Gaming’s Rare Feminist Heroes

Video games have not had an easy time portraying women. Part of this is, of course, gamer culture (researching this post proved it was much easier to find articles on the hottest women in gaming than on the best female characters). But even without the issues of their customer base, it’s hard to find examples of female protagonists in games that aren’t offensive. Even the ones who legitimately kick ass do so in a way that feels almost apologetic– most female action heroes in games who aren’t BloodRayne-level pinups are de-feminized, hyper-aggressive, and usually terribly written and intensely unlikeable. Even Samus Aran– one of gaming’s first and most famous female heroes –still rewards the player by taking off more of her armor depending on how quickly players got through the game.

When critics talk about Aliens’  Ripley as a great feminist action hero (and given that Aliens gets quoted, referenced, or ripped-off in about half the games released, you’d think developers might remember this), they point out that she can be feminine and kick ass without treating it as a paradox, still grapples with maternal pangs, and that the issue of her gender is an important one to the character and story without the story becoming dominated by it. So today, we’re going to look at two video game heroines that both live up to this standard in very different ways.

A. Terra Branford from Final Fantasy VI

This outfit is actually pretty subdued for a Yoshitaka Amano character.

Even though Terra has the distinction of being the first female main character in a Final Fantasy game (and the only one until Final Fantasy XIII happened), she has the misfortune of starring in a game where the main villain, the demented and outlandish Kefka Palazzo, overshadows everyone else. So why not give her some time to shine?

Like many video game characters (including the one we’ll be discussing next), Terra suffers from amnesia at the start of her story (well– technically she’s under mind control but this is soon undone). Her story arc involves her gradually recovering fragments of her lost memories along with learning and coming to terms with the source of her unusual abilities. While this character type may be fairly common in video games, Terra stands apart from the rest because these developments are well executed, give or take a few poorly translated and written lines. Some flashbacks show excerpts of her past which effectively raise interest in the story. The fact that she was an unwilling pawn of steampunk nazis explains why she’s hesitant to accept her unique abilities and heritage throughout the story, though aside from a few key scenes, these hesitations usually don’t carry over into battles.

Like many JRPG heroes, Terra can have a bit of a mopey side.

So the above shows why Terra is a good character (and by extension a good female character), but why exactly did we choose her for this entry? Because her feminine qualities are emphasized just enough to make her character unique without completely dominating the tone of the game. Throughout the first half of the game, Terra struggles with her inability to experience human emotions, especially love, most likely due to her half-Human half-Esper status and her prolonged imprisonment before the game begins. This character arc is completed in the second half of the game, which happens a year after the first half once the world has completely gone to hell and all the party members have been scattered.  Terra is encountered again while attempting act as a mother to a village of children who’s parent’s were all killed during the mid-game apocalypse. Ultimately, through this act she realizes that she can experience human love and learns to fully control her powers and accept who she is. Terra grows and develops through characteristics that are typically thought of as feminine (maternal instinct, etc), whereas many female game heroes have to “overcome” their femininity by becoming violent asskickers. Whereas for Lara Croft, Samus, and other iconic women in games, femininity is a weakness, for Terra it’s a strength. She also serves as a great contrast to arch villain Kefka, who’s insane and completely selfish quest for godhood can be seen as a distortion of male ambition and power. The game has Terra grow into a powerful figure while acknowledging that she’s a woman, but not going so far as to constantly scream in your ear “Look, she’s a woman but she also tough! Isn’t that great!? Aren’t we so progressive!?”

B. Bayonetta from …Bayonetta

If you haven’t played it, imagine a super-Japanese Kill Bill as written by William Blake.

To get the most obvious hurdle out of the way: yes, Bayonetta is insanely sexual. Yes, the game’s director (Hideki Kamiya, who designed the similarly-oversexed Devil May Cry) readily admits that Bayonetta is his “perfect woman.” But like with Terra, Bayonetta is a powerful character through predominantly feminine traits, although these traits come from the opposite end of the spectrum.

