Cinematech Episode 250: “The DWLF”
- ”Memo to Ubisoft: Women play video games. Get used to it.”-Wil Wheaton, The Wil Wheaton Project “Episode V: The Episode Strikes Back”
Feminism- a concept that seems to attract controversy wherever it goes, especially when video games are involved. This episode, the second of four collaborations with Cinematech and Gamespot, featured female Gamespot editors forming the DWLF—the Digital Women's Liberation Front. They showcased their favorite examples of female game characters.
The ep begins with Carrie Gouskos, then-Features Editor at Gamespot, telling a poem interspersed with brief clips showing female characters like Jade from Beyond Good & Evil, Alyx Vance from Half-Life 2, Ms. Pac-Man, Princess Peach, and Samus Aran from Metroid Prime.
- Gouskos: ”Fifty four dollars and 24 cents, the price of liberty. Fading stickers loosely slapped across packages of neon green and blue and black and purple. Her pixels, no less meaningful than those of her brothers. Her blood, no less red, except for mein fraulein's drops of green. Her shape is shapelier, but her guns never get in the way of her guns. Such is woman. Sister Pac-Man, she really knew how to work it, even under the weight of the hair bow of man's oppression. Her way was the way of man meets woman meets man, until woman becomes man becomes woman, and back again.”Gouskos: We here at the Digital Women's Liberation Front have done careful market research, and discovered that 73 percent of all video game vix-Community Manager Bethany Massimillia *ahem*Gouskos: ...Females, are unrealistically proportioned and underdressed. Our mission: to correct these wrongs with our own list of 12 members that we'd like to sign on. You know, women that like to give men a hard time.Massimilla: Is... that what makes a woman liberated?Gouskos: Uh, yeah! You may want to keep an eye on our first nominee until we know who she's working for, which should be nobody, because she's The Boss.The Boss: I've been waiting, Snake. For your birth, your growth, and the finality of today.
They show some clips of Snake's final duel with The Boss in a field of white flowers, which her uniform blended in with quite well. The Boss can be tricky to fight because of this, but in the end, Snake... “triumphs”. The game actually leaves it to you to put the final bullet in her. If you don't do it, the game automatically does it for you. Bastard.
They also show some clips of EVA kicking Ocelot's ass, which, may honestly have been a mistake. They could not have confused EVA with The Boss, could they?
- Gouskos: She has no sexual attraction towards Snake. She doesn't wear perfume that gives her away when she's undercover. She doesn't need his help. She didn't need to sleep with anyone to get where she is, and is ultimately a patriot all the way to the end.
They close the segment with The Boss giving Snake the disc containing the Philosophers' Legacy, the fortune amassed by the Philosophers, of whom The Boss' father was a member, before she dies.
The Boss is one of my favorite female characters of all time. She's a tragic figure, but so strong and selfless that she is unburdened by self-pity. A true patriot, she gave everything to her country: her baby, her ability to have any more children, her true status as a hero, and ultimately, her life. Her sacrifice is really hammered home at the end by EVA's speech, delivered by a tape that she left for Snake. EVA's sympathy for The Boss is probably the most relatable thing about her to me. In the end, The Boss believed that America was worth sacrificing herself for.
It's nice when a game has sympathy for its characters. MG usually has pretty sympathetic characters, even if their backstories are unbelievably over-the-top and/or overwrought. The Boss herself is a bitof an example: she stormed the beaches of Normandy on D-Day with the rest of the Cobra Unit while she was near the end of her pregnancy, which, honestly, was wildly irresponsible of both her and the military. She wound up having to perform a C-section on herself, resulting in very strange scarring resembling a snake crawling along her torso. Hiimdaisy/Peachi lampshaded the absurdity of the situation in her Let's Destroy the Shagohad! comic by showing the Cobra Unit's concern for her before they stormed Normandy.
2:35: Clips from Half-Life 2 with pop-up facts about Alyx Vance.
- ”Alyx Vance works in Advanced Physics””That's shorthand for 'She's smart. Very, very smart.'””Early Half-Life 2 screenshots released by Valve included a lot of close-up pictures of Alyx's face.””You know, because she's a scientist and all.””Alyx's pet puppy is a giant robot named 'Dog'.”
