Beauty and Brutality

Heavenly Sword boxart

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.

What gives?

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.

Heavenly Sword boxart

Comments

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.

If that doesn't get incorporated into a game in the next 2 years there is no justice in the world.

Awesome piece momgamer.

Woohoo. I loved this article. It definitely stated everything perfectly. But now, I really want to play a game where the switching gender works. Sadly the only one that comes to mind is Harvest Moon. XD Although, that's where you have the option of guy or girl. I guess another would be FF X-2.

Anyway.... This totally nailed everything we were talking about on Wednesday.

Yay! Now you can go watch Bamboo Blade. XD

EDIT: I second Mr. Devil.

Great piece, something I'd thought about myself while playing Heavenly Sword (which is one of my favourite games this gen).

HS's story was written by a woman, Rhianna Pratchett, but I believe the developers had a fair bit of the game planned out by the time she joined. That might explain some of the divide between the story and the presentation.

I'm in agreement with you, MG-- especially on the eye candy topic. If you're going to put a woman character into a role, she should be a physical match to the role. A woman marine should look like Vasquez from Aliens, not Jessica Rabbit.

One thing I'd like to add on the whole "Woman as unrelenting badarse" issue is something I read a few years ago, back when first Tomb Raider the movie came out.

The reason why women don't work as well in the Kratos-type action-(anti)-hero role is because of what makes action heroes compelling. You mentioned the scars that Kratos bears as contrasted with Nariko. This gets to the point.

The best action movies are ones in which the hero is overcoming something huge. Die Hard, for example, was compelling because John McClane was so brutalized during the course of the movie, but he just. Kept. Coming.

Putting a woman in the same role becomes... uncomfortable to watch. Watching Bruce Willis get progressively more bloodied, battered and abused throught the course of the movie is one thing. Putting, say, Julia Roberts in the same positions and it starts to feel like something I don't want to be watching.

What makes it uncomfortable is the sexualization of the heroines. In order to serve what game developers and hollywood writers think is their core demographic, they make any female lead into some kind of sex goddess. Bruce Willis wasn't picked to be a hot piece of a** in Die Hard, but Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider was. Well, if your hero is sexually charged like that, anything you do to them must be understood in that context. Watching Angelina Jolie crawl over broken glass and pick shards of it out of her feet begins to look like some kind of sicko fetish at that point.

So the result is writers tend to make the action heroine invincible, never getting brutalized in the same way as a man in the same position would be (or worse, given certain realities about villains). The problem with that is invincible heroes or heroines just aren't interesting. Sure, she's brave. It's easy to be brave when you never have to worry about enduring pain. They know they'll sell more copies with T&A than with compelling story.

(For an example of a movie that treats its action heroine similarly to an action hero, see The Long Kiss Goodnight. Overall, it's decent, but there are scenes in that movie that are just... wrong somehow.)

Excellent piece! Indeed, context does matter. A delicate, sensitive, human Kratos would never work!

Wise words, Momgamer. I also felt a disconnect between Nariko's persona and actions. I could get over it by thinking to myself that it's like prehistoric and kung fu movies and so on - that Nariko comes from a very different world than what we know. But yeah, it's a problem. It serves to highlight that as games creep ever closer to being comprehensive creative works (without opening that whole can of worms, art), it isn't enough to just look at story and dialogue and whatnot in order to convey the whole. You need to take into account the gameplay, as well.

MrDeVil909 wrote:
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.

If that doesn't get incorporated into a game in the next 2 years there is no justice in the world.

Awesome piece momgamer.

Did you play No More Heroes?

HS's story was written by a woman, Rhianna Pratchett,

Terry's sprog is doing well for herself in gaming. Overlord, Heavenly Sword, Mirror's Edge are the one's I know about that she's written. Actually, her being on board for Mirror's Edge is the sole point of interest for me.

@doubtingthomas: All through your post I was thinking about Long Kiss Goodnight, and then you go mention it. I loved the movie because Geena Davis was such a typical action hero. You are right though, scenes like the water wheel are uncomfortable, but discomfort creates discourse and from there we grow as a culture.

