Stories are about things. They involve themes and concepts. This seems like a simple notion, but one that eludes many people. Think way back to being bored in your English class, when you had to write tedious papers about silly old books. How you had to squeeze out an essay on how one of the characters represented this or that.
The Count of Monte Cristo is about friendship. It's about what happens when those friendships go sour, and if you can do anything to fix them. It's about revenge, and whether or not it's worth it in the end. It's about ethics and morals, and questioning who the real villain is in any given situation. Dantes is a victim who then goes on to try and victimise others, but is that justified?
The Lord of the Rings is about the many different kinds of heroism and bravery - and the whole trilogy can be taken as an allegory for World War II. Don Quixote is about a misunderstood romantic soul trying to find a way to fit into an increasingly alienating modern world.
Films, too, of course; To Kill a Mockingbird was about racism, about fear, and how ugly things can seem from a child's perspective. It's about one man trying to stand up and do the right thing against the world. It doesn't even need to be a complicated story; Wallace and Gromit is about a man and his dog who go to the moon in search of cheese, and then find a robot with dreams of skiing. Clerks is about one day in the life of a convenience store employee.
My point is, all of these stories are about some things, but there's also a great many more things that they're not about. The Count of Monte Cristo is not a story about how technology can change society for the worse. The Lord of the Rings isn't about a lonely hobbit looking for love in all the wrong places. To Kill a Mockingbird definitely wasn't about the horrors of war and the difficulties a soldier can have trying to fit back into society.
This all seems pretty stupid to point out, doesn't it? I mean, obviously stories include some elements and not others - that's an incredibly simple thought, right? So, then why does the gender card get thrown into games so much recently?
With Dragon Age and Mass Effect in the vanguard among others, people have been buzzing about gender in games a lot more lately than they have in the past; which is fantastic. It's commendable that people are talking about something like this, and that some games are trying to do something with it. Games are a great medium to try and explore issues like gender, and that it's even come up at all is a sign of progress here.
My problem is, does it really belong in every game, just because we can shoe horn it in somewhere? Gender is a big, messy, complicated and confusing thing. Which is all the more reason that some developers might choose it as a central theme for their work, but how central is it really to something like Mass Effect?
Catherine had quite a lot to say about gender, and traditional roles in relationships. It made for interesting characters and an engaging narrative. Vincent was presented as a relatable, sympathetic protagonist, especially in comparison to some of the other male leads out there like Marcus Fenix, and the drama in the game that stemmed from his relationship woes was interesting and fairly organic, too.
Purely in mechanical terms it was a pretty traditional block puzzle game, but in terms of narrative it was low in scale, which isn't something we see in the mainstream very often. You might not have been too fond of the anime influences, but if nothing else it wasn't about a gritty space marine who had to save the world by shooting a big gun at any aliens he happens to meet. It was about a guy who wasn't sure what he wanted in his life, where he wanted to go, or who he wanted to go there with. That's an impressively down to earth focus for a triple a release.
More to the point, gender is important to the game. All of the male characters are portrayed in certain ways, as are all of the female characters, and it plays around a lot with notions of what men and women are and are not supposed to be. It's a major part of what's going on, and the game would be entirely different if it was changed.
Then there's the less mainstream as well. Most, if not all, of Anna Anthropy's body of work has something to do with gender, and she's a talented designer who puts out sharp, interesting pieces.
What about something like Mass Effect, though? It's about a cool space captain who saves the galaxy by being cool, punching news reporters and jumping between chest high walls. Which is fine. Lots of decent games have been about that, but why does it get lauded as being so innovative and progressive just because you can choose to play as a lass as well as a feller?
RPGs are mostly about choices. Baldur's Gate plays out pretty differently if you choose a wizard instead of a thief, right? We like being able to choose things. Even forget RPGs, most games are about choosing something at the end of the day. Do I go left or right? Do I shoot the bad man with my big gun or my little gun? Do I put my points into horticulture or into dragon slaying?
Some of these choices are, clearly, more important than others. Making a character with black hair in Oblivion isn't going to be significantly different to making a character with brown hair. Putting all of your points into horticulture is certainly going to make your game experience different, especially if you meet any dragons that need slaying, but it probably isn't going to change the narrative much, is it?
Which can make the game feel a little hollow, if its trying to have a heavy focus on the narrative. If the game is something like Skyrim, about how the player is the brave and heroic dragonborn, and yet I've put all my points into alchemy and spent ninety percent of the game picking flowers and eating mushrooms, you can see how there's a bit of a disconnect there, right?
