Fair warning: this is probably going to be the stupidest post you’ve ever read. Or if not the stupidest, then the one that’ll draw discussion away from the topic and put me under (or on) fire. Or if not that, then at least make you wonder what in the name of Paul Bunyan’s button-down flannel shirt I was thinking. So to temper whatever rage and disdain may come this way, let me start by bringing up Kamen Rider.
I’ve been checking out bits and the pieces of it recently -- as early as Den-O, as recent as Wizard, if those words mean anything to you -- and what I’ve seen of the decades-long franchise has been supremely rewarding, and supremely entertaining. What should ostensibly be a slew of big dumb kids’ shows have shown a level of depth that no one would expect, and married nigh-flawlessly to a spirit of fun and excitement. To use a food analogy, there’s something to lick for a quick sugar rush, but there’s a legitimate buffet to sink one’s teeth into. Although that’s probably not too good for the stomach, but whatever. Totally worth it.
But not too long ago, a funny thing happened. Apparently, someone saw a post I made on a forum a couple of years ago asking for the name of a song I’d heard. He (or she, possibly) not only gave me the name of the song, but a hearty recommendation for its series of origin: HeartCatch Precure. A show that, on occasion, looks like this:
Now, being an S-class nerd I’d known beforehand that HeartCatch Precure -- and as far as I know, most of the Pretty Cure installments -- have a lot of overlap with some of the more…shall we say, “masculine fare”. And HeartCatch encapsulates that nature very intently: music that wouldn’t be out of place in Guilty Gear, fights that wouldn’t be out of place in Dragon Ball Z, and dare I say it a procedure that wouldn’t be out of place in Kamen Rider. (Or if you prefer, Viewtiful Joe.) Evil invaders, a call to action, a doodad that turns a mere mortal into a distinctly-costumed hero, OTT fights, finishing moves…you know, the usual.
I haven’t seen enough of HeartCatch to make any sweeping judgments about it -- although I will admit that at times, the show’s package almost feels like something out of a fever dream -- but for what it’s worth, I like it. I want to see more of it, even if I want to watch Kamen Rider more (because wouldn’t you know it, there’s a Bruce Lee-style Rider who transforms with the power of disco). I don’t care if it’s “girly”. I care if it’s good. And it IS good. It’s feminine, but in a sense it has no shortage of manliness. I suspect this is one of the few shows in the universe where the lead character worries about looking like a doofus in class in one scene, and has a punch-up with a house-sized demonic doll in the next.
Whatever the case, Kamen Rider and Pretty Cure have gotten me thinking about video games (even though a gentle breeze is enough to do that). I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that KR and PC are inherently different from one another, given how much overlap there is with their setup and execution. But it’s something that’s fed into a question I’ve been pondering over for a while. Something I’ve been nervous to think about, because there’s a LOT of potential to get into some nasty territory. Still, I figured I might as well get opinions from others. See where they stand on the topic.
It should go without saying that as games continue to evolve and come our way -- as games continue to try their hardest to give us stories instead of just a chance at a high score -- they have to give us more and better elements if they want our support. The standards of many of us gamers is on the rise; topics are getting discussed (however shakily), and tolerance for the same old tricks is (hopefully) going to one day force devs to stop banking on them so heavily. And of course, one of the big topics is how women appear in games. How should they be portrayed? How should they appeal to others? How should they take the leading role? All questions worth considering.
But there’s an underlying question that’s been niggling at me for ages now -- something that makes me wonder if that’s the real (dumb) reason why getting women in games is such an uphill struggle these days. The question is: does being a strong female character automatically deny being a feminine character?
The obvious answer to that is no, of course not. But the way games are now, I can’t help but wonder if there are people out there who answer with an innocently naïve “yes”. There may very well be people out there trying to give gamers what they want, or what they think they want (or worse yet, what they think we want). There’s a dangerous line of reasoning in there; “Because gamers want high-octane action, we need to have characters that are nothing but pure action.” Stupid as it may be, I suspect there’s an association with women and inaction; if they want to be in a game, they have to be willing to bust up a few space aliens. They have to be active, stalwart, and “can play with the boys.”
Again, that’s not a line of reasoning I agree with -- and I hope to God it’s just me overreaching -- but I understand where it comes from. We’ve long since moved past the days when saving Princess Peach was just a thing to do, and that’s definitely a good thing. But I’m not wholly convinced that the answer we’ve come up with nowadays is that much better. Having a damsel in distress is no good, but I can’t shake the feeling that the intent is to overcorrect by leveling the playing field. Games seem to have an issue with sanding down identifiable character traits (see: every third game released in the past decade), making them avatars for action and little else. On one hand it’s a disservice to female characters -- any character, really, but the female perspective is one worth appreciating -- but on the other, it strikes me as an unspoken, agreed-upon necessity by creators.
