July 24, 2012

Why Lara Croft's New Direction Needs a Realignment

Do me a favor—take out a piece of paper, grab a pen (or pencil, if that’s your thing), and write down five female video game characters (and the lovely Lara doesn’t count).
You done? OK, great. Let’s take a look at who you might have written down—here are my five.
Princess Peach—the damsel in distress from the Mario games series.
Zelda—the iconic female from the Legend of Zelda franchise.
Samus Aran—the protagonist of the Metroid series.
Lightning—the heroine from Final Fantasy XIII.
Chun-Li—the most well known female fighter from the Street Fighter series.

Most, if not all of these characters are iconic to most gamers of the past 15 years. But would you consider any of them to be a good role model for any of those gamers who are women? I suppose we need to define what a “good role model” is before we continue. Since I’m not a female gamer, the best I can do (beyond asking several of my female friends who like to play video games) is look at the male role models I could identify with and go from there.

If I had a son, I’d consider any of the following characters a good role model for him:
Nathan Drake—protagonist of the Uncharted series.
Master Chief—protagonist of the Halo series.
Several male Final Fantasy characters from VII on.
I’ve got a lot more choices, (I listed the ones you’ve most likely heard of), so I’ll just break down a few characteristics a lot of them share.
1) They aren’t afraid of, well, anything.
While each and every one of those characters get into a heap of trouble and face down insurmountable odds (and believe me, they always do), they all make it out of that trouble and save the day. Every. Single. Time. And during their trials and tribulations, how much fear do they show? Not a whole lot. They have their doubts, sure—who doesn’t have those? But they really aren’t afraid of anything, and that’s pretty incredible.
2) They are usually trying to save someone or something
…and that someone isn’t just themselves. They’re saving a race, a galaxy, a civilization, a way of thinking, whatever—the point is, they are purposefully throwing themselves in danger for a greater good. They recognize that greater good is more important than they are, and they are willing to die for it. That’s what makes Shepard from Mass Effect so damn compelling—he’s willing to (and has) die to save what he believes in.*
3) They’re a little sardonic—kind of like an anti-hero.
This doesn’t apply to everyone in the list above (nor is it a characteristic that everyone looks for in a role model, I’d imagine), but I’m a huge fan of the “doesn’t play by the rules” characters in video games, like Nathan Drake, Stocke from Radiant Historia, etc. etc. The guys that deep down, care, but on the surface, are ambivalent, sometimes reckless, and unconventional. I hate Superman—he’s such a perfectionist, flawless boy scout. Give me Batman (Christian Bale preferred) or Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr., please) every time.

These aren’t the only traits I look for in a good role model, but they’re some of the most important.

Now before I continue, I’d just like to say that I believe gaming had made great strides in introducing and developing good female role models. Honestly, I can only think of one good role model that came out of the 8-bit generation of gaming, and after that, there was a bit of a dry spell until characters like Lara Croft and Sheik (yes, Sheik, not Zelda) showed up. Our industry has done a lot to incorporate more and more women into games in leading roles, and that’s a step in the right direction.

So let’s take a look at how many women in our list have the characteristics I outlined above.

Princess Peach is the original “damsel in distress” for video games—she a princess who gets into trouble in one way or another (usually captured by some giant dinosaur, but sometimes a big ape as well) and can’t get herself out of it. Whenever she gets kidnapped, some dashing charming debonair average plumber comes to her rescue, defeats the bad guys with his charm strength wit ability to jump on things, and saves her from the evil villain. And everyone rejoices. Overall, she’s an OK character, and some depth has been added to her personality in the late 90s/early 2000s since the release of Smash Brothers Melee and additional spin-offs from the main Mario franchise, but overall, she’s not really a good role model in my book—she doesn’t have any of the characteristics defined above—at least, not in her earlier iterations.

Zelda gets us a little bit closer to good role model status, as per her performance in the Ocarina of Time, but before that, she spent a decade or so getting saved by Link in a similar way that Peach did. While she didn’t start off as a strong female character, I think Zelda is a great example of how video games have progressed to include additional good role models.

Samus Aran is the earliest good female role model I can think of—she took down an alien race that threatened to take over the galaxy, did it again, and has done so many times since. One of the best parts about Metroid was the big reveal at the end—the whole time, you had no idea that the character you controlled was a woman! The reveal ended up blowing peoples’ minds, as so many just assumed she was a man. This was an incredible move, and I believe it’s the first move that put a strong female lead in video games on the map. She’s the earliest character I can think of that made women gamers proud, and continues to do so today.

Lighting is more of the same—a fighter, a woman who takes her destiny in her own hands and tries to accomplish what she believes in. And boy does she just kick ass! She’s strong, beautiful, intelligent, and nearly fearless (with that fear primarily portrayed in her doubts. She’s a good role model for female gamers in my book, and it’s a shame there isn’t a critical mass of characters like her (and Samus).

