Sunday, 29 September 2013

Violence and Tears: The Troubled Road to Progress

This article contains spoilers for The Last of Us and to a lesser extent, Tomb Raider.

Last month, NewStatesman published an excellent article by Sophia McDougall about the inadequacy of the ubiquitous "Strong Female Character", whose sole trait is invulnerability. Central to its argument is the fact that while pop culture’s favourite male heroes are deeply flawed (Sherlock Holmes is an addict, Batman a lunatic and James Bond a psychopath, to name a few) their female counterparts are rarely allowed to be anything other than “strong” lest they are automatically rendered unheroic. This is not only boring but insulting, since it implies that while men are innately heroic enough to remain so despite having serious character flaws, women have to be bulletproof, otherwise they’re pathetic.

The Last of Us' Ellie does what needs to be done.

As if to prove McDougall’s point, Cracked.com published a half-baked piece of clickbait last week which contained a troubling analysis of a pivotal scene in Naughty Dog’s zombie road trip epic The Last of Us. In the scene, 14-year old Ellie, cornered by a cannibalistic hebephile, violently stabs him to death with a machete before being pulled away by ageing smuggler Joel, whom she’s spent the last three months trying to save from starvation, infection and worse. Reunited with the man she thought she’d never see again as her attacker's mutilated corpse lies bleeding beside her, Ellie bursts into tears.

Under the heading “Daddy issues”, Cracked interprets Ellie’s reaction thus:

“Ellie from The Last of Us is immune to an apocalyptic virus, learns new weapons faster than Neo, and has stabbed more enemies to death than Wolverine. But as soon as the guy turns up, she dissolves into tears and nursing. She could be machetifying a rapist cannibal into sashimi, but if the hero arrives she'll instantly collapse into helpless tears, safe in his arms. Because that's exactly what happens.”

In the light of McDougall’s article, it’s interesting that Cracked compares her survival skills to those of a pair of superheroes, as though her ability to kill was empowering rather than grimly necessary. There are several points in the game in which Ellie displays clear symptoms of trauma, meaning that far from being an accomplishment, every life she takes only increases the emotional burden she must carry with her for the rest of her own. Cracked’s implication that her violence is somehow an act of strength rather than desperation is therefore disturbing.

The accusation levelled at Naughty Dog that her response to Joel’s return somehow infantilises her is similarly misjudged. One might ask how else she might otherwise react to seeing him again given that, as she explains in an earlier sequence, he’s the only person she’s ever cared about who has neither died nor left her. Not only that, but she’s spent an entire winter solely responsible for the survival of both of them as he lay helpless in the basement of an abandoned house with an infected wound. After such a prolonged period of having to remain impervious to emotion for the sake of survival, it’s hardly surprising that anyone (man, woman, adult, child) should collapse as soon as they are safe.

Joel and Ellie: a complicated relationship.

The article levels a similar criticism at the recent Tomb Raider reboot: that Lara’s tears following seriously traumatic events (being impaled, having to kill someone, having your friends killed in front of you etc) contribute to a sexist portrayal of a female character on the basis that male heroes don’t cry. To prove its point, the article cites the emotionless behaviour of “competent professionals” Duke Nukem and Master Chief, despite the fact that the former is a deliberately exaggerated spoof of the 1980s action hero and the latter doesn’t even have any lines. These particular men don’t cry because they are cartoon characters, and are not supposed to be realistic.

While it’s true that games with vulnerable male heroes are few and far between, that’s a symptom of the medium’s immaturity rather than the innate invulnerability of men, so taking offence because some of the first truly vulnerable protagonists happen to be women is misguided. Tomb Raider and The Last of Us have progressive narratives in which the main characters respond to traumatic events in a realistic way. They also have females in leading roles. Although it’s perhaps unsurprising that writers unafraid to address difficult topics are also those unafraid to write about women, correlation does not imply causation.

We should not have to wait for male characters to display their emotions before the women are allowed to. If there is a valid grievance about the fact that aside from a very few cases, they haven’t, it’s that there should be more complex males in gaming, not fewer such women.

