Life is Strange Chapters 4 & 5: The Villain is Patriarchy [TW]

Okay, folks. So before I start, this post is CHOCK FULL of spoilers for Life is Strange. Episode 5, the final episode, has been out since last October, so I figured that now would be a good time to finish playing and write about the experience, but if you haven’t finished Life is Strange yet, or if you haven’t played it but intend to, I’m going to emphatically recommend not reading this until after you’ve played it. Normally I’m pretty spoiler-agnostic, but the twist at the end of Chapter 4 is one of the most genuinely surprising and unsettling twists I’ve encountered in a game and I would really hate to ruin that for anyone invested in playing.

Also, it’s important to note that this post comes with a trigger warning for descriptions of unsettling depictions of gendered violence, harassment, and graphic rape metaphors.

So, now that that’s been said…

Here there are only spoilers for Chapters 1-3:

I’ve written about Life is Strange previously; last year I binged Chapters 1-3 in rapid succession and wrote about the experience here. What drew me into the series was the complex portrayal of a wide variety of female characters – all of whom have complex motivations and characterizations, and the explicit centering of women’s stories.

What I came to appreciate after playing the first three chapters, however, was how the writers very purposefully led the audience through a narrative that builds a very clear picture of the lived emotional reality of being a woman who has to live in a patriarchal society and the awful choices that can happen as a result. Further, while a lot of media can include depictions of online harassment or sexual violence in the name of being “topical” or “edgy”, the developers at DONTNOD impressively manage to make both harassment and sexual violence central plot points in such a way that doesn’t cheapen the narrative or demean the characters who suffer from this violence. The gendered nature of both the harassment and the sexual violence is made very clear, and while the player is given a choice in how to respond when stories of violence are recounted, choosing to respond in ways that blame the victim results in having those responses thrown back at you in ways that highlight the injustice and horror of blaming women for their own victimization.

Importantly, as the player begins to uncover more detail about the strange and terrible things happening at Blackwell, a situation is set up where all of the possible villains are men with status and power. At the end of Chapter 3, Max finds herself in an office with all of them as she is being pressured to point fingers and assign blame.

And each of the men is, in his own way, a different toxic manifestation of internalized male privilege:

  • David Madsen, the chief of Blackwell security, is the male representative of authority who takes it upon himself to govern the women around him in the name of law and order.
  • Nathan Prescott is the platonic ideal of violent toxic masculinity, who threatens violence freely against women who get in his way and who serially drugs and sexually victimizes women without ever showing remorse for his actions.
  • Principal Wells is the institutional authority who recognizes Nathan for the violent sociopath he is, and yet continues to cover up his actions to protect both the institution he serves and to materially benefit himself and his personal finances, allowing Nathan free reign to continue victimizing women as he sees fit.
  • And Mark Jefferson, the enlightened mentor figure who has so many positive things to say about encouraging women to step forward and take risks, is the disappointing ally – the man who you thought Got It until he revealed the extent of his internalized misogyny by blaming Kate Marsh for what happened to her and escalating an already untenable situation.

All of this is left implicit, however, in the first three chapters. In Chapter 4, however…

Commence spoilers for Chapters 4 and 5!

Chapter 4 is when the gloves come off, when the developers make it explicitly clear that HEY – IN CASE YOU HADN’T NOTICED, THE VILLAIN IS PATRIARCHY.

First, there is Nathan. If you choose to blame Nathan for what happened to Kate Marsh, he continues to escalate his sexist abuse – which began as just calling Max things like “dyke” and “bitch”, but graduates to “feminazi” in Chapter 4 – a slur that you hear a few times from this point on. Perhaps the most chilling of which is when you receive an “anonymous” text from what you already know to be Nathan’s phone saying only “feminazis will be exterminated”.

Chapter 4 is also when Nathan is revealed for the entitled, misogynistic monster that he is – an unapologetic sexual predator who is a danger to any woman around him. Through Max and Chloe’s investigation, it becomes clear that Nathan is, if not a serial rapist, then definitely someone who has serially sexually assaulted women – there is the video of him with a drugged Kate Marsh, in which he encourages people to take advantage of someone too drugged to consent to sexual activity. There is also Chloe’s story of Nathan’s attempt to drug her with similar intent. Both of these events actually occur after Nathan killed and secretly buried Rachel Amber, resulting in her disappearance two months before the events of the game take place.

