Tag Archives: characters

“That girl is kicking our asses!”: Tomb Raider’s (Lack of) Gendered Power Plays

The firefights in Tomb Raider are intense and brutal. There are many scenes where Lara is pinned down behind a splintered barrel or crate, shooting and ducking and shooting again at upwards of ten armed enemies, half of whom are charging with drawn swords, knives and axes. There wasn’t much time to think of anything other than lining up headshots. But even so, there was always a part of me that tensed up when the enemies started talking. “Here it comes,” I thought. “Here come the insults.”

But they didn’t come. When the bad guys talk about Lara, they say things like “That girl is kicking our asses!” Not “That girl is kicking our asses!” It’s a huge difference. These dudes are horrified that someone is killing their buddies and ruining their freaky plans. The fact that it’s a woman doing the killing and plan-ruining doesn’t seem to be their main concern, nor even any sort of blow to their masculinity or pride.

I never once heard Lara called a bitch, or a chick, or any other derogatory term related to sexuality or gender. Not once.

And you know what? I’m glad. Continue reading

No Excuses: It’s Time for More Female Protagonists

A black-and-white photograph and portrait of a dark-haired woman taken in 1944.

Violette Szabo, a secret agent in WWII.

If the game design of 2009′s Velvet Assassin were half as interesting as its history, I might be able to bring myself to play beyond the first mission. Velvet Assassin is loosely based on the story of Violette Szabo, a Parisian-born, British-educated woman who enlisted in the elite Special Operations Executive after her husband died in the Second World War. Although the game takes substantial liberties with the facts of Szabo’s life, the premise alone makes for a compelling game pitch: still grieving the loss of her husband, Violette devotes herself to sabotage and subterfuge behind enemy lines.

Velvet Assassin wastes this rich history on a clunky, tired game. The Metacritic average for the game settled at a failing grade: fifty-six out of one hundred. But, having played and enjoyed some poorly-reviewed games, I decided to take my chances. By the end of the first full mission, I was ready to watch the rest of the game on YouTube. Suffice it to say that Velvet Assassin is a frustrating and thoroughly uninteresting experience.

But this game’s story deserves “AAA” treatment. Consider all that it has to offer from a back-of-the-box perspective: a compelling female character with strong motivations, a well-known historical setting (World War II), and a delicious mixture of stealth, deception and demolition. Despite this strong premise, Velvet Assassin didn’t get picked up by Electronic Arts or Activision or Ubisoft; it was produced by a team of “about 35 people” (according to a developer interview) and published by Southpeak Interactive. With those financial limitations in mind, it’s a miracle that Velvet Assassin was playable, even if it turned out to be a mediocre game.

The conversation surrounding female lead protagonists in games is louder than ever. When Grand Theft Auto V was announced, podcasters and journalists speculated about the possibility (and the viability) of a female protagonist in a Rockstar game. Could she kill? Could she fit in a GTA story? The inclusion of playable female characters in Gears of War 3 left fans asking if the Gears franchise would ever have a female character in the starring role. And Mitch Dyer at IGN, presumably prompted by the portrayal of Aveline de Grandpré in Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation, asked Ubisoft if there would ever be a female protagonist in a main entry in the Assassin’s Creed franchise.

It is astonishing that, in 2013, the inclusion of female leads in mainstream video game releases is still a faraway dream. Rare games like Tomb Raider and Bayonetta bet big on their female leads, but the discussion surrounding them rarely moves beyond the (de)sexualization of their protagonists. Meanwhile, Grand Theft Auto V will have three protagonists, all of them men. Adding to the trend, Chris Perna from Epic said that it would be “tough to justify” having a female lead in a Gears game given sales expectations. And Ashraf Ismail from Ubisoft told IGN that, when designing the lead character for the upcoming Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, his team “actually never thought, ‘could this be a woman?’” Continue reading

The cover art for The Longest Journey and Dreamfall, each features a mid-shot of the game's protagonist.

The Longest Journey and Dreamfall

Writing about the game that gave this site its name feels a bit like smugly opening a discussion about science fiction with “Did you know that Blade Runner is kind of a big deal?” But with creator Ragnar Tørnquist’s new studio succeeding in their Kickstarter campaign to continue the journey and voice actor Sarah Hamilton expected to return as April Ryan, now is a good time to get caught up with the series if you’ve missed it.

Both games are available on most digital distribution sites, but the best price seems to be on Good Old Games where The Longest Journey is $9.99 (US), its sequel, Dreamfall is $14.99 (US) and the pair together are $21.23 (US). The Longest Journey is only available on PC, where Dreamfall is $19.99 is available on Mac on the Adventure Shop or for 1200 Microsoft points on XBLA arcade under the Xbox originals section.

The cover art for The Longest Journey and Dreamfall, each features a mid-shot of the game’s protagonist.

Both games come from the tradition of the point-and-click adventure (although Dreamfall adopts action elements). Puzzle solving is generally more intuitive in the series than in some of the more obtuse titles in the genre to keep the complicated plot moving. However, what makes the games required playing (and the announcement of Chapters so exciting) is the deep and memorable characters at the centre of journey. At their core, these games are about people searching for a better life and never knowing when they’ve found it.

