VIDEO GAME WOMEN? WE’RE CLOSER THAN WE THINK

So after the success of the last article, I realised that I’d made a bit of an error. See, whilst I did a lot to shout self-righteously about certain sexism issues within gaming culture, I wasn’t doing much to solve those issues. Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions, right? Sure, you can tell your friend when he’s accidentally driven into a car crusher, but unless you wander round and find the “OFF” button it’s not going to do much to help him.

But not to fear, because there is a way. There are certain female characters in video games who to my mind, are aspirational and worth emulating, not just for women but for all genders. They avoid cliché character tropes, they have fully developed personalities, they don’t sell themselves on eroticism. They are, in other words, figures we can learn from.

That said, I’ve heard some people say we should see a realistic representation of women in society in video games, and to that I say: NO. For now and forever, no.

I’d say it if it were about men, too. I play video games for escapism, I do it to leave the outside world for a few hours. I can’t imagine anything more horrifying than getting dragged back into a digital recreation of the world I’m trying to ignore.

You know the kinds of games that follow that model? The Sims. Nintendogs. Farmville. If given the choice of playing a superhero or an office clerk, I’m going to stick with the first, regardless of what gender is involved. Games should be progressive, but we can’t throw fun out the window, no matter what.

Look at The Path, perhaps one of the most irritating games I’ve seen. Yes, it’s all a big metaphor for woman in the modern world and how we treat her. How is it as a game? Well, it’s boring, pretentious, and clearly thinks it’s so much smarter than it is, when it just comes across as hostile to the player. Surely these things are more harmful for the reputation of women in gaming than anything else? It makes it seem like feministic games are dull as ditchwater, with no sense of humour or joy to them. The Path makes me miserable, and not in the good way, like Spec ops: The Line. It’s a big, clunky message that begrudgingly allowed a game to be made around it. That’s not fun for anybody.

For that reason, all of the following characters are warriors, mutants and members of the apocalypse, and sometimes several of those at once. Does it matter? Of course not. They still have traits and aspects to them that are admirable, whatever the context they’re placed in. We can still like them for who they are and what they want from life. And let’s kick off with one who embodies the term “professional.”


ATHENA THE GLADIATOR – BORDERLANDS

Originally created as a side character in the DLC campaign, The Secret Armoury Of General Knoxx, Athena was a cool and calculating soldier for the Atlas Corporation’s Crimson Lance militia, then an assassin, then a defector. See, Athena was searching for her sister Jess on the world of Pandora, and was planning on quitting the military life once she found her sibling, so that they could go off and live in peace. Seems fair enough.

Unfortunately, Atlas heard about this and didn’t like what they heard. Athena wasn’t just a member of the Crimson Lance, she was the BEST member of Crimson Lance. They tracked down Jess before Athena could find her to a small village nearby, then ordered Athena to lead an attack on the settlement, believing that if Jess was dead then Athena would have no reason to leave the Lance. Ordered to wear heat-sensitive thermal goggles and unable to tell people apart, Athena stabbed Jess by accident and fled in misery when she saw whom she killed.

It wasn’t long, however, before she put the pieces together and realised that Atlas had betrayed her. Misery turned to anger, and she launched a calculated campaign of sabotage and war on her former employees that wasn’t just effective, it took Atlas off the planet of Pandora for good. After that she took up treasure hunting under the employ of Handsome Jack, which she took to incredibly well.

Athena

I don’t want to sound like a dopey fanboy, but… she’s so cool. She’s really, really cool.

All this is pretty grim and foreboding, so why do we like her? Well, because she’s pretty kick-ass and nothing if not independent. Athena would do her Greek namesake proud, she’s a tactical genius and an accomplished warrior with a taste for adventure. Anybody who can go to the gun-laden world of Pandora with a sword and shield and still be considered one of the most lethal people there, well, they’re clearly a force to be reckoned with.

She’s also a genuinely interesting character, with some semblance of morality that she constantly struggles with in her line of work, despite most other Pandorans having abandoned ethics years ago in favour of survival. She leaves the employ of Handsome Jack when she sees the monster that he becomes, and spends some time training the confidence trickster Fiona in combat so that she might have a better chance of living, something she was under no obligation to do.

She’s also incredibly brave, staring coldly down the barrels of a firing squad with no fear in her eyes, and she makes a rather sweet partner for the junk dealer Janey Springs, whom she deeply cares for and worries about often.