[Sidebar: Relative to Nathan, for all the fact that he is an unstable, paranoid, borderline psychotic sexual predator, I actually really appreciate what happens if you attempt to warn Victoria to stay away from Nathan during the Vortex Club party in Chapter 4. Victoria reacts with disbelief and anger, accusing Max of saying that Nathan is dangerous out of jealousy or other personal motivations. She defends Nathan as being her best friend, and that she couldn’t possibly believe that he could be both her best friend and a predator to be avoided.


Which. Oof. This was such a powerful and true-to-life portrayal of conversations that actually happen – the danger that keeps women from attempting to warn other women about “missing stairs“, because there is always the risk that your warnings will not only not be received, but that you will be punished socially for it.]

But Nathan, as it turns out isn’t the real villain after all. The villain behind Rachel Amber’s disappearance, the drugging of Kate Marsh, and the whole sordid mess going on at Blackwell turns out not to be David Madsen – who has been established up to this point as a creepy, borderline domestic-abusing, teenage-fetishizing weirdo, or Principal Wells – who has explicitly used his institutional authority to protect a sexual predator. In what is one of the most genuinely shocking and upsetting twists I have ever encountered in a video game, it turns out to be Mr. Jefferson – the trusted authority and mentor figure who up until the reveal at the end of Chapter 4 has been an entirely sympathetic character.

[TW: If you want to skip discussion of rape metaphor, skip to where I tag the end of the trigger warning]

The reveal of Mr. Jefferson at the end of Chapter 4 is harrowing, but the opening of Chapter 5 takes that horror to an entirely new level when Max wakes up in a secret bunker that she discovers with Chloe in Chapter 4, but had assumed to be Nathan’s, as it is on old property belonging to Nathan’s family. Jefferson has drugged Max, just as he did with Kate, so that he can photograph her while unconscious – without that inconvenient free will and personhood that would only screw up his photographs.


The dialogue that he gives while photographing Max, as he enthuses about how pure, beautiful, and “innocent” she is in her unconscious/semiconscious state, is chilling, as is the rage that he shows when Max – who is groggy as she wakes up from the drugs – attempts to move and “ruins” his shots. It is at this point that Mark Jefferson becomes the literal embodiment of patriarchy.

The way that he crouches over Max as he photographs her, at times even straddling her for the sake of a shot… Let’s just say that obvious rape metaphor is obvious. The camera angles that the developer chooses, the ways in which Jefferson defines the space around Max and physically moves her in the space, the things that he says as he is waxing rhapsodic about her special qualities — it a horrifying violation.

The level of remove that the writers provide by writing the scene as “obvious rape metaphor is obvious”, however, is deftly done in that it evokes feelings of terror and threat without being a portrayal that would be triggering for most survivors with trauma surrounding real-life assault. But critically, it also provides an additional layer of critical commentary about the attitudes about women that make Jefferson’s monstrous behavior possible.

[/Trigger warning]

Just to leave some space after the next session, have a picture of a baby rabbit in a coffee mug.

Mark Jefferson LITERALLY objectifies women for the purposes of subjecting them to his male gaze. By drugging women he finds sexually appealing, he turns them into objects incapable of asserting their agency or desires, so that he can photograph them the way that HE WANTS TO SEE THEM.

The level of meta-narrative happening is deafening, even as it manages to do what I have literally never seen any other video game do – tell a story about sexual violence against women in ways that centers the survivor of that violence, without being done in such a way that it comes across as being done for easy “shock” value or to make the story “edgy”.

That, in and of itself, is an impressive achievement in game writing. As is the scene where David rescues Max from Jefferson, or rather, assists Max in rescuing herself, and the conversation that follows – in which it becomes clear that David has been trying to be an ally all along, although he has been going about it in the dumbest, most wrong-headed fashion possible. And he acknowledges his failings without flinching from the fact that he failed, and that he acted in ways that were inappropriate, and would need to try make amends for his behavior.

