This Isn’t My Story: On Female Video Game Protagonists (and the Lack Thereof)

Hi, my name is Keyes. I am thirty-six years old and I play video games. Lots of video games. A large portion of my friends? Met them on video game sites or through a mutual love of video games. Husband? Ditto. I’ve been a gamer since I was seven. Do you want to sell me a video game? First, make it a single player game for a console (any console really) because I need a controller, and I need my video games to end (so I will eventually turn them off and do necessary things like earn money and, you know, eat). I’m hardly saying all online multiplayer gamers are a South Parkian nightmare, mind you, I just know myself well enough to know there are some horses you don’t get on, and they include ones you know you can’t get off of.

After that? Let me let you in on a secret: the chances of me playing a game go up exponentially if I can play as a female protagonist. In fact, I will nearly always do so if the game offers me the choice, particularly when the game in question expects me to view the character on the screen as a sort of me-surrogate.

That isn’t to say I will refuse to play a game if it will not give me a lady-option. I am often happy to play as a male character if the male character in question has a set personality. Case in point:

Geralt

My father would totally have gone with option 1.

The gentleman on the right is Geralt, who is contemplating how best to respond to the young lady on the left, his erstwhile foster-daughter Ciri. Geralt stars in (among other things) CD PROJEKT RED’s Witcher series of RPGs, and I do not mind having spent a truly humiliating number of hours racing around in pixel-land pretending to be him.

When I play Witcher III (which I LOVE to do,  it’s one of my favorite games) I am playing AS GERALT. There are lots of choices I can make, some of which are meaningful and some of which aren’t. But the choices I have are between different things Geralt, the well-established character, would say or do. I’ve read almost all the original short stories and novels by Andrzej Sapkowski that have been translated into English. I think that CD PROJEKT RED’s scenario development, writing, and localization teams have done a great job providing me-the-player with multiple Geralt-like ways of responding to particular situations (such as the tender paternal moment above). But that’s exactly what they are: Geralt’s responses to situations that Geralt would find himself in. I cannot make Geralt entirely line up with my ideas of how I would want a low-fantasy noir-inspired detective-and-exterminator-for-hire to act if left entirely to my own whim. I cannot make him be ‘Keyes in Novagrad.’ Geralt has his own personality and his own history, and Witcher III will only let me bend it so far. And that’s basically fine, as Geralt is very well written and interesting to play as. Indeed, playing as Geralt has given me the chance to think about what it might be like to be one of the many men, starting with but not limited to my father, who helped to mold me into the giant-robot loving cackling maniac I often am when I am not playing a civilized attorney in my work-life. That’s not a point-of-view I automatically have, being not a parent and certainly not a father, and it’s not one I often see in video games. That has value.

To the extent it bothers me that the Witcher games specifically don’t let me somehow be Lady-Geralt, it’s that my meaningful options for playing a Geralt-type, well-written character who happens to be female are pathetically limited. Even the Witcher games only let us play as Ciri for brief moments, when arguably Witcher III is really Ciri’s story, not Geralt’s. In fact, the only major RPG developer that comes to mind that’s doing this in a major-release AAA Title type way is Bioware.

Bioware games, like the recent-ish Dragon Age: Inquisition and the forthcoming Mass Effect: Andromeda, have given me, the player, the option to play through a plot as a female version of the protagonist since at least 2003’s Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (the Star Wars RPG series to end all Star Wars RPG series, and if you do not agree with me we cannot be friends.) Sometimes the “I wanna be the girl” options in a Bioware RPG have been more developed than others. Jade Empire, case in point, would theoretically let you play as a female, but the plot was better developed if you didn’t. For example, the girl protagonist, if played straight, gets one love interest who is not really well connected to the plot, whereas the guy protagonists get two who are well connected. He can even fast-talk his way into getting them to form his own little harem rather than having to pick. I’m not saying I would have wanted to make my martial arts master settle down with a husband and a wife, but it was a bit of a downer that it wasn’t even an option. And to make matters worse, the straight-female love interest, Sky, was so obnoxious and is so broadly disliked by the fanbase that Bioware’s writing team has been making fun of him in throwaway lines in other games for years.

Bioware’s gotten much better, of course, and I appreciate that. But I also appreciate that, however flawed their initial forays were, they’ve been letting me pick my gender and allowing me to go “LEMME BE THE GIRL” for years and I totally always have. Although I do not always adore some of Bioware’s story-telling decisions (I am still angry about the original ending options for Mass Effect III), I appreciate the hell out of the fact that they let do it, because one of the things that always bugs me about video games is that so very few video games give me that option. Or, if they do, it is in the way of, say, Saints Row II.

