Are Big Budget Games Finally Getting Better at Portraying Women?

Are Big Budget Games Finally Getting Better at Portraying Women?

'Uncharted: The Lost Legacy' is a new chapter in the best-selling franchise and features two strong female characters as leads Glixel / Sony Interactive Entertainment

From 'Horizon: Zero Dawn' to 'Uncharted: Lost Legacy', 2017 is already looking like a year for progress

From 'Horizon: Zero Dawn' to 'Uncharted: Lost Legacy', 2017 is already looking like a year for progress

You walk into the wrecked arcade hall. Broken cabinets with an assortment of hyper masculine games and Eighties-style action-hero images surround you. One shows the simple, blood-soaked logo METAL. Another – Triple Phoenix – depicts three thuggish bird-bros with rifles. Your companion, Riley, dismisses them all as kid's stuff. She has eyes for only one game: The Turning. It’s busted, of course. The apocalypse and all that. So Riley recreates the Street Fighter-like experience for you, narrating an imagined one-on-one battle between her favorite character, the "claw-wielding yet drop-dead gorgeous Angel Knives," and Black Fang. The camera rests on your face, adding health bars and the combo controls to press as Riley shouts them out. A familiar ecstasy – the kind that comes from getting your hands on a video game for the first time ever – washes over your face. Ellie's face. She furrows her brow in determination as Riley shouts, "Yes, fuck 'em!"

You might've missed this scene in The Last of Us: Left Behind – Naughty Dog's 2014 add-on prequel to the events of its zombie-infested blockbuster. The arcade scene is optional in every way: a deviation within a deviation, bonus content hidden inside a nonessential downloadable content. Unlike the full game, Left Behind tells Ellie's story rather than Joel's. It's set in a time before they met – starring an Ellie not yet contextualized to the player as a daughter figure. To many female players and people of color, that simple arcade scene captured the particular appeal of the fighting game genre. Because, while far from perfect, fighting games tended to have more characters that looked like them. Like Riley, Angel Knives is black, a fictional superhero she can use to define her identity, a woman wearing her natural hair in a glamorous yet practical high ponytail.

Even superfans of The Last of Us might not know this scene exists. But for me – and surely many other women, too – this 'throwaway' scene is among the most meaningful in any game, period. I finally saw something of mine – and other's – experiences of girlhood and play in a big budget game. For those accustomed to seeing their ideals of male camaraderie explored over and over and over in everything from Uncharted to Final Fantasy XV, it might be hard to understand the magnitude of this small scene. But to female audiences that, even in 2017, remain starved for stories in big budget games that not only represent them, but their experiences of the world, it signaled a significant and appreciable leap forward.

For some years now, critics and a few mainstream studios have dedicated themselves to solving the deep-rooted issues of poor representation in games. Fighting against decades of inertia – from the woefully lopsided gender makeup of development teams to marketing pitched at teenage boys and an equally narrow set of Hollywood sci-fi and fantasy templates – it is a testament to the enormous (though not always linear) progress made that the same studio responsible for a blockbuster franchise depicting the hypermasculine, Indiana Jones-style adventures of Nathan Drake and Sully also created Left Behind.

Naughty Dog, the outfit spearheaded by Neil Druckmann – who often consults feminist critics like Anita Sarkeesian – continues to be the most consistent and committed of the big studios. Games like The Last of Us, Left Behind, Uncharted 4, its upcoming DLC Lost Legacy, and the much-anticipated Last of Us: Part II all feature – to varying degrees – more women as central, three-dimensional characters. Taking cues from its original source material, others like Creative Assembly’s Alien: Isolation even centered their entire plot on a female protagonist’s relationship to her mother. Guerrilla Games’ open-world epic Horizon: Zero Dawn took this even further, though came under fire for some tone-deaf cultural appropriation in the depiction of its post-apocalyptic tribal cultures.

"2016 – as a lead up to 2017 – was an interesting year," says Sarkeesian, who is not only credited with kickstarting (and Kickstarting) the conversation about representation in games with her video series Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, but also for continuing to push the industry with analysis from her team at Feminist Frequency. "[Over this past year,] we saw several games that starred black men as protagonists. We’re seeing more female characters in games with their own stories."

Things appear, slowly but surely, to be getting better. Yet the work is far from done

Five years on from the Kickstarter for Tropes vs. Women in Video Games and we might finally be seeing some change in the mainstream. Two console-exclusive titles recently released by Sony and Microsoft, ReCore and Horizon: Zero Dawn, are female-led. Dishonored 2 and Mass Effect: Andromeda – while still only presenting female protagonists as an option – made their female leads focal points in their marketing campaigns, a noticeable shift from previous years according to Carolyn Petit’s 2016 Gender Breakdown of the annual E3 show. Tracer – the perky female Londoner and arguably the most popular character in Blizzard’s 30 million-selling shooter Overwatch – was revealed to be gay. Symmetra was revealed to be autistic, and their latest hero, Orisa, is a robot invented by a West African girl-prodigy. Meanwhile, many critics credited the convincing black male protagonists of Mafia 3 and Watch Dogs 2 for all but carrying their respective studios' otherwise unremarkable games – though there's still an astounding lack of women of color in leading roles, outside of this year's Lost Legacy.

Things appear, slowly but surely, to be getting better. Yet the work is far from done. "On paper, it can all sound right. But it doesn't always feel that way when I'm actually playing the games," says Sarkeesian, echoing many other critics who analyze these issues. "Because just making the same games and throwing on different skin tones and genders isn't good enough," she says. "It's not only a matter of having more of these characters in your game, but also developing an understanding of who they are in these worlds."

