Tag Archives: RPGs

Amber Scott’s Sword of Burning Gold: Inclusion in an Incursion

A decidedly dramatic painting of a crimson demon, wielding a titanic sword slashing at a baying white dragon; in the midst of the carnage, some adventurers-- two women and a man-- fall through the rubble of the building the falling dragon shattered, tumbling into an abyss below

This sure beats the heck out of WoW’s Level 1. (Art by Wayne Reynolds).

What is staggering about much that passes under the banner of “fantasy” is how decidedly narrow its escapist vision tends to be. In both fantasy and sci-fi, far from transcending the fetters of real world limitations, we see our own world with its myriad failings reinscribed in uncritical verbatim form with only a smattering of chrome, Medieval grit, or magic to poorly disguise the copy. Dungeons & Dragons, long the towering mainstay of fantasy roleplay whose name is synonymous with its genre,  has at times been either a magnificent carnival of fantasy or a pitiless mire of the same tired clichés about gender, race, and sexuality that bedevil so much of nerd culture. This schismatic approach to its material is, I believe, a psychic scar left by the culture wars of the 1980s when D&D was accused of various and sundry evils; all ranging from reefer madness with dice to charges of blood drinking Satanism. The game remains gunshy about introducing content that might be deemed something less than family-friendly. Even its excellent Book of Exalted Deeds compendium—a supplement geared towards elaborating the concepts of virtue and divinity in D&D—came with a “Mature Content” warning sticker. The offending content was, well, a boob, along with a frank discussion of torture (and why it was morally unjustifiable).

This flinching instinct on the part of D&D’s inheritors, Hasbro-owned Wizards of the Coast, has kept LGBT characters far away from public acknowledgement in the game’s content. “Family friendly,” that delightful euphemism for wilful ignorance of and prejudice against sexual minorities, has become the catchphrase of the granddaddy of RPGs.

While my love for D&D was immense and filled with innumerable fond memories, many immortalised on a shelf groaning under the weight of 2e and 3.5e books, I lamented the fact that such a fantastic genre should be hamstrung by senseless timidity. It was not just the issue of LGBT inclusion, of course; the writing had ossified, the taken for granted dimensions of the setting had become set in stone, routinized and underdeveloped. Flashes of brilliant creativity were smothered in the gloom of playing it safe as the controversial Fourth Edition went to press.

Enter Paizo Publishing’s Pathfinder. For years I’d ignored it blithely, thinking it was a low rent, grittier D&D that had nothing new to offer, save a nostalgic continuation of the 3.5e ruleset. How wrong I was. The long, in-depth second look it deserved from me was occasioned by a friend’s breathless Facebook post about a trans woman character being introduced in the game’s latest adventure module.  A lesbian trans woman, married to a half-Orc Paladin of a Lawful Good goddess. My attention was well and truly piqued. Continue reading

Boob Sliders, Or How Role-Playing Games Helped Me Transition

The following is a guest post from Samantha Allen:

Samantha Allen is a transgender woman and an ex-Mormon. She is also a third-year PhD student in the Department of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Emory University writing a dissertation on practices of sexual fetishism. In her leisure time, Samantha plays video games, writes music and dreams of inhabiting the universe of Twin Peaks. For more on Samantha’s PhD research, please visit her website.

The author is shown on the left in a light pink dress.  On the right, the author's female Hawke from Dragon Age 2.

“If I’m going to look at somebody’s ass for twelve hours, I want it to be a girl’s ass.”

I’ve heard countless straight male video game podcasters, journalists and message board commenters supply this as their rationale for playing as female characters in games when presented with the option. I’m willing to believe that, for some of them, the reasoning behind selecting a female avatar truly is this superficial. But it also saddens me to think that other straight men, the ones who might actually enjoy some sort of cross-gender identification in their role-playing, nonetheless supply this as their reason so that they can keep up heteronormative appearances amongst their peers.

