Arts » General Arts

OpEd: Gender and the game narrative

What it means for the video game world when a character's gender is chosen.

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Most game narratives star men. I know just by that sentence I'm going to start an argument, but it’s true.

Why is that, exactly?

Something that comes up any time the conversation turns to the inclusion of female characters is the following sentence.

“They shouldn’t do it for the sake of it. Only if it adds to the story.”

Fair enough, I suppose. Stories tend to be best when all the details of a character’s being tie somehow into the narrative.

A good point, on the surface.

So, why is this attitude not applied to male protagonists? What about the protagonist being male is necessary to the plot?

Most games star men, but very few of them are actually about BEING men. This isn’t something exclusive to games of course, tons of hero’s genders are incidental, with stories that easily could’ve been told through the use of a Commander Sheperd style character creator with race, sexuality and gender being determined by the player.

Luke Skywalker could’ve easily been Lucy Skywalker, and no harm would be done. (I said could, not should, there’s a difference. Luke is just fine as a guy, but if he’d been created female, basically nothing would have to change.)

Another thing I hear a lot is “the gender of the character shouldn’t matter.”

But, shouldn’t it?

I’m not saying that from a social justice angle, by the way, I’m saying it from a purely storytelling and narrative angle. Gender is a key characteristic of character building, even if it’s not the outright theme, and hand waving it as some throw away detail in story heavy games is, in my mind, doing a great disservice to the work.

When writing any story in any medium, gender should always be a careful consideration. In my own creative writing, I got half way through writing a novel draft, and realized that the main character works far better as a girl than a boy.

Some stories just work better with a certain gender. Different themes can be explored, and new perspectives can be added to otherwise well worn storytelling formulas.

Sarah Connor is basically what you’d get if you merged Rambo with the virgin Mary.
Here’s a few examples.

Life is Strange, the episodic, time traveling adventure by DontNod Entertainment, centers around the friendship (and maybe more) between two teenage girls. When looking for a publisher, DontNod was asked by several publishers to change it from teenage girls to teenage boys.

This would not have worked for the games story. At least not in it’s current form.

A similar sort of story could’ve been told with boys, but pretty much the entire relationship between the two leads, and the world around them, would’ve had to be reworked. Friendship between two girls is drastically different than that between two boys, at least in general.

The relationship between Max and Chloe has an intimacy to it, with hugs, taking each other by the hand, that a lot of guys would balk at.

Also, I’ve been through high school, but just from playing three of the games five episodes, I can already see how different the experience is from a female point of view.

Warren, Max’s guy friend with a huge crush on her, is a character that hits me right where it hurts. Because I, and a lot of other guys, were a lot like Warren. To us, our pursuit of romance seemed earnest and heartfelt. From the perspective of the girls, though?

It comes off as REALLY creepy. Not malicious or with ill intent, but still pushy, and still uncomfortable.
That’s something I’ve never experienced before, and if Max were male, the entire relationship dynamic, the entire tone would change.

Conversely, the upcoming Final Fantasy XV is taking the same approach, but from the male side of things, being centered around four guys going on a fantasy road trip, exploring themes of brotherhood, and the intimacy between male friends.

That actually sounds really interesting, though it’s understandable that some fans are disappointed, and even angry, at the lack of the more diverse character rosters of previous games.

Like I said, most games star men, FFXV aims to be ABOUT men. Though the game isn’t even out yet, the demo episode backs this dynamic up. The demo opens with the guys, Noctis and his royal entourage, waking up in a tent, and nudging each other awake.

What follows is a sequence where the guys go killing monsters, quipping back and forth in a very bromantic way, with a very specific tone.

Would a female fit in the party?

Yeah, probably. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch for one of the group of four to be female and basically just be “one of the guys,” but I can still see where the team, and the mind behind the story Tetsuya Nomura , were gong for.

Recent years have also seen a slew of games focused on the father-daughter dynamic. Lee and Clementine, booker and Elizabeth, Ellie and Joel, and most recently, Geralt and Ciri.

Each of these relationships, though easily readable through a broad parental lens, are very paternal in nature, centered around the male father figure characters need/desire to protect their young charges.
Joel in particular serves as both a well written example of, and a brutal deconstruction of, the standard gruff white game protagonist. He’s a fantastic character precisely because, when the credits role, you’re not sure whether he’s the good guy or not. And it’s all because he robbed Ellie, his surrogate daughter, of agency, and in doing so may have doomed the world just so he won’t have to feel the pain of losing a child again.

Depending on how you look at it, it’s either a deconstruction of toxic masculinity, or the understandable yet extreme actions of a desperate man.

Developers’, or writers of any kind, careful consideration should go into selecting the protagonist. Whatever their race, gender, orientation, there should be a reason for it beyond marketability and financial safety. 


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