Firstly, Bayonetta may just be the most intimidating woman to ever star in a game, both sexually and in terms of her skill and danger. On the sexual front, she’s six-and-a-half feet of legs, coolly dismissive of every character in the game, and wearing teetering heels that are also guns. But she’s also by far the most competent and important figure in her game: there’s no man to ever rescue her, she’s consistently the smartest, coolest, and most prepared person around, and, oh yes, the final boss fight of the game involves her punching God into the sun. She’s also well-written, clever, and genuinely kind to the people she cares about (game designers think that making a female character an asshole counts as making her strong). Unlike many other game heroines (Samus in Metroid: Other M or even Terra), Bayonetta is cool and in control the entire time.

All Hail the Glam Pope.

More importantly, Bayonetta’s sexuality serves a serious narrative and thematic purpose. Make no mistake: despite its ludicrous stupidity, Bayonetta is a very smart game. Its core storyline is the war between the oppressed Umbra Witches (associated with the moon, cats, and other symbols of female sexuality) and the Lumen Sages, a thinly-disguised version of the Catholic Church. The grand plot of the game’s flamboyant Pope (the literal Patriarch) is to enslave Bayonetta and control her feminine magic in order to call God to earth, essentially an attempt to constrain female sexuality. The game’s female angels– Joy –are sexually submissive: offering themselves to the player and inviting the camera to ogle them. Female sexuality from the side of the villains is in the service of male lust or power, whereas Bayonetta is sexual solely for her own sake. This is woven into combat, as well: Bayonetta can perform over-the-top sexual taunts which will enrage nearby angels beyond the point of reason, and many of her more powerful attacks (like summoning a giant demonic high heel to stomp her enemies) are weaponized sexual humiliation. Bayonetta owning and reveling in her sexuality isn’t just a character element: it’s her embracing the very thing that her enemies hate her for. For all its cheesy sexiness, the game’s core story is that of a third-wave feminist using her sexuality as a weapon against the patriarch.

Like Terra, Bayonetta is also extremely feminine. Whereas most game heroes aren’t allowed to be feminine– think of Samus, who spends all of her time as a hero in genderless power armor –Bayonetta struts about in heels, is represented by cats and butterflies, eats lollipops, and becomes a mother figure (to a younger version of herself from the past). Bayonetta is Princess Peach levels of girly, and the game never plays it for irony: she’s an extremely womanly woman who happens to be an amazing hero.

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In Praise of the Games that Ruined Shooters

It is, at times, hard to find a temperate voice in gaming. The gaming press has a reputation for being adulatory and terrified of actively criticizing the industry that buys their adds and gives them their stories– best embodied by the infamous Kane and Lynch scandal — whereas  there’s a pretty strong feeling among a lot of gamers outside the absolute mainstream that the medium is dying and nothing will ever be good again (We’d give you a link for that one, but just Google “modern gaming sucks” for a wall of identical complaints).

And, especially in the field of shooters, there are two games in particular that this second camp likes to hold up as the harbingers of the apocalypse, games that took the sacred medium of gaming away from us true gamers and delivered it to the corporate-run, fratboy masses of people who could never beat a Mega Man title and are strangling the lifeblood from this industry. Modern Warfare and Halo. These are the games that turned every shooter into either over-testosteroned space marines or a faceless goon shooting a parade of foreigners through his iron-sights in a brown/gray world.

And we’re going to tell you why those games are fantastic.

Halo

The fact that Halo inspired the Gears of War series alone is reason enough to be wary of it, but the impact it had on shooters can’t be denied– it made Space Marines a go-to template beyond even what Doom had been able to do, turned multiplayer into a standard requirement for shooters, firmly cemented the console as the home of popular shooters, and put a stake through the heart of the old Half-Life style FPS (except Valve’s own games and the decidedly retro BioShock).

Halo also made a lot of its own elements a part of the standard shooter through its success: limited weapon space, a dedicated grenade button, semi-regenerating health, a melee attack button instead of a melee weapon, vehicle sections. These had all been in other games, but it’s pretty rare to find a post-Halo shooter that does incorporate at least half of them, and usually all of them.

Halo’s strong sense of design communicates to the player that these enemies are the worst and should be hated.