And he's awesome! But Alyx didn't give him a very good name, did she? :P
- ”Most of the emotionally charged moments in the game involve Alyx, who is much more personable than the male lead, Gordon Freeman.”
We possibly didn't know just how much until Episode Two of H-L2 came out.
- ”Not that it's too difficult.””She's so tough, she comes back from the dead.””Although the ending leads you to believe that she dies in the explosion, Alyx will be making her way to the Half-Life 2 expansion, Aftermath.”
4:06: Clips from Grim Fandango, a graphic adventure game designed by Tim Schafer about grim reapers imagined as Mexican Day of the Dead figurines, giving the game a unique flair. The character on tap here is a female poet named Olivia. Let's see what she has to say:
- Olivia: ”I called my cat Boney. She said it wouldn't do. I said, 'Why?' She said, 'Sister, 'cause that's what I've been calling you.'”Gouskos: Even though Olivia was dating a big shot mobster, she was pretty open about the fact that... she didn't love him, and he was pretty crazy about her.Nick: C'mon, sugar. How about a kiss for the road?Olivia: Oh, Nick. Don't let me down, Nick. You're a lawyer. You're not supposed to have feelings.Massimilla: She's video games' Ingrid Bergman.Gouskos: Katherine Hepburn!Massimilla: Ingrid Bergman.Gouskos: Katherine Hepburn.Massimilla: Ingrid Bergman.Gouskos: Katherine Hepburn!Massimilla: I hate you.Olivia: Okay, last one, folks. “With boney hands, I hold my partner. On soleless feet, we cross the floor. The music stops, as if to answer... an empty knocking... at the door. It seems his skin was sweet as mango when last I held him to my breast; but now, we dance this grim fandango, and will for years, before we rest.”Massimilla: My favorite line from Olivia is when Manny tells her she has really bad taste in men. She says, “No, I have a taste for really bad men. There's a difference.”Gouskos: [laughing] Oh, I know ''that sentiment well.
5:46: Clips from Super Mario Sunshine, where Princess Peach – guess what! - gets kidnapped. The DWLF labels it the Princess in Peril cliché. But there have been games where Peach gets to kick some booty, usually in Mario RPG games. Ironically, in SMS, Peach was voiced by the same actress that plays Cortana in the Halo games.
6:20: Clips from Psychonauts (multiplatform, 2005), another Schafer game. It shows Lily, a girl visiting the same psychic summer camp as the hero, Raz, deciding to investigate the creepy dreams that Raz has been having. When Lily starts geeking out and compares the situation to a retro psychokinetic-themed comic book, Raz gives her a sideways look, and Lily tells him to shut up before speeding off in a boat controlled with her mind, because that's what you do at a psychic summer camp. Heck yeah. The DWLF declares her to be a Future Member.
7:11: Alis Landale from Phantasy Star (SEGA Master System), an RPG with top-down overworld exploration, but first-person dungeon exploration and combat.
- Gouskos: Alis is just a little too cute for me.Massimilla: No way! Alis was one of the first, best heroines in gaming. In Phantasy Star, she embarks on a quest for revenge after her brother is killed at the hands of a dictator named Lassic. In the end, Alis defeats Lassic, only to discover an even more sinister presence behind the throne, which she vanquishes in turn. So this girl, who starts off as little more than this anti-establishment punk, ends up saving the galaxy from terrible peril! All with a woman's touch. [sighs]Gouskos: Feel better now?
7:57: Clips from Panzer Dragoon Orta (Xbox), an incredible on-rails shooter about a withdrawn young lady named Orta, who has been imprisoned all her life, with no explanation. One day, a powerful dragon frees her from her prison, and they embark on an epic adventure that ultimately saves them both, in a way.
- White hair automatically gives game characters street cred. We can deduce from this that Orta is totally pissed off all the time.
Well, it's really more of a Mangst kind of thing. She is not a happy person, but doesn't really express how unhappy she is until she gets out into the world and starts meeting different people. I don't recall the exact circumstances, but at one point, in possibly her most emotional moment, she complains to another character, “I am alone in this world!”