Her character was as bada** as any Bruce Willis hero and I think it makes women all the more powerful for that. Although she is attractive there is no sense of tokenism.

Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2 is all the proof you need that women can be just as badass action heroes as any guy. (That is, if Aliens wasn't proof enough.) I guess you could argue that neither of those roles could be pulled off by a model (á la Angelina Jolie), as opposed to a woman, but I don't know, maybe that's not really the point.

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.

This is a hilarious line, absolute win.

A really interesting article, and a discussion that needs to be had. I always get frustrated by the image of warrior women throughout gaming because they always have the spaghetti arms and stick legs that popular culture tells us to find attractive. And let's not even mention the much belabored bikini chainmail issue. I'd love to see Kate Moss swinging around some of the weapons you see in game without her undernourished torso breaking in half under the strain.

This becomes specially apparent in games like AoC, where you can make your male avatar as brutish as you wish but even with the sliders all the way up the females only get curvier.

doubtingthomas396 wrote:

What makes it uncomfortable is the sexualization of the heroines. In order to serve what game developers and hollywood writers think is their core demographic, they make any female lead into some kind of sex goddess. Bruce Willis wasn't picked to be a hot piece of a** in Die Hard, but Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider was. Well, if your hero is sexually charged like that, anything you do to them must be understood in that context. Watching Angelina Jolie crawl over broken glass and pick shards of it out of her feet begins to look like some kind of sicko fetish at that point.

So the result is writers tend to make the action heroine invincible, never getting brutalized in the same way as a man in the same position would be (or worse, given certain realities about villains). The problem with that is invincible heroes or heroines just aren't interesting. Sure, she's brave. It's easy to be brave when you never have to worry about enduring pain. They know they'll sell more copies with T&A than with compelling story.

Just to get things started, you're forgetting that back when Die Hard came out, Bruce Willis was quite a hit with the ladies. Similarly, Mel Gibson's been depicted as having been shot (repeatedly), stabbed, tortured (at least 4 times), and hit by cars during his run as a major league sex symbol. So I'm not sure you're on the right track there.

I think the lack of female abuse in films and games is less a result of T&A-ing things up (though they can be), and more that many people a have a very strong reaction to seeing a woman in certain circumstances.

You can have a heroine endure hardship just fine, but beating one up a-la John McClane makes people uncomfortable for reasons that have nothing to do with sex-potting a female star. It may be cultural, or it could just be good old fashioned genetics, but there is something that makes people (though I can only speak for males) extremely uncomfortable and sometimes borderline angry when they see a woman (or something representing a woman) being brutalized. People generally don't have that sort of reaction to men in the same situation.

MrDeVil909 wrote:
HS's story was written by a woman, Rhianna Pratchett,

Terry's sprog is doing well for herself in gaming. Overlord, Heavenly Sword, Mirror's Edge are the one's I know about that she's written. Actually, her being on board for Mirror's Edge is the sole point of interest for me.

She writes bits and pieces about games for the some gaming magazines and the Guardian newspaper as well, I believe. I managed to get into an argument with her a while back by posting a snarky comment about some poor grammar in an article she wrote.

I'm sure a few other folks here also played the original EQ back before the travesty that was the Shadow of Luclin player model changes.

Remember the original Ogre Female and the Troll Female player models? They were all kinds of bad-ass.

Did you perhaps catch Devil May Cry 2 for the PS2? The game features 2 "main" characters, Dante (the kickass half-demon guy), and Lucia (a Spanish looking girl who is very good with blades). The game comes with 2 disks, one for each character. You can play the same game following the storylines as either one or both. At least most of the time they gave her more clothes than the average "babe kicking butt" game and made her character a little harsher to reflect her battle filled life style while still giving her a few curves to feed that stereotype.

To me this was one of the best examples of what you were talking about with female characters. You can probably pick this one in a bargain bin by now. Definitely worth a play.

I can't help but feel this was the designer's attempt to appeal to a female audience though. Unlockables in the game include new clothes for your character. (!?!) They don't help him/her fight any better but you look cooler when you are just standing around. (Yeah, right.)

