Characterizing Your Game: What Characters Say Without Speaking

by Josh Snyder

Many gamers were perplexed when they saw early gameplay video of Hideo Kojima’s latest entry in the Metal Gear Solid franchise, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. All of the usual elements were present: Snake, Snake sneaking around, Snake maybe or maybe not killing people – it was all there. And with it came the usual cast of eclectic characters, some familiar faces, some new ones.

It was one of those new characters that caught everyone’s attention – Quiet, a sniper who also finds herself in the battlefield with Snake. Quiet is just that – she’s quiet, mostly taking her targets out from a distance with relatively little flair. But what Quiet lacks in voice, she more than makes up for in her outfit.

Or, really, a lack of one.

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Apparently, this is appropriate attire when fighting in a war zone.

I have written before about the ways in which females are portrayed in games can not only turn women off from the medium, but help contribute to the social pressures women face on a daily basis, that demands they achieve an impossible look, only to please the male gaze. Pick any female character from the Dead or Alive cast, or any of the weak female characters in Grand Theft Auto V. The problem is evident, and needs to be addressed.

But when researching those essays, never once did I turn to the Metal Gear franchise – although there are some issues with the way the franchise portrays women, it is relatively tame. By video game standards, it’s the epitome of gender equality, which is why the outfit of Quiet came as such a surprise – she would be right at home in Dead or Alive, but sticks out in Metal Gear like a sore thumb.

Kojima has come to the defense of Quiet, saying that he wants to encourage sexy cosplay of this character (he sort of backed off on those words, but his follow-up wasn’t any clearer). And while this may not be much in the way of a defense, at least it is one. And no one can stop Kojima from creating a character like Quiet – after all, it is his game, he can do what he wants. But what Kojima needs to understand is that these types of characters represent his game, and they say a lot about the tone and intended audience, which in turn shape the entire way consumers view a product.

It’s time we stop holding all video games to the same, low standard. Not all video games are created equally, and developers need to be held accountable for the ways they choose to represent their product, for better and for worse.

Using Standards for Film as a Guide to Video Games

There seems to be a trend in video games that we critique the female characters in Dead or Alive with the same amount of criticism as the female characters in BioShock. While it’s always important to think critically of gender representation in video games, we must admit that these two franchises are going for entirely different tones and audiences, and as such the criticism should hold a different weight. And there is precedent for this, which can be found in film.

Films like Transformers are an example of how your characters can elevate or lower the standards by which a film is measured. A proper Transformers film was always going to include very traditional masculine elements – giant robots blowing stuff up. We all knew that, but even traditionally masculine films can contain elements that elevate the film to a higher level – films like The Matrix come to mind. The Matrix puts the science-fiction elements of its narrative first, allowing them to explore the morals and ethics of timeless philosophical debates. The action, while certainly pleasing to the eye, comes second to these elements, with actress Carrie Anne Moss and her tight leather outfit a distant third. Because of this prioritized list, the audience views the film accordingly – this is a contemplative, intelligent science-fiction movie.

But the casting of Megan Fox, and her use as little more than stimulus for the male gaze (her most prominent scene is a slow-motion pan over her body, wearing only short shorts and a tank top, as she bends over the opened hood of a car to gaze longingly at all of the valves, wires and hunks of metal inside), told us all we needed to know about Transformers – it was a film made for twelve year old boys. The film’s priorities were traditionally attractive women and sports cars first, plot and character development second.

It became apparent early on that Transformers would not be in the same league as The Matrix, and as such the film was held to that different standard. Critics did not enjoy the film, although it was a hit with audiences. And while Transformers was an entertaining summer blockbuster (that has somehow spawned two sequels, with more on the way), it was a mostly forgettable film because of its own low standards. It was a film designed to make the most money as quickly as possible, unlike The Matrix which was designed to be a memorable, classic film.

This categorization is common in films. We expect our summer blockbusters to be simple, throwaway films. Movies like Inception are the exception – films like Transformers are the rule. And it bears repeating that the representation of women in these films should still be criticized. That said, the audience knows and judges these films accordingly..

The Lack of Standard in Video Games

For far too long, developers have taken advantage of the fact that gamers do not view the medium the same way film is viewed. Developer Irrational Games used this to their advantage when making the philosophical shooter BioShock Infinite. The female character Elizabeth, who is central to the story, may not wear revealing clothing, but definitely embodies a male ideal of the female form (skinny body with defined curves and a perfect complexion), to a degree that is unnecessary and distracting. And while there was some criticism of this, it was seen as a minor point of contention (more ink was spilled over the violence and gameplay).

And it’s clear that Kojima is counting on this as well. Metal Gear may be known for its convoluted plots, but fans insist that the intricate plot makes larger political points, that warn of a potential future where private military companies secretly control the world. But that is exactly the issue – both of these games aspired to higher levels of intellect and morality than films like Transformers. Yet here they are, treating women the same as any Michael Bay film.

How Adopting This Standard Changes Video Games

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Elizabeth’s look is unnecessary for a video game aiming as high as BioShock: Infinite.

It is clear that video game developers love the medium, and love their work. Of course, every developer has a different vision for what they want their game to be – it’s pointless to argue the sexism in Leisure Suit Larry, for example, because the developers were aiming for low-brow humor and content. But where this hurts the medium is when developers making high-quality games still insist on using over-sexualized female characters.

I’ve already addressed BioShock: Infinite above, a game that, by its very nature, was already going to be controversial. To then add to that controversy by making Elizabeth so voluptuous and so helpless until a man comes along to rescue her only serves to detract from the conversation Infinite was aiming to achieve. Why take that risk to overshadow the goals your team has spent years working to achieve?

