I can understand why some male writers might be afraid to write a female character. She'll be under so much scrutiny – especially if she's the only woman in a video game populated entirely by men. Everything she does will be extrapolated and overanalyzed and misinterpreted to be some sort of Grand Sweeping Statement about Femininity In General.
Karen Traviss solved this problem in Gears of War 3 by adding not one but three female soldiers to the roster. Yes, Anya Stroud had already been a character in the prior Gears games, but she didn't get to wear pants and carry a Lancer until Gears 3. Traviss also introduced us to two other new women warriors: Sam Byrne and Bernie Mataki. These three women are not all the same age, they're not all white, and they all have different personalities and histories – just like, y'know, a real collection of humans.
So, video game writers, take note: if you don't want anyone to overanalyze your game's token minority, then maybe you should include more than just the one token. Unfortunately, no one told Tom Bissell and Rob Auten this advice when the duo penned Gears of War: Judgment together.
Rather than incorporate any women from previous Gears games or extended universe books, Bissell and Auten created a new female character – just one. Sofia is a conventionally attractive redhead with a long, sleek ponytail. Rather than sport the thick cargo pants of her male squad-mates, Sofia wears a skin-tight black catsuit under her armor; unlike Anya, Sam, and Bernie in Gears 3, Sofia does not cover much of her lower body with pockets or accoutrements, so the player gets a nice view of just how tight her pants are.
(Contrast Sam and Anya's equipment-laden waists with Sofia's.
Contrast Sofia's and Baird's respective butts in the image below.
Sofia could probably use some extra ammo cartridges.)
When I first began researching other people's reactions to Sofia's character, this thread on Game FAQs about Sofia's butt was the first Google hit.
Anyway, the most notable thing about young, feisty red-headed Sofia isn't her looks. It's that she's fiery (and red-headed! Get it?). She's inexperienced, she's a cadet, and she nearly always needs a dressing-down or a talking-to from a male character. Everyone else in this game outranks her, out-ages her, and outweighs her by half, yet she keeps trying to voice her naïve opinions. This theme continues throughout; the very last lines of the campaign feature Sofia getting corrected by older men. The game's final boss lies twitching on the ground, and Sofia pauses, wondering aloud whether to deal a final killing blow or show mercy. Luckily, there are two older men nearby to do the shooting for her and tell her that she was wrong to hesitate. Women and their emotions!
Sofia has a history with her feelings getting her into trouble, too. The story hinges on Sofia telling her squad-mates about a huge bomb hidden in one of her old professor's mansions. The reason she knows about the bomb is because her professor had a “crush” on her, even though he was married and had kids. Also, she knows how to get in through his mansion's secret entrance. Ah, okay then.
Anyway, everybody breaks into the mansion and finds the professor's dead body inside. Sounds like a big climactic scene for Sofia's character, right? Not even a little bit. Perhaps Bissell and Auten wanted to make Sofia seem strong and mature for not caring about this man's death, but instead, it just seems like there's a scene missing.
Or maybe we're supposed to believe that Sofia's interested in someone else, by now. After all, the squad has another new character on it: an older man named Paduk. He's older! That's Sofia's type, right?
Paduk tells us in voice-over that he “doesn't judge” Sofia for shacking up with her professor. Those voice-overs keep flashing back to a scene where all four squad-mates are testifying in court about having stolen that bomb, so I guess we're meant to assume that Sofia's sex life has become a subject of the trial. And, apparently, Paduk's non-judgment about Sofia's lover matters enough to be announced in court. Sounds like boyfriend material!
At the end of the campaign, Baird makes a joke about the sexual tension between Paduk and Sofia. Apparently we were supposed to be rooting for these two all along? It's so obvious now that you told us, Baird. Maybe next time tell us a little sooner because here I thought we were supposed to be praying for Sofia to get the heck away from all of you.
This cliché characterization of everybody's favorite new fiery redhead bored me, but I didn't get truly annoyed until I played Aftermath, a bonus chapter set during the timeline of Gears of War 3. Baird and Cole meet up with Paduk again, and at the end of Aftermath, he tells them what happened to Sofia. First, she quit the COG army to be with Paduk (why? I don't think we're supposed to be asking that question). While Sofia stood on watch guarding their camp, some Locust kidnapped her. Paduk saw this happen through his rifle scope; he only managed to kill one Locust and was not able to save her from the rest. Now, we already know what happens when the Locust kidnap ladies, because Dom's wife got kidnapped in the previous Gears games and we saw her get tortured beyond measure.
This plot device is so common that it even has a name: Women In Refrigerators. Heard of it? A villain will kidnap, torture, and/or kill a (usually female) character close to the (usually male) character. This incident will provide the illusion of depth for the male character, with no personality or extra writing required beyond “suddenly, his woman got stolen!” I found Dom and Maria's story to be overbearing enough the first time around; in Aftermath, Paduk's rage at Sofia's capture does not even feel earned by the narrative surrounding it. We don't see this moment with Sofia happen; she gets refrigerated off-screen, out of sight, out of mind. At the very least, Paduk could've been the one who got fridged instead of Sofia … but, no. The one woman in the game needed to be placed in distress. It's her job.
Speaking of jobs, Sofia gets to be the Medic class in the Overrun multiplayer mode. What is it about Sofia that says “nurturing caretaker” to you? You know, in comparison to all the other characters in the game. Let me know if you figure it out.
This feels like a step backward. Gears of War 3 gave multiple women guns, agency, and personality. Gears of War: Judgment gives its one woman a gun, an old lover who seemed like a jerk, a new lover who seems like a jerk as well, and then … off-screen torture, fade to black. All in a pair of sexy, skin-tight pants.
I don't expect that much of my military shooters, but Gears 3 had knocked the bar up a few notches. Judgment failed to meet the level that its predecessor set. Had Judgment included at least one other woman (or more!), Sofia's hackneyed story-line might have stuck out less.
Well, I guess there was that one Berserker. She was pretty cool.