The whole story is basically one man's epic quest for directions.
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?
Skimming through the Review-niverse
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.

Oh how I've missed you.

Jack Random wrote:

You can have a heroine endure hardship just fine, but beating one up a-la John McClane makes people uncomfortable for reasons that have nothing to do with sex-potting a female star. It may be cultural, or it could just be good old fashioned genetics, but there is something that makes people (though I can only speak for males) extremely uncomfortable and sometimes borderline angry when they see a woman (or something representing a woman) being brutalized. People generally don't have that sort of reaction to men in the same situation.

How about G.I. Jane? Attractive woman, hardship, some good ol' fashioned beatings. I can only remember one scene where the brutality seemed specifically aimed at hitting that uncomfortable nerve (the near-rape in the SERE training), and a similar situation in Pulp Fiction with only guys inspired much the same reaction.

Interesting article, I do have a question about the scenes which made your son uncomfortable though. Was the discomfort because of a woman engaging in brutal actions, or because the target of those brutal actions was typically the testicles? If I recall I felt uncomfortable watching those scenes alone, but it was from a purely empathetic response that almost all men posses towards attacks on the family jewels.

Awesome piece as always.
Somehow you get the transition from narrative into analysis done better than almost anyone else.
One moment I'm listening to an anecdote, the other I'm thinking about a complex social critique.

As an example of a blood-soaked revenge tale with a female protagonist I'd offer up the Kill Bill movies. The Bride was as ruthless and bloodthirsty, and was as brutalized as much, as a male protagonist would have been in the same scenario. If I recall, there was some buzzing among reviewers that because there was so much brutality in that movie, most of it inflicted on women by women, that perhaps Tarantino enjoyed beating women up. A video game that handled violence by women and toward women in the same way would likely suffer the same fate. That games are interactive and require players to act out their character's intentions would only exacerbate the problem. An accusation that a game encouraged or enjoyed inflicting violence toward women would be revenue and cultural poison; it's no wonder it's been avoided.

The critical reception toward Kill Bill brings to mind something else: while Uma Thurman is attractive, she wasn't generally made up in the movie or its press as an object of desire. There were many critics who responded to the sight of a lanky, bruised woman cutting off people's limbs and plucking out their eyeballs by saying that the movie was unrealistic and that no woman would behave in that way, not even an assassin whose former teammates killed her unborn child. I can't help but wonder if game designers have approached the issue in a similar way. When conceiving of a brutal hack-and-slash game, the idea of a female protagonist might be dismissed out of hand because women aren't seeing as behaving in that way. If a woman is put into the role of hacker-and-slasher, her motivations are often wildly different than a male character's would be. While a male character could be motivated by revenge, lust for power, or the need to redeem past misdeeds, female characters are often motivated by a need to redeem or protect others.

[quote=Jack Random]

doubtingthomas396 wrote:

What makes it uncomfortable is the sexualization of the heroines. In order to serve what game developers and hollywood writers think is their core demographic, they make any female lead into some kind of sex goddess. Bruce Willis wasn't picked to be a hot piece of a** in Die Hard, but Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider was. Well, if your hero is sexually charged like that, anything you do to them must be understood in that context. Watching Angelina Jolie crawl over broken glass and pick shards of it out of her feet begins to look like some kind of sicko fetish at that point.

So the result is writers tend to make the action heroine invincible, never getting brutalized in the same way as a man in the same position would be (or worse, given certain realities about villains). The problem with that is invincible heroes or heroines just aren't interesting. Sure, she's brave. It's easy to be brave when you never have to worry about enduring pain. They know they'll sell more copies with T&A than with compelling story.

Just to get things started, you're forgetting that back when Die Hard came out, Bruce Willis was quite a hit with the ladies. Similarly, Mel Gibson's been depicted as having been shot (repeatedly), stabbed, tortured (at least 4 times), and hit by cars during his run as a major league sex symbol. So I'm not sure you're on the right track there.