One of the most disappointing uses of the over-sexualized female character comes from one of the largest franchises in video game history – Cortana in Halo. The Halo franchise has an insanely deep mythology, one that rivals most established franchises. And the themes found throughout are classic examples of the human condition that are often explored in literature and film – themes of oppression, of religious persecution. Just the symbolism alone found within the enemy, the Covenant, is remarkable. These are clearly prioritized throughout the franchise – Master Chief fights not just for the freedom of Earth, but for the right of humanity to exist.

But to play these games and downplay the impact of Cortana, an artificial intelligence (A.I.) program located on a chip within Master Chief’s helmet, would be to miss a huge part of the story. Despite being an A.I. program, she displays a shockingly high amount of humanity, offering a compassionate side to Master Chief. She brings balance to a game that is just shy of being another military-themed dude-fest in outer space.

And yet she is constantly in need of rescue, and she is dressed like a swimsuit model.

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Cortana couldn’t just be an extremely smart, capable character – she needs to show off her cleavage. It’s the only way she could possibly matter.

An aspect of Halo that should never have been introduced in the first place is now one that brings unnecessary controversy to the franchise. And in turn there is a perception issue with Halo, that it is nothing more than a military-themed dude-fest in outer space. The great work to plot out a story heavy with religious themes is put in jeopardy by one sexualized character, specifically because the developers put such a high priority on that character.

Again, just like with BioShock: Infinite, much more criticism has been thrown at the franchise for repetitive gameplay or, oddly, having a generic story. And developers Bungie and 343 Industries should be thankful, because Halo is dangerously close to being overlooked and forgotten in the same way Transformers was.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention perhaps the biggest offender of unnecessary sexualization, Mass Effect. Whether it’s the in-your-face cleavage of the Asari, Miranda’s body-hugging armor or Jack’s idea of a shirt, sexualized women are everywhere throughout the trilogy. Granted, these characters are developed and are more than just walking, talking male fantasies, but it still begs the question – why did they have to be modeled this way? Why couldn’t they just be people?

BioShock, Halo and Mass Effect would be very different games if we took the same approach to characterization as we do with film. Both set out to achieve something great, but still find time to show off women purely for the male gaze. We make the distinction with film – why not with games?

What the Higher Standard Looks Like

The fact is, there are games on the market that are already aware of this gender dynamic, and how it can misrepresent their game. Developer Naughty Dog showed some evolution in this department with their critically acclaimed title, The Last of Us. Looking back on the Uncharted franchise, it is clear that Elena Fisher, the love interest of protagonist Nathan Drake, was the typical damsel in distress. A white, blonde-haired TV journalist, Elena often found herself in needing of rescue more than actually contributing to the story in any meaningful way. She was a standard, cliché character, and if it weren’t for the amazing games around her, would be completely forgettable.

However, Naughty Dog learned their lesson. The Last of Us features Ellie, a young girl who is the key to stopping a fungal outbreak that has devastated society. You spend the majority of the game playing as Joel, an old, cynical man who sees the hope and optimism that Ellie embodies as foolhardy, and reluctantly agrees to escorting her across the country to a group of scientist who claim they can engineer a cure from her DNA. However, at very critical moments, you play as Ellie, who is more than capable of handling her own, sometimes more so than Joel.

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Ellie is allowed to grow and develop into a person, not an object.

Ellie is a complex person. Her transformation from child to adult is developed to a satisfying conclusion. She is strong. Yes, she needs Joel, but Joel needs her, too. Their relationship is not clear-cut, just like relationships in real life. She is a strong character, a memorable one. Most importantly, she is memorable for things that have nothing to do with her gender – her character is what makes her so unique.

Naughty Dog was able to get the gamer to care deeply for Ellie, without relying on sex appeal or the damsel in distress cliché. By ignoring those tropes, Naughty Dog is able to focus on story and characters, and in turn just so happened to craft one of the most somber, memorable stories of this generation. The Last of Us is the video game equivalent of a critically-acclaimed dramatic film.

How We Should Judge Games, and Why

It’s clear that games like Dead or Alive and Leisure Suit Larry should be held to a lower standard than games like The Last of Us. But what about games like Halo and BioShock? It’s time that we start holding these developers to a higher standard, and reacting to their games accordingly. The core of a new Halo game might still be there, and it still might be a great game, but if an over-sexed A.I. starts giving you way points to the next story mission, then we have to stand up and call the developer out on it. If a game includes an element that does not mesh well with the overall tone, it needs to be addressed, and the way gamers address something is by not financially supporting the product. And the way developers combat this is to make mature games for adults, or commit to making juvenile games for young boys.

We need to get past this notion that a mature game means high amounts of gore and violence. Those elements are present in film, but mature films are ones that treat their subjects with care and respect, not with the subtlety of a hormonal boy. And if you want to make a game that features women with over-indulged cleavage who exist solely for male pleasure, then by all means, make that game. But own up to it. Admit that you are making a low-brow product. Do not try to pass it off as high-concept art.

What to Make of Quiet

Metal Gear Solid V may end up being a great game. The gameplay might be perfect, the story well-paced and filled with thought-provoking metaphor. But none of that matters, because the creator of the game insists on creating a female soldier with huge breasts who doesn’t talk so much. So own up to it Kojima, own up to making the video game equivalent of Transformers. Go ahead and make your game for twelve year old kids – I’ll be over here, working on another play-through of The Last of Us. But know that when you decide to make a mature next-generation Metal Gear Solid, I’ll be there, money in hand.