But, taken as it was and not as the Game to Rule All Games, the first Halo was pretty damn good. It was bright and colorful with vivid and energetic art design (a trend the series kept up even in its later, weaker installments), and that alone sets it above the brown-green-gray sea of a lot of modern shooters. The enemy design in particular is fantastic: all of the enemies pop out from the landscape, and it’s easy to tell at a glance what kind of threat they pose, how scared you should be, and what tactics are best against them. They all utilize very different tactics when fighting the player, which helps to vary the gameplay greatly. Each type of enemy feels as if they occupy their own distinct role in the Covenant Military. Halo also had absolutely gorgeous level and world design: the environments you fought in felt ancient and awesome, and the game puts the player in a diverse array of natural environments and interesting settings. Playing the game today, one of the biggest surprises is how well it’s aged visually compared to so many other games from 2001: put it alongside Grand Theft Auto III or Black and White and Halo doesn’t simply look graphically better: it looks more alive, more vivid, and still has a real sense of originality and excitement to its worlds.

Halo also did some things very, very right as far as gameplay is concerned. The biggest one of these was a sense of balance: whereas the basic norm in shooters was to give the player increasingly more powerful guns as they go along (best shown in the genius Doom Comic), Halo was one of the shooters to push towards making all weapons relatively equal. Sure, the pistol was infamously overpowered and the rocket launcher was still a rocket launcher, but the player’s choice of weapons essentially boiled down to what they’d be facing and how they played (this is one of the things that made its multiplayer so popular– it did away with the situation where one player gets the Golden Gun and is able to dominate the entire game). And since the grenades and the melee attack each have their own buttons, they become a valuable part of combat scenarios and expand the options given to the player. This balanced set of weapons extended to the enemy encounters: fighting a stronger enemy (a cloaked Elite, an Elite with a sword, a Hunter) didn’t require the player to grab a bigger better gun, it required them to act quickly and use a different strategy. These ideas may not sound too impressive, but considering that before Halo the biggest and most influential shooter was the original Half-Life (which, for all its greatness, was guilty of perpetuating a lot of these problems) they represent some pretty major steps forward for the genre.

There is no surer sign of a good time than “Captain Keyes is here.”

And now we do what most critics (who don’t work for the industry) wouldn’t be caught dead doing: praising Halo‘s story.  Whereas the later Halo games seemed to labor under the pretensions that a) they were telling a sweeping sci-fi epic and b) the player actually cared about the aliens’ motivations and politics, the first game’s story is a masterpiece of economy. The writing in it is fairly sharp and does a good job of  putting the player in the world, but it never overreaches. It doesn’t need to explain why aliens hate humans or what their culture is (and does a pretty good job through incidental dialogue, the environment, and its sense of design of giving you that information anyway), nor does it burden you with millenia of galactic history. What plot developments it has, it handles very well, like the introduction of the Flood. Whereas the later games veered closer and closer to space opera, the first Halo feels like a simple space adventure from the soldier’s point of view, consistently likeable characters, and hints at a bigger picture.  Although we’ll be the first to admit that Halo 3‘s plot is stupid and self-involved, we need more games who take the first Halo‘s approach to storytelling: enough story to give a sense of tension, but never, ever expecting us to be amazed by it or letting it get in the way of the actual game.

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare

Modern Warfare’s cultural presence is essentially a bigger version of Halo‘s: even more successful, even more reviled (to the point that, while researching this article, we found Halo fans worrying that Halo 4 would be a bad game by imitating Modern Warfare). It came out the same year as  the “trilogy” part of the “five-game trilogy, followed by another trilogy” of Halo ended, and basically transformed the world of shooters. Even we’re guilty of complaining about this in our last article, and it’s a valid complaint– Modern Warfare’s astronomical success, paired with Activision’s… let’s just say “evil”, basically led to half the shooters of the past five years resembling it.

But, even more than Halo, the game deserved success (and Infinity Ward didn’t deserve their infamous treatment by Activision). It was

This is one of many, many levels that will make you feel guilty for playing it.

one of the best games of 2007  (and it had to compete with Bioshock, Portal, Mass Effect, and Super Mario Galaxy), and stands as one of the only successful anti-war video games ever made. Whereas the MW series since then has gotten ever more jingoistic, foreigner-hating, and morally questionable, the first game is absolutely full of moments that encapsulate how unsettling and wrong war and our modern approach to it is. There’s the famous “Aftermath” level, where a character you’ve been controlling half the game dies of radiation poisoning and the game only briefly highlights his name on a scrolling list of the thousands of casualties, there’s “Death From Above,” where you control an American aircraft gunner and the main characters (a British SAS division) and their conflict are reduced to tiny blips that your character is audibly bored with as you blanket an entire village with fire, and even the game’s opening credits are a chilling and evocative look at geopolitics. Whereas Modern Warfare 3 feels like an unironic Team America game, the series’ first installment is one of the only games about war that manages to be fun to play, but make war and the nationalism that accompanies it look pretty awful.