Both games begin in the world of Stark, which is the “real” world about two centuries in the future. The world is run in a corprocratic dystopia. Screens occupy every wall and a vapid media pares everything down to the lowest, happiest common denominator. Poverty is sprawling, permanent and ignored until it has to be pushed back down at gunpoint. That said, it’s a world that’s socially liberal. As has been noted elsewhere, the game features queer characters respectfully and without marginalization. The world is also apparently free from formal conflict. The game references riots that have been met with unabashed police brutality and a last, great cola war to end them all, but otherwise the world has apparently run out of enemies. Stark could be taken straight from a Philip K. Dick novel: sure addiction is rampant, culture is controlled and technology has consumed human identity, but that’s the cost of progress and it could be worse.

A screenshot of Stark from Dreamfall: a dimly lit, rainy street with neon ads for a nearby strip club breaking through a blue haze

A screenshot of Stark from Dreamfall: a dimly lit, rainy street with neon ads for a nearby strip club breaking through a blue haze

Opposite Stark is the high-fantasy world of Arcadia. Arcadia composed of numerous independent and generally unintrusive countries. It’s a pastoral wonderland where magic is free to anybody that studies it. However, different peoples differ radically and often violently, there’s a constantly shifting power structure that individuals and groups use to exploit others. Arcadia offers liberty and privacy, but the people of the world are as likely as not to use that against one another.

The protagonists of The Longest Journey and Dreamfall, respectively April Ryan and Zoe Castillo, are both young women of Stark that shift between worlds. Much has been made of their being “strong” female characters, which they are, but what makes them exceptional is how human they are in their journeys to improve their lives.

April comes from a poor and violent family. Months prior to The Longest Journey’s opening, she runs off to the megalopolis, Newport, to study at the only school left that still teaches art. She’s underpaid and overworked (one of the first quests in the game is to cajole April’s boss into paying her money she’s owed) but she’s incorruptibly optimistic. She rolls her eyes and quips one-liners when she gets tugged along in her adventure, but there’s a sense that she belongs on the path she’s on. She’s supposed to be an unlikely hero, but through her competence and intelligence, she’s well suited for the role.

April’s most immediately visible attribute is her optimism. She’s poor and she lives in a dangerous neighbourhood, but she exudes incredible confidence that her talent will be enough to continue her life on its upward trajectory. Her biggest concern at the beginning of the game is that she’s unprepared to submit her work to an art exhibit. She hasn’t begun working, but she knows that it’s only a matter of time for inspiration to strike. That’s the attitude she takes to every challenge: she might be walking into danger, but she knows she’ll be okay because she’s savvy enough to figure out a solution. She isn’t arrogant, but she’s capable and aware of it.

The game vindicates her confidence. She is the “chosen one,” when she enters Arcadia she’s told she’s brimming with magical power, she never hesitates to put herself in danger and she always seems capable of working her way out of it. April is always comfortable, competent and positive. She may be against forces she never knew existed and the world may hang in the balance, but she’s been through worse and she can handle whatever’s next, she just needs the opportunity to succeed and, eventually, she will.

April from The Longest Journey painting an unseen picture on a large canvas

April from The Longest Journey painting an unseen picture on a large canvas

Appropriately, the game’s antagonists, the vanguard, are also motivated by a self-confidence. They’re determined to bring Stark and Arcadia together because they’re certain it’ll be what’s best for everyone. They overlook the gamble they’re taking, but it’s important that they believe they’re acting on behalf of the many. They aren’t looking to disrupt the balance because they revel in chaos or because they’re looking for personal gain, they want to tear down the divide between the worlds because they believe it would be best for everybody. There are as many people that support them as there are that condemn them.

Dreamfall’s protagonist Zoe differs significantly from April, and her perspective adds a great deal of depth to the world. Zoe is the only child of a loving, single father. Zoe was raised not in the greasy, closely watched Newport, but the warm, gold-hued cafes and campuses of Casablanca. She’s not an artist, but a gifted student of bioengineering. Also unlike April, Zoe is near paralyzed by a deep depression. After leaving school, breaking up with her boyfriend and moving back home, she becomes isolated and apathetic. Her well-meaning loved ones remind her that she has no reason—no right—to be depressed and that she should just get her life back on track, but of course that only makes her feel more depressed.

Zoe is not the chosen one and she’s not eager for a new adventure. Her journey seems more the product of chance than an orchestrated manoeuvre by unseen supernatural forces. Her primary goal is to rescue her ex-boyfriend after he uncovers incriminating information on the monolithic WATI corporation. Similarly, when she’s pushed into Arcadia—again, not because she was sent to accomplish anything, but because she was in the wrong place at the wrong time—she’s accidentally wrapped up in April’s struggle against the occupying Azadi empire.

