Yesterday, I was reading this debate on Kotaku, sparked by comments made here by Shinji Mikami the creator of the Resident Evil games. As with any and all debates via Internet comments, you gotta take the good with the bad. But, I was surprised to find myself agreeing (at least in part) with some of the defenders of submissive female characters because while I would like to see a whole lot fewer submissive female characters, what I really want to see is a lot more well thought out characters that enhance the narrative, rather than detract from it or seem like somewhat of an afterthought.
In the Guardian interview, Mikami discusses character creation, specifically his thoughts on submissive female characters and he comments,
“If I had to name the woman character I most disliked in my games it would be Rebecca Chambers,” he says. “She’s submissive, she’s not independent. I didn’t want to include her but the staff wanted that kind of character in the game, for whatever reason. I’m sure it made sense to them. And in Japan, that character is pretty popular.” He shrugs despondently.
I can totally identify with that despondent shrug. We feminist gamers or Social Justice Warriors or whatever often get a lot of pushback for wanting more representation and more accurate representation because, apparently, “real” gamers want jiggle physics and non-threatening women in their games. (Someday maybe I will understand how strong women make some men feel somehow less “manly.”)
The comments on Kotaku start with,
“Something something Social Justice Warrior something something.
I say good on him for putting more thought into his characters, regardless of gender.”
And, while I don’t love the dismissal of SJW, I do agree that putting more thought into characters beyond the tropes would make for a richer game playing experience. (If, of course, you are into narrative, which I am.) Here at NYMG we have had many debates about what would make a good female character. Some of us want a totally badass female who takes no shit, while others are ok with a little vulnerability. Our debates over Lara Croft come to mind here. I really liked her in the latest Tomb Raider. To me, she felt real. She was dressed a bit more appropriately, and she was pretty badass. She was also at some points vulnerable. I’m thinking in particular of the scene when she was alone and scared and looking to connect with her teammates. Others felt this showed too much weakness in Lara, and I can see that point also. But, for me, if I were to think of putting myself in that situation, I would totally also be scared and looking for my team. But, I think some of the reaction to Lara’s vulnerability comes from the overall lack of really independent female characters. I may not be a badass, but I know plenty of independent females who are, and these women almost never get to play a relatable character.
Perhaps feminist gamers would be more open to a vulnerable female character (even, dare I say a submissive female character) every now and then. If it were every now and then, instead of every time. In the original Guardian interview, Mikami said, “I’m interested in vulnerable characters, in normal human beings. The horror experience is most scary when the player really isn’t sure whether their character is going to live or die – death and survival need to be on a constant see-saw.”
Mikami also directed The Evil Within, which I am playing now. As I wrote last week, I don’t see a lot of originality in that game at all, either in characters or story or even anything that happens. I listed a whole lot of games last week that The Evil Within reminded me of. A move toward more originality overall would be great. But, perhaps part of the reason I don’t find The Evil Within to be scary is because I literally do not care about any of the characters so far. So, while I agree with Mikami that “death and survival need to be on a constant see-saw,” I also need to care about the character.
I would love to see more varied characters overall. Independent women, submissive men (yes, that happens in real life), a mix of both, a variety of flaws. I would love to see all of that. The lack of this isn’t all that unique to games; we see this in other forms of entertainment also, hence the need for the Bechdel test. I would love to see a greater range of characters in general: characters that enhance the story, engage the player, and make it hard to walk away from the game before the story is over.