Chun-Li, the last of this list, is an iconic female video game character—she’s been in movies, in cartoons, and in several different iterations of the Street Fighter franchise, including a strange puzzle game. She can, much like Lightning and Samus, kick a ton of ass. My problem with her as a role model for women is that she’s a bit…disproportionate. Her personality traits lend her to being a great role model, as she’s got incredible mental fortitude, doesn’t take crap from anybody, and is fighting for something she believes in. But I think she’s part of a trend that perpetuates negative stereotypes in video games (and other media)—unrealistic physical attributes that few women will ever be able to aspire to. She’s a female character created for men, not women, and that’s fine—she serves her purpose, but it’s a purpose that detracts from women role models in a medium that desperately needs them.**

Personally, I believe that there is a dearth in female role models in our industry, and that’s a problem. In fact, I think it’s one of the leading causes of horrible, horrible stories. What was there before Samus Aran? It was a bunch of random guys running around saving princesses, random circular shapes eating pellets in a maze, and games about defending the universe from flying saucers. Before Samus, we were saving Princess Zelda from…Qberts I guess…or saving Princess Peach from giant apes who wanted to fornica…

Huh. Gaming was kinda weird in the 80s, wasn’t it?

Anyway, that’s not the point—the point is our industry needs more iconic female characters that serve as good role models for female gamers. We don’t have very many nowadays—sure, we’ve got some Final Fantasy protagonists, a couple of random Nintendo characters, and a ton of disproportionate women fighters, but beyond that, we’re missing a critical mass of iconic women. Introducing more good female role models into our industry will have (at least) two effects on the video gaming population:

1)       Female gamers will have more characters to identify with and will be drawn to play more games. This will, in the long run, increase the self-esteem of female gamers and increase the total amount of women (and thus people) playing video games.

2)       Male gamers will be exposed to more and more empowered women in leading and support roles, which will, in the long run, hopefully cause them to respect women more (both real and imaginary).

Lara Croft, who was intentionally left off the above list, falls into two separate camps. Initially, I believe she was a character created for men and women—the disproportionate attributes that some men love to see and the empowered persona that women can positively identify with. I’d say she was close to a Chun-Li in the early and late 90s. As the 2000s passed and Lara was rebranded, she lost some of her size, so to speak, and began to branch out into different types of gameplay, including a highly praised cooperative adventure. I think this was a good direction for her to head—catering more toward the empowered persona instead of the larger than life characteristics she had in the 90s.

Flash forward to today. The powers that be, for whatever reason, have decided she needs another rebranding, and came to the conclusion that a reboot was the most efficient way to do so. Reboots happen all the time—Devil May Cry is currently going through one as we speak (which seems fine, as that series was getting a bit stale, though Dante’s new look is…interesting, to say the least). The concept of a reboot isn’t the problem with Lara Croft’s new game—the problem is the direction that reboot is headed.

I think the game play mechanics in this new Lara Croft will be excellent—this is an open, uncharted design space that no one has really delved into on such a scale before. But the presentation and marketing are steps in the wrong direction. I’m not opposed to this game, nor am I opposed to having a game about this type of survival—we’ve had survival and survival horror games before. I’m opposed to choosing a woman for it, and choosing how deep they are willing to go to make you “empathize” with Lara’s plight. The depth that they are taking her trials and tribulations to is not the type of role our industry should have for a woman—not yet, at least. I think we need to hit a critical mass of good female role models before we start putting our good ones into disempowered scenarios—that type of action detracts from their ability to function as someone to look up to. I think an origins story for Lara Croft is great, but not one where she’s exposed to all the things Crystal Dynamics have planned for her.

The real point is this—for every Lighting that exists, we have a Zack, a Cloud, a Vaan, and a Tidus. For every Samus, we have a Marcus, a Master Chief, and a Dom. For every Lara, a Nathan Drake, a Guybrush, and an Ezio. We need to shine a positive light on the female characters in our industry, not a negative one. There’s an abundance of good male role models, but a dearth of good female ones—and that’s a fact that needs to change.

Crystal Dynamics has the potential to do great work with reestablishing one of gaming’s oldest, most iconic (from the outside in) female characters. They are headed in the wrong direction now, and I hope that they can realign themselves upon the game’s release.

*I recognize that there is a female Shepard option available, and I’m glad that there was, since gaming could use a few more good female role models.

**Ever notice how the main offenders of unrealistic female character models are in fighting games? Maybe it’s just Soul Caliber…and Bloody Roar...and Dead or Alive…yea, maybe it’s just most of the fighting genre.

No comments:

Post a Comment