 

Zoe Castillo from Dreamfall in front of a yellow background. She's wearing a sleeveless purple top, a large necklace with two chains and a silver armlet, her thin black hair is pulled back into a ponytail

Zoe Castillo from Dreamfall in front of a yellow background. She’s wearing a sleeveless purple top, a large necklace with two chains and a silver armlet, her thin black hair is pulled back into a ponytail

Here we also see the change a decade has made in April. In Dreamfall, April is not hopeful or confident, she’s exhausted and impatient. Her boisterousness and joie de vivre is replaced with bitterness and irritability. She’s exiled herself from Stark and taken charge of a hopeless rebellion against the Azadi. Unlike the vanguard, the antagonists in Dreamfall aren’t trying to create a brave new world for everybody, they’re trying to return to a way of life that doesn’t exist anymore. In the wake of the first game’s events, Stark and Arcadia are shocked by unprecedented circumstances. The WATI corporation and the Azadi empire have taken near absolute control of their worlds and aggressively conserve an old standard of normalcy.

The main characters of Dreamfall are still looking for a better life, but the means of achieving it have become murkier. The journey referred to in The Longest Journey series is the one to a better world and better ways of living. And when Dreamfall comes to its frustrating conclusion, the efforts to make the world better have only left people more confused and frightened by one another.

April Ryan and Kian Alvane, an Azadi soldier, facing one another in a wintry, medieval alleyway

April Ryan and Kian Alvane, an Azadi soldier, facing one another in a wintry, medieval alleyway

The Dreamfall games aren’t perfect: the plot is remarkably convoluted when it isn’t safe and cliched, but it shines in its honesty and in its lively, human characters. Again, it’s a classic that probably everybody is aware of but it’s also well-preserved, available and friendly to newcomers. With Dreamfall Chapters projected release in November of 2014, it’s a great time catch up on the series.

A small humanoid carries a massive pack that is bigger than he is.

Warcraft goes from Pygmies to Sherpa

The original version of this post appeared at Decoding Dragons.

This is a difficult post. Not because it’s personal for me, but I feel like someone should say something. The casual cultural appropriation that Blizzard continues to practise is tiring, dated, and makes me very uneasy about Mists of Pandaria. I am western european and I am white. I don’t feel comfortable pointing this out, as it is not my culture that Mists of Pandaria is appropriating in a disneyfied orientalist fashion.

Think back to the pygmies

In Cataclysm we saw the introduction of the Pygmy model. A brown-skinned race depicted as savage – supposedly based on heavy metal characters, but in actuality echoing the colonialist stereotype of the peoples of North Africa. The very name taken from real cultures in Africa. During the course of questing through Uldum, players would kill and cage the pygmies, hit them with mallots etc. WoW Insider did a great post-mortem of Cataclysm, and I’m going to quote from them here

The things that disgusted me about Uldum don’t end there, either. Uldum is what, to me, solidified the pygmy race is a racist caricature. I didn’t mind them in the goblin starting area. They were a little weird, but they fit exactly what Blizzard described them as; they’re modeled after classic rock roadies. Their tribe is even called the Oomlot Tribe, which if you haven’t figured it out, is a nod to the umlaut. They fit that in the goblin starting zone. In Uldum, that goes out the window. Blizzard took this thing that was already racially charged and, instead of taking the high road and doing something cool with them, stayed right down there with everybody’s worst expectations and made them a really insensitive thing.

Now considering that the orcs, trolls, goblins and tauren are codified as people of colour (as opposed to the very westernised cultures of the humans and dwarves particularly) Blizzard’s track record on sensitivity to racial issues and cultural appropriation is already bad. I’ve seen posts on various forums from Native Americans lamenting and wincing at the broad strokes used to define the Tauren. Sadly I’ve not seen any Chinese (or asian) reactions to Mists of Pandaria, only ‘my friend is ____’ type comments from westerners.

That said – it is Warcraft and I’m not surprised or rending my clothes over the continued lack of subtlety on the grand scale of things. Pandaria fits in with Thunderbluff. There are many talented artists, animators and writers working at Blizzard and they continue to do grand work within the schemes laid out for them by the needs of the game, the theme and the overarching story. Much of the artwork for Mists is breathtaking, and I do think they’ll tell some interesting stories.

From Pygmies to Sherpa

Well, now. Sherpa. One of the latest updates at WoWhead has included a character model codenamed ‘sherpa’. Take a look at him on wowhead, or just click the image below for a bigger one.

 

 

A small humanoid carries a massive pack that is bigger than he is. Image via WoWhead

Well. First of all there are the Sherpa People, of the Kingdom of Nepal. The stereotypes surrounding this group of people in general are relatively benign – they have some renown for physical superiority. The term ‘sherpa’ is also often applied to local mountain/climbing guides of other ethnicities. The image of the western holiday-maker or explorer surrounded by locals carrying their belongings is the image that the above model invokes. As the model uses the pygmy model, this makes me distinctly uncomfortable and I’m not at all of the mind that this was in any way appropriate for Blizzard to include. Please note that I’m not certain if ‘Sherpa’ is simply a code name or the actual model name, we’ll have to wait until later to find out.

They have made an efford to make the model less humanoid via the skin texture and fingers, but I’m really not convinced that it’s enough. They could easily have done something different to fill this NPC niche. It makes me wonder if we’ll see more development of the in-game pygmy race in lore, or if they will forever remain a one-off joke, based on colonialist views of people that are ‘other’ to the western experience. Including non-western cultures in a nuanced, imaginative and sensitive fashion is a good thing, but I don’t think Blizzard have managed that here.

