E3 2014: When Did "Female Protagonist" Become Code for "Creative Ambition"?

E3 2014: When Did "Female Protagonist" Become Code for "Creative Ambition"?

Want to find a game that dares to be different? Look for the ones that place a woman in the lead role.

Is this good for gamers? Jeremy Parish is approaching E3 2014 by asking if creators have their fans' best interests in mind.

The Internet has dogpiled all over Ubisoft for the past couple of days because the company has failed to include the option to control a woman in the cooperative multiplayer adventure Assassin's Creed: Unity. Although, really, the bulk of the Net rage has come as a result of the developer's lousy response.

Advocating diversity in games is always a conversation worth having, as Mike has ably proven in his E3 coverage. Women don't always have to be hostages. The black guy doesn't have to die first. And no, not all people of Asian descent are cyber-hacking ninja geniuses. Sometimes, it's OK to show someone besides a 20-something straight white male saving the world, and all the other voices of the world are increasingly rising in protest that the default setting of fictional protagonists doesn't speak to them personally.

As often happens when the mob directs its rage at a single target, though, some of the accusations directed at Ubisoft this week have been downright preposterous. The worst of them? "Ubisoft hates women." Come on, Internet. I sincerely doubt that Ubisoft as an entity or as individuals hates women and wants to suppress them. No, what Ubi hates isn't half the human race -- what they hate is risk.

Ubisoft has scored a few major hits in recent years, and their production costs have skyrocketed. Something like six, maybe seven different studios work on each new Assassin's Creed game, making for a collective "team" of hundreds if not thousands of staff members. The overhead and management challenges involved in running that kind of assembly process means the company has naturally shifted toward a very conservative approach to game development, taking few risks, as evidenced in the number of games they're showing this year that adopt the Assassin's Creed concept of "running in an open world, taking control of key points, while performing story and side missions."

And when you're aiming for multiple millions in sales from the core gaming audience, casting a woman in the lead role of an adventure represents nothing if not a risk. There definitely exists a crowd of male gamers who turn their nose up at the prospect of controlling someone of the opposite sex -- or of a different race, or of an alternate sexuality, or anything other than a straight white male. Big-budget productions like Assassin's Creed need to hold tight to the potential of reaching every last customer in the core demographic... by which I mean "males ages 16 to 40." Sorry, ladies, you didn't make the cut in the market research, and the possible benefits of reaching out to you don't justify the likely downsides of alienating dudes who couldn't possibly relate to a female on-screen avatar. Yes, the irony is palpable.

By no means is Ubisoft the sole offender here. Rather, Unity has fallen victim to the process of business as usual: The machinery of the games industry at work, chugging away to create game experiences cut in the shape of safe, proven, profitable little boxes. In many cases it's not even the creators that shy away from emphasizing the roles of women but rather the publishers, who control the purse strings and have the final say over what goes and what gets left behind.

It's depressing and more than a little exasperating. And yet, there is an upside to this trend: It makes the industry's more daring developers and publishers, and their games, that much easier to spot.

What's really struck me this week at E3 has been the correlation between interesting game concepts and female protagonists — or, at the very least, the freedom to play as a woman. Alien: Isolation may well be my game of the show, and it casts players in the role of a young woman -- Amanda Ripley, daughter of the original film's protagonist. Bayonetta 2 isn't my cup of tea, but from what I've seen it maintains a careful balance between "heroine as subject of the male gaze" and "heroine as godlike empowered smartass" and comes out just barely on the right side of things. Destiny let me play using both male and female skins for my gun-running warrior.

And then there's Rise of the Tomb Raider, which continues Crystal Dynamics' retelling of Lara Croft's origin story. Last year's Tomb Raider didn't quite live up to its potential, presenting Lara as a weary survivor but also following up her terrified reluctance to take a life with a series of stages in which she racked up enough of a body count to give Nathan Drake pause. The trailer for Rise tackled my complaints about the first game head-on, centered around a psychoanalysis of Lara, clearly a victim of post-traumatic stress disorder. The game itself may well be more of the same -- the ol' murder death kill -- but the trailer really stands out.

How many sequels arrive in the world by exploring the fragility of their protagonist's psyche? I guess you could chalk it up to the influence of Square Enix's Japanese side on the former Eidos component, but even so, the trailer for Rise of the Tomb Raider is like nothing I've seen in my decades of playing video games. Last week, Dave Riley published a great editorial on the liberating effect that female protagonists can have on developers -- by placing a woman in a lead role, it somehow lowers a psychological barrier to depicting a lead character as vulnerable or wounded. When Max Payne loses his family, he drinks and gets angry. When Solid Snake discovers his body is a ticking time bomb of planned obsolescence, he smokes a stoic cigarette and waits to die. Lara Croft? She sees a therapist.

Likewise, Alien: Isolation continues a trend of casting women in the lead role of survival horror games in which the hero(ine) is powerless to fight back against the ultimate evil. Not to say there haven't been a few helpless male protagonists in horror, but the Silent Hill: Shattered Memories of the world are few and far between. Usually, men can fight back, be it with a gun or a two-by-four. But women tend to lead to more precarious scenarios of evasion and stealth, going all the way back to one of the pillars of the genre, Clock Tower for Super NES. And Enemy Zero for Saturn, in which the heroine had to sneak around while avoiding deadly, invisible enemies. And Metroid Fusion, in which mighty heroine Samus Aran was helpless before a mutant clone of herself. Is it a coincidence that the first Resident Evil to feature only a female lead was the episode to introduce the indestructible Nemesis?

But again, whatever the roots and subtext of the game industry's habits, it's turned women into markers: A front-and-center declaration that a game doesn't stick to the standard script for AAA action games. Just consider Nintendo's booth, where there's not a single stern male protagonist to be found, nor a single predictable cover-based shooter or near-future first-person run-and-gun. Although a lot of Nintendo's games don't feature women, either, but rather whimsical fantasy creatures of indeterminate gender. So maybe it's not so much that women are a sign of creative risk as stern white males are a sign of creative trepidation and corporate inertia.

Speaking as a white male, I'd very much like to see more women in leading roles. Everyone needs a hero or heroine they can relate to. And frankly, I'm annoyed to have been turned into a poster child for predictable banality. Thanks for nothing, video games.

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