Not all games are story focused of course, and that's fine. Crazy Taxi isn't about a young actor working as a taxi driver on the side to earn a living while they hunt around the city for that one big break, it's just about going fast and making crazy money. Games are just like films or books or anything else in that regard; some of them are The Brothers Karamazov and others are Transformers 2.
When you are given choices in a narrative driven game though, then it's important how the game world responds to that choice. In Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines, if you pick a character belonging to clan Malkavia, almost every line of dialogue in the game changes. Malkavians are all insane, and the game reacts to that - each character you encounter treats you like an insane person, and you even have hallucinations and other bizarre moments in the game, one of the more memorable ones being some dialogue with a stop sign. It really feels like it's acknowledging and validating your choice, and it's engaging because of it.
Again, that's a big choice, but little choices can be just as interesting if handled well. The Stanley Parable does a lot of interesting things with story driven gameplay. A narrator announces that the player moves through door A, but then the game proceeds to give you a choice between doors A and B; the narrator then has to change gears completely to accommodate the choice. It's an interesting piece, and highlights some of the hurdles in effectively telling a story in your game.
Then you've got games from the Dragon Age school of thought. I was impressed by the idea of the backstories in the first game, where in addition to picking your class and race you got to choose if you were a commoner or a noble; a bit of flavour for your character's past. This was a neat concept, but unfortunately, implemented pretty clumsily.
It started well. You got a very different beginning to the game if you chose human noble instead of dwarf commoner, but they didn't really take it anywhere. After your interesting start, you got rail roaded straight into the same path everybody else did. Then when you join a group called the Grey Wardens, your new friend says to you "we don't get many elves/wizards/dwarves/women/collective nouns here."
This is lazy design. There were some instances where it was slightly more important - going through the dwarf area as a dwarf had some differences - but overall it was a fairly ham handed attempt at acknowledging your choice.
As I said before, this isn't necessarily a problem, it just depends on what kind of game you have. The plot in Diablo II doesn't change if you pick a barbarian instead of a paladin, but that wasn't the sort of game that had much focus on the plot. A game like Dragon Age devotes quite a lot of time and effort into its narrative, and it really should be of a certain quality if that's the draw of the game.
Instead of skilfully making sure all your choices were important by significantly changing how the game reacted, they made your choices unimportant. Rather than something like the Malkavian clan in Bloodlines, they just changed a noun or two in some lines of dialogue. It's pretty ineffective for the most part, and it undermines giving the player a choice in the first place. Why bother choosing between A and B if they both have the same outcome?
So what about gender? Everybody's been campaigning that we need more strong female protagonists in games, and everybody lauded Bioware for their excellent work, but is it really all that? I mean, describe Shepard's character to me. If somebody spilled a drink on them in a bar, would they blush and run to the bathroom, or would they laugh it off and buy them another round? Does Shepard prefer stage shows to cinema? Does Shepard enjoy classic literature or trashy crime novels?
Not so easy, huh? I mean, Shepard does have some quantifiable character traits, certainly - a lot more than a blank slate like Gordon Freeman - but for the most part, as a person, Shepard is fairly boring. We can't really empathise much with Shepard because there isn't much there to empathise with. In trying to give the player choices about Shepard, most of those choices are rended moot in the same way as Dragon Age. The game isn't significantly different if I pick the War Hero back story instead of the Sole Survivor back story. Yet again, it just alters one or two lines of dialogue in the game.
You could argue that you're supposed to project yourself onto Shepard, but that's a fairly weak argument from a narrative perspective. I can project whatever I want onto him. I could pretend that Shepard is a gladiator from Rome who found a time machine and went on magical adventures before settling down as a manly space captain, but the game sure as hell isn't going to change because of that, and it isn't going to change significantly based on whether or not I'm projecting a wise cracking lothario onto Shepard or a meek, cautious pencil pusher.
The choice of Shepard's gender really is about as important to the game world as whether you choose to have pet fish on your ship or not. In a story driven game, that seems to stand out to me as slightly odd, but what is Mass Effect's story about? I thought it was about saving the universe from space monsters, not so much about social commentary on traditional gender roles.
You can analyse certain elements of stories, of course. I can spend all day analysing Eugenie Danglars and Louise d'Armilly in The Count of Monte Cristo, and the implications of their lesbian relationship with one another given the time period, not to mention how Eugenie elopes with Louise on the day she was to marry somebody else, and there's absolutely value and worth in that analysis, but that isn't what The Count is about. It isn't a story about lesbians in 1800s France. The major themes do not include sexuality nor gender roles. That isn't really the point.
Is gender the point of Mass Effect? If not, why is the choice there? If so, why does the choice change so little in the gameplay? If it is supposed to be a central theme to the game, shouldn't the difference be a bit more significant than playing Mrs Pac Man instead of original Pac Man?