This isn’t about racial slurs

I’m not saying that ‘pygmy’ or ‘sherpa’ are offensive terms in and of themselves. They are perfectly legitimate, correct terms for two peoples. Blizzard hasn’t been offensive by using those terms, but in the way they are applied and the characters depicted. With regards to the Sherpa ‘model’, perhaps this is just temporary name and the NPC will appear with a more appropriate name. I hope so, but the ‘sherpa’ model is not ranked with humanoids which suggests that, like the pygmies, they’ll be seen as sub-human and subservient, echoing those colonialist attitudes that took the Oomlot tribe of the Lost Isles from heavy metal to racially charged by placing the npcs in an environment that invokes the stereotypes. I have no idea if any of the Sherpa people play Warcraft, or even care about stereotypes in a video game, but it’s indicative of a larger problem within world building.

Benign but ignorant

It’s all packaged up as entertainment, but it’s a bit like reducing the British to tea, crumpets, the Queen and Sherlock Holmes. Except it isn’t at all. This is mostly western entertainment, devised for westerners. Occidentalism, that is the negative stereotypes of westerners, doesn’t really have the same power in games developed by westerners for westerners. I really think Blizzard needs to sit down and think about it’s continued use of cultural shorthand in world building and culture creation.  Non-western (and non-white coded) cultures and NPCs don’t have to be the sole province of anthropromorphic races or secondary NPCs, or even enemies. They don’t have to be coded as exotic, or other.

Religion in a faux-medieval world

I was thinking about the question of times when I’d played a role unlike myself in games and came to the conclusion that there were two entirely different ways this can come about. On the one hand, there are the times when I’m forced into playing something other than myself because that’s all that the game offers. All too often, I’ll be playing a thin, able-bodied, straight, white male, not by choice but by default. When this happens, I generally don’t even try to get into the head of my character. He’s just some pixels on a screen which I am guiding around.

On the other hand, there are the occasions when I choose to role-play as someone that I am not because it provides an experience I couldn’t get in the real world. Sometimes, this can be as simple as choosing to play a game where the player character is an expert martial fighter or a genius strategist, since I am neither. Other times, I’m choosing to play a character who is physically unlike me, such as my Elonian characters in Guild Wars both of whom are women of colour because this fits the game lore better, whereas I am white. Still other times, I choose to play a character who is of a different personality to me. Maybe someone more gregarious, someone more overtly feminine, or someone with a shorter temper.

For me, this last is the most interesting. If a game is well written, and I’m in the right frame of mind, I can really get into my characters head. It’s a bit like method acting, only in this case, it’s method gaming.

“]Even when you first meet her, Leliana's religious conviction is obvious from her Chantry robes. [A white woman with coppery hair worn in a bob. She is wearing robes featuring religious symbols.]

Even when you first meet her, Leliana's religious conviction is obvious from her Chantry robes. [A white woman with coppery hair worn in a bob. She is wearing robes featuring religious symbols.

One particularly memorable case of this came for me when I played Dragon Age: Origins. There, I was playing a female character (as I usually do when I have the option) and I decided that of the romance options available to me, I’d woo Leliana. Now, normally, this wouldn’t have been my first choice. Leliana is not my type at all. However, seeing as how she’s female and the other two options were male, she was the closest to my type that I was going to get.

And so, I decided that while she may not have been my type, she was my character’s type. The relationship I chose to pursue heavily influenced the way I saw my character, the way I identified with her, and the way I played the game.

One of the consequences on this was my character’s take on religion. In real life I am an atheist, and by default, that usually carries over into my game characters, who tend to be wary of churches and religious institutions. Leliana, though, is not just sympathetic to the church, but is a devout believer and a member of the Chantry. She also claims to have had visions revealed to her by the Maker.

And so, my character also became religious. At first, she was receptive and open, and as she talked more with Leliana and grew closer, so her faith also strengthened. In my head at least, their shared beliefs were a large part of the bond between Leliana and my Warden that ultimately led to them becoming lovers.

Of course, my character’s religious convictions weren’t confined to her interactions with Leliana. They also guided her other choices when dealing with sacred artefacts, the church, and with magic. When I played, I was no longer Rachel Walmsley, atheist. I was Rhoswen Cousland, devout believer.

This was fun and interesting for me in its own right, but looking back on it now, I think there’s an additional lesson to take from all of this. One of the reasons why I was so effectively able to identify with a religious character is that the religion portrayed in the game was not the same as any religion in the real world.

Well, of course it wasn’t the same. Why would it be? This is a fantasy world with magic and elves; it would make no sense at all to insert Christianity into Ferelden exactly as it is in our world. I can say with certainty that if the game replaced the Chantry with the Christian Church, elves with Jews, and the battle against the darkspawn with a crusade against Muslims that I would not have been able to enjoy the game anywhere near as much. In fact, I probably wouldn’t have played it at all.

Of course, by not having our real-world religions, this made the game-world resemble Europe of the Middle Ages a whole lot less. But so what? That’s a good thing, surely. By not adhering to the real world, the game allowed me to experience being someone with a character, personality, and religion different to my own. If I’d been playing an actual historical RPG set in actual Middle-Ages Europe, I doubt I’d have been able to immerse myself the same way.