This isn’t a problem unique to video games, even if it’s a problem that has yet to be ironed out in this industry of ours. Characters can (and should) define themselves with their actions, so a character that doesn’t runs the risk of being a bad character. That’s part of the stigma of Princess Peach and other damsels, I’d bet; time and time again she’s been kidnapped, and the most she could do was send letters and items. Thing is, I suspect that in order to fix that, there’s a conception that a female character has to act more like a male character -- going beyond just getting knee-deep in the action -- to avoid being considered “weak”. That’s not to say that women who kick ass are inherently bad; what I’m saying is that women (and men) who are only defined by being able to kick ass are problematic in their own right.
Take Violet from Ultraviolet or Alice from the Resident Evil movies (both incidentally played by the same actress --hmmm). They’re both women of mass destruction, but I defy you to describe their personalities with at least three adjectives. I sure couldn’t. Their personas start and end with “badass”, and rather than being memorable for what they did, they’re inherently forgettable for what they didn’t do: be human. It’s a problem that I suspect is being duplicated by video games; in making Final Fantasy XIII, Square-Enix gave us two monster-slaying ladies, but couldn’t be bothered to go any further than their character designs and skill sets; that’s especially worrisome when you consider that one of them started out as a man. And the less said about the treatment of some of these heroines to prove their mettle and toughness, the better off we’ll be. Adversity builds character, but you can only go so far before it turns into a farce. Just ask Jodie Holmes.
So what’s the solution, then? Am I saying that from now on, in order to gain respect and even a chance at being used well (or at all) in a game, female characters have to wear bright colors and act emotional? No, of course not. That’s just silly. What I want is for some trace of femininity to be a part of their character -- not in a way that demands a love for baking and ponies, but in a way that emphasizes their humanity. Their personality. Their emotional spectrum. Their strengths AND their weaknesses. Their concerns, hopes, fears, and more. I want something that sets them apart from others, be it in their game of origin or in games across the board. I want them to do it on their own terms, in a way that’s believable, understandable, and enjoyable. (We can’t go overboard, lest we birth another Alfina.)
That may seem like a tall order for a medium that can’t even get a space marine right, but it’s not impossible. I’ve seen it done before. Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance had Titania, who not only expressed her care and concern for her comrades -- along with some good old fashioned motherly scolding -- but was also one of THE most powerful units in the game AND in the story.
More recently, we’ve been delighted with a character like BioShock Infinite’s Elizabeth, who has the power to tear apart reality, but more importantly sees no harm in dancing, singing, enjoying the sights, and using crocodile tears to clock Booker when he least expects it. Nearly ALL the party members in Persona 4 struggle with the concept of femininity and the social norms surrounding them, and learning to accept or reject certain concepts and assets is as much a part of the game as it is vital to their characters. I know it’s kind of cheap to bring up an Atlus game, but it was either that or invoke the spirit of Beyond Good and Evil. So here you go.
One of the most interesting examples, if you ask me, is Juliet from Lollipop Chainsaw. (Note the use of the words “most interesting”, not “best.”) It goes without saying that she’s THE asskicker of the game, but she does so with a distinct and colorful style -- a reflection of her personality and character via gameplay, as it should be. It would have been easy to make her Mademoiselle Panty Shot and leave it at that, but there’s more to her than her curves OR her zombie-killing capacity.
She’s sweet, but she’s got a real mouth on her. She cares about her boyfriend and family, but she’s clearly a short a few dozen marbles. She’s heroic in the sense that she’s trying to fix the mess created by the baddies, but she’s flawed in the sense that she’s more than willing to ignore her boyfriend’s pleas to satisfy her needs. She’s cheerful in spite of the zombie apocalypse, but she’s cheerful in spite of the zombie apocalypse. She’s a juxtaposition of extremes just as the title implies. She’s a berserker with a seriously demonic edge -- and at the same time, she’s a warrior with the sensibilities of a high school cheerleader. I find it infinitely interesting that a character that looks like nothing but fanservice bait has some real depth to her. More so than plenty of other characters, regardless of gender.
Juliet is just one of many possible examples, I’d say. Not every character has to be like her, but she does show what can be done when a character is allowed to a bit of self-expression in the medium. As I’ve said before, games express themselves by way of their mechanics -- combat, most of all. That isn’t automatically a bad thing, of course, but at this stage, when there are scores of tinkerers trying to give their game an “epic” tale. It’s not enough to scream “ACTION!” and leave it at that.
