Ever since Ubisoft’s conference at E3, it seems like the whole internet has been shitting on them, and why not? If any gaming development team—or any development team of any media—in this day and age seriously expects to use “it’s too hard” as an excuse to exclude female characters from their games, then they need to be told by thousands of people that their stance is wrong. Period. For once, though, the incensed denizens of the internet weren’t alone. We were joined by several prolific voices in the gaming community, from those who worked on Assassin’s Creed (the series being scrutinized, in case you forgot), to mocap specialists, and even other game companies. Yes, indeed: the public and the industries seem to be ready for more games with female stories.
So, game companies, why aren’t you doing anything about it?
I’m not complaining: companies that willingly agree that this trend of throwing female characters under the bus in favor of more comfortable male characters is kind of fucked up is, well, unexpected and appreciated. Yet it’s easy to agree with these things—especially when they make your company look good—when you don’t actually have to do anything about them. While I did, and still do, laugh at the jibes made at Ubisoft’s expense by Insomniac Games and Breakfall, they’re not exactly remedying the issue. But they’re not alone; I’d hazard to say that most everyone else is in the same boat of confusing the representation of women in video games with video games that feature female stories. While both are very much needed in this medium, we are suffering a drought of the latter.
I point out Insomniac Games and Breakfall in particular for the type of joke they made. Both of them made comments akin to “hey, we have female characters in our games. learn 2 character design Ubisoft lmao.” Roughly paraphrased, of course. It’s true that both of these games can make arguments for having characters that are female in their games. (Breakfall and their female assassin costume for Starwhal maybe a little less so, since every character looks like the same adorable, smiling narwhal. Except this one has hair.)
However, having the opportunity to make a lady in the character creator doesn’t mean that the story is a female-driven story. Furthermore, in the case of Insomniac’s Sunset Overdrive, the main character used for marketing is, so far, exclusively the same guy we’ve been seeing for a year now. This is the same problem that Bioware games tend to run into, despite the company practically being the shining example of minority representation in video games. Once a create-your-own-character game gets a face for the marketing campaign, the game inevitably becomes gendered, even if that’s not what was intended. Unfortunately nine times out of ten that “face” is male—a white male, if we’re getting specific.
As easy as it is to place all of the blame on the developers, it’s not entirely their fault. (Okay, if they’re saying something like animating women is intrinsically more difficult than animating men, then it’s totally their fault.) Yet these studios have to first and foremost find a way to stay in business. That means making money and, if they’re under a large brand name like EA or Sony, playing to their audience. In an earlier article of this series, I mentioned that representation in video games is caught in an annoying Catch 22, especially when lady protagonists are involved. According to a study reported by Alyssa Rosenberg of ThinkProgress, video games having an exclusively female lead receive only forty percent of the marketing budget as a male lead game. Although this article came out two years ago, I doubt much has changed. And I hate having to say that—that despite how far we’ve come, women, and no doubt other minorities, are still being kept from the spotlight in games due to passive aggression like this. Due to the very wide gap in marketing budgets, many games with women protagonists sell poorly because there’s no money to advertise them well, and in turn publishers get the idea that they don’t sell well.
Taking a step back from marketing jive, though, even if a series used a female character as their advertising vehicle, that “face” would ultimately mean nothing in terms of representation unless it was her story being played within the game itself. It could be argued that playing through a game as a female character makes it a female story, but I beg to differ. For example, I’ve seen both paths through Mass Effect, as a male Shepard and a female Shepard. Both Shepards face the same trials, meet the same friends, and reach the same goals. The only time when gender seems to play a role is when someone makes a quip about how pretty you are, or calling you “bitch” as opposed to “asshole”. And while these differences in how someone is treated due to their gender are very real, it’s an extremely superficial distinction between the two gendered paths. The truth is that compared to a game that’s focused on one distinct character, these create-you-own-character games just don’t have enough time to tell a story that includes all the intricacies that come along with gender. These games aren’t about their protagonists, for the most part; they’re about changing social climates and the effect that large changes have on the universe in general. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Yet, because of that reason, these games shouldn’t be considered as proper representation in terms of the protagonist.
What we need instead are games that can devote themselves to telling the story of a specific female character. We need games that have the capacity to go into the nuances of her character and how she deals with the struggles of the world that she, personally, is faced with. We need games like Shadow of the Colossus, Uncharted, and Metal Gear Solid that allow women to head their own adventures, get into their own shitty situations, and let them be the badass who doesn’t look at explosions. You may say, “there are already a lot of games with female stars, Rin!” To that I say, more. We need more. More mainstream titles staring ladies. Especially more games where the lead female isn’t created with the intention of being for the (male) consumer to ogle at.
Unfortunately, this isn’t an article with a solution. I wish it was. I wish I had an answer to help publishers see that games with female protagonists are capable of selling well. I wish I had an answer that would prove to developers that even if they feel that designing a female character is more time consuming, it’s still so very worth it. But in business, numbers speak louder than words and spouting off “buy more video games starring women” seems so obvious at this point. This is, however, an article with a wish. I wish deeply for game developers to take that extra step, take that responsibility you have to 47% of your audience. If there’s an option in your game to have a female character, try marketing the game partially under an actual female’s face. Go fifty-fifty.
More importantly, make a full length game that stars a female in a compelling story. Same goes for you, games that have female-centric DLC stories. The Last of Us had “Left Behind”, taking a closer look at Ellie, and now Infamous seems to be doing the same with their character Fetch Walker and the DLC “First Light”. This is fantastic, but if you can write your lady characters as the star of their own DLC, surely you can write an entire game around one who’s just as interesting and engaging. The hard truth of the matter is that we can buy as many games with a female lead as we want, but until publishers decide to take a risk—or developers say “fuck the rules, we have money”—nothing much is going to change.
We do already have small changes happening. I’m not the only one that won’t stop talking about Child of Light (which I still have a hard time believing was done by Ubisoft—what happened, guys?) and people seem excited for the future releases of both Mirror’s Edge 2 and Bayonetta 2. It may be too late for getting large-name companies to put anything further out in this vein this gaming year, but games like this keep the hope burning in me. Until then, what can we do but support the games that are already out? Buy Child of Light. Buy Transistor. Buy Tomb Raider. And for the love of god, buy Assassin’s Creed: Liberation. Liberation is the game that suffered most from a lack of advertising and has been used as the scapegoat for “bad sales” because of it. Let’s show these companies that their own lack of initiative is no longer an acceptable excuse.