Sarkeesian points to a persistent shortcoming: seeing diversity "as a checklist." In the world of film criticism, Alison Bechdel set an (intentionally) laughably low bar for measuring the mere presence of female characters in fiction. What later became famously known as the Bechdel Test – which was referred to in a cartoon strip Bechdel created in 1985 – holds films up to two basic requirements: a) The existence of at least two women or girls who talk to each other, and b) A conversation between them about anything other than a man or boy. Many mistook this standard as a means of distinguishing misogynist films from feminist ones. But as Sarkeesian herself established a long time ago, it's much more complicated than that.

The Bechdel test was never meant to be an end goal, or even a valid measuring stick, but rather a wake-up call. But actually solving the issue requires a whole other set of critical standards – standards that not only should but will evolve as we continue to reconsider what diversity looks like in games.

The one major difference titles like Horizon: Zero Dawn, Left Behind, and Alien: Isolation share is a unique focus on female experiences, relationships, and stories. Unlike games like Mass Effect: Andromeda or Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate, their protagonists can't easily be swapped out for male counterparts. Because, "you can either tell a story about a human who happens to be a woman, or you can tell a story about a woman and her experience of being a woman in the world," Sarkeesian says. "Those are different. And there's space for both. But I think that’s a big part of the next step. To ask: what stories are we telling about these people, and how do their intersections of race, gender, and sexuality interact with the worlds they inhabit?"

Horizon: Zero Dawn and Alien: Isolation, for example, both feature a daughter's quest to find – or at least understand – her mother, and by extension better understand herself and her place in the world. That's a huge leap from the historical absence or disregard for motherhood in games, and a stark contrast to the "dadification" trend of 2013, which cast daughters as the objects of the male hero's affections. It’s a trend we haven’t shaken off since 2013, though, since 2015’s Rise of the Tomb Raider (despite a supposedly new, improved, and less sexualized Lara) still compulsively shoehorns her story into the context of completing her father's goals and dreams, with not much autonomy left over for Lara herself. And while the reboot's first installment was marketed as a story about the love between Lara and her friend Sam, Sam is conveniently kidnapped early on in the game and removed for the majority of the story (what comic book writer Gail Simone describes as "refrigeration"). The relationship that does take up the most emotional space and screen time is actually the one between Lara and father figure Conrad Roth.

Sarkeesian says that one of the first questions she poses to game developers who ask her to consult is simply: Does your game exist in patriarchy? The responses, she says, vary from befuddlement to sincere admissions that, "I didn't think about it." At the very least, Guerrilla's Horizon: Zero Dawn is a big budget game unafraid of being set in a matriarchal tribe that worships a goddess. And while providing players with diverse avatar customization options can be a progressive tool in the right context, in Dishonored 2 giving the player the option to play as either Emily or her father Corvo appears to be more of a precaution against potential backlash from male players.

According to Sheri Graner Ray, a veteran game designer of 20 years and author of Gender Inclusive Game Design: Expanding the Market, "There is a very strong, 'But we've always done it this way,' attitude that makes the entire industry resistant to change," she says, pointing to a number of erroneous assumptions that still proliferate AAA development. "Believe it or not, we're still battling the 'real games are for guys' myth, even though the numbers [in the 2016 ESRB report] show that more women over 18 play games than boys under 16."

Dishonored 2 director Harvey Smith admitted in an interview with The Independent that a playable Corvo was included only as an afterthought. And his irrelevance to an otherwise female-centric plot is painfully apparent throughout, in a narrative focused on Emily Kaldwin, her matriarchal lineage, her mother'’s assassination, and the reclaiming of her throne from her aunt. Arguably, by not sticking to their guns and committing to Emily as a protagonist, Arkane Studios not only did a disservice to the game itself, but its creator's true intentions.

It's also worth noting that many of the games with excellent female characters and more nuanced female-centric stories are relegated to downloadable add-ons to their big budget relatives. While Left Behind and Lost Legacy appear to meet Naughty Dog's same standard of excellence, both remain optional content that can be entirely ignored by the main game's players. DLCs are also cheaper to make – and so much less risky – for publishers, who might still be hesitant to take a risk on a female protagonist for their biggest titles.

Yet, despite the work and obstacles that lie ahead, from critics to developers, the women leading the charge are optimistic about the future. "Frankly, I strongly believe ignoring our potential audiences for traditional games or putting in barriers that actively keep those audiences from enjoying our games is shortsighted and makes for very poor business sense," says Graner Ray.

"I think it's really important to recognize the progress that has been made and is being made," says Sarkeesian. "Just having a new franchise [like Horizon: Zero Dawn] that stars a woman who isn't super stereotypical, in a game clearly setup to have follow-up games… Well, it'll be interesting to see how it evolves and develops."

So 2017 might yet shape up to be the year that video games finally soar above the low bar set by the Bechdel Test. Naughty Dog, for one, has been insistent that Ellie will be the main playable character of The Last of Us: Part II – a full sequel to a best-selling PlayStation exclusive. If the trailer is any indication, the game seems almost exclusively concerned with her experience, relegating Joel to a ghostly (perhaps literally) figure in the background. In fact, some even speculate that the gender roles may be reversed this time around, with Joel’s death forcing Ellie to once again meet the world on her own terms, but in her own game, without the overbearing presence of a protective father figure. And that sure sounds like a step up from optional scenes in a DLC.