Yes, that's true. But the target market of Die Hard and Lethal Weapon was not the demographic that thought of Willis and Gibson in that way. The typical viewer didn't want to schtupp Willis or Gibson, they wanted to be McClane or Riggs. Yes, I'm sure there were exceptions, but the target market was straight men who like to see things blow up.

By contrast, the target market of Tomb Raider was the same target market as the one for Die Hard and Lethal Weapon. That market wasn't intended to identify with Lara Croft, but to ogle her.

Jack Random wrote:

I think the lack of female abuse in films and games is less a result of T&A-ing things up (though they can be), and more that many people a have a very strong reaction to seeing a woman in certain circumstances.

You can have a heroine endure hardship just fine, but beating one up a-la John McClane makes people uncomfortable for reasons that have nothing to do with sex-potting a female star. It may be cultural, or it could just be good old fashioned genetics, but there is something that makes people (though I can only speak for males) extremely uncomfortable and sometimes borderline angry when they see a woman (or something representing a woman) being brutalized. People generally don't have that sort of reaction to men in the same situation.

I don't dispute that at all. It's the other primary reason why we don't see this sort of movie very often, and when we do it's often a critical or commercial failure (what kind of numbers did G.I. Jane do again?) I didn't get into it because my post already ran overlong and some people get touchy when discussing evolutionary behavior models.

But anyway you slice it, for now at any rate, movie and game makers who put female characters in positions to get brutalized open themselves up to charges of misogyny. That may be unfair, but people have the perceptions they have.

This could be changing with the rise of the torture porn genre of movies. But I wouldn't necessarily call that an improvement over the current status quo.

Good article. I can understand where you're coming from. Maybe. Let's face it, I can get the gist of where you're coming from, but being male and having only my own experience to draw from, its not the same and insight is always appreciated.

Jack had a point, too, about that protectiveness of the opposite gender. For me, I immediately thought of the scene in True Romance where Patricia Arquette gets mauled by James Gandolfini. Watching that at 15, I was definately squirming in my seat in Aaron Reider's basement. I'd never seen anything like that before, so how did I feel such savage pleasure when she fought back and killed him? I had already seen Die Hard by then but didn't feel as vindicated when McClane hung Karl from the chain at the end of a brutal, almost one-sided fight. Maybe it is instictive. I don't know.

As cool as I found God of War to be, I do think its a bit tragic that we accept Kratos' face smashing, spine cutting ways more BECAUSE he's male. Does that mean that deep down all men are capable of such gorefests? Are we ticking time bombs of vengeance just waiting for the right tragedy to set us off? I certainly hope not.

Things to ponder. Thanks Mom.

I've got a little bit of a different view on this, probably partially due to my history. Put short, I've known a lot of incredibly psychotic and capable women that have been very attractive. So the idea that "That's just not how women act" never really clicked with me. I also handle protectiveness different than most people. I'm very, VERY protective of just about everyone. I always have been. With all that, movies have a hard time making me uncomfortable. Same with games.

I've also been in a couple of real-life situations not terribly different. End result was a hell of a mess, and just about everyone ended up pretty beat up. (Out of the four of us, I was the only male, and five male assailants.) That probably did a lot to straighten out my gender views. (Put it this way, I was the only one _without_ a rank in some form of matrial art.) Seeing a 5'2 girl that wouldn't normally hurt a fly very nearly rip someone's arm off is... enlightening.

The more I think about it, it's far more of a human trait than anything else. Protection, revenge, what have you, humans are the only species that _would_ do something like that. I can name a few people right off the top of my head that would channel Kratos in a similar situation. I'm the only guy. And all things considered, I'm least likely to succeed.

I don't really have much to add to this. Just wanted to pop in and say that i really enjoyed the article and that i felt it was one of the better ones on the front page for a while now. Cool stuff!

Also, Mr. Greenbrier has some good points.

That is all...

