Friday, January 23, 2004

Analysis of Female Characters in Male-Created Videogames
Or, I’ll Take My PhD Now

*** Author’s note: This, for the most part, is pretty dry reading, and should get me out of ever having to take a Gender Studies course. The actual entertainment is the five to seven paragraphs from the bottom. If you’ve played FFX-2, you’ll find a shocking little hypothesis I’ve come up with. Pity I'm too tired to write an actual conclusion to the paper. ***

*** Note #2: If you're looking for the Cameron Crowe bit, it's in the post I did yesterday, which is below. ***

Going back into the history of videogames, the role of producer or creative director has generally been a male-dominated profession. Without going into any actual research, the only woman I can think of who’s ever performed that duty is Roberta Williams, best known for the King’s Quest games of twenty years’ past. Videogame design is unarguably a male-dominated profession, and so it begs the question of how female roles are portrayed in these games.

“I write a man… and then I take away logic and accountability.”

Men, by and large, haven’t a clue as to how to write good female characters. This stems from the fact that none of us have any clue how the female psyche works. Joss Whedon, in his foreword to the graphic-novel Fray, wrote how he’d been waiting for his entire adolescent life for a superheroine that he’d have a shot with in the event that said heroine was either real or he was a character in a comic book. The lack of any such characters was representative of that industry as a whole, and that lack spills over into any other entertainment-field which is equally dominated by males in creative control.

This is why the great female motion-picture roles of the last twenty years have been written by women like Nora Ephron and Callie Khouri. When men try to write women, they are generally in some role that either supports the male lead or drives them to action. Wives, damsels in distress, dead wives for whom the male lead must get revenge… In the event of a subplot involving romance, love generally (and quite inexplicably) blossoms from the hero saving the damsel or working with another damsel while trying to avenge his dead wife. This said, firemen and widowers must be the most over-sexed men on earth.

Ultimately, the female roles of videogames are as clichéd as one would find in any other form of entertainment. There are rarities, however: In the case of Metroid (for the Nintendo Entertainment System), it was not revealed that Samus Aran was a woman until you beat the game, at which point I’m sure most boys were shocked (as I was), of which some boys were dismayed that it wasn’t a guy they could grow up to be like (without a fair amount of surgery), and within that group was likely a group of future-misogynists who cried and vowed never to play Metroid again. Samus’ appearance in the Metroid Prime game (for the Gamecube) is only subtly female, in the sense that the majority of the game is played from a first-person perspective, and it’s only in the cut-scenes that we see that her armor is clearly built for a woman, albeit a woman of Barbie-style proportions. While Metroid Prime is nothing short of a brilliant game, it eschews any sense of Samus’ femininity, likely because it’s nothing that would particularly add to the gameplay.

On the other hand, Cate Archer of the No One Lives Forever series is very much a female and is one of those rare great characters of first-person shooter games. The FPS is a genre so heavily steeped in adrenaline and twitchy reflexes that designers seem to find the notion of a plot more alien than the monsters in Half-Life. No One Lives Forever came with a good plot, a great character and witty dialogue, which adds up to a refreshing change for an otherwise homogenous genre.

There’s no genre that needs well-written characters like the Role-Playing Game, which can arguably be divided into two genres: Japanese and Western. The Western (i.e. North American and European) RPG tends to offer the player very little in terms of created and written main characters, generally leading the player to make choices in the game at certain points, which then reflect back in the attitudes of computer-controlled characters. It’s a very internalized type of gameplay in which the player emotionally takes from the game whatever he brought into it, and gives the player a feeling of a control over his destiny while playing the game.

The Japanese RPG is more like interactive cinema, in that there is a beginning, a middle and an end to the story, and the progression is more or less linear throughout. While there may be subquests that can be performed during the game, they generally can only be performed at certain points while completing the main storyline. Ergo, since the player is forced to play through the game in a certain way, the cut-scenes do not have to reflect the player’s decision, because the decision was made during the design-process. The game plays more like a movie, and characters can be developed in much the same way.

