I finished up Dragon Age: Origins a day or two ago, and I admit that I’m pretty impressed. It has its failings where inclusiveness and sensitivity is concerned, but it also has some real strong points, many of which lie in your PC’s potential relationships. I’m thrilled that the game made romance optional and gave touching dialogue and important interactions to platonic relationships; I also really love that characters in romantic relationships are reasonable and adult, and resolve things through talking. Furthermore, the romance plots integrate smoothly enough into the party dynamics as a whole that they’ve made me think about how video games are in a unique position to subvert a lot of the subtler expectations in heterosexual romance.
See, we’ve moved past the “women can’t be action heroes, nope, not ever” thing, for the most part, and that’s great. But there are a lot of less blatant attitudes that don’t generally get questioned:
- Like: women don’t inherently have the same potential for violence that men do; they need a reason to be tough.
- Like: women can only be violent if that violence is sexualized, or if they have Traumatic Pasts.
- Like: women can only be sexual if they’re Truly In Love, or have Traumatic Pasts.
- Like: men should always be more powerful, more sexually experienced, and more comfortable with violence than the women they’re involved with.
- Like: any situation that contradicts the above must be an in-story Big Deal.
That last one is subtle, but it’s the one that trips up a lot of people most these days, me included sometimes, because it leads to a weird place where you’re waving your arms around about how this character is female and awesome and awesome and female instead of just writing a character who is awesome and also happens to be female. Alice is no longer the ace starship pilot who likes country music and is weirdly superstitious about the socks she wears on every mission, she’s an ace starship pilot and a world-class guitar player or she’s an ace starship pilot WHO’S A GIRL OH MY GOD, at which point everything becomes about her issues being a girl and she starts wearing skin-tight flight suits when everyone else is in mecha.
Then there’s the love interest. An Action Girl’s love interest is almost never someone in a subordinate role. In Buffy, you have Angel and Spike (enemies turned independent agents), a handful of one-episode losers, and…Riley, who gets all pouty and Proving My Manhood Guy about ten episodes after he stops being a super-soldier.
One of the things that really seems to work in terms of avoiding the above is to make a gender-neutral protagonist. Or, rather, to start with a guy and then switch genders and basically nothing else midway through. It’s a sad commentary on our society, but the default gender has been male for so long that it has a lot less baggage associated: the idea of male heroism encompasses everything from John Wayne to Bertie Wooster. Starting with a guy resulted in Ripley, who’s competent and violent without being fetishized or broken, and it gave us Kara Thrace back before the addition of stupid backstory and WTF metaphysics.
And now, video games, and how they do this particularly well.
See, western RPGs have a pretty long tradition of having the PC be what TVTropes calls an “Ageless, Faceless, Gender-Neutral, Culturally Ambiguous Adventure Person”. Interactive fiction started out that way–though most of the stories I’ve played lately have featured a very specific PC character–the Wizardry games did it, etc. The theory is, I guess, that it’s easier for the player to project themselves into the AFGNCAAP than to identify with a random plumber. Fair enough. As games and their settings got more complex, the PC attributes switched from being neutral to being customizable. Within certain limits, you can choose your face, your age, your culture, and your gender.
This is fun and all, but it wouldn’t have a big impact except for, well, the “role-playing” aspect, by which I mean dialogue. In early games, haggling with shopkeepers or ASK PROFESSOR ABOUT DEMON was about as good as you got, but then came dialogue trees, and morality options, and all sorts of other strange pathways for your character’s personal interactions to go down. You could actually choose how you wanted to relate to other characters and develop semi-complicated relationships…well, as complicated as the AI would allow.
Which is where, I think, an inadvertent point of awesomeness for gender equality emerged. A game primarily focused on slaying the evil wizard and restoring peace to the land isn’t going to have completely different dialogue options for male and female characters. There’s only so much memory, plus I’m given to understand that the people who design such games are actually mortal and have families who like to see them at the end of the day. Re-writing the witty-banter-where-you’re-clearly-in-charge dialogue that a “default male” PC has with a sidekick to significantly alter the power dynamics just because the player took the female option? Not happening. So you have sidekick banter plus romantic interest… where the woman is the leader and the guy is the sidekick…and that’s pretty cool, because there aren’t many places where you get that dynamic.
Going back to Dragon Age: Origins as an example, neither Alistair nor Zevran have any problem with your female PC as a leader. Their dialogue once you initiate romance plot doesn’t involve testing your leadership of the group; they both seem as happy to take orders from you as the rest of the party does. (Alistair can defy your leadership to get himself killed at the end, but that comes off to me as taking the bullet–a role which has often been filled by female characters, like Eponine and Lilly Potter–rather than putting himself in harm’s way because He’s Manly and You’re Not.) Apparently BioWare is good about this sort of thing, which is why I plan to buy more games from them in the future.