Iíve always been of the mind that while men and women are (obviously) equal they are not identical, and Iím going to speak really carefully here to get my point across without accidentally offending anyone, what I mean is that speaking on a broad scale men and women tend to be different. If I was born a girl I would be a fundamentally different person than I am now, whether by nature or nurture, I would not be who I am today, either because women are naturally inclined to go certain ways or because my experiences throughout life (school, friends, etc), especially in the developmental stages, would be different.
I always thought this was an important factor for creating a character, men and women arenít interchangeable, but lately Iíve noticed a lot of games challenge this idea, with varying results, and now Iím starting to wonder if maybe itís more in the world building that lets me buy into a characters opinions, gender or sexual orientation. You canít just say character X is a strong woman, we have to know what it means to be a strong woman in the context of their world or it means nothing.
A lot of people believe that playing as female Shepard in Mass Effect is a better experience, but FemShep and MaleShep are exactly the same character. Same mo-cap, same combat abilities, same dialogue (barring romance), so what is it that makes FemShep better in some peopleís eyes? Being female puts Shepardís character in a completely different context.
Playing as a girl in Persona 3 can be a very different experience, playing as a girl in Mass Effect is nearly identical to a male. But both pull it off well in different ways.
Firstly, the context of the world. Part of the reason Bioware was able to pull off a protagonist that could be either gender so well is because Mass Effect is set in the future, itís believable to assume that by this point humanity has achieved true gender equality, everybody treats Shepard the same no matter if theyíre a man or woman, and no one bats an eyelid over their commander being a woman. Put this in contrast with something like Dragon Age where somehow humanity has overcome sexism, racism and homophobia which I find jarring in a medieval world where everybody still discriminates against elves or mages or what have you.
Then thereís the context of the characters actions. Even though male and female Shepard do exactly the same things, it says something different about the character depending on their gender. For example, in Mass Effect 2 thereís a renegade option to headbutt a Krogan to shut him up and establish dominance, when MaleShep does this (aside from being hilarious) it says ďHa, Shepard is so alpha that he headbutted a Krogan!Ē, but seeing FemShep loaf a Krogan says something completely different. To be honest, I donít know what that something is, but itís different and itís interesting and I like it. Or hell, maybe it does say the exact same thing as MaleShep, but then itís still different, itís a member of the ďfairer sexĒ, and a fairer species no less, establishing herself as the alpha male of these hulking space monsters.
It always surprised me to hear the Metal Gear games praised for Vamp being bisexual, I thought he was a rather poor representation, mincing around the battlefield, licking his knives, and just generally being a creeper, I though he fit perfectly into the trope of the Depraved Bisexual. But then I remembered, Vamp was originally intended to be a woman, but when a boss with water based powers was scrapped and Fortune was introduced, Vamp was changed to a man. Aside from gender and inheriting the now defunct bossesí water abilities nothing else changed, including his relationship with Scott Dolph.
I wonder, would I have found Vamp as offensive if he remained a woman? Dancing around, licking blood off her lips and acting like the classic sexually charged vampire, you know, everything Vamp still does as a man? Was it my own perceptions or eagerness to hop on my high horse? Or should changing a characters gender mean more than swapping out their character model and voice actor. Honestly, I donít have an answer to that question, I donít know if there is an answer to that question, at best all I can say is judge it on a case by case basis.
While weíre on sexual orientation, Fallout: New Vegas also included lots of gay characters, including two of your possible followers. As characters, I thought they were great, to have gay characters whose entire being isnít based around their sexuality was refreshing, it was just a part of the whole. But I find it impossible to believe how nonchalant they were about it, they live in a fairly uncivilised post-apocalyptic land, and if that wasnít bad enough itís in the ruins of a society based on Fifties values. The only way this world could be worse for gay people is if the super mutants were religious fundamentalists.
And then thereís the logical inconsistencies.
I get what the creators were trying to do, just like with Dragon Age, the developers were trying to allow for more player choice and to be as inclusive as possible, thatís great, I totally encourage that, but the worlds these games take place in arenít that inclusive. Thedas and The Wasteland are so harsh and discriminatory that itís jarring when characters drop the fact that theyíre gay so casually. You canít just transplant our modern values into these bleak and often malicious settings, not without some kind of justification at least, have someone say that differences like that stopped mattering once the bombs fell, that people kill each other for food, not whether they like boys or girls.
Iím not trying to say that the default for any fictional world is that homophobia should be present or assumed until we learn otherwise, maybe these things were just never an issue in these worlds, but the sad fact is that these issues do exist in our world, and the player will still notice them.
In Borderlands 2 people offhandedly talk about same-sex spouses and exes all the time and I can buy it because that game is off the wall and doesnít take itself so seriously, and no, Iím not saying homosexuality isnít serious and shouldnít be portrayed that way, just that the setting isnít as heavy as the other examples. Even though Pandora is basically Planet Texas, because Borderlands 2 is so flippant about everything it doesnít break my suspension of disbelief when Sir Hammerlock mentions his ex boyfriend or when Axton comments on Salvadorís well toned ass. Kanji in Persona 4 is probably the most realistic take on the subject but that could, and has, fill an entire blog on its own.
Playing Uncharted as Doughnut Drake completely changes the context of why everything collapses under his weight and makes the game a story about Drakeís struggle with obesity.
We need to understand how these worlds work in relation to ours, if being gay or a strong woman isnít a big deal in your world then you need to paradoxically give us a nudge and wink to let us know itís not a big deal. You need to give us context, or let the player create their own. Iíve gone over this blog again and again and Iím still afraid people may misinterpret it so let me just be clear, Iím all for more diversity in games, I want them to be more inclusive, Iím just saying that giving the player more freedom can be a double-edged sword, doing so can sometimes lead to incongruity with the setting, and other times it can lead to us creating our own story, and that Iíd like to see more of the latter and less of the former.