Happy, uh, late holidays!
When I wrote about the reviews for 2018’s God of War, one of my driving notions was to promote deeper thought and reflection on the specific subset of people dominating a space ostensibly created for critical discussion and dissection. My goal was to convey that games, as a whole, could become far more interesting and dynamic when there was more than a gaggle of men in their late 30s leading the scene. Now I know this isn’t the most radical, out there point of view, but over the past couple years I’ve been reflecting on my experiences with the various critical darlings that, for some reason or another, never sat right with me, and I realized an almost universal consistency: For most women in games, even in the spotlight, their actions must be driven by a male character.
As I played The Last of Us Part II, one of the things that really stuck out to me, amongst my many issues with the game, was my incapability to find the notion of its female main character, let alone one that was openly gay, even remotely compelling. I’ve played plenty of bad games in my time, and even at their worst, I’m usually able to at least appreciate when something’s making bold strides in either representation or diversification. However, here, Ellie didn’t really register to me as gay, despite me loving her lesbian antics in the Left Behind DLC for the first game. At the time there was far too much else going on with Part II for me to really nail down this lack of resonance, but after some time away I know exactly what’s going on.
The main lesbian relationship between Ellie and her girlfriend Dina, isn’t contextualized by the nature of their personalities, or their love for each other, but rather by their obligations as a daughter and a mother respectively. Ellie’s motivations throughout Part II are driven by her feelings towards the death of her surrogate father Joel, and Dina is swept up along with her out of support for her partner. However, for some reason, the writers of the game decided that it wasn’t dramatic enough to have a messy relationship on the basis of filial revenge, so they decided to throw in the wrench that Dina is pregnant with her ex-boyfriend’s child.
At first, I’d be inclined to give Naughty Dog points for the all-too-rare case of a character being bisexual, as well as the notion that somebody in a lesbian relationship could be pregnant without that invalidating it. However, it quickly becomes clear that those are not the reasons for this development. Rather than expanding the relationship between Ellie and Dina, the game becomes secondarily about the father of her child, who crosses hundreds of miles and manages to find them almost instantly. From then on, things aren’t about Ellie and her girlfriend, but rather about Ellie and her revenge quest, and about her pregnant girlfriend’s involvement with the father of the child. If that wasn’t bad enough, even when the game later suggests that Ellie and Dina do get married to raise this child, the relationship may as well have put traditionalized labels on each of them for “Dad” and “Mom”.
This type of situation, where representation doesn’t end up feeling like actual representation, is increasingly prevalent throughout the medium of games, and almost entirely because of who exactly is given the job of writing them. While The Last of Us Part II is co-written by a woman, it takes all of 5 seconds to find director and lead writer Neil Druckmann talking about his feelings on becoming a father and how that affected his writing of Ellie and even the characters of other Naughty Dog games. He’s not the only one, either; the aforementioned God of War was lauded specifically for its molding of Kratos into more of a father figure, while the game itself positioned each of its women into the role of a mother. That one was also written by a guy, in case you were wondering. In games, fatherhood has become almost entirely conflated with maturity, despite the failings of these games to even begin to reconcile with their treatments of the roles of women.
To consider another heavily praised female lead, also written by a man, there’s Aloy from Horizon Zero Dawn. Aloy’s initial motivations in Horizon come from the murder of her father. While in the grand scheme of things it’s largely inconsequential to the plot, it is nonetheless the entire reason she sets out on her journey in the first place, immediately placing the primary role of Aloy as, yes, the protagonist, but also as a daughter. While Aloy does gradually get fleshed out more and more as her journey goes on, it’s hard to forget that the driving force behind her adventure was limited by the idea that she wouldn’t have done it if it weren’t because of her father.
There are countless other examples of this, even more obviously in games focused on a male lead. For Red Dead Redemption, Rockstar used strong imagery of Bonnie MacFarlane, one of the only women in the game, brandishing a gun throughout promotional material, in contrast to their more sexualized advertising for Grand Theft Auto. In the actual game, however, while she’s ostensibly a rough and tumble character, her entire personality is shaped around the notion that she’s a surrogate wife for John Marston, as well as tied to the ideas that her father represented. When making Red Dead Redemption 2, Rockstar decided that this dictation of the woman’s role was too subtle, so they made nearly every woman in the plot a stationary NPC at a camp who does nothing but act as a therapist for Arthur, calling him a good man and comforting him on command.
Video games aren’t made by one person obviously, and in all of these cases there are more than certainly several women involved in the creation of each of the games I’ve complained about. However, as is so with every industry, systemic sexism and power structures put a wrench in what change is readily attainable. As we’ve seen throughout the years with Blizzard, Riot Games, and most recently Ubisoft, the world of games is trapped in the inherent mindset that men must be in power, and powerful men tend to believe they’re always in the right.
There are plenty of games across multiple decades that showcase the sheer difference of women being in more direct control of a game, and just how different it can be. Kim Swift directed Portal, arguably one of the most iconic works of the medium, and it and its sequel are driven by the conflict of two women. Every Yoko Taro game has been primarily written by women, with Drakengard 3 being a particular standout for showcasing a more blatant sexuality for its female lead, without absolute fetishization.
When I think about some more of my favorite works, it should be no surprise through reading this article that many of them focus heavily on women; games like Bayonetta, Fate/Grand Order, and Final Fantasy XIII. However, when it comes to most games, especially those in the AAA sphere, it’s particularly hard for me to resonate with nearly any of the characters because of that limited lens through which women are seen. To me, these works I adore resonate because of the dynamism afforded to the women they’re about.
The thing that gets me about these games is that they’re not games written by women, or even particularly for women as their main goal: Bayonetta was penned by Hideki Kamiya; Fate is penned at times by women, but generally by Kinoko Nasu; and Final Fantasy XIII is even written by a dude who self-admittedly fell in love with Lightning. Yet somehow, each of these works take into consideration the notion that a woman can be driven by multiple things and become who they want to be, rather than having to be defined by their relationships with a male character.
Bayonetta is a story that, yes, places its lead character in both the role of a mother and daughter, but at the same time uses those roles to contextualize the trauma she’s experienced in her life while letting her flaunt both sexuality and personality in spades. Fate/Grand Order is sourced from a visual novel that gradually attempted to show that women are capable of doing countless things beyond what men generally expect, and takes that further by transforming the notion of certain historical figures into not just hot anime women, but hot anime women with both independent agency and purpose. The Final Fantasy XIII trilogy is in part about Snow trying to find his fiancee, Lightning’s sister, but the game quickly makes it clear that he has little to do with these women’s characters, and as things develop he is driven more by their actions than they are by his.
The problem with AAA gaming isn’t just that it’s men leading the conversation, but rather that it’s one specific type of man consistently being rewarded by other men who see themselves in each other. If big games want to make a difference with their diversity, then the identities they’re championing need to be more than just assumptions. Games shouldn’t be held back by such a myopic lens, and the sooner we broaden the perspectives and groups behind them, the better we’ll all be for it.