Remember the good ol’ days?
Sure, I say that a lot. As an aspiring old fogey, I can look back at a golden era of gaming where men were men, and women were invariably trapped in castles, or secret space warriors. This was an era where heroes were powerful, where they ran and jumped and didn’t complain about the amount of goombas or space demons or bad guys that were in their way. Hell, this was the 90s, where machismo was king.
And then, the ladies got on board too. We had strong female characters, women who wouldn’t say boo to a goose. Princess Peach went from damsel in distress to sassy road warrior. Mortal Kombat had some deadly female warriors who could rip grown men’s flesh away with a kiss. Yes, in that day and age, our characters were strong. They were powerful. They made us, the average gamer, feel like Gods.
So what the Hell happened?
Note that one strong, female character I didn’t mention above was Lara Croft. Now, when you think of strong, female protagonists, you think Lara Croft. The English explorer was the poster girl for strength in feminism. She was a heroine for a new age, a new era. A time where the girls weren’t the weak figures to save, they went out on their own. They shot dinosaurs, leapt chasms, did everything the boys could do. Lara Croft, in a way, started the movement. Sure, women were in video games before in leading roles (Super Mario Bros 2 comes to mind), but never before were they out there, and full of gumption.
Sure, you could argue that Lara Croft’s model was a male gamers wet dream. All bazooka boobs and short shorts. But many female gamers felt something with her; an association and acceptance to the table.
Which makes me sad playing the Tomb Raider reboot/retcon/prequel. It’s gritty, it’s got tombs to raid, and it sets up Lara Croft’s back story.
But by God, is she weak.
Every instance is punctuated with Lara crying out, worrying, giving herself quiver-voiced affirmations, and generally making her seem… well… human. Is this a good thing? Many modern gamers would say “yes”. They’d argue that, by making Lara Croft a more relatable character, she is more immersive to play as. That by showing her weakness, you’re not only setting up her journey as the kick-ass heroine we know and love, but also making us feel for the character, not just play as her.
However, how can you explain such weakness when brutally, systemically, and violently slaughtering bad guys, animals and other such random-acts-of-violence. Remember, Lara is controlled by us, the gamer. If we want her to head-shot a number of pirates, or stomp down on their skulls and break their necks, we will make her do that. If we want to shoot birds for No Reason At All, then we can do that. Sure, when carving them up, Lara shows disgust, but it’s almost bipolar.
Many better journalists have pointed out that this behaviour borders on sociopathic. One moment, Lara is trying to get a grip on herself to survive, the next she’s blasting peoples skulls away. Not stealthily crawling past, the pacifist way (which is available in games such as Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Dishonored, both with bloody protagonists), but instead makes you, the player, murder countless people.
And don’t think that she’s the only one with this split personality.
I put Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon as one of my Games of 2013, and for good reason. It was a throwback to a lost age of shooters, where you were all wise-cracks and nearly invincible. It was a pastiche of the genre, but bags of fun. Then, I went back to Far Cry 3, where I had to play as Jason Brody. Instead of wise-cracks and tough guy activities, I got cries of mercy and the same sense of personal panic I got from Lara Croft. He was a man out of his depth, again something relatable for us gamers, but who would then torch pirates with a flamethrower without blinking an eye. Yes, the game as a whole points out the whole schizo nature of this world, but that doesn’t make it OK. It just re-inforces the issue. You’re playing as someone who is a hero, but is a reluctant one. If they don’t want to do this violence, why am I making them?
These characters, by my definition, are not heroes. They are not protagonists. They are woetagonists.
Now, I’m not arguing that we should go back to the days of Duke Nukem (even though I am a fan), but if you’re going to show your characters with a hint of weakness, make it a hint. Make their journey about getting stronger, about becoming a badass, without the brief fallback to being concerned about their situation.
Either way, instead of immersing you in the experience, by making them human, it takes you out. One moment you’re contemplating the loss of your best friend, the next you’re shoving a knife through someone’s throat.
The sociopathic circle of life.