As I finished the last chapter of the excellent episodic video game series: Life is Strange, it occurred to me that not nearly enough games portrayed the themes of individuality, choice, slice of life and sexuality with much maturity and/or gravitas. Certainly there are numerous high profile video games that attempt to tackle these themes, but mostly as an afterthought or even worse as merely a plot device for the villain to exploit at some point in the game. As a gamer that is now pushing 40 years of age, I find myself less satisfied with the representation of all manner of characters in video games (and in many cases the story lines as well – oh really, some zealot has concocted a plan to kill a whole bunch of people yet again and only I can stop them? Sounds legit), which has led me to play less AAA games as the years roll by. Whereas my wallet thanks me, it does make me wonder – where’s the disconnect in the video game industry? For an industry that is so in love with being more like Hollywood and better respected by their creative peers throughout the entertainment industry, why do so many hit games still feel like the characters and plots were written by 12 year old boys? It’s a truly fascinating conundrum, and one that is deeply rooted in gamer culture, and as such will likely take years, if not decades to correct. Now, to be clear, I am not saying that there is no place in the market for the Halos and Call of Duties that get released each year. I believe that the market should have a broad variety of games, that way gamers of all different walks of life can find the entertainment that they are looking for.
The simple answer to the initial question of, “where is the disconnect?”, is that most video games are marketed to a very specific group – male gamers aged 14 to 40-ish. As such, we are told that the average male gamer in that bracket primarily enjoys playing a variety of sports, racing, action and shooter style games with a strong male protagonist that they can identify with. With that in mind, AAA video games (specifically action and shooter style games) are tailored for the “male experience”, which normally includes a “man’s man” lead character that kills his way to the solution of the problem. Side Note: is nobody else concerned that Nathan Drake and many others are effectively serial killers? Perhaps that’s a discussion for another time, but it hits on what I’m getting at. Back on point, the “male experience” in video games is fraught with immature humor, scantily clad women (who are either helpless or purely eye candy in most cases), ultra-violence (blood and guts and viscera oh my!) and a plot that involves killing wave upon wave of mindless enemies, likely leading up to a handful of boss encounters and ultimately the conclusion of the paper thin story.
To be clear, I’m not against a video game being mature (or immature as the case may be), sexy, ultra-violent, crude, or whatever else the developers want it to be. Whatever your mission statement is, stick to it and make a great game. What I would like to see is a more concerted effort by the developers and the publishers to create and promote AAA video games that are a better reflection of the sum of its parts. Essentially, if you are going to make a game based on say a military action/espionage plot, then all of the characters that are woven into the narrative should make sense and should fit naturally within that universe. Take Metal Gear Solid the Phantom Pain, a video game released this year by Konami, which features the aforementioned military action/espionage plot, and then ask yourself this: if all of the men in the game are fully dressed for active military duty and/or maneuvers (we’re talking full fatigues, battle packs, body armor, the works), then how is the following character pictured below acceptable within that specific narrative?Her name is Quiet, and she is a fully trained and highly lethal sniper and assassin that apparently does not feel the need to dress for military operations. Not only does she not dress for the occasion, she goes out of her way to pose in a number of lewd positions as frequently as humanly possible whenever she is not lining up a shot. Now, within the story of Metal Gear Solid the Phantom Pain, we are led to believe that Quiet has to wear skimpy attire because she breathes thru her skin and absorbs nutrients thru photosynthesis – I am become skeptical, to say the least. It’s right about now that you should start to see why I wonder if a 12 year old boy is responsible for the creation and narrative function of female characters in modern AAA video games. Quiet isn’t the only character worth bemoaning, in fact if you’d like to cringe, please watch the following video from WatchMojo:
I know what you are thinking, Life is Strange is a slow paced adventure game, where’s the shooters with a diverse cast and strong women characters? Funny that you should ask, Sega released a third person shooter titled Binary Domain in 2012 which featured a wide variety of characters of different genders, body types, race, countries of origin, and even included an artificial intelligence android. Surprisingly, the females are all dressed similarly to their male counterparts and everyone is tactically proficient in their own area of expertise. See the cast photo below for proof:In Binary Domain, you are part of a military operation that hunts down technology that violates a specific clause in a “New Geneva Convention” that states that robots cannot be made to pass as human beings. As the story progresses, you find that quite a few robots have been secretly implanted into society as humans (think human looking cyborgs, like in the Terminator), except that they do not know they are robots. In ways the plot is similar to the cult classic film, Blade Runner. One of the more fun aspects of the game is the “trust” system, where through dialogue choices as well as specific actions (proficiency in combat, poor combat performance, achieving specific character requests) you build up or lose trust from your fellow squad mates. This trust effects whether or not they come to your aid in battle, whether they remain loyal to the group, and ultimately whether they live or die. I have played thru the main campaign multiple times and have so far experienced 4 different variations of the ending, and a multitude of small and large variances in the main game’s story based on how you build trust with the other characters. Above and beyond being a good shooter with a fun trust system built in, the characters are handled respectfully and with dignity. Men and women alike are strong, and they each have their own identity and unique story that fuels their motivation on the battlefield. These characters have emotions, such as fear, regret, resolve, confusion, determination, humor, impatience, and they communicate with the main character very well – bottom line, they are not your typical dude-bro meat heads. Each play thru is a treat, and proof positive that you can make an engaging AAA shooter with a diverse and multi-gender cast, despite the fact that Gears of War, Halo, and other sales leading shooters say otherwise, however; I will give kudos to Call of Duty Black Ops 3 for adding a playable female lead character through the main single player campaign. The problem that Binary Domain ran into was sales here in the States. The game hardly moved the needle at all, despite selling well in Japan and parts of Europe. Some might argue that it was because it was published by Sega, or because of marketing, but I would be willing to wager that it’s because the market wasn’t ready for a AAA shooter that didn’t fit into the cookie cutter FPS mulitplayer mold.
In the overall scheme of things, if you want to look to a AAA game developer that is making great strides to add diversity in gender, race, and sexual orientation in all of their titles, then you should keep a close eye on Bioware. Responsible for the smash hit franchises, Mass Effect and Dragon Age, Bioware has been slowly but steadily adding more diversity to their games. The key to their success is that they treat the characters in their games as respected individuals and not as stereotypes. Same sex coupling is not frowned upon, nor does it raise an eyebrow in the scheme of things. Characters of differing races (and in many cases different species) are not inherently treated as cookie cutter stereotypes, but as complex characters with engaging backstories. Men and women alike can be the main character, and they are respected equally. In fact, there are many women of high positions of leadership and importance woven throughout the games that Bioware makes. This developer is the gold standard for diversity in games, and proof positive that if you make a great game with diverse characters in it, a majority of the gamer demographic will in fact buy it and play it.
I know that this post is a drop in the well, and that some might even think of me as some sort of Social Justice Warrior, regardless of the fact that I am 100% OK with games like Call of Duty, Metal Gear Solid and Halo existing (and have even indicated as much earlier in this post). So be it if people think ill of this post. I don’t want games taken off the market or denied to the consumers. I just want more AAA games to boldly tackle broad important ideas, that require more than just mindless killing, and that includes a dynamic and diverse cast of characters that make sense for the game that they are in. I want the plots to be better laid out and for the characters to have a reasonable amount of dimensions to them. I know that these types of game experiences are possible, because their are a handful of AAA titles that have accomplished them and been successful commercially. I likely want too much too quickly, but the heart wants what the heart wants, and this heart yearns for games that are more than just another linear FPS with a heavy emphasis on multiplayer, and more than just another hack and slash. This heart wants the kind of complex and layered games that will become the next evolution of the video game market. Perhaps one day the industry will be able to support more of the types of games that I would like to play, until then I will continue to champion the cause for a better class of AAA game title, and at the same time enjoy the video games that I still like to play. If you agree that game developers and publishers should do a better job with diversity and equality, than get the word out. Tweet it! Let them know that you want more from your game experiences, and then perhaps one day it will become commonplace. One could only hope this happens sooner than later… but I’m not going to hold my breath.