I have always rolled Lady Shepards in the Mass Effect games and, recently, a Lady Hawke in Dragon Age II. And, when I find out a game has a character creator full of sliders for every conceivable bodily dimension—everything from boob size to brow depth—my interest is instantly piqued, even if I never end up playing the game itself (I’m looking at you, Demon’s Souls). I’ve been known to spend a full hour on the character creation screen fine-tuning the appearance of my avatar, making sure that the forehead is the right height and that the eye shadow isn’t too garish.

At the time I played the Dragon Age and Mass Effect games, I would have admitted, however reluctantly, to being a straight man. But I wasn’t laboring over these elaborate female creations so I could have a hot piece of tail on my screen. The key to this mystery is that I have struggled with gender all my life and, for me, these practices of character creation were a way of idealizing, visualizing, and imagining myself as female. We had a lot of shared traits, my Lady Hawke and I: blond hair, brown eyes and a big forehead. This verisimilitude was intentional. I wanted her to look just like me (with different secondary sex characteristics, of course) so that she could live out a life I couldn’t, enjoying a public career as a woman and wearing dresses when she went home to Hawke Manor. Video game commentators often refer to games as a form of escapism but, for me, I wasn’t just escaping a humdrum life, I was escaping a physical body that didn’t feel quite right. It takes a lot of courage and the right life circumstances to be able to transition (to change genders socially and, if desired, to change the sex characteristics of one’s own body).

Continue reading

Lightning, the protagonist from Final Fantasy XIII.

The Escapist on Wussy RPG Girls

Luna, a "wimpy" heroine from Lunar: Silver Star Story.

Luna, a wimpy heroine from Lunar: Silver Star Story. She is dropping a basket of fruit. The fruit flies everywhere as she tries to push down her skirt in a gust of wind.

Today, in The Escapist, journalist Eileen Stahl writes an intriguing analysis of wimpy women in Japanese role-playing games that hardly deserve the title “heroine.”  She links these wimpy women to the tradition of Kabuki theater in 17th century Japan, which both artistically enacted stereotypes and reflected the era’s gender norms.  What I found most interesting was the contradiction that Stahl notes.  Women keep playing JRPGs despite a lack of strong women:

“Unsurprisingly, Wussy RPG Girls have few fans among female players. The Princess Type may have been popular among the ladies in Tokugawa Japan, but young women who grew up with Buffy the Vampire Slayer tend to want a heroine capable of something other than sobbing uncontrollably in the corner. Yet JRPGs remain extremely popular among women, perhaps more so than any other genre. I know next to none who actually like these characters, compared to oodles who start grinding their teeth at the mere mention of them. Wussy RPG Girls are a necessary evil we endure, but not enjoy, when playing the games we love.”

I can’t speak for why other women enjoy JRPGs, but as a teenager in the late 90s and early 00s, I loved JRPGs because they were like interactive novels.  Like a good book, I could get invested in the plot and characters, but unlike novels I could actively shape the direction the story went.  I identified with the protagonists and became him as I experienced his story.  There was one minor blip: I could not project myself onto many of the women because of a combination of a lack of female playable leads and strong, identifiable female secondary characters.  I had to see the game through the eyes of the dudes, instead.

Lightning, the protagonist from Final Fantasy XIII.

Lightning, the protagonist from Final Fantasy XIII. She poses with her gun-blade drawn over her head and looks over her shoulder towards the camera.

The only point where I disagree with Stahl’s article is her read on Lightning, Final Fantasy XIII‘s protagonist.  Stahl argues that Lightning is a problematic reversal that makes a female lead overly masculine and the result is an unbelievable character who punches guys in the face.  She writes:

“The prissy Princess Type has been on the decline in recent years, replaced by more capable female leads. And by “capable,” I don’t mean they need to deck their male co-stars in the face once per hour of game time, a la Lightning of Final Fantasy XIII. While an immense improvement over the Wussy RPG Girl, Lightning is really an example of the same principle taken to the other extreme. In the place of constant kidnappings, the game pounds her toughness into players’ heads by having her perform random acts of aggression. She’s written as far more overbearingly macho than the majority of male protagonists and, just like the Wussy RPG Girl’s nubile frailty, her toughness is so exaggerated that it’s sometimes hard to take her seriously. Can you imagine a Final Fantasy VII with Cloud constantly sucker-punching Barret?”