Which brings me to Final Fantasy X (that’s ‘Ten’, not like Malcolm X), which is an ensemble piece about a guy who’s trying to cope with parental neglect because his father went into the future, became a giant demon, came back to the past, sent the main character to the future, then laid waste to the world back in the past and pretty much the entire time until the future. I deal with that shit every day. And the main character (we’ll call him Pansy) falls madly in love with the girl (Yuna) whose job it is to kill his father, even though he knows she has to die in the process of doing so. This game isn’t really the point of study, here, but I just wanted to clue you in before I start talking about the sequel.

And I want to talk about Lulu. Whatever points FFX got for remotely good female characters are automatically deducted for the character of Lulu, who is representative of what I refer to as The Jiggle Factor, which is also seen in games such as DOA Xtreme Beach Volleyball, Tekken 4, Soul Calibur 2 and many other games. Basically, the programmers of these games discovered that –while the console was capable of rendering eighty-six million polygons per second- they only had programmed sixty million polygons into any given scene, and so they added those remaining polygons to the female characters’ chests and created a physics engine to govern their bounciness. Hence, The Jiggle Factor, of which Lulu is the RPG poster-girl.

Final Fantasy X-2 (that’s Ten-Two, not twelve, not Malcolm X the Second, et cetera) still features attractive female characters, but manages to rein in the implausibly-built stereotypes of characters such as Lulu (who is limited to a guest appearance), which earns a big Kudos to the designers. At its core, FFX-2 is about Yuna, who didn’t die at the end of FFX, who’s accompanied by Rikku (the thief from FFX) and Paine (she’s new), and they’re looking for clues as to the fate of Pansy, who didn’t die in the first twenty minutes of FFX as I hoped he would. FFX-2 starts out with a music-video, segues into a sort of Charlie’s Angels knockoff, and then becomes a decently-written RPG that seems to lose itself in subquests and borders on being aimless. That’s not to say it isn’t a great and fun game, because it is.

So, one day my friend Matt sees me playing FFX-2 and he comments that, while he thinks all three (Yuna, Rikku and Paine) are hot, he’d take Rikku over the other two. When I asked him if it was her very obvious yellow thong and bra combo or something else, he really couldn’t elaborate. I mentioned that I liked Paine better than the other two, but also found myself at a loss while trying to find any concrete reason as to why.

Barring the way the characters act during the cut-scenes and anything they might say during the beginning or end of a battle, they are virtually statistically identical. A few points here and there after playing for forty hours don’t really matter that much; so, given that they play virtually identically, I found that a man playing FFX-2 will make his favorite character into the ass-kicker of the group, relegating the other two into supporting roles such as White Mage or Alchemist, who essentially exist to keep his favorite character alive. But, the question is: Why? What is it that makes a man desire one of these characters over another?

There’s a classic personality-test you can ask any heterosexual man that determines part of his nature or psyche: Imagine you’re the Professor on Gilligan’s Island and you have your choice of Ginger or Mary-Ann. Given that your competition is Gilligan and the Skipper, you get to pick first. So, given that data, do you pick Ginger or Mary-Ann? No, ‘both’ is not an acceptable answer, nor is ‘Mrs. Howell.’

The answer to this question determines whether a guy would rather have a glamorous movie star or the shy girl-next-door. That example out of the way, we now apply the same sort of question to FFX-2 and come up with the following data:

Yuna represents the girl next door. You know she’s had a boyfriend or two, but she’s certainly not the town slut. She likes long walks in Macalania Woods and enjoys going to see a movie and then a trip to the malt shop. A player who picks Yuna is looking for a woman who will be his companion and equal in life.

Rikku represents the girl next door’s younger sister. She had a boyfriend for three days back in junior-high. You can be pretty sure that she’s compensating for not feeling a real ownership of her own sexuality by showing off her thong, bra and short-shorts. She likes going to McDonalds and goes by the nickname ‘jailbait’. The player who picks Rikku is drawn to her lack of sexual experience, thus placing the player in the role of ‘teacher’, which then implies having power of sorts over a woman.

Paine represents the girls next door’s older cousin who comes over to babysit from time to time, even though the girls next door are quite old enough to not need a babysitter. She likes to invite her boyfriend over and send the girls to bed early. The player who chooses Paine wants a woman more experienced than himself, and potentially wants to be treated as a sex-object himself.

AIM: therbmcc71

No comments: