What is most beautiful in virile men is something feminine; what is most beautiful in feminine women is something masculine. -- Susan Sontag (1933 - 2004), Against Interpretation, 1966
I finally have a Playstation 3. It was in the budget since about a year before it launched, but I needed them to ship a must-have game. In my house, that meant either Final Fantasy XIII or MGS4. Kojima won that race, and since June the kids and I have been gleefully playing through the backlog of exclusives that we wanted but weren't quite enough to sell me a system. Heavenly Sword was on the girls' list of games they wanted to try once we got the hardware and I must say it really does make the console shine.
But as I played it I ran into an unexpected philosophical snag. One of those things that made me ponder and question some ingrained thinking, and that turned into a queasy realization. I used to say that if developers just included a female option for the protagonist in a game, it was enough to make me happier with a game's character personification. It was one of the pat answers I would trot out when someone asked me what I would do to change video games to be more female-friendly. I'm not so sure that's always the case anymore. And in discovering this exception, I found a bit more clarity in why I made that suggestion in the first place.
I've finished Heavenly Sword twice now. In the midst of the twing-twangs and hacking and slashing, I was struck with the similarities to another older game: God of War 2. Skimming through the Review-niverse, I wasn't the only one who noticed. Juxtaposing the two makes for an interesting isolation exercise.
Heavenly Sword got some things wrong, and some things right. Just looking at the front cover we see we haven't lost the stereotypically scanty videogame female outfit. Why does any sane person think a girl would go off to kick a lot of butt and defeat the evil king wearing nothing but 4 feet of billowing hair and two damp dishtowels? But that's chewing old soup and it's hard for me to complain too much; it's counter-balanced here by a really likeable character. She's strong and funny and deeply human. A solid engine, great performances from all the actors, and sky-high production values give even this tired mess of a story gravitas. You believe in the world, and in Nariko as a person.
God of War takes another set of clichés out for a run with some awesome production work too, but I never lost the sense that I was in the Boy's Club. The whole story is basically one man's epic quest for directions. And no, he wouldn't just frickin' stop and ask. We have to gut the guy and then dribble him all over the floor like a blood-slicked Thomas Guide. We don't open chests; we must rip the lid off. The only way they could have made it more perfectly testosterone-soaked would be to have the game's save system consist of Kratos peeing on the nearest door-frame to mark his territory.
Gamplay-wise, they are extremely similar. I'm not talking about specific buttons, but the generalities of two people mowing their way through a stadium-worth of enemies with an epically big pointy thing. In many respects, the only glaring departure is the gender of the protagonist characters. And with this girl working this kind of gameplay action, something is profoundly different.
Depending on your playing style, you might have missed it. With sincere button mashing and a quick left thumb on the analog stick, you can slog through both games without seeing anything too off-the-wall. But if you begin to string together chains of combinations in your fights and learn some finesse, you start unlocking special moves. In Heavenly Sword, they're called "styles". These are more powerful attacks, and there are several layers of them to peel like a butt-kicking onion. Keep progressing, and at the core you find nine moves that are very dirty pool in any martial arts style I've ever heard of. And that's where I start cringing -- right after the first time you watch Nariko pile drive some guy, land with both feet in his crotch and then grab his ankles and make a wish, if you know what I mean. Yeowch.
I was playing with my son and one of their friends and every time the game trotted out a new and improved version of one of these moves an odd expression would cross their faces and they would shoot this furtive look at me. I wondered what it was until my son said it flat out, "Oh man. My MOM saw that."
I was genuinely surprised. We play Gears of War, Resident Evil, and several other blood-drenched games. They're grown men now, and we've been shredding bad guys together for quite a while now. And Heavenly Sword is T-rated -- no gore to be seen. But somehow, this one crossed that threshold for them. And for me, too. Kratos does some very similar moves, and it didn't affect me the same way when we played through God of War. The boys were embarrassed when the girls in the hot tub showed up, but that was about it.
I am not suggesting that it's not possible for her to do those same things. She's a big strong girl and girls can do anything guys can do given the physical constraints of mass and gravity and inertia. I am not, as one person I consulted on this topic suggested, trying to "set back the cause of women's rights a hundred years." And while some people try to frame even a mention of those differences as a derogatory attack and try to dismiss them and the entire discussion on that basis that is not the intention here. I'm trying to discuss an observable fact. Women are different from men in more ways than their plumbing, and they are treated differently.
We're used to watching big brutal guys do big brutal things. A big strong girl doing the same brutal things doesn't work quite the same. Our culture and our media treat them differently. And as the audience, we interact with those stories and events differently. That societal context is the crucial point.
For all their similarities in structure and gameplay, the stories of the two games come at the action from very different character motivations. Kratos is a wraith-ridden demon of vengeance tearing his way through the game's challenges to the very depths of divine madness alone. Nariko is a girl who through no fault of her own is spat upon as a curse by the very people she's trying to save. Despite that, her sense of duty and her love for her family and her best friend push her through the tasks before her and in the end drive her to make the ultimate sacrifice.
Casting Nariko's actions in that light didn't help. In fact, I believe it makes a large part of disconnect I'm pointing out. Her noble intentions and her compassionate portrayal in the story are so at odds with the viciousness of those attacks it jars the player. Having her kick the bad guys out of her way to her goals is one thing. But ripping them apart with such savagery is wildly out of her character. In contrast, Kratos left any normal human sentiment gasping out its last breath in the dust behind him two games ago. Ripping the throat out of anything in arm's reach fits him.
Her physical appearance reinforces the issue. While she's not delicate or wildly disproportionate, she's a supermodel running around half-clad and standing hip-shot. They dressed her up like a girly-girl and have her bashing her way through like a butcher. This miss-match doesn't hit Kratos because, despite the fact that he actually gets some in the story, he is not an attractive man. He's as ugly a brute on the outside as he is on the inside.
Maybe if we got rid of the disconnect by keeping the motivation in a more similar place and gave a physical model that better fits that scenario we could get a girl to work. What would it be like if we were hacking our way through Valhalla in a berserk rage as a 6', 200 lb Viking shield-maiden? I'm not talking some sexy valkyrie either. I mean big and muscled and scarred from her many battles. I don't know. Or what would happen if we put the shoe on the other foot and put a Gordon Freeman or one of those pretty little jRPG guys out there with a huge battleaxe crushing those skulls and bathing in blood? It would be interesting to play those games and see. I don't have any illusions they'll get made any time soon in the current climate, though.
I'm not going to totally abandon my base position. In most games there really is no excuse to not have a woman's touch. Racing games and adventure games are a shoe-in. An isomorphic western RPG with you tromping around as a well-armed personal shopper for half the realm can probably cope with having the girl option. Fighting games and jRPG's are pretty well represented already, but it would be preferable if we could do those without the characters having balloons in their bras and clothes that reveal whether or not she gets a Brazilian wax regularly.
But thanks to this experience, I can see a case where there are circumstances where it doesn't work right to just swap the gender. More changes would have to be made to make it work. From now on I'll be looking more closely at the game I'm talking about before I just blithely rattle off adding a female protagonist option as a generic suggestion for game developers to improve the portrayal of women in games.