How many video games can you name that have only female characters?
Now, there are a number of games with female protagonists, from the Tomb Raider series, of course, to a sizable chunk of the Resident Evil games (perhaps most of them? all of them? I'm not so up on RE lore). However, these girls are still in the minority, and there are whole genres that are still predominantly based around the masculine hero. Games like the Final Fantasy series in particular, with its affinity for phallus-wielding heroes and sacrificial girlfriends springs to mind.* A lot of games provide the option of playing as a male or female protagonist: Niobe or Ghost, boy Pokemon trainer or girl Pokemon trainer, but that really seems to sidestep the issue, and here, I want to focus on games where one is not given a choice, and ideas of gender are hard-wired into the story and make-up of the game itself.
Some games get the idea of a female protagonist totally wrong. This is often because of a "hey, let's put a heroine in here instead of a hero," way of thinking, which often still normalises a male hero and views female protaginists as exceptional. And often, these female characters are still tied into the gender dynamics of a male-dominated game. Take the relatively recent Princess Peach platformer, for example, which came under a lot of critical fire. The game supposedlyclaimed it would present Peach finally as a strong leading woman, but actually presented her more as a hysterical mess of emotions prone to fits of histrionic bawling.
The problem here is that, quite simply, Peach is not leading woman material. It's not her fault. It's the fault of the fact that she was created a long time ago (in terms of video game history) for a game that had her simply as a damsel in distress; a prize for the hero to obtain through his trials. Peach wasn't even animate, she was a single-sprite object; a sleeping beauty, of sorts. And indeed, that fairytale analogy really isn't too much of a stretch. A great many games, from Super Mario through to Prince of Persia (yes, even the modern updating where the princess is at least given some lines), are based on models/myths of masculinity and feminity cribbed from fairytales. Mario's story is ultimately one that posits him as a white knight** who must slay vicious dragons in order to save his beautiful princess - the object of his affections - from the castle tower.
So yes, ultimately, a character born from such a scenario may in fact not make the best leading heroine material, unlike those who are created quite a way from such a storytelling tradition. And yes, video games do, of course, tell stories.
I have to give a massive hat tip to the wonderful auntie pixelante, for inspiring me to even think along these lines (this blog post could not have come to be without her and her unknowing influence on my thought processes). Her creations, like the game Mighty Jill Off or the story "the princess is in another castle" are neatly subversive in their approach to classic video game storytelling in the Mario mold. They illuminate the inherent supposed gender roles whilst simultaneously irreverently perverting them.
There are many things to like about Mighty Jill Off. There's the fact that the "princess" (in this updated to "queen") is no passive victim but instead a demanding domme who insists upon our protagonist's dangerous journey to the hights of the tower in which she keeps herself (she is not "kept") in order to prove her worthiness. Again, this explodes the themes underlying certain classic games at the same time as it playfully messes with and reinvents them.
Another is that this is a game that has an entirely female cast, and for me, what that does is illuminate just how many games there are that feature the exact opposite, to the exclusion of women or the total reduction of their roles in gameplay that they ultimately become nullified completely. I hate to keep harping on Mario, but really, can Peach even be called a "character" in that game, in any real sense of the phrase? It's much easier to see the conflict and antagonism between Mario and Bowser (or, in the earlier Donkey Kong, between Mario and the eponymous antagonist of that game) than it is to see the relationship between Mario and Peach (Rose). You can't have a relationship with a single sprite. In Mighty Jill Off, the queen is in fact the one playfully antagonising the heroine. She is both Peach and Bowser and she is also neither.
The relationship between Jill and the queen is seemingly mirrored in the only other females-only game that I can think of, and another that features only two characters at all: Portal***. In this game, GLaDOS is literally testing the protagonist, putting her through her paces and determining her worth. All the while she teases and provokes the heroine, too. I know for a fact that I'm not the first person to see this relationship between the characters and again, I imagine that if one goes through the archives on auntie's own site one will see her own ruminations of Portal and the relationships presented within.
Classic video games are like fairy tales in that they tend to tell seemingly simple stories of love, desire and struggling through hardships, all mitigated through the technology/economics (another quarter buys you another chance) of the era, but also some very simplified gender roles, too. I'm so glad that there are those who realise this and seek to exploit/undermine/reimagine this.
Can you believe that I originally intended to insert a mini-essay about women in film, too? Another day, perhaps...
Much love to auntie pixelante
*And even then, there was of course the female-heavy Final Fantasy X2, but isn't that simply a case of the exception proving the rule/trend?
**When fully powered, Mario does indeed become clad in mostly white, but that's a total coincidence.
***The only "male" in Portal is a brief sound of a disembodied snarl, supposed to represent a part of GLaDOS' whole personality. It's only slightly less of a "character" than the original Peach.