But the nail in the coffin, the final layer of “HEY, BTW, THE VILLAIN IS TOTES PATRIARCHY” is the nightmare level where all of Max’s cumulative changes warp reality and trap her in a combination of alternate dimensions that she has to find her way out of. As reality continues falling apart around her, Max finds herself trapped in a maze in which all of the major male characters become villains – monsters that she has to hide from in order to survive. That in itself is unnerving, but the things that the men shout out as they patrol, looking for Max, hammers home the gendered nature of the threat they represent.


Nathan hurls gendered insults like “feminazi” and promises violence when he finds Max. Principal Wells makes threats about how he will use his power to punish Max, blaming her for everything that has happened. David similarly hurls insults and promises retribution. And Jefferson maintains the level of imminent threat by trying to convince her of the merits of his artistic vision, even as he says some truly vile things like, “Max, Rachel not only gave great headshots, she gave great head”. Just as frightening, however, is the fact that men who are actual allies also stalk the maze. Frank – who can become either an ally or an enemy in Chapter 4 (I made him an ally), is there – blaming Max for what happened to Rachel and promising retribution. Samuel, who is only ever gentle and kind, is there too. And Warren, who is only ever sweet and earnest and eager to help Max stand up to Nathan, alternately pleads for and demands Max’s attention.

In the end, Max escapes and what leads her back to reality and sanity are her memories of Chloe and the moments of real happiness and female companionship that they’ve shared in the last week – which is what makes the final choice at the end so agonizing. But for all that I sobbed my way through the ending after choosing to sacrifice Chloe, that wasn’t the part that has been sticking with me since finishing the game.

I keep finding myself on the power and resonance of the nightmare maze, because I have never played a game that so accurately reflected the experiences that I have had since starting my blog that have led to me being afraid of men as a class of human being. Despite the fact that some of my closest, deepest, most intimate ties are with men, spaces that are heavily marked as male are spaces that I am not able to feel safe in. And this game, THIS FUCKING GAME, made by (from what I have been able to gather) a team of mostly-white-dudes, is the first time in my whole goddamn life that I have seen a game FUCKING NAIL my emotional truth.

Which, you know, given that I’ve been playing video games since I was about 6, it’s about fucking time.

The Last of Us: My thoughts on Joel [SPOILERS]

As with last time, SO MANY SPOILERS.

Okay, folks. Last time I went a little crazy talking about all of the things that make The Last of Us awesome. But now it’s time for some more nuanced feels. So today I’m going to talk about two things that sucked, and then more generally about ways that de-stereotyping Joel’s character would have made the game even better.

Things that sucked #1: Joel’s daughter gets fridged

Remember how I said it was refreshing that there was no creepy womanless dystopia? Yeah, it’s because I’m really not fond of the Disposable Woman trope. The game started off so promisingly by having you play as Sarah, Joel’s 13-year-old daughter. Sarah is engaging and “spunky” (much as I usually hate that cliche), someone I could see growing up to be a badass zombie-killer in a post-apocalypse. But no! Joel and his brother Tommy get Sarah out of immediate danger only to have Sarah get shot dead by a trigger-happy soldier and she dies in Joel’s arms. At which point, according to the backstory, Joel pretty much goes on a 20 year murder rampage. And then when the action starts up and he murders a bunch more people because he’s, you know, a bad person on account of his daughter dying (and oh yeah zombies).

Which. Honestly. Yawn. I’m sorry, but girl-shaped-person-death-inspiring-murder-rampage is just about the most commonly used trope ever. EVER. And it just gets fucking old.

Did I cry when Sarah died? Of course I did. But I have a baby, so pretty much anything even tangentially related to the death of a kid makes me cry. Hell, there is a Raffi song on one of my daughter’s favorite CDs that makes me cry every. Damn. Time. Sarah’s death still made me mad.

Yes Joel’s relationship with Ellie is predicated on the loss of his daughter. But there are so many ways that Joel could have “lost” Sarah that didn’t require adherence to the “daughter dies in arms, goes on murder adventures” cliche. Sarah could have grown up to join the Fireflies and gone missing in action. She could have grown up and joined the government forces, forcing Joel to stay away from her or get thrown in prison. She could have simply parted ways after she grew up, unable to deal with the painful memories that Joel evoked of a pre-apocalypse world. There are so many ways that it could have gone that taking the lazy way out was almost a deal-breaker for me.

Things that sucked #2: Joel is the platonic ideal of toxic masculinity

Okay, so don’t hate on me too hard when I say this. I did find the relationship between Joel and Ellie really endearing. I thought it was sad when he told her in anger that she wasn’t his daughter and touching when he called her baby girl. I enjoyed their relationship as it unfolded because it was a nice portrayal of family that you choose for yourself. And yeah, the relationship between them felt like something fresh – new ground for an old genre. But that new ground was entirely broken by Ellie. Joel? Joel is pretty much incapable of expressing any emotion that isn’t stoicism or anger.

Man of many emotions

Meet the new video game male hero, same as the old video game hero.

And you know what? I get it. I get it that game studios don’t want to make games without a white male masculine power fantasy as the lead character. I know that it was a problem for Naughty Dog, and that they were even asked to move Ellie to the back cover and (thankfully) refused. And because of the excellent writing, the relationship between Joel and Ellie manages to shine despite Joel’s status as an emotional cripple. Of course, it certainly helps that we’re culturally conditioned to admire “shitty human beings” (as Tess refers to him) as “anti-heroes”.

Things that would have made Joel a better character: make him a woman

There’s a long and proud tradition of amazing female characters that were originally written as men and then gender-flipped at the last minute. In movies you have Ellen Ripley and Salt – roles that were originally written as male and then flipped. In games you have characters like Final Fantasy XIII’s Fang, who again was written as male and then flipped. Generally, it’s a great way to make an interesting, stereotype-free female character. But Joel specifically would have been so much better as a woman, and here’s why.

1) Ass-kicking grandmothers: Pretty much every Action Girl you see in games or movies is somewhere between 18 and 35 tops. It is a truism[1] that ass-kicking grandmothers can make anything awesome. Female-Joel would be certainly be old enough to be a grandmother, which automatically makes Female-Joel 100% more awesome than canon- Joel.

Photo by Sacha Goldberger, Website here (select “Mamika”)

2) At last! Something new!: Man, aren’t you just so, so tired of stories about mothers who lose their child, become traumatized and emotionally stunted, and go off to have morally ambiguous murder adventures? Man, I am. Because don’t you just see that story everywhere? Except for how you don’t. Female-Joel would be something entirely new in the world of character types for women.

It also would make the relationship between Ellie and Joel way more interesting. Think about it, women are always stereotyped as nurturing and overly-emotional. So a Female-Joel who lashes out at Ellie for not being her daughter, who tries to cut herself off from her emotions where Ellie is concerned but develops a loving (if profoundly fucked up) relationship with her anyway? Especially in light of the fact that their relationship is explicitly a parent-child relationship, as Joel sees Ellie as a replacement daughter? That’s some awesome stuff right there.

There’s also the fact that Joel’s training Ellie to be a capable hunter would also be way more interesting between Ellie and Female-Joel. When you think of “mother-daughter bonding”, I’m sure that “teaching your daughter to be a sniper” or “crawling through zombie-infested tunnels” aren’t activities that would usually come to mind. Heck, the closest you can get to a stereotyped activity would be “shopping”, ie, rummaging around in junk piles for useful crap.

Lastly, why is it only men who get to go on murder adventures after the loss of a child? Let’s see a woman get in on the murder adventure action, thanks.

3) Men aren’t the only ones who want power fantasies: There are some days when I come home worn down by a shitty day at work, or by personal stress, or by a day full of micro-aggressions that I don’t have the power to respond to. When that happens, I often find myself wanting to get away from my problems by shooting a bunch of stuff in the face for a while.

Female-Joel would have made TLoU a much more entertaining experience for me, because I wouldn’t have had to do the mental work of shoehorning myself into a representation that doesn’t fit me. Yes canon-Joel is a well-written character, and yes the writing and level design make TLoU an engrossing game. But I’m not a middle-aged, tall, muscular dude with Video-Game-Hero-SameFace[2].

It would be pretty cool to be able to play a game where someone who actually looked like me got to star in their own power fantasy. And I’m sure that such a game, done well, would have sold well to the 44% of gamers that are women, if nothing else.

But I guess that’s probably too much to ask for.

[1] First brought to my attention by Elin Dalstal of Gaming as Women, among other things

[2] I could NOT track down an original source for this image. Anyone able to help out with that?