- Orta has spent more time in prison than Tony Yayo could even imagine.Panzer (n): A tankDragoon (n): a member of a European military unit formerly composed of heavily armed mounted troopsOrta (n): bad-ass little girl
- Massimilla: Tetra was a turn from the traditional girls in the series. Where previous Zeldas and Saria were bubbly and cute, Tetra was leader of the pirates. That's not simply a twist, that's a total paradigm shift. She's also responsible for stuffing Link into the barrel for one of the game's most memorable sequences.
In this sequence, which has some funny animation, the pirates use a catapult on their ship to launch Link into a dungeon so that he can infiltrate it. Come on, Link! It's adventure time! C'mon, grab your friends... though it looks like in this case, they grabbed you in a zany scheme.
- Massimilla: We like a girl who can put Link in his place.
10:59: Clips from The Longest Journey. The DWLF considers the heroine, April Ryan, to be a Multi-Dimensional Member.
11:20: Jade from Beyond Good & Evil (multiplatform, 2003).
- Massimilla: Jade wasn't the first empowered woman in video games, but she's one of the most frequently cited. Jade protects both children and animals, but she isn't afraid to get nasty with the bad guys. This is the kind of thing you can expect from a freelance photojournalist on a wartorn planet. Beyond Good and Evil was a hit with critics, but it didn't sell particularly well in the stores. We like to think that's because the largely male game buying demographic was intimidated by a woman who could kick their collective asses.
12:50: Eternal Darkness (GameCube, 2002), a game about humanity's encounters with Cosmic Horrors throughout the world's history. It was quite a unique game. The framework for the game had a young woman named Alex Rovias investigating her grandfather's murder at his mansion, where she discovers the book of Eternal Darkness, which contains the history between three gods and the humans they manipulated, and the humans that opposed them. Some of these tales were quite tragic and ended unexpectedly. The game switched between the perspectives of Alex and the other characters throughout different eras.
- Like typical male action heroes, Alex Rovias has no faith in local authorities. She takes matters into her own hands.Alex is studying number theory and abstract mathematics, majors often dominated by men.Orphaned at a young age, Alex has tough girl rootsWhich is probably why she decided to mess around with an ancient, glowing, haunted book, made of human skin that unleashes demons.For a female character, Alex is conservatively dressed.
She's not plain, though. She's pretty, but in an understated way, sort of resembling Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
- If you want your heroine to be taken seriously, you better give her a unisex name.
This is something I don't totally agree with. It's a gray area, for sure.
Shame about the developers of Eternal Darkness. This game, which has a bit of an interesting development history (like Resident Evil 0, it was originally intended to be an Nintendo 64 title), was one of the major hits for Silicon Knights. Years later, the company sort of began to implode after the indifferent reception to Too Human, a game which they originally wanted to make for the PlayStation. Their true death knell came with the even worse reception of X-Men Destiny. Years later, an attempt by a new company from the founders of Silicon Knights at a Kickstarter to fund a new game in the Eternal Darkness series failed – an inglorious final blow, to be sure. There was also the fact that one of the designers of Eternal Darkness was arrested for possession of child pornography, which led to the new company distancing itself from him.
14:23: Clips from System Shock, a game which featured a female villainous AI on a deep space station called the Citadel. Her name? SHODAN. Sort of like Max Headroom, she had a Verbal Tic of repeating fragments of words.
- Gouskos: This is exactly the kind of woman we need on the Digital Woman's Liberation Front.Massimilla: So in other words, she's crazy.SHODAN: I reexamined my priorities, and drew new conclusions. The hacker's work is finished, but mine has just begun.Massimilla: You know, in the disc version of the game, I vaguely recall that “she” was referred to as a “he”. Maybe we should... reconsider her nomination.Gouskos: Watch out, or I'm gonna sic SHODAN on you.
They cut to a creepy, fog-filled version of the set that this ep took place on, and played some of SHODAN's quotes from System Shock 2 to intimidate poor Massimilla.
- SHODAN: Look at you, hacker-er. A pathetic creature of meat and bone, panting and sweating as you r-run through my corridors-s.Massimilla: O-Okay, you know what? She can stay.
They then zoomed onto SHODAN's face from SS2.
15:23: Clips of female characters from Rumble Roses, Dead or Alive Xtreme, Outlaw Tennis, and Outlaw Golf. Guess what? These are some of the DWLF rejects!
16:04: Clips of Starcraft featuring Sarah Kerrigan. Remember that Starcraft: Ghost game that never came out? That was supposed to have a main female character.
- Gouskos: Fans will remember that Sarah Kerrigan, also known as the Queen of Blades, was a highly gifted child, psychically. She emerged as one of the most powerful soldiers in the Terran fighting forces. Kerri is central to the Starcraft storyline, and soon becomes the series' Anti-Hero of sorts. But being the very symbol of a brilliant and ruthless warrior, Kerrigan prevails, leaving you wondering where the story's going to take her next.
Remember that Vaporware game, Starcraft: Ghost? It was supposed to star a new female Ghost character. I don't think that that game has ever officially been canceled.
17:32: It's time to take a look at Cortana, the AI sidekick of Master Chief from Halo.
- Unlike other A.I., Cortana lacks behavioral inhibitors, which means that she has GONE WILD!
Wow. Is that Harsher in Hindsight, or what?
- After seven years, Cortana will become so smart that she will forget to breathe and die.
Wait, she's an AI. Does she even need to breathe?
- That doesn't sound quite right. She must have been programmed by a man.Although she wasn't able to communicate then, we really needed Cortana for entertainment during the library level.
I guess the same goes for the “Cortana” level in Halo3. Though she was present in that level, she was a part of one heck of a Scrappy Mechanic tag-team duo with the Gravemind where they would consistently slow down your gameplay just to spew quotes of worthy dialog at you. The FPS subpage of That One Level has a wonderful quote about the “Cortana” level.
- How like an independent woman to leave Master Chief during his hour of need.
...Moving on, developments in the Halo series after this ep came out are quite interesting. Cortana's character design (based on the woman that created her AI) shifted to appear more traditionally attractive even as she became more important to the storyline. By Halo4, she appears healthy and curvaceous. But Cortana's relationship with Master Chief became more emotional. Not in a traditional romantic or friendly way, however. More like... equals, in a way. Something deeper but more neutral than romance, almost like the relationship between The Boss and Snake.
19:01: Samus Aran, the bounty hunter from the Metroid series. Remember, in the first game, it was supposed to be a secret that Samus was female. They even deliberately misled the audience by referring to her as male in the game's manual.
- Massimilla: I remember Samus being a big victory for me as a girl gamer. She was one of the first characters that didn't embody the typical female physicality. Now, modern feminists might believe that a woman should be able to look like a woman without being a sex object, but there's something admirable about her gender neutrality throughout the series.Gouskos: Yeah, uh, until her suit got boobs! [referring to how Samus' suit looked in Metroid Prime]Gouskos: I still find the ending of the early Metroid games to be pretty oppressive. I mean, here was this kickass female character, who could be stripped down to a bikini if the male audience wished it. Do you really think a bounty hunter of this magnitude would let that happen?Massimilla: No... I think she would blow their heads off.Gouskos: It's too bad Samus couldn't be compensated with the home address of every kid who saw her in her swimwear.
Sooo... you want to be the first to tell them, or should I? Honestly, I didn't get far enough into Other M to interpret any potential Unfortunate Implications, alas.
And now, some closing poems:
- Gouskos: “Hey, daddy-o, you may control her moves, but you'll never really see all that goes into the woman. Busted, breathless, banal, bimbo – that she will never be... one with me, oh no. Man is lame, woman is game.”
This ep is far more important than I ever thought it was back when it was new. A lot of things have changed in the years since. Sometimes, it seems like we have moved backwards in certain ways. Nowadays, we have corporations using excuses that it's too hard to animate female characters to make them playable in their multi-million selling franchises, and tournaments for competitive multiplayer games that do not have a woman's division. Have we gone backwards as a society, or do we just have more tools now to inform us of wrongdoing?