Developers have no difficulty recognising that adherence to historical accuracy is not necessary in this one aspect of their games, and yet they feel compelled by it in other areas. Misogyny, racism, and homophobia – amongst others – are all excused on the grounds of historical accuracy. That this is nonsense is unlikely to be news to readers of The Border House, but I think that comparing it with how religion is portrayed in games of this nature provides a stark and instructive contrast.

 

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Interested in writing about your own experiences playing as someone you’re not?  Send us your guest post!

"Also Choose Your Hero" -- Dungeons of Dredmor character select allows for a choice between a white man and a white woman

Dungeons of Dredmor gets a female player character

I played quite a bit of indie roguelike, Dungeons of Dredmor, when it first came out in July. I enjoyed the game, but it annoyed me that I only had the option of playing a male hero. Eventually, I tire of the game and stop playing it.

Fast forward several months, and I’ve just recently picked the game up again. Now, when I play it, I’m faced with this:

"Also Choose Your Hero" -- Dungeons of Dredmor character select allows for a choice between a white man and a white woman

"Also Choose Your Hero" -- Dungeons of Dredmor character select allows for a choice between a white man and a white woman

Hurrah! And what isn’t immediately obvious from the character select screen is that the female player character is done right. She isn’t just there for the male gaze, and has armour that is actually armour an not lingerie pretending to be armour, for instance.

Of course, this still isn’t perfect. It would have been even better if this had been in the game from the start, and it’s still the case that you only have the choice of playing a white hero. I don’t think things have to be perfect, though, for us to acknowledge change for the better. So good job, Gaslamp Games, and thank you. Now can we have some characters who aren’t white as well, please?

I find it gratifying that this is now the sort of thing that more game devs are willing to take seriously. That this sort of thing happens is indicative of the progress that we are making. It’s slow progress, for sure, but it is there.

Rosalina from Mario Kart 7

Characters in Mario Kart 7

I’ve been playing a lot of Mario Kart 7 on the 3DS recently, and while I think it’s a great game, the character choice is extremely frustrating.

Back in 1992, the original Super Mario Kart on the SNES featured eight characters. Of these, seven were male (Mario, Luigi, Bowser, Donkey Kong, Koopa, toad, and Yoshi) while only one was female (Peach). Almost two decades on, let’s see how far we’ve come.

Mario Kart 7 has either 16 or 17 characters in total, depending on how you’re counting. Of those, eight are available for selection initially, with the others needing to be unlocked through play. So let’s start with the initial eight. These are, it turns out, exactly the same characters as the SNES original. Absolutely no improvement on gender diversity there, then.

The unlockable characters do show signs of improvement. Here, we have five male characters (Metal Mario, Lakitu, Wiggler, Wario, and Shy Guy) and three female characters (Daisy, Rosalina, and Honey Queen).

The 17th character is the Mii, which I’m not including here since it’s something of an oddball, seeing as it is an out-of-universe character, and one which is player created. I don’t like to play as a Mii, because it feels jarring against the backdrop of all the Mario characters, but the option is there (after you unlock it).

[Note: For characters where the gender isn't immediately obvious, such as Koopa and Wiggler, I'm going off the gender given on Nintendo's official site.]

So, of a total of 16, we have 12 male characters, and 4 female ones. In the 19 years since 1992, we’ve managed to go from 1/8 inclusion, to 1/4 inclusion. It’s something, I suppose, but it’s not anything I’m going to get excited over.

It gets even worse when you look at it a little more closely, though. Of the four female characters, three of them are extremely similar. Peach, Daisy, and Rosalina are all princess archetypes with crowns and dresses, and offer little variety beyond a pallet swap, a different hairstyle, and a different voice actress.

Rosalina from Mario Kart 7

Rosalina from Mario Kart 7. A woman with a crown in a teal dress, standing by a blue kart.

Daisy from Mario Kart 7

Daisy from Mario Kart 7. A woman with a crown in a yellow dress, standing by a yellow and orange kart.

Peach from Mario Kart 7

Peach from Mario Kart 7. A woman with a crown in a pink dress, in a red and pink kart.

This is hardly a staggering array of diversity we’re being offered here. In fact, I’m tempted to combine all three of these characters together as variations on a theme. For the sake of fairness, I will also combine Mario, Luigi and Metal Mario, as well as Koopa and Lakitu. In total, this gives us 2 different “ways” to play a female character, and 9 different “ways” to play a male character. If you include the Mii, those numbers go up to 3 and 10 respectively.

Things get even worse when you consider that the character selection isn’t just a cosmetic choice. Instead, the characters fall into 5 different weight classes, with each different class having different strengths and weaknesses in speed, acceleration, handling, and so on. Of the 5 classes, only 3 (or 4 if you include the Mii) have female representatives. The two that are missing are the overall most balanced class (available if you include the Mii) and the class that’s best for beginners.

And if you’re only including the default characters and not the unlockable ones, we ladies only have one choice to match our one character. Needless to say, the men have all five choices available right from the beginning.