I do not think Stahl’s take on Lightning is unreasonable, but I want to defend one of my favorite RPG protagonists.  I was not particularly jarred by Lightning’s macho behavior.  I was so thrilled to see a female protagonist who appeared capable and did not have the proportions or outfit of a Dead or Alive girl that before FFXIII was released, I praised the character design of Lightning as attractive but not overly sexy.  After I played the game, I wrote a review praising the women in the game.  Here’s how I felt, and feel, about Lightning:

“Prior to the game, Lightning’s parents were killed when she was a teenager, and she changes her name to “Lightning” and becomes a soldier so she can better protect her sister.  She doesn’t feel sorry for herself, and even rescues the men in her party when they face danger.  Her costume design is attractive but not sexual.  Perhaps my favorite thing about her is that she isn’t anyone’s love interest.  We never learn her sexual orientation, and that’s OK.  Lightning has more important things to do than fall in love, like save the world.  How often do we get female protagonists get to same the world without being objectified?  It is about time.”

I read Lightning as a reasonable (for a fantasy game) portrayal of a women who lost her parents, had to raise her little sister, and dealt with the sexism and authoritarianism she must have experienced in the military.  Lightning gets to be a person, as much as the angsty male leads of games do.  I dig warrior women like the iconic Buffy and Xena, so I found Lightning to be a breath of fresh air.  I take her as a positive sign that intriguing female leads can exist.

The Laboratory of Dreams: Theory from an RPG Sourcebook

 

(A bright, newborn star radiating light with bright circles of cosmic matter and swirling galaxies, planets, and planetessimals orbiting it.) ((Image Credit: Grand Universe by Gary Tonge, antifan-real.deviantart.com))

This is a crosspost from my blog, Nuclear Unicorn, enjoy!

When we’re children we’re often taught that great ideas are the product of great minds; blessed ideas that spring forth from the creator’s cranium like Athena from Zeus, fully formed and miraculous. But the truth is that ideas of the most compelling sort have no one source, and can come from the most intriguing of places assembled from seemingly dissociated bits and pieces. Recently in my writing about theory I’ve tried to convince you to look at it as something that grows from daily life and is itself a kind of practise as a result. What this way of looking at things enables you to do is see ‘theory’ as being more ubiquitous than it may first seem when you, say, look at a college textbook.

Enter Eclipse Phase, a pen and paper RPG set several hundred years in the future with a post-apocalyptic setting. The action, however, need not take place on the despoiled Earth. Our Solar System is home to countless colonies, some independent, some confederated, that express the gamut of human ideologies. One of the game’s overarching themes is transhumanism which the book itself defines as: “an international cultural and intellectual movement that endorses the use of science and technology to enhance the human condition, both mentally and physically.” Now, there is certainly no question that such an ideology has innumerable pratfalls. It could potentially become a 21st century expression of eugenicism, for example. People with disabilities in particular are right to be wary of such and the cultural genocide it can entail in the wrong hands.[1]

But the funny thing about ideas is that they are multifaceted and thus easily repurposed, and Eclipse Phase’s presentation of its interpretation of transhumanism is quite compelling. Loving a good ‘trans’ pun myself, I decided to explore the concept a little bit, and sure enough, I was rewarded:

To many transhumans, gender has become an outdated social construct with no basis in biology. After all, it’s hard to give credence to gender roles when an ego can easily modify their sex, switch skins, or experience the lives of others via XP. Though most transhumans still adhere to the gender associated with their original biological sex, many others switch gender identities as soon as they reach adulthood or avidly pursue repeated transgender switching. Still others examine and adopt untraditional sex-gender identities such as neuters (believing a lack of sex allows greater focus in their pursuits) or dual gender (the best of both worlds). In many bioconservative habitats and cultures, however, more traditional gender roles persevere. (Eclipse Phase Sourcebook, p. 35)

You see, in this distant future, humanity has discovered technological means of changing bodies at will, preserving consciousness in a handy, downloadable file format, and in the process taking “my body, my choice” to a whole new level. The game explores economic inequality in depth as well, and thus the limitations of one’s bodily autonomy imposed in a world where economic injustice has simply evolved in certain crucial ways. But nevertheless, this section on gender elucidates something rather fascinating that RPGs can do for us: allow us to imagine and actually play around in a future that we might do well to fight for (at least in part- I could do without the rampaging out of control military AI that destroyed Earth in Eclipse Phase’s canon, thank you very much).