And yes, she’s killed people, but Borderlands has always enjoyed over the top violence, and this is Pandora, for god’s sake. Ninety percent of the population are psychotic bandits, and the rest are just plain psychotic. Christ, even the plantlife and certain rocks will try to kill you if you don’t keep an eye on them. Maybe there’s something in the water.

No, Athena deserves to be on the list for showing an uncompromising, independent spirit, tempered with a moral compass and the occasional glimpse of real tenderness beneath the tough emotional armour. Salute her, and whatever you do, don’t get in her way.


ALYX VANCE – HALF LIFE 2

Half-Life as a series has been nothing if not a pioneer. Aesthetic realism, interactive storytelling, physics engines, character development, facial animation – all of these and more have been pushed forward by this incredible series. To manage all of this and remain fun is an achievement. To manage all of this, remain fun, and create one of the most memorable female characters in gaming is something else.

Alyx

And to top it all off, she photographs beautifully. That’s some top-notch gazing into the middle-distance there, Alyx.

Alyx Vance is one of those characters who is just a wonderful surprise in every way she presents herself. Neither an over-sexualised bimbo, a damsel in distress, or a generic action girl, Alyx is actually the heart of the story from the very beginning of Half-Life 2. I’ve heard some claim that she’s Gordon Freeman’s love interest, but that seems to be a stretch. Freeman is a camera with a beard, I don’t think he’s making many signals for her to respond to.

No, Alyx is her own person, through and through. She’s one of the most important members of the resistance against the alien Combine, utilising a variety of skills to overcome any situation. She’s a formidable hand-to-hand fighter with a great skill in firearms, an impressive athlete and gymnast, and she’s an incredible hacker and tech-head, able to reprogram any computer system, be it human or alien.

All this would be awe-inspiring on its own, but it’s Alyx’s personality that makes her shine. She’s a caring person with a real sense of vigorous optimism, all in a time where she should be miserable as hell. She cares about others and is especially empathetic, with an endearing sense of humour.

She really feels like a person, and it’s a sign of good story-telling that people found themselves getting attached to her. When she suffers loss, I feel sad for her sake. When she makes a dumb joke, I find myself grinning stupidly with her. And when she becomes injured at one point, I took the mission not to progress through the story, but because I really wanted to help her.

Alyx is symbolic of everything that is worth preserving in the human world, in a situation that threatens to take it all from us. Kindness, intellect, freedom, humour, emotion, empathy, she embodies them all, and still maintains her humanity in the situation where it is under the most strain.

Oh, and she has the best taste in robots. No, she really does. Watching her interact with Dog, the massive metal guardian that lumbers affectionately after her, is utterly adorable. And all I’ve got are those stupid fish in the utility room. Life really isn’t fair.


ELIZABETH – BIOSHOCK INFINITE

An important part of anybody’s life is coming to an understanding of who you are, not to mention the awkward transition to adulthood. Elizabeth is twenty when we first witness her in Bioshock Infinite, but appears a lot younger in her actions and mannerisms, something that’ll change before too long.

Bioshock Infinite is based in Columbia, a fictitious city in 1912 that floats several thousand feet above the ground on suspiciously out-of-place technology. It was founded and built by a religious nutcase named Father Comstock, who created a Christian cult that incorporates the morals of the Westboro Baptist Church combined with a ferocious obsession of the American Founding Fathers.

No, really. One of the first things you see in the city is a trio of statues that show Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington respectively, all dressed in angelic robes with people openly worshipping them. Of course, being horribly racist means they don’t like Lincoln much, but that’s fine. They just made a temple dedicated to John Wilkes Booth instead. Now THAT was a surprising statue to see.

Elizabeth

When we say empower women, we didn’t mean to the level of a minor deity. That said, now I see it in action? It looks pretty cool.

But where does Elizabeth fit into this? Well, she’s Comstock’s daughter, destined to inherit the city once he finally kicks the bucket, but she’s not too keen on him or his patriotic Christian nonsense. Thus he’s kept her locked in a building since childhood until she changes her mind, with a huge artificial monster outside that is programmed to protect her from outsiders.

Of course, that’s not the only reason he does the whole Rapunzel shtick. Elizabeth has somehow unlocked strange abilities within her mind, allowing her to create tears between dimensions and even travel through time and space.