To me, the saddest part of all this is that Nintendo are meant to be a company that pride themselves on targeting a broader demographic than just 18-35 year old men. Nintendo games are meant to be the sort of games that anyone can play, regardless of age or gender. Come on, Nintendo, you can do better than this.

The Border House Podcast – Episode 3: Characters Done Right

Fang from Final Fantasy XIII

Fang from Final Fantasy XIII

 

Sorry for the delay everyone! But this episode, Denis Farr and I have a talk about Characters Done Right, and look further into how to succeed at creating diversity-aware characters.

We are still looking for transcribers! If you can volunteer to do 5 minutes of audio transcription, you would really help out the community. Please refer to this post for further details: http://borderhouseblog.com/?p=6665

As well, the Podcast is looking for guest speakers! If you are actively writing about or developing games and would like to talk about diversity issues, let me know!

 

The Border House Speakers

Host: Mattie Brice

Editing: Kim

Denis Farr

 

Opening & Closing Credits - Was that away message for me? by 8bit Betty

 

League of Legends: SO MUCH character design fail

Wundergeek is a straight, cis white woman who recently was asked to write an article about sexism in gaming and found she couldn’t shut up about it once the article was done. She’s since started Go Make Me a Sandwich, a blog mostly devoted to ranting about sexist imagery in all areas of gaming. In addition to being a cranky feminist blogger, she is an artist, photographer, and somewhat half-assed writer living in the wilds of Canada with a wonderful spouse and two slightly broken cats.

This is a post I’ve been meaning to write for quite a while, ever since a previous post in which my brother and I performed a silly experiment to see if a pose depicted in a LoL wallpaper was possible. (It is, but only if you have double-jointed shoulders.)

Anyway, I got curious about the design of other female characters and went looking to see how the awful design of Soraka compared to other female LoL characters since there have been repeated comments on this blog that LoL is not “as bad” as a lot of the other stuff I lampoon here. And the results… let’s just say that yes. Yes it really is “as bad”.

The fail

(Disclaimer:  I got all of these from a list of LoL characters found on GiantBomb, so if any of my information is wrong I blame them. My only exposure to LoL is having watched my brother play a match one time, so I can’t say I’m too conversant with the game.)

First of all, the most important bit of fail worth mentioning is that out of the 79 champions that you can choose to play, less than a third are humanoid females. (I’m not including champions like Anivia, btw. Being a giant bird doesn’t count in my books.) Now that ratio, while disappointing, isn’t out of line with the typical representation that women can expect in most other video games, so I might not be so annoyed if there were at least a good variety of designs. Only, there’s really not. Female LoL champions tend to come in one flavor: breastacular. In fact, there were so many fail-worthy characters that I had to split them into two images:

Scantily clad female League of Legends champions. TOP: Soraka, Sona, Sivir, Nidalee, Katarina BOTTOM: Akali, Morgana, Miss Fortune, Leona, Leblanc

Click for large view

EVEN MORE scantily clad LoL women: Evelynn, Cassiopeia, Janna, Caitlyn, Ashe

So… many… sphere boobs… I mean, pretty much any one of these images wouldn’t be out of place on Boobs Don’t Work That Way, but some of them are especially egregious. Katarina and Morgana are pretty good examples of basketball-pinned-to-the-chest syndrome, Evelynn is a prime example of anti-gravity breasts, and Ashe… I don’t know what the fuck is going on there. Not only are they impossibly huge and gravity defying, but they’re also kind of pointy, which is just baffling.

The other thing that really stands out to me when I look at these character designs is how incredibly unoriginal they are. Soraka is just a boobular draenai with a horn, Nidalee is a rip-off of Pathfinder’s iconic sorceress Seoni, Leona looks like female warriors from just about every kMMO ever, and Evelynn is a total Starfire knockoff. She even has red hair!

I have to say that the lack of originality is another mark against the character designs. I mean, come on guys. If you’re going to have ridiculously fanservice-y designs, can you at least manage not to completely phone it in on the design process? Then again, when you ask LoL players what they think about boobs, these are some of the thought-provoking responses you get:

We need moar boobs. (comment here)

Too many boobs? I dont see why anyone would say that. There are only 2 boobs per female champ (comment here)

Complaining about boobs? Lol community is full of homos? (comment here)

…so really, maybe they don’t need to try all that hard. After all, it doesn’t sound like they have a particularly high-brow audience.


The meh

Thankfully, not all of the characters are as eye-searingly awful as the above. Some of them only cause mild aggravation rather than mouth-foaming rage and the desire to hit things:

LEFT: Vayne - a woman clad mostly in black spandex and stiletto-heeled stripper boots. RIGHT: Orianna - a female robot with pointy robo-boobs and a mechanical micro-miniskirt.

Yes, Vayne is wearing almost nothing but spandex, but at least her skin is mostly covered. And yes Orianna has kind of freakily pointy boobs and an absurdly short “robo skirt”, but at least they’re mildly less sexualized than some of their compatriots. Still, putting these on the “meh” list makes me feel a little dirty since Vayne is wearing stilettos for gods sake and with Orianna we’re getting ROBOT UPSKIRT which is about fifteen different kinds of stupid.