Captain Price: candidate for most badass moustache in video games

And, like Halo, we have to judge it by the era it came out in rather than by its sequels and imitators. When it came out, the idea of a war game grounded in modern, realistic conflict was still fairly new, and the gameplay elements we’ve come to hate were part of that. Playing the game when it first came out, we weren’t yet sick of fighting in bleak Middle-Eastern cities and gray Russian bases. The very fact that a good game was talking about American action in the Middle East and making the player feel like a real, on-the-ground soldier was refreshing and felt like a bold step forward (instead of just being yet another Nazi shooting gallery). And, without those objections, the intense chaos of the combat and the fact that it always feels as though you’re getting through just by the skin of your teeth is something truly praiseworthy. The game also does a great job of immersing you in its military setting. The first few missions feel like they’re teaching you how to move and fight as a squad (though some of the later missions throw these tactics out the window), and the game gives you Captain Price, a commanding officer who’s a great character and someone actually worth following. The game can feel exhausting at times, but its frantic and confusing combat is both thrilling and an important aspect of its story and themes. It accomplishes a rare thing: it’s an incredibly fun game that also feels like a relief when you finally turn it off, and it does a fantastic job of always, always making the player feel like they’re seconds from death.

In the end, we have to judge these games by their own standards. If they hadn’t been behemoths of the industry, if we hadn’t had to live with their legacy, would it be so easy to hate them? And if every shooter nowadays looks like Halo or Modern Warfare, is it really fair to blame them?

How Boring do Game Designers Think We Are?

Usually on Cardinal Virtual, we like to focus on things we like about games (Video Game Critics Who Are Angry being a fairly bloated genre). This week though, we’re doing something a little different and talking about a pet peeve both of us have with many modern games. It seems like so many of the AAA titles that come out these days feature personality-less husks of human beings who are about as dynamic as the color beige. (They’re almost always square-jawed, brown-haired, slightly-tanned white men too– confusing “everyman” for “statistically average.”) Most likely, this is done because of the false assumption that this is the only way to really immerse the player. Since game developers fear a non-relatable character will draw the player out of the experience, they often opt for the safe route and create a character who won’t offend anyone but is as dull as a stamp collector. Okay, these similes are getting old, so let’s dive into some examples of characters who need a bit of color in their personalities.

Chuck Greene: Boring.

Specimen 1: Desmond Miles (The Assassin’s Creed series)

If there was ever a physical manifestation of blandness, it would be this guy. So maybe Desmond isn’t the main character of any one Assassin’s Creed game, but he’s definitely the star of the overall series. You play as one of his ancestors for most of each installment (Altaïr in the first game and Ezio in the second and it’s spin-offs), and fortunately, these characters are much more interesting. Both Altaïr and Ezio start off as inexperienced and sloppy assassins (in Ezio’s case, he’s dragged into the profession through tragic circumstances) and gradually become more professional and competent as the game progresses (as the player’s skill increases) and at the end of their stories, come to the realization that they’re a part of a struggle much bigger than themselves. Neither of them are quite as strong as the characters we wrote about two weeks ago (well, maybe Ezio is), but they still manage to engage, making the game all the more fun.

But Desmond doesn’t have any of this going for him. Nothing about him seems to change over the course of the series. He never really sounds excited, or scared, or angry. He has a love interest (for most of the game so far) but you never feel any chemistry between them (nor does she do much to endear herself to the player), she’s the love interest simply because she’s there. Desmond doesn’t even need to work to improve his skills, as he just seems to magically acquire his assassin skills (that he barely needs to use anyway). There’s no real story or Hero’s Journey for Desmond– the 2-3 hours the player spends controlling him and not Ezio or Altaïr are the complete, real-time story of Desmond. It might not seem as though we’re really describing much about Desmond, but honestly, there really isn’t anything more worth saying. The idea of connecting a series of games that take place in different eras and countries by reliving the memories of assassin’s from said time frames is interesting, but the (thankfully) brief sections spent controlling Desmond don’t make us feel anymore immersed in the games, they just make us want to go back to playing as Ezio or Altaïr. In a series dominated by exciting, complex heroes, the central protagonist is as cookie-cutter Standard Protagonist as you could possibly get.