There’s something fascinating about this process and watching Elizabeth make use of it. Trapped in a tower with only books and pictures for company, Elizabeth begins to dream of escape and romanticises the city of Paris in particular, and she often opens tears so that she can witness it herself, though she’s never risked travelling through one.

In fact, Elizabeth is genuinely joyful for great periods of the game, to an extent where it almost becomes infectious. When freed from the tower, she ascends into childlike delight, experiencing every pleasure life has to offer, from food, to beaches, to dancing. When the protagonist, Booker DeWitt, suggests that he take her to Paris itself, it’s like she’s hit by lightning. An enormous grin spreads across her face and she almost seems ready to jump into the air with sheer joy.

That’s not all. Elizabeth is very well-educated, having grown up with only books for company, and occasionally quotes literature to highlight a point. She has a mischievous streak, but a harmless one and her strong will sometimes manifests as biting wit, though never to the extent where it’s tiresome.

The most engaging part of Elizabeth’s character is how it doesn’t remain the same. She matures over the course of the story and has to deal with many issues with which she can’t quite resolve herself. Violence unnerves her. Her deranged father frightens her. She can’t help but view the monstrous Songbird that imprisons her as a friend. And of course her powers get more potent with time, tempting her to use them to a greater degree.

It might sound like Elizabeth risks becoming overly weak and flawed, but she’s not, especially when you consider the dysfunctional way she was brought up. Besides, everybody in this game is bloody nuts and she seems quite stable in comparison. Not to mention that she, more than anybody else, overcomes her problems and really does change, whereas all the other characters are stuck in the same destructive cycles.

Elizabeth represents progression and the future. She’s idealistic, intelligent and filled with a love of life that’s impossible to ignore. She remains strong in the face of adversity even when she’s scared and resists the allure of power, wanting only to appreciate the finer things, like art and culture. She’s also highly reasonable and adapts her thinking in the face of better evidence or logic, but knows when she’s being manipulated and to hold her ground. It’s not Elizabeth’s purpose to be perfect, but instead to demonstrate the changes needed for perfection. And that’s a pretty noble cause in my book.


CLEMENTINE – TELLTALE’S: THE WALKING DEAD

Female heroes aren’t always limited by age. I have a special place in my cold, black heart for the bundle of violence and bright colours that is Hitgirl from the series Kick-Ass, and whilst some kids can be annoying in how they’re presented in games and movies, sometimes the creators get it just right.

Clementine from Telltale’s: The Walking Dead is one of those times. By the way, I trust the plot of The Walking Dead doesn’t need describing. It’s zombies… and you know the rest. Eating human flesh, resurrecting, shotguns, etc. If zombies could be reduced to a colour at this point, it would be a modestly faded beige.

Except that the whole point of The Walking Dead was the relative awareness of this fact. It knew that zombies were boring and that a character study of how people might try to survive in such an environment would be much more engaging to watch. Zombies hardly ever show up in that game, usually about once or twice per episode, and it’s often more tense that way because of how rare it is.

Of course, the other reason that it’s tense is because you’re fighting for two now. You play as Lee, a former university teacher who is stranded in the <yawn> zombie apocalypse, and has to survive the clammy hands of the undead.

Clementine

In a cav-ern, in a can-yon, exca-VATING for a mine… No? Just me?

Except that the first person Lee encounters is not another adult survivor, or a mad priest, or a wise-cracking action hero, but a young girl named Clementine, whose parents were in Savannah when the dead began to rise. Her babysitter became infected and attacked her, and little Clem demonstrated remarkable intelligence when everybody else descended into panic, climbing into her treehouse and pulling up the ladder with her, waiting for the moment where either she could escape or somebody would find her.

It’s not long before you show up, and the eight-year old girl immediately proves herself to be both useful and brave. When Lee is set upon by the undead caretaker, Clementine immediately finds a hammer for him to defend himself, without which he would’ve been killed. Minutes in and she’s established herself not to be just a burden, but a person who cares. She’s already miles above most kids in popular culture already.

Clementine is probably the video game character for whom I have felt the most empathy and emotion for in my life. If I had a daughter, I’d be proud to see her grow up to be like Clementine. Why? Because this little girl is probably one of the most endearing, adorable characters in games, certainly the most lovable child ever to come to the medium.

I can’t fault her on anything, I really can’t. Clementine is quiet and caring, worrying about others instead of herself and making actions with them in mind. She tries to take care of herself as much as possible so that others won’t have to, and even does her best not to cry because she knows that Lee will worry. God, I’d want to cry in her position. Clementine loses her parents, her possessions, her home and any stability remaining in her life, and yet she still worries about those around her. Can we find her a medal or something?