I mean, give me a fucking break


Mixed bags: awesome characters, except for how they’re not

Some of the female champions are interesting in that they manage to have one good skin and one (or more) really awful one. Case in point, Irelia:

Three designs for the character Irelia. The designs on the left and right have her mostly covered in light armor, albeit with substantial cleavage windows. The middle design has her completely covered in clothing (not armor) much more suitable to adventuring.

Now granted, even Irelia’s cleavagey outfits are still much, much better than other female champions. Unlike Leona, another “heavily armored” female champion, Irelia is at least wearing pants in all of her various looks! Still, two of these three outfits have inexplicable cleavage windows, which is – in my books – about the worst sin that can be committed in female character design for heavily armored characters. Honestly, it’s better to lose the armor altogether than to have armor that is only meant to accentuate the boobage.

Now the design in the middle would still be better if her waist wasn’t so impossibly tiny. Unless she’s got some kind of freaky chest-TARDIS, there’s no way she’s got room for organs in there. But compared to the vast amounts of fail the rest of the female champions display, I’m more than happy to give the middle Irelia a thumbs up, albeit with a small eye-roll for bad anatomy.

Three designs for the character Lux. The designs on the left and in the middle both expose her midriff and most of her thighs; the skirts especially are ludicrously short in front. The design on the right has her fully covered with armor covering her torso, shoulders, arms, hips, and lower legs and with no exposed skin.

Lux is another great example of a character where one of the skins is so very, very goodand the other is… not. Both of the designs on the left feature stupid poses, weird color choices, and yet more terrible anatomy. Guys, please. If you’re going to draw fanservicey outfits, please make sure you have the basics of female anatomy down, okay? Because when I put the two designs on the left next to the one on the right, they just plain suck.

Now, yes, the design on the right does have problems – the armor does accentuate the boobs at the cost of actual structural integrity. But she’s actually fully covered, and more importantly – has an actual waist. Her figure in this one reads as “athletic” and not “weirdly inhuman”. Even better, her pose looks more like an action pose and less like a “sexy pinup pose” like the other two designs. So, thumbs up. This is even better than the non-sexy Irelia.

 Two designs for the character Karma - a black woman. LEFT: She is twisted into a "sexy" pose, but her costume covers her completely and doesn't have any random holes. RIGHT: Her costume exposes almost her entire torso and just barely covers her breasts. Again, she is in a contorted pose.

I have mixed feelings about comparing these two designs for Karma, another magic-wielding character. On the one hand we have yet another mage with lots of skin. On the other hand, it looks like they were trying to model her costume after some specific cultural roots. Considering the sorts of outfits one often sees at Caribana in Toronto, I half think that the design on the right might not be quite as bad as some of the others.

Then again, context is important. If there was a decent mix of sexualized and non-sexualized women, I might be inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt. However, considering that boobular has been the overwhelming choice for the design of female LoL champions, I’m going to say that this has less to do with “cultural costume” and more with the artists wanting a “different flavor” of sexy.

Two designs for the character Annie - an 8 or 9 year old girl. LEFT: Annie is wearing a pageant gown, tons of makeup, and has a clear suggestion of breasts. RIGHT: Just your average evil Red Riding Hood skipping through the forest. Nothing to see here.

Annie has come up in the comments before on this blog, but I thought I’d post her two designs side by side. The design on the right is fine. Evil little girls are the stuff horror films are made of. The Annie on the left? Is wrong, wrong, WRONG. Don’t put boobs on little girls ever. Ever. EVAR.

Yes some girls develop early, but she’s, like, 8 or 9. That’s just gross.


The win

 Tristana, Poppy, and Kayle. Tristana and Poppy are both heavily armored, cocky-looking gnome women full of attitude and character. Kayle is a heavily armored Paladin-type with huge armor very reminiscent of a fantasy Samus. Her helmet is off, revealing long flowing blond hair.

It shouldn’t be too surprising that two out of the three totally awesome characters I found are gnome-types. I almost didn’t include Tristana and Poppy because they do look less human than even the WoW gnomes, but I did finally decide that they made the cut, if only because they look totally confident and totally badass. Also, it’s a relief not to see cleavagey armor like you see on WoW gnomes all the time; given that gnomish proportions are pretty much identical to human toddlers, I don’t want to see cleavage on a gnome EVER. So thanks for not inflicting that on us, at least.

That leaves us with Kayle who is, oh my god, one of my new favorite character designs EVAR EVAR EVAR. Can I talk about how much I love her breastplate? It allows room for breasts without having structurally unsound boob compartments like Lux’s armor. Plus it’s super bulky, much like the armor you see male WoW characters wearing. The fact that it hasn’t been slimmed down or de-bulked to suit a female character is completely awesome. And best of all, Kayle’s alternate design is also completely badass.

THIS. OH MY GOD THIS.

Seeing Kayle next to all of these other wannabes makes me so sad, because if characters like Kayle were the norm in gaming, you’d definitely see a lot more women joining the hobby. Kayle gets to be awesome, confident, badass, and female without being on display for anyone’s benefit. It makes my heart happy that LoL broke with the trend when they made her, and I hope that they’ll consider at the very least creating alternate looks for their older characters that emulate this non-sexualized mode of design. Until that happens, though, while I’m happy to say that Kayle is full of win, she doesn’t obviate the fact that LoL has so much gender fail that it practically has its own gravitational pull.