Desmond Miles: Boring.

Specimen 2: Gordon Freeman (The Half-Life series)

Half-Life 2 (and it’s episodes) create one of the most impressive worlds in any video game. The different areas are quite varied, the sound design is impeccable, and its home to enemies like the Striders, Headcrab Zombies, and Hunters. The games also feature a great cast of characters, from Alyx Vance to Dr. Breen to the mysterious  G-Man. Unfortunately, protagonist Gordon Freeman does not belong in the ranks of these great characters, and (along with the level Water Hazard) is one of the weakest aspects of his games. It says something that the game could be improved by changing the protagonist to Barney Calhoun.

Barney Calhoun: less boring, vastly more drunk.

Now some of you may be screaming at your computer screens that Gordon Freeman is a silent protagonist, but Freeman still fails as an engaging character even within this criteria. Good silent protagonists are still expressive. Link, in the 3D installments of The Legend of Zelda series expresses himself through his myriad of idle animations, facial expressions (especially in The Wind Waker), and just through his reactions to what other characters do, all of which contribute to his, admittedly basic, personality. Link does have the advantage of a third person perspective though, so let’s look at some FPS silent protagonists. Jack from BioShock mostly receives orders from people via radio and the mid-game twist heavily implies why he’s a mostly silent protagonist (he does speak in the intro). Fellow Valve hero Chell also doesn’t have many other characters to interact with in the first Portal, and in Portal 2 she equates saying apple with jumping. But even Chell is given personality by the other characters, who praise and condemn her stubbornness, ingenuity, and drive.

Gordon Freeman, on the other hand, has none of these excuses. He has only the bare minimum of animations, most of which cover firing his weapons. His silence is sometimes acknowledged by the other characters, but never in any meaningful way and his lack of any input in conversations, especially with Alyx, just makes him seem creepy and awkward. Going from Freeman’s backstory, he’s probably a smart guy, but aside from fighting, all we ever have him do is plug stuff in and solve the same seesaw puzzle over and over again. Whereas Chell is defined by her game’s story and characters, Gordon’s skillsets boil down to shooting, puzzling, and pushing buttons, and the other characters only treat him as an emotionless messiah/walking button-pusher. The player never has an idea what Gordon’s feeling or what makes him special. Basically, Gordon Freeman fails to impress in any way as a silent protagonist. Since he doesn’t actively hurt his games, he’s par for the course, but he’s one of the weakest elements in any Valve game.

Gordon Freeman: Boring.

Specimen 3: Every Faceless Soldier from Every Military Based Shooter

Where to begin with this one? These guys are probably the worst offenders of all considering the large percentage of the market these games take up. It seems that player-controlled soldiers, whether they’re fighting in Germany, the Middle East, or in space (we’re including sci-fi shooters with a military style) all have roughly the same personality. They’re all no-nonsense badasses who never flinch in the face of danger and often have a cool catch-phrase waiting for the end of every battle. Sometimes they may suffer a personal tragedy or develop a love interest, but these situations are rarely developed enough to cause the player any real emotion. More often then not, these soldiers just complete objectives, and if they’re silent protagonists, they mostly mirror Gordon Freeman in the character animations department (without the more original backstory Freeman has). COD 4: Modern Warfare gets a bit of a pass in this area. The game does such a good job of placing the player within the within a military setting that controlling a faceless soldier actually feels appropriate, and part of the game’s point– best made in the early squad-building missions and in the famous Aftermath level–is how faceless and unimportant soldiers really are.

In  Modern Warfare 2/Modern Warfare 3/Call of Duty/Battlefield/Medal of Honor/Killzone/Crysis, the heroes aren’t just silent protagonists or player ciphers. They’re not even characters. They’re just an outgrowth of the gun, a part of the weapon– they may as well be remote-controlled military drones. The problem here isn’t just that developers think we can’t identify with a complex character, it’s that they assume we don’t even want to.

Modern War FPS Heroes:

They are all SO

INCREDIBLY

BORING.