What is fascinating, in part, is twofold. One, trans people of all sorts (myself included) are already living that paragraph in various ways, and two, that the future it posits is one in which being transgender is not only accepted, it’s an experience virtually the whole of transhumanity (transhumanity!) shares. Biological essentialism has been well and truly shattered, and right along with it, patriarchy.

This kind of imagining, the sort that helps you more meaningfully toss dice about, is a good deal more important than it seems. The reason? Well, recently I have taken certain feminist theorists to task for their insistence that in some vaguely imagined post-sexist utopia, trans people would not exist. Cultural genocide, in other words. Suzanne J. Kessler and Wendy McKenna take a slightly more nuanced approach and say simply that SRS would not exist because in a world sans biological essentialism, we wouldn’t feel the need to peg identity to a primary sex characteristic. Leaving aside the fact that transsexual transition is far more complex than that, there is still more to this problem. Chiefly the fact that these transphobic feminists are too often the ones controlling the ‘future’ for us. In response to this academic trend, I said the following:

“Some theorists have correctly identified that our system of binary gender rests heavily on genitalia being an immutable and ineluctable base to the superstructure of gendered expression. In short, genitals are seen as being ‘everything’ in determining and attributing gender/sex. Thus these theorists argue that when we reach a point where we no longer see genitals as these all important moorings of identity, no one will ever get SRS. What this conceptual argument neglects is an explanation of why anyone wouldn’t get SRS in such a world. Remember (as if you could forget) that much of the revulsion to trans people is about how we ‘mutilate’ ourselves. Genitals are seen as so sacred and inviolate that cis people project onto us their own fears about their genitalia and use that to question our sanity, agency, and genders. “Only a madman would cut his penis off!” might go the usual, blokey transphobia. Thus, let us imagine a world where genitals were seen as far less vital and integral. Why would someone not get SRS? If there is no stigma attached to such surgeries, it is conceivable (especially in a high technology environment) that people would make the switch, as it were.”

A bit chunky, but I think it makes the point quite well. It asks quite simply: “if we can imagine a world where the body was not held as sacrosanct in its immutability, and biologically essential, then why wouldn’t people try to change theirs?” Eclipse Phase goes a step further and creates a universe where such is the norm. It is, after all, the high technology environment I spoke of made manifest.

The cover of the Eclipse Phase manual. A derilict ship floating out in space using a super space tentacle to grab a hapless spacesuited person. In space. Also the sun's peeking around a planet in the background.

One of the most sure-fire ways to fight back against a “you don’t exist in utopia” trope is to create your own utopia. The power to envision a better future is something often written off as so much fantasising and wasted time. Yet as I said earlier, look more closely at what games like Eclipse Phase are doing (whether its authors intended this or not). They’re taking something that goes on quite regularly today (transsexual and transgender transitions) and turning them into a future social norm with an attendant system of gender that is a ways ahead of our own. They’re then asking people to play around in that world. Not too long ago I spoke about “roleplaying as resistance” and why it’s an underrated mechanism of rebellion- because of what it enables you to do in social environments that are both very imaginary and very real. You can perform, in front of others, a notion of gender that accommodates transsexual and transgender people, and thus affect their socialisation in a way, however small, that could change how they see trans people in their own real world.

The same can be said for feminist visions of gender more broadly, critical disability theory’s vision of a world without ableism, and so on. These games are elaborate thought exercises, potentially, and yet something more than that too. If we are what we know, and if we have even that slightest potential to make dreams reality, then why undervalue workshops of dreaming?