The Last of Us: female characters done right [SPOILERS]

This post contains SO MANY SPOILERS. Fair warning

I actually hate stealth-based action adventure games, and I particularly hate such games made for consoles, and I am convinced that games with guns should always and forever be played with a keyboard and mouse amen.[1] So the fact that I actually finished The Last of Us and hugely enjoyed it is a testament to how incredibly awesome this game is. It is a masterpiece of level design, but more importantly it is the most tightly crafted, well written narrative that I have had the privilege to play in a long, long time.

Refreshingly, unlike most other post-apocalyptic dystopias, the world of The Last of Us is a world populated by women who do an equal share of the dirty work of surviving after the fungus-zombie-apocalypse[2]. No creepy, womanless patriarchy in the post-apocalypse. The women are also refreshingly not sexualized – they actually look beat up, worn down, and (gasp!) dirty. And there’s no weirdly perfect supermodel hair, which is great because seriously, I don’t have time to make my hair look that good now. You think I have time to do my hair when I’m trying to keep fungus zombies from eating me? Bitch please.

such perfect hair

But best of all? The Last of Us manages to be scary, depressing, and grim without any sexual violence, and only one instance of maaaybe(?) threatened sexual violence. (My husband felt that the dialogue between Ellie and David in the burning restaurant battle was threatening sexual violence, I heard it as David being a crazypants cannibal[3] who wanted to eat Ellie for dinner, but I can see how he got that impression.)

And for that alone I want to write love letters to the writing team of TLoU, because shit, people. I am so. Damn. Tired. Of rape being the go-to narrative threat for female characters. Tired of rape as tragic backstory, tired of threatened rape as narrative suspense, tired of rape as character adversity, I’m just tired of it. So getting to enjoy an entire narrative set in a post-apocalypse without once getting jarred out of my enjoyment bubble by the intrusion of rape culture was a lovely surprise.

It shouldn’t come as a great surprise, then, that TLoU had a great cast of well written female characters. Tess, Marlene, and Ellie are characters that have raised the bar on my expectations for female characters in future North American game releases, that’s for sure!

Tess: Joel’s partner, fucking badass, and total Grey Hat

such perfect hair

When we meet Tess early in the game, she is introduced as Joel’s partner. But in truth, Tess seems to be the brains and the face of the operation; throughout the introductory chapter we see Tess making the plans and using leverage on her contacts to get what she needs. She trusts Joel to watch her back and to stand beside her in a fight, but Tess depends on her own strength.

There’s some ambiguity over the nature of Tess’ relationship with Joel. Some of the dialogue before they meet up with Marlene and Ellie is flirtatious, and later when Tess reveals her infection to Joel she makes a final request, saying that “there is enough here [between her and Joel] that [he] must feel some kind of obligation” toward her. Some people have interpreted this to mean that Tess and Joel had a romantic relationship in the past. I’ll admit that’s not an interpretation I care for (their dialogue didn’t strike me as anything more than friendly banter), as I’d really like to see more female characters who just don’t have romantic inclinations toward their fellow male protagonists at all. But whatever the nature of their past relationship, it stays in the past. Tess and Joel in the here-and-now are friends and partners, nothing more.

The other important thing about Tess is that she is a morally ambiguous anti-hero, a type of dystopic character usually reserved for men. She does terrible things and acknowledges that, and the audience still sympathizes with her because she is strong, smart, and funny. Instead of using her questionable morality to turn her into a villain, TLoU uses Tess to highlight Joel’s own antihero status without ever actually dehumanizing Tess. At one point, Tess says “guess what, we’re shitty people, Joel. It’s been that way for a long time”, and Joel has to agree with her. And the game lives up to that. The scene where Tess and Joel torture and kill Robert, their former-ally-turned-betrayer, was a deeply uncomfortable moment to be in as a player.

But for all of that, Tess is still worthy of admiring. Not once does she ever express doubt, not once does she ever express regret over the path she has chosen or try to back out of the deal that she makes with Marlene, despite that it puts her and Joel in mortal danger with questionable chances of success. And right before her death, when it becomes apparent that the job they agreed to is going to be much, much bigger and infinitely more dangerous, Tess uses her past history with Joel to get him to promise to finish what they started together. Because despite her willingness to engage in brutality, Tess is still capable of hope for the future.

