Another E3 has come and gone! And it seems that, after the debacle of last year’s E3, that developers are making a bit more of an effort to not fail at easily-preventable sexism. While still nowhere near parity, there were at least more female presenters than severed heads, unlike last year. Similarly, all of the studios managed not to say anything as colossally bone-headed as Ubisoft talking about why female characters couldn’t be included in Assassin’s Creed: Unity.
Perhaps more encouraging is the fact that last year, the game trailers that were featured starred characters that were almost entirely white and male. However, this year there were more games featuring prominent female characters! So much so that The Mary Sue did this roundup of E3 game trailers for “23 games from E3 with badass playable female characters“.
Sounds great, right? From almost no games with female protagonists to 23 in one year? What an amazing shift! Unfortunately, what I discovered when I started going through the list is that TMS’ optimism on this front is perhaps a bit… overblown. While it’s true that there are a good number of promising-looking games featuring some pretty nifty-looking female characters, there are also lots of actually-not-super-awesome games in that mix as well.
So while I normally don’t like to do detailed takedowns of pieces featured on other blogs, I thought it would be useful to go through the list of games as compiled by TMS and why the picture isn’t, perhaps, quite as rosy as they paint it. (Although there still are things that are justifiably worth being excited over.) Since genre and game type make it a bit difficult to compare things evenly, I’ve broken this list into a few categories just to make my life easier.
MOBAs that have female characters
There were four games featured at E3 with rosters of set characters that the player chooses from, and three of the four are MOBAs. (It seems League of Legends clones are the new hotness bandwagon that game studios are all trying to jump on?) And not a one of these four games features an evenly split character roster.
The worst of the lot is Battleborn, which is being developed by the creators of Borderlands. Admittedly, the website says that there will be a roster of 25 characters, and so far only ten have been revealed. However, out of those ten characters, only 3 are women:
Even worse, the three female characters are all waifishly thin with impossible (no room for internal organs, over-inflated sphere-boobs) figures. And while the male characters are all over the place in type from “ruggedly handsome” to “huge and burly” to “sentient mushroom”, the weirdest any of the women get is a button-ish eye-patch with a funky coat and hat. (Yet another example of the interesting/pretty gender binary, sadly.) I’d also be willing to wager that not a one of the as-yet-to-be-revealed female characters looks either old, ugly, or at all monstrous.
Overwatch manages to do a bit better; 6 out of its 14 characters are female. Unfortunately, as I’ve written about previously, its character designs are also… so. Very. Regressive – which is pretty sad, since Blizzard went into this project with declarations that they wanted to “do women better”.
Now, it is true that since writing my old post about Overwatch, Zarya has been added to the roster. And I’ll admit, that helps, because seriously look at her:
Unfortunately, one awesome character doesn’t make up for the fact that women still aren’t evenly represented, and the other female characters designs still suck.
Out of the MOBAs previewed at E3, Gigantic is definitely the best, even if it falls just short of gender parity in its character roster (7 of 16 characters are female):
While it’s true that there is definitely some sigh-inducing character design with Tripp and Vadasi (seriously, they look like they’d blow away in a stiff breeze), there are things to be happy about. Griselma is a tiny old woman, which gives her automatic awesome points. (Because old women make anything cooler, especially if they’re grandmothers.) Imani is also a great example of a tough-but-stylish bruiser – and a WoC to boot? Fantastic! Lastly, Mozo is actually a monstrous non-human that is still gendered as female, which is surprising and excellent! She’s still a little on the “adorable” side, but it’s super encouraging to see her and Xenobia look actually monstrous – even if Xenobia is more sexy-monstrous than monstrous-monstrous.
Lastly, I’m lumping in Fable Legends with this category, even though its only multiplayer is an up-to-4-player cooperative mode – simply because it also has a roster of preselected characters that you choose to play as.
Fable Legends comes close, again, to gender parity, with 5 of 11 characters being female. Unfortunately, it also has terrible character designs. Only one of the five women isn’t blatantly objectified, and surprisingly she’s a mage:
Glory’s costume is actually pretty great! Mage-y without being impractical or sexualizing, it’s a pretty excellent example of decent character design! However, Glory is also the only character who gets to wear pants, and all of the other character designs are ridiculous, implausible, or straight-up problematic.
Take Inga, who is wearing ridiculously bulky plate mail, wields a crazily large tower shield, and yet for some reason has decided – you know what, who needs pants? AMIRITE? Because how would we know that Inga is a woman without some sort of blatant objectification? Then of course, you have Evienne who fights with an improbably large sword, despite the fact that she would die in about 3 seconds flat after tripping over her dress or getting her sword tied up in those stupidly trailing sleeves. Winter is yet another example of a cold-based character who isn’t properly dressed for her element (why only one pant leg?). And Celeste is… well let’s just say that Celeste’s design seems uncomfortably “tribal” to me, given that she’s also the only WoC on the roster.
So while Gigantic comes the closest to having a cast of characters that you can be happy about, most of these games are just “more of the same” as far as trends in MOBA design are concerned. A slight uptick in female representation doesn’t change the fact that female characters are still outnumbered and disproportionately objectified.
Generic customizable characters with no effect on gameplay
Three of the 23 games in TMS’ preview are games where playable characters are simple avatars with no real effect on a supposed plot or gameplay – Call of Duty: Black Ops 3, Tom Clancy’s The Division, and Battlecry.
Battlecry is a shooter-MMO centered around squad-on-squad combat, so it’s no surprise that it would include playable female characters as avatar options. However, as far as I can tell, this is the first time in either the Call of Duty or the Tom Clancy franchise that playable female characters will be an option in the single-player campaign. Which, you know, progress? I suppose it’s nice that in 2015, women are finally allowed to get female pixels all up in their AAA murder simulators. But aside from the obvious question of WHY WASN’T THAT AN OPTION ALREADY?, this doesn’t really represent anything terribly new or interesting for AAA games, gender-wise.