A laboratory of dreams, if you will.

One of the most trenchant and common criticisms levelled at traditional roleplaying games is that they are worlds tailored to a hegemonic white cis male perspective. In certain ways, Eclipse Phase is no different. In the future, apparently, all the women are still half naked supermodels and so forth, and the archetype of the Venusian Diplomat I’d like to play is wearing a cocktail dress rather than the space age business suit I imagined. But in other rather dramatic ways, it’s very different, and this anti-patriarchal vision of gender is one of them. You see, one of the consequences of the aforementioned hegemonic perspective is that fantasy becomes a world in which you as a marginalised person don’t exist. Empowered woman who exists on her own terms? Doesn’t exist. Person of colour? Poof. Gay or queer? Invisible. Trans? At best, a side gag.

So what does it mean when a brilliant RPG can be written where transgender transition is a social norm? I think it means something quite important. It’s a reminder that the laboratory of dreams should not be discarded as a mere flight of fancy. Science fiction and fantasy are powerful because of the possibilities they compel us to imagine, and roleplaying games go a step beyond books and film because they allow you to actually play in that imagined world and explore it, to really test the limits of your progressive imagination.

Praxis with dice and stats sheets.

The game does not shy away from making players think. In a prominent sidenote later in the sourcebook it says the following:

The Eclipse Phase setting raises a number of interesting questions about gender and personal identity.

What does it mean when you are born female but you are occupying a male body? When it comes to language and editing, this also poses a number of interesting questions for what pronouns to use. The English language has a bit of a bias towards male-gendered pronouns that we hope to avoid in these rules.

For purposes of this game, we’ve sidestepped some of these gender neutrality quandaries by adopting the “Singular They” rule. What this means is that rather than just going with male pronouns (“he”) or switching between gendered pronouns (“he” in one chapter, “she” in the next), we have adopted the use of “they” even when referring to a single person. To some folks, this is bad grammar, but there is actually some good evidence that this usage has strong historical roots (look it up), and it certainly gives our editors fewer headaches.

When referring to specific characters, we use the gendered pronoun appropriate to the character’s personal gender identity, no matter the sex of the morph they are in.

I can very personally answer the question of “what does it mean when you are born female but you are occupying a male body?” Indeed such a question evokes something much more than a game for me, something painful. Yet I smile wide because of how this game can compel cis people to stand in my shoes for a while, to get a small, simulated taste of what that must be like. I also find it interesting that they consider gender identity separate from the body, entreating people to potentially take someone whose ‘morph’ can be gendered male and still refer to her as a her. Think of how that simple act undermines all of our own programming of gender.

It could be argued that such actually reinforces misgendering but critically, the developers seem to emphasise “the character’s personal gender identity”- not “whatever you as a cis person think their gender is.”

All of this in a fascinating, well designed RPG.

Of course, that sidenote still speaks in our contemporary language. The mores of this future Solar System and the way of life many transhumans share call into question just what it means to be “born female” or “born male” and it also calls into question the split between mind and body. On the one hand it’s the ultimate reification of the Cartesian split: your consciousness can be transmitted at will. But on the other, your body can become a major expression of your identity. It’s not worthless, it’s not simply there as a hindrance to your omnipotent mind. It’s a critical outgrowth of it that transhumans cannot do without.

It is also worth briefly mentioning the following:

Subjects afflicted with [Body Dysmorphic Disorder] believe that they are so unspeakably hideous that they are unable to interact with others or function normally for fear of ridicule and humiliation at their appearance. They tend to be very secretive and reluctant to seek help because they are afraid others will think them vain— or they may feel too embarrassed to do so. Ironically, BDD is often misunderstood as a vanity-driven obsession, whereas it is quite the opposite; people with BDD believe themselves to be irrevocably ugly or defective. A similar disorder, gender identity disorder, where the patient is upset with their entire sexual biology, often precipitates BDD-like feelings. Gender identity disorder is directed specifically at external sexually dimorphic features, which are in constant conflict with the patient’s internal psychiatric gender.