Gouskos was playing a more extreme feminist while Massimilla played the more neutral role. I don't agree with everything that Gouskos said, but maybe it wasn't all supposed to be serious; just a little reminder of how upsetting a lack of decent representation is. I don't mean to imply that Gouskos is one of those super-militant feminists, but I don't agree with those, either. I don't believe that femininity is better than masculinity, just different. I wish that more people made an effort to treat women more neutrally and equally, if that is what the women in question want. Some women want traditionally feminine things, and there is nothing wrong with that. Why would de-feminizing women be better for feminism in general? Vilifying femininity has its own Unfortunate Implications, but it something that seems to be more accepted when criticizing certain men...
I can't solve the problems of sexism and misogyny alone, but perhaps offering my own female perspective can help, in some way, by offering a little insight. When I was a kid, there really weren't that many options for female gamers to play as female characters. Most main characters in games were male or Funny Animal mascot characters... who were usually male. Every so often, there were rays of hope, like in fighting games. Street Fighter II had the first-ever female character in a fighting game: Chun-Li, inspiring imitators in many of the SFII clones. Mortal Kombat had Sonya Blade, inspired by actress Cynthia Rothrock. Sonya also looked more realistic than most female characters because of the game's digitized art style, and was costumed practically.
RPGs had some good options back in those days. Most of the popular RPGs of the time had many playable female characters. Final Fantasy VI, the game that got me into the series, had Terra, a Mysterious Waif with magical abilities as its main character. Chrono Trigger had Lucca the inventor, Marle the spirited, errant princess, and Ayla, the powerful and primal cavewoman.
There was the occasional action/adventure game with a female lead or Deuteragonist, such as Valis and Pocky & Rocky. Some Valis games even had multiple female characters to play as! Alas, Valis had quite the fall from grace when it devolved into a stereotypical Hentai game, which was especially jarring for anyone who got into the series with the super-cutesy Syd of Valis platformer on the SEGA Genesis. Look at this box art◊ for Valis X. Look at poor Yuko, with no idea of what she was getting into with this game. The horror.
(How did SoF wind up with a name like that? The game's name was SD Valis [as in “superdeformed”] in Japan, and when Renovation picked it up for release in North America, they renamed it to something that sounded close to SD.)
While there may not have been many female characters who were fleshed out back then, quite a few games understood that hey, maybe some of the players out there are female and want the choice to play a female character. Or maybe they did it partially for a little titillation, but I choose to be optimistic for some reason despite my usual cynicism and believe that there's nothing wrong with it being a little bit of both, depending on the context. Presenting good, relatable characters and stories that you will care about is something that developers still struggle with today, when they care about enacting those in the first place, let alone representation of minority characters. It's just so easy and tempting to rely on the same stereotypes that have been perpetuated by older media.
One problem lies within treating women as inextricably different from men in a negative way. That is discrimination. Others will disagree. I am OK with that, as long as they don't have a disrespectful attitude along the lines of “Ugh, women, amirite?”
It could be that is another reason why games such as BioWare's RPGs are so successful with their custom character creation (why is that I always use BioWare games as decent examples of inclusion?): female and male characters have opportunities to be equally interesting and to be effective characters in gameplay. There are obvious differences in their stories, but each option is equally viable and has unique differences. Given the opportunity in these kinds of RPGs, I usually play as female characters to better reflect myself, which sometimes turns out to be quite interesting.
It's often difficult to talk about one issue like feminism without involving other, related issues as well. All of this isn't even getting into the issue of cissexism in games, where trans characters are usually “othered”, erased, or otherwise vilified. A disturbing number of queer characters in games are villains, such as the sadistic Depraved Bisexual Volgin in Metal Gear Solid 3 and Vamp in Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty and Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots (what's your deal, Kojima?) or minor enemies mooks such as Poison and her palette swap Vice, or the very Camp Gay Ash in Streets of Rage 3 (whose presence was cut from the North American version- decide for yourself if his excision was justifiable because it was a very stereotypical character, or if it's yet another case of erasure. Personally, I think that the character is a bit of an ugly stereotype pulled from the Village People, made worse because he's a one-off bad guy instead of being presented more neutrally. However, the fan-made Streets of Rage remake included Ash as a playable character.). There are still some positive examples of queer characters in games, but even then, there are still questionable tropes that pop up in those examples (like Discount Lesbians). It's somewhat disappointing that video games are a younger medium than film, TV, books, etc., yet, they still lag in terms of representation and challenging stereotypes. You may think they would be less “traditional” than other media. You would usually be wrong.