Although I will admit that, if one screenshot is an accurate reflection, I do really like the female character design for The Division:
So there’s that at least.
Story-based, can select either a male or female character
The next category is, thankfully, much more encouraging – even if it’s not universally promising. Six of the 23 games in the TMS preview piece are various flavor of RPGish game ranging from action-stealth to action-shooter to just straight up action-fantasy. These are all games where you have a choice between playing a male or a female character – Mass Effect: Andromeda, Fallout 4, Ashen, Dishonored 2, Nier 2, and Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate.
(It is worth pointing out that Mass Effect and Fallout do technically have generic customizeable characters, and as such it could be argued that they should be lumped in with the previous category. However, story in games like Call of Duty exists only to get you from one map to the next in the single-player campaign mode, whereas story in a Mass Effect or Fallout game is one of the primary motivations for playing the game in the first place. So since character choice in these games matters beyond “what does my murder hobo look like”, it feels more appropriate to lump them in with the single-player story-based games.)
The shape of the choice between male and female characters varies slightly by game. Both Mass Effect: Andromeda and Fallout 4 will force you to choose up front, either you will play a male protagonist or a female protagonist. As with previous entrants in their respective series, the differences in character appearance are mostly insignificant. (Although it should be noted that the promo art for ME: Andromeda features male and female versions of a soldier character where the woman is standing in a Blatant Sexy Pose. Uncool, BioWare. UNCOOL.)
Ashen and Dishonored 2 are a bit less clear cut. There are options for both male and female characters, but it’s not clear (at least from what I’ve been able to find) if you can switch back and forth or if you are locked in once you’ve made your choice. In Ashen, the character choice seems less meaningful because the characters are literally generic – they’re rendered without faces and only minimal differentiation by gender. However, Dishonored 2 will actually give you the choice of either playing as the previous games male protagonist, Corvo, or as the girl that he rescued in that game – Emily – as the two of you seek to get her throne back. Which, honestly, with a choice like that, why would anyone choose the boring male protagonist over the dethroned heir?
Last are Nier 2 and Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate – which both appear to be games that will let you switch between male and female characters. Both games offer cause for optimism – Nier 2 looks to be a lush JRPG by Squeenix, who has a history of doing well by their female characters. And Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate actually stars two assassins – twins Jacob and Evie Frye who have very different styles, and who approach their missions very differently.
However, it’s hard for me to hold out great hopes for either games. While it’s great that Assassin’s Creed for the PC is finally going to have a female protagonist, it’s still being published by Ubisoft – so hopefully those elusive ladypixels don’t prove too intractable. As for Nier 2, it’s apparently being developed by the team behind Bayonetta, which… uh. Yeah. They’re the folks that thought that this was an empowering female character:
Explicitly Female-Lead single-character titles
So out of the 23 games in the TMS preview piece, that leaves a total of ten games that are explicitly female-lead: FIFA 16, Adr1ft, Tacoma, Rise of the Tomb Raider, ReCore, Mirror’s Edge Catalyst, Walking Dead Michonne, Horizon Zero Dawn, Hellblade, and Beyond Eyes.
(I was unable to find screenshots of the protagonists for Tacoma or Adr1ft, and it seemed a bit weird to include FIFA 16.)
And granted, that’s a pretty good selection! It seems like in the past, the titles previewed by AAA developers almost all starred white, square-jawed, grimdark antiheroes and if we were lucky there might be a female-led game that looked worth playing. Maybe. So this represents a pretty big departure from the All Dudez All the Time school of game development.
The core conceits of all of these games are pretty diverse as well. From Beyond Eyes – which is centered around a blind little girl looking for her missing cat, to Adr1ft – which has you playing a female astronaut trying to survive the explosion of a space station, to Horizon Zero Dawn – which has a post-apocalyptic wildling fighting robo-dinosaurs with a bow and arrow. (Which sounds awesome.)
There is, of course, still room for improvement, as always. The protagonists of these games do skew heavily white (though I’ll note that the protagonist of Adr1ft – Alex Oshima – is rumored to be a WoC, even if I couldn’t find a screenshot of her). And as noted at the beginning of my post, it would be great to see AAA developers catch on to the notion that there are more than two options when selecting a protagonist’s gender. But I’m sure that there are people who feel that these are relatively minor complaints in the face of what appears to be real change in AAA development trends.
Still, while I do find many of these games compelling and encouraging, I’m also holding on to a lot of skepticism. The previous Tomb Raider, the first in the newer-grittier-realistic-Lara-Croft series, was disappointing in how far it went to brutalize a previously-strong female character for the sake of making her “vulnerable”. (A cliche that I’m honestly pretty sick of. What is it about a strong female character that makes developers want to brutalize her to take away that strength? Why can’t we just let a strong female character BE STRONG and leave it at that?) So I’m hoping that the previous game will have reestablished Lara’s “strong female character” cred and the developers will dial back on the brutality this time around.
Mirror’s Edge is also a source of some concern, seeing as how the new game is a prequel to the first two – I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the devs on that team are looking to the previous Tomb Raider game as a cautionary tale and that they won’t be tempted to craft a horrifically brutal origin story for Faith.
And maybe I’m being too grumpy about all of this. Is there a lot here to be hopeful about? Absolutely! But it’s also true that there is a lot here in these previews that represents “more of the same”, and I’m not all that inclined to celebrate game developers who expect us to be excited about character rosters that under represent and oversexualize women.