This is in a section on various mental traits your character can possess that run a gamut of neuroatypicality. A critical disability theorist might be able to better comment on the meaning of some of these entries than I and it lends itself to interpretation: on the one hand it can be seen as stigmatising to see these things all listed as disorders, on the other the invitation to make and roleplay a character with certain neurotypes opens up new possibilities of empathy and consideration that break apart the normal/abnormal dichotomy. It’s interesting how the developers frame this, after all:

Disorders should not be glamorized as cute role-playing quirks. They represent the best attempts of a damaged psyche to deal with a world that has failed it in some way.

While they may stigmatise through saying “damaged” it’s very worthy to note that they shift responsibility to a world that has failed the person in question, rather than a moral or personal failing on the part of that person. They also remind players that those who play as characters who start with or whose campaign leads them into certain neurotypes will also have to confront ableism in society and find a way to deal with it: “Additionally, people in many habitats, particularly those in the inner system, still regard disorders as a mark of social stigma and may react negatively towards impaired characters.”

How does your party deal with ableism and its implications? The question arises too with “Gender Identity Disorder”, and while I have criticised the concept of certain genders being inherently disordered, I find it interesting that cis players could walk a mile in my shoes, so to speak, and learn (especially under the guidance of a good GM) what it feels like to have been where I stood, in a body that I didn’t control and was prevented from making my own until I fought long and hard for that right.

It could be said that by turning it all into a game, the developers here are commodifying and making light of serious social issues, but this vastly underrates games as being mere toys. The whole concept of a laboratory of dreams rests upon the idea that the thought experiments they entreat people to make have ramifications in the real world, and on balance I think making neurotypical and cis people stand in the shoes of people they might normally dismiss can have very positive consequences. From what I’ve read thusfar, Eclipse Phase’s developers are encouraging precisely that kind of serious exploration, rather than devil-may-care appropriation.

I can’t overstate the amazing reality of the fact that we as trans people exist in Eclipse Phase as something more than a joke or side gag. Everything written thusfar is not really an advert for this game, although I do encourage you to see for yourself. It’s meant to elucidate something critical: if EP is possible, what else is? What would RPGs built from the ground up by traditionally marginalised people look like? Rare quality RPGs like Eclipse Phase tantilisingly show what is possible when you take the personal as political.

Take one more compelling example about the body here, from the section on the different types of morphs you can possess:

Bouncers are humans genetically adapted for zero-G and microgravity environments. Their legs are more limber, and their feet can grasp as well as their hands.

These humans are uniquely adapted to habitats that have little to no gravity. On asteroids and zero-G habitats, what is “disabled” changes quite drastically. It completely upends the reified models of disability many people still work with today and makes abundantly clear to players of this game that it all depends on one’s environment. If you are not a Bouncer, you possess a kind of disability in a zero-G environment, for example. Such common scenarios demolish the myth of an ontological reality to physical disability and brings the social model into full relief.

There is still more I could explore here: how “body politics” takes on a whole new meaning in this universe, how sexuality changes in a world where immortality is achievable, how gender roles become meaningless in such a society.

And really, that’s the point. Games are more than just games. Written well and designed well, they become that laboratory filled with oodles of fascinating kit to toy around with and potentially create something new, even if it is just a new consciousness for yourself. As I read through the book and its discussion of “bioconservatives” I couldn’t help but think of people like Janice Raymond or Kenneth Zucker, scientific antagonists of the trans community, or of the anti-choice “pro-life” brigade, or those who look down their noses at people with tattoos, piercings, and a host of other body mods. Or anyone who might say I’ve mutilated myself, for that matter.

Such bioconservatives still exist in Eclipse Phase’s world, but they are a marginalised minority themselves, now, seen as extremist reactionaries well out of step with literally over 95% of transhumanity.

Now that’s a future worth imagining.