Tess’ death is a real loss for Joel, and not in the “tragic loss that motivates the hero” sense. It cripples Joel, in the way that losing a hand or a foot would cripple anyone else. And after Tess dies, Joel forbids Ellie from even speaking her name. So despite that her death leaves a mark on Joel, she’s hardly the tragic spectre that looms over the hero’s every action as she might have been in a different game.

Marlene: soldier and revolutionary

such perfect hair

Marlene plays a smaller, but no less important role in the story. Like Tess, she is a woman prepared to make hard choices, someone who is no stranger to violence. But while Tess uses violence to survive, Marlene uses violence as a way of fighting against totalitarianism in the name of democratic freedom. Despite that Marlene and Tess both present the same hard exterior, Marlene’s idealism is a nice foil for Tess’ cynicism.

When Marlene turns up at the beginning of the game, she enlists Joel and Tess to deliver Ellie to a distant group of Fireflies (fellow revolutionaries) because she has been gravely wounded and it is questionable whether she will even live to escape the government forces that hound her. So despite her strength, I assumed that this was yet another instance of a Disposable Black Person[4]. Which meant I was pleasantly surprised when Marlene showed up again in the last chapter, alive and well.

Something that doesn’t seem to get commented on much is the relationship between Marlene and Anna, Ellie’s mother. Marlene tells Joel and Tess that she had known Ellie since she was born, since she was close with Ellie’s mother. Most of what I’ve read about Marlene refers to Anna as her friend, but the way Marlene talks to Anna in the recorded messages that Joel finds in the last chapter seems to me that they were more than just friends. There’s a real longing in Marlene’s voice when she speaks about Anna’s memory, and about the agony of destroying the only tangible legacy that Anna left behind.

In the end, Marlene does die, which sucks. (Seriously, TLoU. You couldn’t have just one named black person survive? Really?) But even in her brief screen time, she manages to be a well-realized, complex character who uses violence to fight for a higher ideal. So while I’m not thrilled about the end that Marlene met, overall she was a fantastic character.

(And, you know, let that be a lesson about the importance of diversity. If you have a diversity of named characters, you can afford to kill a black character or two or three. But because 100% of the named black characters die… Yeah. That’s pretty shitty.)

Ellie: from traumatized child to capable survivor

such perfect hair

Ellie starts out as being merely a plot objective, a person-shaped McGuffin, the long-sought-after missing ingredient needed to complete a cure for the fungus-zombie-plague, if only they can get Ellie to The Plot Destination. And most other teams of developers would have left her that way, a helpless teenage girl with no agency of her own, dependent on the big, strong, square-jawed hero to do all the heavy lifting. Which is why I am so, so happy about Ellie, because as a character she just shines.

On the face of it, her character arc is one that wouldn’t seem unfamiliar in many games; she starts off as a scared and traumatized kid who can’t take care of herself and gradually grows into a tough, strong survivor who is a hero in her own right. But the character in that arc is always a teenage boy, never a girl. And the game is better for it. Instead of being just like every other teenage-boy-turned-hero in just about every video game ever, Ellie represents something new – a breath of fresh air.

And of course, one of the best things about Ellie is the relationship she develops with Joel, a relationship of mutual love, trust, and dependence. Despite that Joel tells her that she’s “not his daughter”, that’s exactly what she becomes, what both of them needed. And wonderfully, that emotional need for a parent isn’t painted as weakness. Ellie’s love gives her strength and courage. She is at her toughest and most badass when she risks her life to save a wounded Joel from being captured by hunters.

Ellie’s writing is just so wonderful. She’s tough and traumatized and engaging and silly, and you can’t help but feel attached to her as a character in her own right – which is one of the biggest reasons the last chapter is so gut-wrenching, and why TLoU is such a good game. After all the struggles, everything they go through to get her to the lab where Ellie can be used to create a cure, Joel finds out that creating the cure will require killing Ellie. And that moment is such a horrible moment exactly because Ellie is allowed to be a person instead of a girl-shaped plot object.

Instead of a vague dissatisfaction at losing a useful game tool, the revelation of the necessity of Ellie’s death comes as a real gut-punch. And much as I found myself begging Joel to stop even as I played him through that final level on his way to stop the operation, I felt a sense of relief when he succeeded in rescuing her and getting her away safely. Because the bond between Joel and Ellie is just so well written, so well acted, so well realized that it’s easy for me to believe that Joel would let the world burn to keep Ellie alive. And it’s easy for me to understand why he feels that way.

such perfect hair

So I hope you’re listening, game devs. This is why female characters matter, and this is how you do them right.