I love that game. I learned how to play run-and-gun open world type sandbox games because Saints Row II is hilarious and I too wanted to get my little video-game proxy drunk, strip it naked, and have it jump out of a helicopter. You CAN be a girl in Saints Row II. The game will absolutely let you select and customize a female version of ‘the Boss’ (as the rest of the characters call your little avatar). But that’s it. The dialog is the same (hilarious, but the same) as it would have been if you’d selected the male body type during character development. Nobody in the game at all reacts to girl-the-Boss, even when they comment on the gender of other female characters. Worse, girl-the-Boss makes all the exact same observations about the characters she interacts with (for example, about which of them she’d like to see naked and why) as male-the-Boss does.

What that says to me is that the developers figured that their envisioned player (probably a late teen to mid-thirties man) might want to run about in a Bugs Bunny fashion in a pixel-form that looks, for example, remarkably like Uma Thurman’s ‘the Bride’ from the Kill Bill Movies, but they would still be playing it as a late teen to mid-thirties man, and therefore would not care, or perhaps would not notice, that they weren’t really playing a female character.

I notice. It’s not that girl-the-Boss in Saints Row II is one of the guys, and it isn’t that she is liberated or whatever, it’s that the writing team didn’t bother to make her female, just a re-skinned, re-voiced guy. And that bugs me. Don’t get me wrong: I loved that game. I still played the hell out of it and I’ve bought every sequel they’ve come out with, many of which have handled gender much better, at least insomuch as ‘better’ means I get the sense I am playing a woman and not in a what a marvel of positive representation this is sense. It’s hard to do witness this model of female-positive representation in a game that involves a rickshaw race drawn by…well. All I’m going to say is that the Boss spends that entire scene high and naked. Use your imagination. Or play Saints Row III, and think of me when you go to recruit Zimos.

Zimos

He is exactly what you think he is: a man with a nice hat.

What I’m saying is that when I play a game like Saints Row II, I enjoy myself, but I also keep wincing because I can pick how my character is dressed, and I can pick how my character does her hair, and I can pick if she has tattoos and I can pick what voice she shrieks invective and hilarious profanity in, but I will not, for a second, ever feel like she was or ever could be me. Nor any other woman I’d ever met, for that matter, no matter how tom-boyish, or one of the guys, or what have you. I end up feeling like, if I’d been a guy, I could have created a version of “me” and sent him rampaging about town in a very not-me fashion. But I can’t often do it as a woman. And unlike when I am playing Geralt, that bothers me because these games clearly contemplate that a man might wish to do so. Just not a woman. So as a woman, I yet again got to experience what it feels like to be a different person, as long as that different person was a man. It gets old, when everything else in popular media is already telling me that all the damn time.

I play video games as escapism. I’m not going to lie about that. You can make noise about video games as art, or as a meaningful whatever-whatever that says blah about the human condition. Sometimes that stuff is true, and sometimes it isn’t, and sometimes I care and sometimes I’m like, What I really need right now is to chase a pixel-zombie with a fake chainsaw. I would just like to have the option to chase fake zombies with a fake chainsaw and see some version of me doing it. Not having this option is  tiring. I get sick of it. So yeah, my chances of playing a video game go way, way up if you’ll let me at least try to pretend there’s something of my experience and my life being reflected back to me in this game.

Juiet

The fans being serviced are clearly not me, but bonus points for accessorizing with the boyfriend’s head.

Once, just once, though, I want to be Lady Geralt, and I do not want to play her and go FOR THE LOVE OF GOD DID THEY LET A WOMAN ANYWHERE IN THE BUILDING WHEN THIS WAS BEING WRITTEN because I keep cocking my head and wondering how defensive her chain mail string bikini is (when the male version of her was wearing sensible-ish looking full-plate), or sigh because she has gone off a tangent about cosmetics and shoes for no apparent reason (because apparently that’s what whoever wrote this thing thought they needed to throw in to remind me she’s a girl). I play video games to escape, and one of the things I’d like to escape is the frustration of knowing that something I love just does not love me back and apparently does not think I exist (no matter how much data shows I, and millions of women just like me, do exist). I don’t need more things telling me what it’s like to be a man. I get that all day. Sometimes I just want to be a woman, with the soul of a dragon, who runs about knocking people back with the force of my shout and hacks eldritch abominations to pieces with my flaming claymore. I want to believe I am playing a woman, and not secretly playing female ass that exists to be stared at for 80 hours.

skyrim

At least the male and female versions of the Dovahkiin are equally underwritten!

In the meantime, though, I guess I’ll just keep playing the scraps I’m thrown. Just don’t ask me to be entirely happy about it.

2 Comments

  • sharonpatry December 21, 2016 at 7:09 am

    Oh man, kind of sad when the best thing you can say about a game is that both the male and female characters are equally underwritten. How is this even still a thing? Sigh.

    Reply
  • steelvictory December 21, 2016 at 8:19 am

    I’m here to (1) give a double thumbs up to representation in Dragon Age: Inquisition and (2) commiserate about the lack of options in the rest of gaming. I’m a recovering WoW player who always used female avatars. While I believe people should be able to play whatever gender avatars they choose, it still drove me nuts that the default assumption was always that I was a male player behind the screen.

    Reply

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