[1] This is indeed a major pitfall to be found in many expressions of science fiction, and it’s as common as the chrome-plated patriarchy imagined in most lazy renditions of the future which seem to be our society plus lasers and warp drive all too often. But the point of this article and things I have written in the recent past is to enjoin you to not only righteously criticise and tear down these oppressive fantasies, but to “seize the means of production.” Ideas are things that are produced, among them fiction and visions of the future. We all know that fiction is never just fiction, it shapes how people see reality, however imperceptibly. In Marx’s time the only means of production he could see were factories. I’m asking both myself and all of you to look at it a little differently: RPGs are a means of production, textbooks are a means of production, blogs are a means of production, YouTube videos are a means of production, and they have revolutionary potential to be seized without a shot being fired in anger. The more ideas we produce, the more alternate realities and visions of the future we produce, the stronger we become. Long before I was born people in many radical traditions have done this, it’s not a newfangled theory. But the potential exists now to do so much more with it; the popularity of interactive gaming, whether digital or PnP opens up possibilities that did not exist until recently. I want to take advantage of them.

What’s Wrong With Leanne

by guest contributor Sparky Clarkson

Michael “Sparky” Clarkson is a biophysical researcher at a small university in Boston, and is originally from Alabama. He blogs at Discount Thoughts.

 

To a large extent, my enjoyment of a game depends on the values expressed in its story and characters. I don’t just mean the values that characters espouse in the cutscenes; I’m talking about the values that are communicated through the totality of the game’s incidentals, setting, and mechanics. Because a game is an interactive entertainment that requires the player to exert considerable effort in order to progress, it’s important to make sure that the player identifies or sympathizes with at least some the characters he’s controlling. This is especially true of 40+ hour games like RPGs. You’re spending a lot of time with these people, so they’d better be worthwhile company. Unfortunately, Resonance of Fate had a small cast I didn’t enjoy spending time with at all. I found the personalities of the male characters, Vashyron and Zephyr, to be completely repulsive and tiresome. But the female character, Leanne, was problematic in a different way. It wasn’t just her personality, although she’s not the sort of person I’d generally care to hang around with. Leanne just made me sad, because she was so obviously a patriarchal caricature.

 

Leanne is a young woman with long blond hair. She is wearing a long, teal and white coat and knee-high high heeled boots. She is holding a pistol.

Leanne is a young woman with long blond hair. She is wearing a long, teal and white coat and knee-high high heeled boots. She is holding a pistol.

 

This won’t be apparent just from looking at her. Considering that she’s a female character in a JRPG, Leanne’s design is surprisingly reserved. Her clothing isn’t excessively revealing and doesn’t differ substantially from that of male characters in terms of the protection it offers, so it at least avoids the “bikini armor” design trope (although she does, regrettably, wear high heels). She also has the pleasant property of not possessing exaggerated sexual characteristics.

 

Not all the female characters are so lucky, however, and the reaction of the game’s males to the difference is instructive. Consider an episode where the team is talking to Cardinal Barbarella, a woman whose enormous, swaying breasts have been animated with the finest Japanese jubble physics and who is making orgasmic noises as she consumes a steak. This situation causes Vashyron to enter a rapturous daydream in which he obsesses over Barbarella’s breasts (calling them “bunker-busters”). The daydream ends as he glances at Leanne, disappointedly referring to her anatomy as “raisins”.

 

So, now you know why I hated Vashyron.

 

This scene is problematic in a number of ways that are immediately apparent–the camera’s (and Vashyron’s) focus on Barbarella’s breasts being the most obvious. The “raisins” comment stuck with me, though, because Vashyron had previously said other things that belittled Leanne on the basis of her body, particularly during in an episode where Zephyr may have seen her in the bath accidentally. Rather than being a positive, the restrained character design is used to provide an avenue of body-criticism and infantilization. Leanne always handles this criticism by delivering a slap, which also suggests immaturity to me. Leanne is supposedly 21 years old, but her behavior doesn’t match that at all. I’ll leave it up to you whether her appearance does.