Clementine gives up so much that it made me want to give her what little I had left for myself. When I made a choice that would impact events, I always did it with Clementine in mind, knowing that her happiness was what mattered most. If I was given the option to make sacrifices, I made them for her sake. There was a point about halfway through the game where I understood that if I had to choose between her and Lee, I’d pick her every time. She really meant something to me.

Compare that to the little girl who dies in Watch_Dogs. Should I have been sad about that? Probably, I guess. I know the game was hoping I’d mope it up with the main character. But it meant bugger all to me, because the game had forgotten to tell me why I should care. She’s the protagonist’s niece, but that’s all you can say about her, she doesn’t have any definition beyond that fact. You never speak to her, or find out anything about her life. She’s just “that kid that died.” She’s not even a child, just the concept of one, and you won’t tug my heartstrings by having the heroes standing around staring blankly at a gravestone like they’re trying to work out if they can eat it or not.

But Clementine is a real person, to me at least. Everybody who played that game felt the same way I did, because we became invested in her. She meant something to us, even within the context of the story. That’s immersion for you. That’s what a good writer can do.

Clementine has meant different things to different people, but I’ll always see her as “The Motivation.” In a world filled with monsters, Clem is the reason to keep going, to keep fighting. If she wasn’t around, I almost suspect Lee would have committed suicide out of sheer despair and lack of purpose. But she gave both him and us a reason to keep pushing forward, struggling to keep her safe until she could finally become the adult she had to become to survive, and our job could be over.


CAROL – FALLOUT 3

And in the same way that female empowerment is not limited by age, neither is it limited by species or genetic stability. This is easily the most obscure character on this list, but there’s something about Carol that stuck with me long after my completion of Fallout 3, and it’s tricky to say why.

I did go through a lot of thinking for this one. See, the other four characters on this list were fairly obvious to me, but I couldn’t think of a fifth one that really stuck out. Lara Croft? Nah. She started as a buxom Indiana Jones rip-off, before getting rebooted as nature’s punching bag. Samus Aran? Sorry, I haven’t forgotten about Metroid: Other M yet, so that’s not happening. And I’m not picking a fetish girl like Soulcalibur’s Ivy or Bayonetta, even if that song at the end of her game is pretty sweet.

No, I pick Carol. Say what you like about her, but she certainly isn’t overly sexy, not unless Bethesda are trying to market their games to necrophiliacs.

Carol started life as a regular human, but when nuclear Armageddon struck she was turned into a ghoul, a common subset of homo sapiens that are all afflicted with long life, rasping voices and decaying skin. They’re sometimes referred to as “zombies” by regular folk, and it’s not hard to see why. If I couldn’t scratch my ear for fear of it coming off in my hand, I’d start finding work with Romero myself.

Carol

I’d hug her, but I’m worried that it might dislodge something important. Like her skin.

By the way, when I say that ghouls get afflicted with long life, I really mean it. She’s over two hundred years old at this point, and shows no signs of slowing down. Good on her, I say. I hope I’m that sprightly at her age, though perhaps with a better complexion.

Anyway, Carol was lost in the irradiated rubble of Washington DC and found shelter in the Museum Of American History, which had escaped mostly unscathed. She was the founder of an entire ghoul society, one that promised shelter and safety to her brethren. She even went on to create her own B&B there, something which had always been her dream. Who says that nukes falling on you has to set you back? “Carol’s Place” is still standing strong, and there’s nowhere nicer to get a meal in all the wasteland.

What makes me really like Carol is that she’s just rather sweet. She’s seen her father die and the world reduced to ash, but she still manages to stay friendly and positive whenever you meet her. A pretty dress and a smile seem to make all the difference in a world where colour and cheer are being eroded, not to mention the offer of eggs over easy. It’s rather like going to see a cheerful aunt, albeit one who might have a finger fall off now and then.

She gets along fine in the Museum, with her partner Greta (must be going on sixty years now) and her adopted son Gob. And whereas the other ghouls can be suspicious or a little judgemental of a “smoothskin” in their town, Carol recognises a fellow traveller, tired from their troubles in the Capital Wasteland, and is always willing to set up a bed and get you some food.

Here’s to you, Carol. The end of the world is richer for you being in it.

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