There was a point in time where I thought I was immune to the gender of a protagonist in a game or movie. The majority of games I played, unless it was an RPG that allowed you to build a character, presented a male as the quintessential hero. I didn’t mind. I was young and accepted it.
But a spark ignited when I first saw that Samus, from the Metriod series, was a female. Precipitously, this character meant so much more. For the first time, the vulnerabilities I often felt about being a girl were shed.
Suddenly I could relate to something in the mediums I loved. Shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and characters like Samus, showed me, at a critical age in my life, that girls could be simultaneously sensitive, flawed, strong, and independent. That we were not objects of male interest. That we should never be objects. That yes, we were different than men, but we were no less powerful.
But that was a long time ago—the spark diminished in the wake of over sexualized and surface level characters like the original Lara Croft (I love the new one). Once more I fell back into the stories of men, rescuing women who were helpless and apathetic, forming ever-so brief relationships and then having a one-night stand before moving on and saving the world.
Oddly enough, most of the time I didn’t mind; I enjoyed the games. Some of them were hilarious, and I genuinely appreciated their satirical elements that mocked the typical gaming canon. Some of them had a character that, despite being male, could easily be related to through the simple fact that we all share human emotions. But there was still something missing within the games heavily driven by stories.
In games and in life we automatically try to project ourselves into situations, we try to identify with people, plots, characters—it’s human nature to do that. But the more I got into narrative games, the more I realized that I couldn’t connect with the characters as much. I think that’s largely why Beyond: Two Souls had such an impact on me. But it’s funny, because I didn’t realize that impact until I finished Infamous First Light, the prequel to Second Son in which you play as Fetch. This was the perfect situation to witness how playing a female was different because it juxtaposed two parallel games with wholly different characters.
Despite similar controls, powers, environments, and quests, playing as Fetch was a very different experience than playing as Delsin. I could connect with her. I laughed at her witty dealings with Shane’s cat-calling and sexual advances, situations that despite being present in a fictional world, were all too real. Her own experiences were cathartic.
Fetch as character is complex, she is driven, she’s a little dark and insane, her sexuality is not objectified in any capacity, she is not almost-raped (a plot device that, while not necessarily offensive, is overly used) and I have to applaud Sucker Punch for making her that way. For making a real woman. And while this is indeed a step in the right direction, one day I’d like to not be able to count the number of female protagonists in games on one hand.
So why are females important in games? What’s the point? While it is great to be able to identify more closely with a character (given that women make up almost half of those who play games), it’s significant for a multitude of reasons. Women in games can help to sustain unique narrative in the genre. The age-old epic of man saves world and gets girl, after all, can only be told so many times before it gets redundant. And it was redundant about a hundred years ago. Fans enjoyed Fetch because she was different, not simply because she was a female. She added wit and emotion to the story that were lacking within Delsin.
In addition, playing as a female, much like playing as a male, also has the ability to affect awareness in how others are treated or seen. They are important because stories are things we carry with us, even if don’t notice. They create perception and norms. They provoke ideals and emotions. And when they one-sided… they create bias and incontrovertible absolutes.
This isn’t to say that male characters cannot be related too and that they themselves are never sexualized (Hello, fine gentleman of Resident Evil 6). But there is an obvious gap that needs to be filled. This isn’t finger pointing at anyone either. Problems can arise without fault, after all. Rather it’s pointing out an obvious problem in not just games, but film, literature, and technology—and asking for a solution.