 

Leanne is also portrayed as excessively weak. Early on, I found that she had the lowest weight allowance of the characters, and she also has the lowest HP, level for level, but I’m not merely talking about the mechanics here. In the team’s base there is a trapdoor leading from the roof to the entrance area. Zephyr and Vashyron can jump down from this spot without trouble, but Leanne refuses to do so, despite the fact that she can, in battle, literally jump all the way across a combat arena. She is also constantly talking about how she needs to catch up to Vashyron and Zephyr, but this is positively infuriating when she has the highest level overall and is two levels ahead of them in handgun skill. Leanne is always portrayed, and always sees herself, as weaker and more fragile than the guys.

 

The battle utterances were a problem for me throughout the game, although most of my complaints have to do with the way they characterize Zephyr. More relevant to this topic are statements like Leanne’s saying that gunfights are too “dirty and smelly”. Or Vashyron’s exultation when Leanne kills an opponent: “Guys don’t make passes at girls who kick asses!” Honestly, I don’t even know where to start with that one. I can see how it might be a positive sentiment gone horribly awry, but the idea that men aren’t going to be attracted to strong women is not one I’m on board for.

 

As you have perhaps guessed, I could probably make a whole essay just out of the inappropriate crap that Vashyron says. I mean, I haven’t even touched on the part where he jokes about her taking a job as an “escort”, or his regular battle innuendo about how Leanne “goes both ways”.

 

Leanne also displays a disturbing level of emotional dependence. There’s an extent to which it can be justified, because she met Zephyr when she was at an emotional low ebb. Still, when Leanne says near the end of the game that she owes all her courage to Zephyr and Vashyron I nearly threw my controller. She got it from the men, did she? She’s brave now thanks to the help of the pervert and the psychopath? Honestly, if the rest of the game hadn’t been stuffed full of this other crap I might not have cared about this particular quote. It’s the sort of sentiment that can even be positive, in a certain way. But the reality is that Leanne is portrayed as weak and in constant need of the mens’ help throughout the game. That this extends beyond physical protection into the realm of psychological essence just makes the whole thing more egregious.

 

So, we have the physically and emotionally weak “girl” who derives all her strength from the poor excuses for men she spends all her time with. Inevitably, they must “rescue” her. Fortunately, Resonance of Fate doesn’t go so far as to have her actually kidnapped, but there are several missions in the rescue vein, ranging from the silly (getting cold medicine) to the dire (an attempt to get the crystal that regulates her lifespan). Leanne, of course, is effusively grateful for the mens’ help, even if she’s upset by the fact that they left her out of important decisions about her life. Yes, seriously, there is a scene where three men sit around discussing critical information about Leanne’s fate while she is in the same building, and nobody thinks to involve her in it.

 

In the game’s defense, there’s also a moment where Leanne saves Zephyr’s life, although in the preceding battle you play as Zephyr alone. Leanne is the only one of the three playable characters who never faces a boss solo.

 

Like all video games, JRPGs have a decidedly mixed record in their depiction of female characters. Compared to some of the egregious examples that have appeared in the genre, even in recent years, there’s little in Leanne’s appearance that offends. In terms of how other characters react to that appearance, and how she is presented, however, Leanne’s treatment leaves a lot to be desired. The systems, writing, and overall story of Resonance of Fate relentlessly characterize her as physically and emotionally frail and dependent on the men around her for protection and support. The game’s treatment of Leanne expresses values I don’t share. That was a significant reason why I didn’t care for Resonance of Fate or enjoy the time I spent with it.

 

This post originally appeared at Discount Thoughts and is republished with the full permission of the author.

Designing Against the Default Human

A friend linked this post about the indie flash game Every Day the Same Dream, a conversation between Nick Montfort and Mary Flanagan about criticisms of the game with regard to gender and race, and the implications of changing the game to make it about a woman and to include people of color. It is a very interesting conversation, though I have not played EDTSD, and it got me thinking about how we handle diversity in games. What struck me is that, so often, tokenism is the only solution put forward in order to combat the overwhelming whiteness of video game casts. Often the result is a cast that looks like the college promotional materials that Dr. Flanagan mentions in the post.

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