List by Harvard L.
As the gaming medium ages and becomes into its own, it starts to develop the ability to make serious statements about society in the same way that novels and films do. This week, let’s take a look at the complex relationship between games and feminism. Does the medium offer up a feminist masterpiece, something to rival The Handmaid’s Tale or The Hours?
Well, yes and no. While there are a few fantastic games which explore gender in society, as a whole the medium still has some issues with representation of women. To put it simply, the main issue faced by women in gaming is a lack of diversity. Women are shoehorned into certain predictable roles (the damsel in distress, the sex symbol, the “strong female character”) in which male characters are not, and this process leads to both tokenism and boring writing. In the spirit of positivity though, here are ten games which break the trend and might teach you a thing about the feminist movement along the way.
We’re enormous fans of Dontnod Entertainment’s smash hit Life is Strange here at DDNet for lots of reasons, and the game’s feminist message carries along very strongly in the central relationship between Max and Chloe. The game portrays the two very different young women in a variety of scenarios which explores the challenges of growing up as a teenage girl, shedding light onto issues such as family, identity and sacrifice from a unique perspective. It’s telling that Dontnod refused multiple publishers as all of them wanted to change the protagonist to a male character; we’re glad they didn’t and managed to find a publisher who let them share this vision in Square Enix.
Speaking of Square Enix, let’s talk about the great job it did with the reinvention of the Tomb Raider licence. It’s a shame really that we still need to be celebrating the achievements of female staff in game development; let’s say that Rhianna Pratchett did a great job as head writer and be done with that. What’s really interesting though is the evolution of the character of Lara Croft – Crystal Dynamics have taken the ubiquitous yet largely devoid of personality iteration in the original games and reinvented her into a hero who players can identify with. The game is both a physical and emotional journey, being compared favourably to the Uncharted series, which allows for the character to be shown in various stages of empowerment and disempowerment.
Persona 4 is a game about exploring the Jungian inner self and the pre-existing subconscious desires which are muddled by societal pressures. And, in your quest to deconstruct these pressures, you get to learn a whole lot about gender, specifically the Japanese understanding of masculinity and femininity. By exploring the inner psyches of the game’s cast, players are shown just how people deal with the pressure to conform to gender expectations. Through Chie, Yukiko and Rise, the game explores deep issues such as maternal instinct, career pressure and sexual objectification. The game doesn’t stop there though, also deconstructing issues of masculinity through Yosuke and Kanji. The writers’ dedication to really understanding the expectations placed upon men and women by society makes Persona 4 a great game to play if you’re interested in feminist theory.
Lightning is one of the most complex characters in gaming, having two whole games devoted to her character and being a driving force of a third. There’s enough development in the start of XIII alone to shake off the “female Cloud” accusations that plagued the character, and while her stoic personality takes some getting used to, she eventually develops into a character that players will be very comfortable playing as. Lightning is a woman caught between a soldier’s duty and familial affection. Her story is relatable for all audiences and the hours getting to know the nuances of it is very much time well spent.
For half the population, the emotions felt in the journey of pregnancy can never be felt. Bound attempts to relay this story in a vivid and stylish way, telling the entire life story of a woman through contemporary dance, chronicling her aging cycles and letting the player feel the effect of time on her movement and personality. The game doesn’t shy away from exploring both the positives and negatives of pregnancy, and it does it in a way which is both breathtakingly beautiful and quietly thought provoking.
If you haven’t yet played Supergiant Games’ Transistor, you really need to. We actually wanted to avoid filling this list up with heroes who just so happened to be female, but Transistor is such a positive example of this that we had to talk about it. Transistor is the story of Red, a woman with a talking sword in a dystopian cyberpunk future. Red fights through a controlling government in the name of humanity, taking on a role previously only offered to male characters (an unfortunate trapping of the cyberpunk genre) and earning a spot on this list.
Mirror’s Edge seems like it’s always going to be the interesting, uncut gem nestled among EA’s other long running franchises which have been polished to safe oblivion. And perhaps it’s for the best too, since Faith’s story is uniquely memorable and she consistently tops polls on favourite female video game characters. Mirror’s Edge Catalyst functions as Faith’s origin story, explaining how her sense of justice was formed and why she decided to become a criminal in the eyes of the hyper-clean dystopian city of Glass. It’s important to remember what her character represents in the grand scheme of the game’s setting – as a Runner, Faith encapsulates the ideas of individuality, freedom and pacifism, standing boldly aside from modern trends in the gaming industry.
Republique is a science fiction game featuring a recognisable protagonist that the player gets to know really well (a little too well perhaps), presenting a speculative future which is all about surveillance. The game’s developer admits to designing a game where the player has a relationship with the lead heroine, and it is a strange one involving differences in power. The player is an all-powerful entity tasked with protecting the protagonist, Hope, by controlling the technological world around her. Touching upon themes of voyeurism and patriarchy, Republique examines the slowly changing power dynamics between men and women in modern society.
Developed by Tale of Tales, The Path is an arty horror game which riff off the fairytale of Little Red Riding Hood to raise questions about how society raises young girls. The decision to use a fairytale theme is a particularly powerful one, as writers such as Anne Sexton have deconstructed the genre as a form of control which teaches young girls about how their gender is to behave. The Path follows this pattern of deconstruction by showing precisely what happens when girls stray off the “proper” path, leading to an awakening of individualistic agency.
Inspired by games like Silent Hill, Her Story is a police procedural themed thriller where the player must find out the truth behind the disappearance of a man named Simon by examining recordings of an interview with the victim’s wife, Hannah. The game draws into question issues of truth, trust and identity within family units, all while compellingly developing Hannah’s character. As watching and listening to the lead character is the game’s key mechanic, extra care is taken to ensure that the writing is both believable and endearing.
– Harvard L.