Women in Game Worlds

‘Left 4 Dead’ is an agile and adaptive game with an impressive cast, but where are the female equivalent to Bill and Francis in this and other games?

When a friend and colleague of mine showed me a clip of some brilliant dialogue from PS3 title Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, he then asked if I recognised the female character in it at all, since the animators made use of motion capture during their performance. I didn’t, as it goes – I heaven’t seen Farscape or Starget SG-1 – but I realised I couldn’t see past Chloe Frazer’s slim physique, attractive hairstyle and general air of an action girl in her late twenties. She looks like every female character I think I’ve seen in games, at least outside the mould of the pneumatic dominatrix.

I don’t mean to single these games out in particular, nor rant unnecessarily about a topic which has already been covered with greater authority on quite a few occasions (but which sadly has yet to yield results). In fact, although I haven’t played Uncharted 3 myself, I was told to look out for its antagonist, as her placement on billboards marks some new ground for games. Katherine Marlowe is her name, though the Uncharted wiki link there is probably awash with spoilers. In her we have an older woman of rich and interesting character, who one hopes is unlikely to confront the game’s protagonist in an underbust corset with a whip in hand as so many villains seemed to at the turn of the century.

The points I want to get across are twofold:

  • matters of equality,
  • and downright interest.

The former is a tricky one, as while I can point to casts like that of Left 4 Dead and ask for the biker chick, successful businesswoman and female army veteran, men too can be quite limited when it comes to a choice of protagonist. Marcus Fenix (Gears of War), Axel Stone and Adam Hunter (Streets of Rage), and the admittedly shadowy Master Chief (Halo) represent one type, of the gruff-voiced and muscle-bound hero. More realistic characters come in the form of Tommy Vercetti (Grand Theft Auto: Vice City), Louis and Nick (Left 4 Dead), and Nathan Drake (Uncharted). It’s understandable, as men and women alike probably derive greater pleasure from inhabiting the skin of a good-looking, cool and capable hero. But where is the female Gordon Freeman? It’s still far more common to find variety in the body types and ages of male characters than female ones, and most women really are reduced to eye candy, be it as a result of impractical armour or somehow inhabiting a world in which men are allowed to be ugly, but less glamourous women appear to have been nudged out of the gene pool. I recently saw this in Overlord, though it’s common to many such adventure games:

Two scenes captured in close sequence, of wives typical to the Overlord’s realm, and the male NPCs with which he interacts.

The latter point is the more positive one to make, and is really the crux of my wish. Not only do I want there to be a character I can relate to somewhere in these games, but I want the more realistic ones to do a better job of portraying reality. The world is filled with interesting characters, from the real ale enthusiast to the camp confidante and, of course, the science fiction geek. There’s a broad spectrum of men in games (though you’d be hard pressed to find a feminine man portrayed at all, let alone done well), but women are relegated to narrow types, and it just makes game worlds that little more dull.

I don’t much care for the token blonde thrown into a military unit of socially- and racially-diverse males – her figure is stunning and her presence such a transparent box-ticking. Show me the single mother trying to raise four kids in your gang’s neighbourhood; the misandrist W.I. leader who’s realising the futility of her attitude in face of the Outbreak; or the non-conformist teenager who embodies the real and genuine population of masculine women. There are men this interesting throughout the games I play, but the closest I think I’ve come are Midna and Tetra from the Legend of Zelda series, both of whom surrendered their individuality upon becoming the token princess.

As ever with issues I try to cover in this blog: I just think it would be more fun.