[Originally posted at Go Make Me a Sandwich]

Playing Character Death

Over the New Year holiday weekend, I played a lot of video games, finishing two of them. Coincidentally, both of those games contained scenes where you play as a character in an unbeatable scenario, where the character is eventually killed (permanently). They were similar in a lot of ways, so I’d like to examine and compare them.

The games I’m talking about are Naruto Shippuuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm 2 and Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII, and obviously this post will contain huge spoilers for those games (and the Naruto Shippuuden anime, obviously).

Let’s start with Naruto. Naruto Shippuuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm 2 (hereafter “Storm 2″) is a fighting game that includes a single-player adventure campaign that covers the first eight seasons (just under 200 episodes) of the Naruto Shippuuden anime. Storm 2 is the sequel to 2008′s Naruto: Ultimate Ninja Storm (“Storm 1″), which covered the entire original Naruto anime (aside from the last “filler” arc). The show has an enormous cast of ninjas that all have unique fighting styles and abilities, which makes it perfect source material for a fighting game, and a great many have been made. What makes the Storm games unique is that they attempt to most closely recreate not only the story of the anime, but the over-the-top battles that are the main draw of the series. In normal battles, each character has their own “Ultimate Jutsu,” and at the end of each story chapter is a multi-phase boss battle split up by quicktime events (here’s an example from early on in Storm 2).

Late in the game–here’s your second spoiler warning–Naruto’s mentor, Jiraiya, faces a former student who now goes by the name Pain. It’s a normal boss battle (here’s the video if you want to watch it), but there is an additional segment at the end:

A description of what happens: it turns out Jiraiya didn’t defeat Pain; somehow, there are actually six copies of Pain. Jiraiya was weakened fighting just one of them, and now all six are beating on him. There’s nothing he can do. He’s weakened and can’t fend them off. On the brink of death, he launches a final attack, temporarily defeating Pain, and dies.

The scene from the end of Crisis Core is similar, but much longer. The Shinra army finally catches up with Zack, and he fights to the end to defend the semi-conscious Cloud. In two unwinnable battles, Zack becomes slower and weaker as Shinra troopers shoot him repeatedly. After finally losing the memories of all of his friends (more on this in a bit), he succumbs to his wounds.

One thing that is the same about both scenes is, by slowing down the player characters and bombarding them with enemies, the player can feel the character losing strength. It becomes frustrating and, frankly, upsetting–during Jiraiya’s fight I wanted to hand off the controller to a friend and cover my eyes. In the second part of the Crisis Core scene, the Shinra soldiers are constantly firing their machine guns so the sluggish Zack can’t even swing his sword; no matter what you do he’s just getting pelted with bullets. Jiraiya at least gets to deal a final blow, knocking out Pain and delaying his destruction of Konoha (aka the Hidden Leaf Village, Naruto’s home) long enough for the frogs to get a warning to Tsunade. The Crisis Core scene adds an extra layer of sadness by using a mechanic that has been present for the entire duration of the game and changing it.

The Digital Mind Wave (DMW) is a slot machine with two categories: numbers and characters. During battle, the DMW stops on three characters and three numbers every few seconds or so. Certain number combinations give random beneficial statuses, such as magic costing no MP or physical damage nullified. When the same character stops on the left and right slots, the battle is interrupted and the screen zooms in to the DMW. At this point, the DMW can occasionally change to summons instead, but generally the center slot will stop. If it’s the same character as the side slots, Zack performs a special attack associated with that character. Sometimes a short video of one of Zack’s memories of that character will also play. (Here’s a more detailed description of the DMW, if you’re interested.)

A screenshot from Crisis Core from when the game has zoomed in to the DMW. Slots are outlined in neon blue lines and all three contain a portrait of Aerith each. Power Surge !! is written at the center of the screen.

A screenshot from Crisis Core from when the game has zoomed in to the DMW. Slots are outlined in neon blue lines and all three contain a portrait of Aerith each. Power Surge !! is written at the center of the screen.

As Zack meets characters in the game, they are added to the DMW. His mentor, Angeal; his idols in SOLDIER, Genesis and Sephiroth; the Turks Tseng and Cissnei; some new recruit at Shinra named Cloud; and his girlfriend, Aerith. Through the DMW, it’s Zack’s relationships with these people and his memories of them that make him strong. Throughout the game, I got used to seeing the faces of these characters pop up; sometimes Aerith would make Zack invincible at just the right moment, sometimes Angeal’s explosive attack would finish off a boss. Over the course of the game, I often came to rely on Zack’s friends to get him out of trouble.

But in Zack’s final battle, the DMW starts to malfunction. The screen zooms to the DMW in the normal fashion, but when it stops, characters disappear, their slots becoming blank. This happens twice more, Zack forgetting his friends and companions until only Aerith is left. In the final battle, the DMW is completely glitching out, its slots stuck or jerking up and down, until finally Aerith disappears as well. It’s pretty heartbreaking.

Are there similar character death scenes in other games? Do others follow the same template as these two games, and are there any that do a more unique take, like with the DMW in Crisis Core? Leave your thoughts in the comments.