[1] I’m half-anticipating backlash on this one, but I say to you that game devs who make shooting games for consoles are evil and sadistic.

[2] That work involves an awful lot of shooting people in the face.

[3] Every apocalypse needs cannibals, amirite?

[4] Something which TLoU was very guilty of. I noticed that most of the human bandits I killed were black. And the only other two named black characters die in very tragic circumstances.

>Dear, BioWare: you’re awesome, except for when you suck

>[Warning, this post contains spoilers for Baldur’s Gate, Dragon Age: Origins and Mass Effect. If you haven’t played them by now and think you might care about being spoiled, turn back now.]

I’ve been playing BioWare games since the original Baldur’s Gate. I played through NWN and a substantial amount of Shadows of Undrentide. I loved KOTOR and KOTOR2 (except for the last three hours), was completely obsessed with Dragon Age (no really, ask my husband), and only just recently discovered the joy that is Mass Effect. (I have plans to play ME2 some day, but for now I’m working on FFXIII.) I love BioWare games for their rich story lines and the staggering amount of freedom that their games allow – especially the more recent ones.

Best of all, I love the well-written and engaging characters. I’ll admit to giggling like a lunatic while playing through the romance plot with Alastair in DA:O. BioWare has definitely mastered the art of creating believable and memorable NPCs. They’re also perhaps the most female-friendly game publisher out there – hence the title. So this is both my love letter and my disapproving stare going out to the BioWare folks. Don’t get me wrong, BioWare. I love you – I need you. You rock my socks. Except for when you don’t.

Rock: Female avatars

So can I say how much I love being able to have female avatars? Because I love it – I really, really do. I do tend to play male characters on second play-throughs, but for my first play-through, I want to have a female character.

You did okay with this in the Baldur’s Gate series. The romance subplots were obviously geared toward male players, but that’s okay. You were still finding your voice. KOTOR was better, but after my first playthrough I still felt like I had missed something important. And then I discovered that only male Revan had the option of romancing Bastila. Don’t get me wrong, Carth was a nice guy and all and I appreciate that a real female romance option was included. I just didn’t find him a very useful character and thus didn’t really do a lot of plot stuff with him. Sorry, Carth.

With Mass Effect and DA:O they totally hit it out of the park. I played both of these with female avatars and thought that the writing was spot on. Both female Shephard and the protagonist of DA:O are strong female characters without anyone ever having to point out that OMG UR A CHICK. After playing these games, I wasn’t left with the feeling that a male-centric plot had been shoehorned into a female avatar and had all the pronouns changed. So kudos, BioWare for including a viable and well-written female protagonist. And also kudos for having the good sense to choose Jennifer Hale as the voice of female Shephard. She kicks seven kinds of ass.

This is what my female Shephard looked like, except mine was more brown and didn’t look goth.

Anti-Rock: Ads don’t feature female avatars

The problem is that from the advertising that BioWare puts out, you’d never know that female avatars are a viable option. Only the canonical male Shephard – a rather boring pasty space marine – is ever shown in ads for the ME series:

Wow. Another white space marine. Yawn.

You’d never get the idea from the ME ads that Shephard’s gender and race are customizable. And it’s the same with DA:O, Dragon Age: Origins – Awakenings (the expansion), and the promos for the upcoming Dragon Age 2. Again, despite being able to choose a female avatar, the ads feature only male avatars.

Given a recent study of how many registered users choose female Shephards over male Shephards in ME2, it’s not too surprising that the marketing bots made this decision, even if it is disappointing

Further Anti-Rock: BioWare mod response to forum complaints

BioWare’s official response to calls on their forums for more (or, you know, any) female avatars in their advertising is pretty mixed too. In one thread, BioWare forum mod Chris Priestly responded to a complaint that ads never feature female avatars with:

While the percentage population of online gaming audence may be growing or higher, the audence for our games is still predominantly male. This does not mean the female gamer, or again, the male gamer who prefers to play a female character is less important, but it should in part explain why some marketing campaigns are targetted as they are.