Excellent article. However, I'm with Kannon in that, for whatever reason, this disconnect simply never occurred to me. In popular culture, comic books have clearly set a precedent for violent yet attractive women. And history has numerous examples of female death-squads and the like. Most recently, this article discusses an attractive, real woman who is also an assassin. So I've begun to wonder just what is so surprising about women in this role, and I've concluded that it's because these women are depicted as not only quite violent but also rational and intelligent. They aren't on a horomone-induced frenzy, attempting to protect their child, take revenge for a failed relationship, etc. These are the situations where extreme violence is often expected in women--situations where the strength of their aggression is offset by the weakness of their irrationality.

With this in mind, I wonder whether these games aren't challenging cultural stereotypes just as much as the idea of a female CEO, president, or world-class athlete. Whether, perhaps unintentionally, the "hot girl with a sword" has somehow transcended the adolescent desire to look at a pretty rear-end while killing monsters and become a culturally relevant figure in her own right. If this is so, then what lessons should we learn from games such as HS? Is the violence disturbing because the idea of a violent, pretty, rational woman is threatening, while a violent, ugly, rational woman would not be? Why do looks matter in this context? There is certainly a popular belief that a pretty woman can get nearly anything in this society simply by virtue of her looks. Is this part of the issue?

Let's disregard for the moment that this article reads like an enormous stream of consciousness. There's an attempt here at an argument I endorse: Any game with characters in it will benefit from better characters and better character development; and God of War is an excellent example of a game that suffers from a lack of character depth. But the point your article seems to imply is that soulless, detestable brutes like Kratos are suitable for male characters but not for female characters-- and that strikes me as an injection of a gender gap where none should exist.

Proper scenario development should not be classified as "a woman's touch". While the core gameplay and strong visual presentation of a game like God of War have made it a very successful franchise with gamers of all ages, there are plenty of folks (like me) who demand more from a game than that. The arguments you're making about character portrayals and designs are arguments that I'm sure you've heard before from male gamers, and will continue to hear / read on podcasts and message boards around the Web. Today's consoles can provide us with visual and aural fidelity that come closer than ever to movies, but we still don't have stories and characters that can hold up, and that's a problem you're going to continue to see whether you're playing as a male or female character.

Upon reflection I've realized that there is one instance where I am very discerning about character appearance: the eyes. If I'm playing a character who is supposed to have killed, or be capable of killing horrible monsters, etc, then something about the character's demeanor must convey that. Physical attributes don't matter. After all, anyone could find themselves in such a situation--it isn't limited to only the ugly people. However, such experiences will clearly change a person.

The greatest offender I've found in this respect is Guild Wars, where 90% of the character models have an demeanor that suggests they've never seen anything more than the inside of the local shopping mall. This is such an issue for me that there are some classes or class/gender combinations that I refuse to play simply because I can't find a face that conveys anything beyond inchoate teen angst (for the male models) or pure, vapid helplessness (for the female models). I can appreciate the subtlety in modeling required to convey a particular attitude, but come on. Anything beyond Malibu Barbie would be a huge step forward.

But the point your article seems to imply is that soulless, detestable brutes like Kratos are suitable for male characters but not for female characters-- and that strikes me as an injection of a gender gap where none should exist.

I don't think that's an accurate analysis. A perhaps better reading might be that while female characters in games can exhibit aggressive and brutal combat styles, they still tend to not be as brutal looking or are given appropriate motivation that reinforces their brutality. I think part of the the point is where are the soulless, detestable female brutes? It's not that the author doesn't support that as a character trait for female avatars, but that apparently the industry doesn't.

When I played Heavenly Sword, my thought process of Nariko's character never got past the "wanting to do sinful things with her" stage.

That happens often.

Elysium wrote:

the point is where are the soulless, detestable female brutes?

I can't think of any existing examples off-hand, but I am reminded of the concept art for Blizzard's female version of the Barbarian in Diablo 3.

http://www.blizzard.com/diablo3/_ima...

She still suffers from loincloth-itis, but to be fair the male Barbarian probably starts out in his skivvies too. However she certainly doesn't look like the dainty flower that is Heavenly Sword's Nariko.

I think games that attempt to tell a story with a well defined main character can't "swap" genders no more than a movie can. At some point you need to make a decision on who your lead is and stick with that.

Still, I don't see any reason not to include a female model as a playable character, even in these games.