“Story-Rich Female Protagonist Games”- Say what?

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As we discussed in our podcast last week, one of the community-selected sales in Steam’s Summer Sale was “Story-Rich Female Protagonist” games. Dr. B and I were decidedly unsure what to think of this category. Of course, one of the first questions she had is whether the creation of this category was actually a positive move to recognize female-fronted games or simply an attempt to cash in on a hot topic. More problematic, however, are the games Steam chose to group into this category.

Each of the community sales featured four games. For this particular grouping, the four games were: Dragon Age, Mass Effect, Gone Home, and The Walking Dead Season Two. Perhaps you can already spot the issue—out of all possible games to select that could highlight story-rich games with female protagonists, two out of these four have essentially gender “neutral” avatars. That is to say that, for Mass Effect and Dragon Age, players have substantial options to customize their avatar and the stories for each game play out essentially the same regardless of the physical characteristics of one’s avatar.  This isn’t by any means a bad thing (I quite enjoy games that give me a fair amount of avatar customization), but it also makes these particular games less than ideal choices to represent “Story-Rich Female Protagonist” games.

And there are a lot of games that could fall into this category. Recent releases like Child of Light ( a young girl questing through a magical land to save herself and find her way home)  and Transistor (a singer with a stolen voice wielding a mysterious and powerful weapon) are both fantastic examples of games with strong stories and “true” female protagonists.  If we reach back only a little further, the most recent installment of Tomb Raider was on sale repeatedly during the Summer Sale event and easily could have fit into this category, as could Portal 2.

While the community selected sales lasted only four hours each, this particular grouping also led me to think a bit more critically about what “counts” as a female protagonist game. Both Dr. B and I had strong reactions against the characterization of Mass Effect and Dragon Age, so obviously “gender-choice” avatars are out. What about a game like Last of Us? Ellie is playable for about 25% of the game, and is the focus of one of the DLCs- an entire back story without the co-protagonist, Joel. And if 25% isn’t enough to count, what about Resident Evil 5? Sheva is playable for the entire game, and players in a single player campaign select between her and Chris (with the other character being controlled by the game). And if dual protagonist games seem tricky, what about games like the Left 4 Dead series? Four possible protagonists, three men and one woman, all of whom are active throughout the entire game—this isn’t a Super Mario Brothers 2 style game where you select your avatar and the others hangout off-stage.

So which games would you have liked to see in a “Story-Rich Female Protagonist” game sale? Let’s be system-agnostic with this, any game is up for grabs!

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3 Responses to ““Story-Rich Female Protagonist Games”- Say what?”

  1. Sam Fuller says:

    The first story-rich game with a female protagonist I can remember playing was Xenosaga Episode 1: Der Wille zur Macht (German for “The Will To Power”, from Nietzche), an RPG for the PS2. The protagonist is Shion Uzuki, a high-ranking scientist who participates in designing KOS-MOS, a female android (/gynoid) who is central to the game’s plot. The game stands out to me because, for one, because while playing it at a young age I realized how uncommon it was to be controlling a female avatar– for the first couple hours of the game, your party only consists of Shion and KOS-MOS, each of whom have specialties in combat and are impressive fighters.

    The game stands out to me as “story rich” because the game’s universe is DENSE with detail, and it is obvious that a significant amount of time was dedicated to fleshing out each main character and their relationships to one another. Honestly though, the pace of the game is diffcult, rather bad in my opinion– I remember segments of cut-scenes lasting for up to 2 hours, then gameplay segments lasting for even longer, so that I would watch a cut-scene and find myself yearning to actually play the game, then endure the repetitive RPG encounter combat system for so long that I yearned for a cut-scene to break it up!

    It’s been a long time since I played Xenosaga 1, and I also played 2 (though I never beat it), and am aware of a 3rd installment in the series. Not many people seem to have played them; I remember having a lot of respect and admiration for the female characters in that game (the male characters not so much– there was a robotic/cyborg brute, a childish tycoon/gunslinger, and a mysticalish guy named Chaos, none of whom I really liked). In retrospect, I’m sure the games were problematic in many ways– the story was so weird and complex that it’s hard to recall clearly (it was the first “T” rated game I convinced my dad to let me buy), but there was something about the main villain collecting young, artificially created girls to do… something really messed up with them. And then there was definitely an equipment set you could equip that made your characters wear a swimsuit (totally impractical, obviously there for “fanservice”).

    Regarding the label “story-rich female protagonist games”, the Xenosaga series is definitely that; I don’t have anything that plays PS2 games anymore, but I would be interested in revisiting the game to analyze it more critically (although I recall it was something like 100+ hours long… somewhat typical for an oldschool “JRPG”, but still a challenge to get through!)

  2. Sam Fuller says:

    PS: For anyone interested, here is the edited “Movie” version of Xenosaga Episode 1 on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fvbXiOvWFp0 (note it’s 7+ hours long! that should underscore just how much of this game is pure story/cutscene)

  3. Tof Eklund says:

    As always, my thoughts bend toward the indie… and on that front, how could they not include Christine Love’s Analogue: A Hate Story?

    Then again, given that Analogue actually addresses issues of reproductive rights, societal oppression, and transhumanism, it fits in a Steam sale about as well as The Handmaid’s Tale would bundled with The Hunger Games (wait… that’s actually a great idea!)

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