Strength and weakness are things worth valuing. The fight is important, but so is the reason behind the fight -- the personbehind the fight. That’s not to say that femininity is inherently weak (anyone who’s had or seen a mother in action, myself included, can attest to that); no, it’s the qualities of femininity that can make for a stronger character overall, precisely because there’s a level of thought beyond “kill” or “survive”.
It’s enough to make me think about something tangentially related. To be honest, I’m a guy who appreciates a manly character; being able to play as (and lose with) Haggar was one of the main draws for me to play Marvel vs. Capcom 3. Manliness is something to be admired, but as with all things, it’s something that has to be used and added in moderation. There has to be something there besides just the spectacle or the basic skill set. Otherwise, the manliness is hollow. A character might merely end up as “okay” just by being able to zap a bunch of aliens -- but a great character is one that has charisma while zapping aliens. There’s something to get attached to beyond just the action itself.
One of my personal experiences -- by which I mean biggest surprises -- came from Far Cry 3. I gave the game a shot not knowing what to expect, but I walked away from it with a positive impression. I’d say that’s partly because of the (unfortunately-named) lead, Jason Brody; the first part of the game shows him scared and at wit’s end, whimpering and panting as he should. But later on when he’s reunited with one of his friends, he actually ends up bursting into tears. It came as a surprise, but it didn’t hit me until later when I went to go grab some hot dogs; I suddenly thought to myself, “Holy hell, did that guy just show some emotions?” He did indeed. And it was so refreshing, especially since I’d just come off of Halo 4. A male character allowing himself to cry? Letting himself be afraid? Not being in total command of the situation to the point of indifference? That’s the bee’s knees right there!
I’m not about to conflate things like fear and sorrow to femininity. But if nothing else, I’d like to think there’s an emotional freedom -- one mixed with a sense of stability -- that shouldn’t be ignored. There’s a concern for the self, for others, for the rules, and for the world that doesn’t have to automatically be a weakness. Nor does it have to just be about things that are traditionally considered girly, or inherently something associated with women.
Just think about some of the most-beloved games to come out in the past year or so, like BioShock Infinite, The Last of Us, and Telltale’s The Walking Dead -- all of them put a younger sidekick in your midst, and came out stronger because of it. (Granted my understanding is that barring TWD, those were more about protecting the “child” instead of nurturing them, but it at least shows that a parent/child relationship can be explored in games.) What I want most is for characters to be free to find and define their own strength, on their own terms. And I want them to do so independently from their fighting prowess.
I get the feeling that the games industry associates femininity with weakness and masculinity with strength, even if that’s just a fat load (or, I dearly hope, me jumping to conclusions). But I think the terminology, the definitions behind the mindsets, need to change. Maybe instead of strength and weakness, we should use “hardness and softness.”
One of them is partly about taking on challenges with gusto and force, but has an obvious harshness that harms friend and foe alike. The other is partly about being able to perceive the nuances and niceties of life -- all the better for protecting it -- but can struggle against major odds and challenges. The mix of the two is important, regardless of the gender. The mix of the two, and the balance that results, can make for a phenomenal character. Stalwartness as well as sensitivity. Endurance as well as expression. Conviction as well as compassion. That’s something the industry should aspire towards.
I’m willing to assume that some of you reading this are thinking that, even if my ideas are airtight (and that’s a big if) there’s no way what I’ve suggested will be viable for a wide audience. The dudebros and kiddies and whatnot want to play as Coolly McCoolerson; may the feminine touch be damned. That’s a concern, sure, but that’s no excuse. Putting out “the next big thing” isn’t about caving to audience interests or expectations. True success may very well come not from giving the people what they want, but giving them something they didn’t even know they wanted. That’s the clincher. That’s how we’re going to take the industry to the next level -- as consumers, and as its future creators. And if getting girly is the key to that evolution, then so be it. That’s a future I’ll gladly welcome.
And that’s the end of that chapter. Now do something important and go watch some Kamen Rider. It’s the only way you’ll get context for this:
Huh. You know, this clip actually brings another possible topic to mind. But I think I'll just hold off on that until I'm certain I can make it not-stupid. Maybe someday...
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Long-time gamer, aspiring writer, and frequent bearer of an afro. As an eternal optimist, I like to both look on the bright side of things and see the better parts of games; as a result, I love a game with a good story and awesome characters...and anything that lets me punch the heresy out of my enemies.
I'm a big fan of Atlus' games, and I've enjoyed my fair share of fighters and RPGs. Just...please, keep Final Fantasy XIII out of my sight. It never ends well for anyone involved.
You can check out some of my game musinga/stories/random stuff at my other blog, Cross-Up. I've also got a TV Tropes thingamajig, and a web serial novel, too. Maybe my stuff here and there will be the start of things to come. Hopefully good things, but things all the same.