to a desire for human female characters. People who are actually relatable. People we can empathize with. People will look at a character like Alyx Vance and say, “There should be more strong women like her in our games!” and they completely miss the point. Sure, Alyx is handy with machines and can hold her own in a firefight, but that’s not why we connect with her. Alyx, especially in the episodes, travels with you the entire game. You see a complete spectrum of emotions with her. You see her when she’s happy, you see her make bad jokes and giggle at them, you see her when she’s afraid, you see her break down and cry at the end of Episode 2 when her father is killed by the Combine advisor.
Alyx is a memorable character not because she’s tough or a good role model, but because Valve is incredible at characterizing their supporting characters. Alyx is a fully rounded character who feels real. I guarantee that if she were a traditional stoic bad-ass like Lara or pre-Other M Samus, then the gamer community wouldn’t think nearly as highly of her. Her emotions are what make her stand out from all of the other terrible video game characters.
Or how about Yorda? No, Yorda isn’t a feminist icon and she certainly isn’t a paragon of strength. In fact, it doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to call ICO an inherently sexist game. It’s about a young boy saving a princess from a castle by literally dragging her around by the hand.
But even in a simple scenario like that there’s a little more to it than that. Yorda may be weak, sure, but she’s also been locked in a bird cage by her evil mother her entire life. That’s going to mess with you psychologically regardless of what gender you are. Plus, Ico can’t progress through the castle alone. Yorda has to use her magic to open doors for him and help solve some of the castle’s other traps. Not to mention that at the end of the game, Yorda returns the favor to Ico by saving his unconscious body from the crumbling castle.
Maybe none of that is compelling enough evidence for you. Maybe ICO is a sexist game, but I don’t care. Because it’s also a beautiful, well-designed, unique piece of art that does a great job of making you empathize with its two leads. Leads, may I mention, that almost never speak. Ask yourself, would gaming really be better without it just because it has some content that can be construed as sexist? I don’t think so.
You know who I think gaming’s best female character is? Kazooie.
Yes, THAT Kazooie.
How can that be, you may ask? Kazooie is one of the few gaming heroines who actually has some sort of personality beyond “stoic bad-ass” or “demure girlfriend archetype.” Kazooie is quick-witted, intelligent, funny, and to be quite frank, an enormous asshole.
But she’s not just a snarky asshole. Sure, she’s rude to her friends, but at the end of the day she still cares about them. She does have a softer side, as shown when she takes a liking to King Jingaling and his pet and when she refuses to use a grenade on a fat baby pterodactyl (that all makes sense in context by the way). She’s even shown as a little insecure when Banjo tries to leave her all alone in the second game.
Plus, she still qualifies as a strong female hero. She’s definitely more than just Banjo’s sidekick. She rides around in Banjo’s backpack, sure, but Banjo would be an absolutely useless load without her, as anyone who has played Banjo-Tooie can attest. She even gets equal billing in the first game, and probably would have in the second if the opportunity for a god-awful pun had not presented itself. Banjo and Kazooie are equal members of a whole and balance each other out, both in terms of personality and abilities. Well, except in Nuts and Bolts, but we don’t talk about that game.
So yes, Kazooie is one of the most human characters of any game series I’ve ever played. And the irony is that she’s a bird in a silly 3-D platformer without much of a plot. Her strengths lie in the fact that they wrote her as a character, not as a female character. Usually, when people set out to make a female character specifically, it ends up falling on the same old tropes and often is unintentionally sexist. Rare shows us how it’s done with Kazooie, because her personality is independent of gender. They don’t sexualize her or even draw much attention to the fact. She’s just a bird that happens to be female. There are certainly storylines that require a feminine perspective, but gaming really isn’t mature enough to handle those themes yet.
I guess all I’m trying to say is to wait before you pass too much judgment on Tomb Raider. It could end very badly, but it could end up being incredible as well. Crystal Dynamics is genuinely trying something new here, and at the very least the sentiment should be applauded. I also invite you to reexamine exactly what it is you want from your game heroes. Do you want more one-dimensional power fantasies? Female equivalents of Marcus Fenix and the faceless soldiers of the Call of Duty franchise? Or do you want actual humanity? More characters like Alyx and Kazooie? Because I know what my answer is.
My name is Jackson. I'm a writer.
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