So this is half silly I know, but only half silly. As I was playing through Half-Life 2: Episode One (which incidentally, was brilliant, the game still looks gorgeous and runs smoothly, expanding the narrative and raising a few questions while not interfering with being a great game…my only gameplay criticism would be that it felt a bit puzzle centric more than really made sense..anyway, back to the point) a couple of half comic, half serious things occurred to me about gender in computer games and how oddly messed up it can be. Here follows some observations.
First off, we all know that gender is poorly represented in video games as standard. There are exceptions, but generally we’re talking chainmail thongs, massive breasts and just oversexualised characters all over the shop. The lechfest that surrounded Lara Croft is exemplary of the kind of trash that people assume games are about. Women could love her because she was a ‘strong character’ (which basically boils down to her being rich and doing stuff that male game characters have been doing for years) and men could love her because she had boobies and a bottom. This is all well and good (well it isn’t really) in its day, but you would have hoped that this meant that the games manufacturers would wise up to the fact that non-gender stereotyped characters could work well, and particularly that there was a female market for gaming that didn’t necessarily involve Tetris. Gender stereotyping is just a bit silly, especially when it insists that all women in games have to be sexed up in extremis (dropping in Latin whilst not being sure exactly what it means = Priceless). I’ve been wound up about this since I worked out that all female characters in beat em ups would fall into the simple character role of being smaller, weaker but faster. That’s what women are you know…physically weak but small hands and very quick you know. Anyway, I’m not sure if that’s the point that’s being made but that’s what it appears like a lot of the time. Most of the RPG’s (though not Arcanum, which was interesting) basically say that men and women are the same..but then ensure that the women look ‘hot’. Basically this means that the presumed (by the distributors/developers) male audience can get their jollys while they play the game if they wish to. Often the gender doesn’t affect the gameplay (would it be interesting if female character’s were basically oppressed by the patriarchal society that still seems to exist in most fantasy games..not sure..I’ll think about it) which is kind of fine, but it means that basically there’s just a female skin that wears skimpy armour and tight buns. This is all fairly obvious and expected so far, and in fact games developers are starting to twig that there’s more to the female audience than they expected and are starting to deal with it…mostly with the Sims (another assumption that women should be targeted for games that are a little like doing the housekeeping…another stereotype I read recently but can’t be bothered to look up..I think it was on the Guardian Games blog..which is good for this kind of thing). So…basically there’s a lot of shit out there. I was proud of Oblivion for having fairly accurate (ie non-exposing) armour for the female character (though I only played for a few hours. One thing that I thought was a bit amusing was the fact that she could take her trousers off and walk around with just her armoured chestplate (or just her underwear) on…it looks a bit like that cliched sexy thing of a girl in a guys shirt waling around exposing her legs…but I don’t really blame Bethesda for doing that…it just made sense in the game structure…and you’d have to be an idiot to walk round like that in combat situations (and at least a little pervy to make her do that at all..oops).
Anyway, basically I think Half Life 2: EpiOne did a fair to middling job of rebalancing this a little…but unintentionally made the gender roles even more traditionalist. I’d like to point out that I have high expectations of Valve. I think their storytelling abilities are incredible, beautiful and immersive. Playing through the main body of Half Life 2 I was shocked to find I never felt like I was on rails. Even though a second playthrough revealed that you are, and there’s only really one way through. It just seemed like I was stumbling around and lucky enough to go in the right direction…I could have gone anywhere, but I didn’t. Episode One didn’t do this as well but still told a story in an incredible way. That end game sequence was just incredible, not to mention the opening…such a shock..it felt like I was watching Lost when Lost is amazing or even Twin Peaks at its (twin) peak…I just had no idea what was going on but I loved it anyway. Its great to just drip you clues as to what’s going on…and has the G-man really been thwarted by the Vortigaunts? What the hell?
Anyway, I’m distracted from my point once more. So gender. Now most of you (especially those of you who played the game) know that the game occurs from the point of view of Gordon Freeman, the bravest and most adventurous Physics PhD in the world. He’s the strong silent type (perhaps a statement on the uncommunicative nature of men) and his attempts to escape the totally devastated terrain of City 17 along with companion Alyx. Alyx is the daughter of another physics guy, Eli Vance, and is a bit of a hotty. In fact she is pretty far from traditional gaming female characters. She’s tightly clad (its much easier to model that from a technical perspective. Her breasts and bottom are normally formed and fairly average in size etc. She’s a bit too skinny but wouldn’t most people in a post apocalyptic future be a bit skinny? I’m not sure but I do think that in terms of computer gaming, from an image perspective, she is a giant leap forward. I’m not even sure if this is important..but I thought I’d mention it. Also she’s fairly hard ass, she can hold a gun and she can hold her own. Again, this is all good, she’s a genuinely strong and intelligent and all that stuff…she’s a genuinely strong character, much more so that Lara Croft, because she doesn’t spend most of her time grunting in a sexual manner. She has a sense of humour, she has a heart, she congratulates you on a job well done. She seems quite real. This is all good, she’s a rounded character.
The problem I actually have is the way the game dynamic works in the flow between Gordon, your archetypal male, strong, brave, unemotional and uncommunicative, and Alyx, who remains emotional, and in need of protection for most of the game. She seems to flirt with Gordon even though he doesn’t say anything. She needs him to show her the light so she can fend for herself. She refuses to do any manual labour, allowing you to solve the puzzles, pull levers, turn handles and stabilise reactor cores. She happily waits outside for the menfolk (Gordon) to come back having sorted out every problem one by one. It made the game seem more artificial, the way the interaction occurs between Gordon and Alyx seems false. Especially if it takes you a while to work out what you have to do. There was one puzzle for which before I thought of the actual solution, I considered going outside and asking Alyx if I could give her a boost so she could reach the switch that I couldn’t. There was one point where I couldn’t get a door up in time by rotating the wheel because I was under attack. If Alyx had taken the lever then I could have protected her. At other occasions, it seemed like unless I protected her she would die. As though she was useless without my support. She exhibits the emotional distress that any real person would experience in some of these situations (mutated corpses falling on top of you has never been a big turn on for me). In this case I assume it’s because it would be too difficult to ensure they would evoke these emotions in you directly, but it also seems like they need to make Alyx a damsel in distress every now and then. You have to save her because that is the role of the male in conventional society. Especially in myth and fairy tale and literature. It is a perpetuation of the same values.
At least, that’s what occurred to me while I was playing the game..I had a smile on my face because I thought I was being a bit overly post-ironic or whatever. It’s certainly an unnecessary reading of HL2:EOne but it occurred to me and I though it was worth mentioning.
As always, any thoughts? Need clarification? Do you disagree wholeheartedly and think I’m an idiot? Or a Sexist pig who is further perpetuating sexist stereotypes? Am I boring you Sahil? Over to you…so for the rant..but surely you’ve come to love that by now.