As I said in another thread, BioWare always has and continues to greatly support and value our female gaming audience. I hope in the (roughly) 8 months between now and launch female gamers find materials in our marketing that they enjoy.

In other words, the ads have male avatars because they’re the ones who buy the games, silly! But don’t worry, we’ll throw you a bone and expect you girls to be content.

And in another thread asking the same thing, BioWare forum mod Mike Laidlaw said:

We will show her eventually. I don’t have a firm timeline, but we well. And she is -hot-.

Yes. Because that is what I as a female gamer need to know. Is my female avatar going to be hot?


Mitigating Rock: Forum mod who thinks wanting female avatars in ads isn’t crazy talk

Thankfully, contrasting this rather patronizing response we have a thread wherin BioWare forum mod John Epler made many responses in a thread asking to see models of Female Hawke – the protagonist in the upcoming DA2. Among other things, he says:

Honestly, I don’t see a desire for more female-focused attention in development to be an unreasonable request.

No one’s asking for a game and story based around the ideals of second-wave feminism, but merely that we as developers acknowledge that there are more than one audience interested in our product. And I honestly don’t see that as unreasonable in the slightest.

Please keep the gender stereotypes (on both sides of the fence, mind) out of this thread, folks. It’s been pretty productive and positive thus far! Let’s not end up turning this into a ‘men like this’ ‘well women like THIS’ debate.

Phew. Thanks for restoring my faith, John. I mean, I’d buy your games anyway, because they’re just THAT GOOD, but I’d rather not get all resentful about it. So, moving on:

Rock: Female NPCs

BioWare has some of the best female NPCs ever, hands down. From Dynaheir in BG to Bastila in KOTOR to Ashley in Mass Effect, the female NPCs that join your party are well rounded, engaging, and memorable with nary a personality stereotype to be found. Not for BioWare the helpless princess primadonna who needs rescuing. (Okay, excepting Imoen in BG2. But at least she’s your sister and not your love interest.) No, the female characters who join your party are ass-kickers with complex motivations and compelling story lines.

Don’t mess with us. We will ruin your day.

Anti-rock: Sexist character designs

With all of that in mind, why oh WHY the sexist character designs? Seriously!

Okay, so in Mass Effect, one of your party members is Liara – an Asari. (Think blue space elves without the pointy ears.) She wears the same type of form-fitting body suit that all of the human military types do when they’re not all armored up. And while the ‘daughter seeking to atone for the misdeeds of her mother’ story line didn’t do much for me, the fact that she’s a scientist certainly goes against stereotypes. Awesome.

But then you finally meet her mother – Matriarch Benezia. They spend the first few hours of the game building her up as this huge threat and then I’m confronted with massive cleavage. It was one of the most jarring, anti-immersive moments I have ever encountered in a game.

Oh my god, Mom. Are you seriously going out in that? I’m, like, SO EMBARRASSED.

It happens in DA:O as well. The first NPC you meet is Morrigan, an awesomely useful sorceress who is playing some very deep games and has all kinds of hidden motives that the player is left to guess at. The only problem is that she walks around half naked the entire game:

I guess she’s hoping to distract that ogre with her tits.

And of course, Morrigan is prominently featured in a lot of the ads for DA:O.

And what about Leliana – the somewhat crazy assassin turned bard? If you stick with her as a thief, any suit of leather armor that she wears exposes a good portion of her chest. That same armor on a male character covers them up to the neck. Again, WTF? I mean, not wearing pants, fine. It seems like not-pants-wearing is pretty equal opportunity in DA:O, but why the difference?

I find it ironic that Zevran, perhaps BioWare’s sluttiest character ever, is more covered than Leliana.

Maybe Rock?: Leliana redesign

Apparently Leliana gets her own DLC and has gotten a bit of a makeover:

Yay, covered chest! Yay, pants!

So that’s at least mildly encouraging.

So what is it that you want?

I want more female avatars in BioWare’s game ads! (And for that matter, some non-white avatars would be fantastic too.) And I’d like to not have random sexism show up in your character designs. It’s hard to focus on your awesome and compelling stories when I keep getting distracted by irritating random cleavage.

Now go and sin no more! Or I’ll sic Jaheira on you.

(She’d actually kinda like that.)