So, how best to end this probably quite wanky installment about female characters in games and representation? I'm not entirely sure, but then again, I'm not very sure of most things that I write. How about this: Video games didn't cause misogyny and discrimination, but they do sometimes reflect it, intentionally or not. There can be better ways of making good characters irregardless of gender, but it requires time, effort, and caring. It's tricky because video games as a medium don't always require good stories and characters. Why can't feminism be good for everyone?
I've wondered about things like the rights of men and women. I don't think Tumblr is taken very seriously outside of its sphere of influence, but I take it pretty seriously when it exposes me to different viewpoints. On Tumblr, I recently saw a comic that shows how men get attacked and insulted for being less masculine and more effeminate (most insults aimed at men revolve around this), and how their problems are taken less seriously if the problems are more traditionally associated with womens' problems, and that men and women should cooperate and try to understand each other in order to be more harmonious. I realized that stereotypes screw both men and women. But why do we make generalizations and stereotypes? Because the world is so huge, we have to make a lot of generalizations about it just to cope with that hugeness. It gets easier to use these as crutches. We have to try to tackle problems one at a time. If we try to tackle our own problems with an open mind and a fresh viewpoint, maybe this will spread out to others, blooming like a flower. Maybe someday, long after this liveblog is finished, the world will change for the better.
What do I dislike about the representation of female characters in video games? Well, obvious sexualization of females is sometimes a little ridiculous, like a sexual Narm, or even offensive depending on the context, but I've been seeing things like this ever since I was a little girl and am therefore pretty desensitized to it. So then I guess what's more damaging is when developers won't even try to consider female characters or viewpoints.
So, who are some of your favorite female characters? Which games represented female characters the best, and which ones just made you want to facepalm? Some of my favorites include: Aya Brea, Terra, Colette, Sophie and Pascal, too many characters from Fire Emblem: Awakening to mention, Yuna, and, of course, a lot of BioWare's characters, like Samara, Leliana, Aveline and Merril. Also a lot of female characters from Resident Evil, particularly Ada Wong. So mysterious, so cool.
Certain games' representation of female characters can kill certain peoples' interest in them, like with me and Dead Island. There was a controversy with a female character who had a perk called "Gender Wars" (a bit of a Double Standard in and of itself, TBH), which in some of the game's files was actually called "Feminist Whore"! Developer Techland apologized and promised that the programmer responsible would suffer some consequences. Bet the whole fiasco made the people who bought the film rights to DI from the game's trailer alone feel real good. Oh, who am I kidding? They probably don't care at all!
- Not game-related, but I thought that this Comics Alliance article about the franchise resurrection of Sailor Moon was wonderful
- Escher Girls, one of my favorite Tumblrs, collects images of unintentional Fetish Retardant across all media, but particularly comic books. Good for some cringe comedy, but also good for artists to learn what not to do.
- Game Theory: Are Video Games Anti-LGBT?
- Gay Gamer
- Just because I felt like it: Hardcore Gaming 101's retrospective on SoR. Be sure not to miss the part showing the old SoR comic book from the UK, which apparently had Mark Millar as a writer. Crazy.
- Kimble Justice: Transgender Representation in Games
- Kotaku: What Went Wrong with Silicon Knights' X-Men Destiny?
- Not in the Kitchen Anymore: The chronicles of a female gamer. A male gamer on a gaming site called the Backloggery linked me to this blog where a female gamer documents some of her nastier encounters in online gaming. Potentially quite triggering for misogyny. Think somewhere along the lines of Not Always Right, but for sexist gamers. The male gamer who linked me to it said that it didn't make him ashamed to be a guy, but a human being. These are the kind of examples we're dealing with on here.
- Retsupurae's "wrongpurae" of Metroid: Other M, "Character Assassination: Authorized" (long version)