Cracked was by no means the first outlet to decide that Tomb Raider’s crying protagonist meant that the game was sexist. A similarly flawed accusation was made around the time of the game’s release by The Telegraph’s Louisa Peacock, who claims:

“What the new Lara Croft Tomb Raider game has done is bring her gender back into the game. We are reminded every other minute, when playing Tomb Raider, that this is a vulnerable, unskilled, scared, cold and hungry girl, trying to get out of the godforsaken place she finds herself in.”

The fact that Peacock conflates being “vulnerable, unskilled, scared, cold and hungry” with being a “girl” says a lot more about her than it does about the game.

An extreme situation.

What the new Tomb Raider actually does is dare to make a female character react to an extreme situation realistically (as the game's writer Rhianna Pratchett explained in her response to Peacock’s article). While the kind of “Strong Female Character” who so rankles McDougall might not be bothered by being strung upside down alongside hundreds of corpses, cauterising her own wounds or shooting another human being in the head, young Lara Croft is bothered, and that makes her an altogether more interesting protagonist than Duke Nukem. Besides, experiencing terror and overcoming it makes for a far “stronger” character than simply feeling nothing.

So with all this is mind, why are the likes of Peacock and Cracked so offended by non-psychotic women in video games? There’s an element of trolling for hits, particularly in the Cracked article, but to dismiss all such arguments as such ignores more important demographic issues.

The sad fact of the matter is that for a long time, female fans of gaming and genre fiction have simply had to take what they can get. The games industry is still dominated by men, and consumers of sci-fi, fantasy and comics (which share an audience with gaming) have long been perceived to be male, regardless of the fact that a huge proportion are not. Consequently, female game characters who are anything other than a love interest or sex object were until recently few and far between. It’s for that reason that feminist critics are often quick to take umbrage at any character who seems retrogressive, an unwelcome return to the days when female games characters were just princesses to be rescued by a capable hero.

But we’ve moved past that now. We’ve had Jade and Chell, capable, trouser-wearing heroes who just happen to be women. We’ve had (1990s) Lara and Bayonetta, joyfully anarchic adrenaline junkies who couldn’t care less if you think they’re sexy. We’ve had FemShep and all the other optionally-female heroes of this generation’s epic RPGs, who inhabit worlds where gender is, at least for the sake of programmic simplicity, never an issue. Sure, we’ve also had the bouncy cast of Dead or Alive and David Cage’s kicker-wearing victims (who cast the player in the uncomfortable role of voyeur for no particular narrative purpose), but the road to progress never did run smooth.

Lara is strong in more ways than one.

It’s also worth saying that while they do not deserve the criticism Cracked and Peacock level at them, the portrayals of Ellie and 2013’s Lara Croft are not without their problems. Lara Croft’s transformation from grad student to killer is slightly too triumphant and The Last of Us effectively trivialises Ellie’s slaughter of about fifty men for the sake of good gameplay. And although the characters mentioned in the previous paragraph are all feminist from certain angles, all still attract valid criticism: 90s Lara and Bayonetta court the male gaze while Jade, Chell, FemShep and the rest may as well be men.

But if we focus solely on how far gaming has still got to go and heap unfair criticism upon braver attempts to create complex and interesting female characters, we will prevent it moving forward altogether as developers and publishers are deterred from taking risks. By all means call out misogyny or sexism when you see it, but do so thoughtfully and constructively, not aggressively and with an axe to grind.

If you really care about diversity in gaming and the richness of its narratives, you need to contribute to creating an environment in which people making games feel safe to experiment. Either let complex and emotional women in, or accept a grey future in which gaming is populated solely by humourless, shallow or just grimly perfect females.

12 comments:

  1. Great article. Thoroughly agree with just a lot here. It is frustrating that the mainstream media still differs to the default view that gaming is 'a man's world.' However, the times, they are a changin'. At the Eurogamer Expo the number of female gamers present was surprising, even to me. The time will come when opinions are reviewed but for now we have to put up with click-bait.

    Although, going back to your article, I can't say that Lara 'courts the male gaze' as a specific choice of the developer. She's essentially flat to proportionately chested and at no point appears in skimpy garb. The character design is trim and athletic, while not curvy or needlessly 'erotic'. Things that go against the sort of stereotype that frankly Lara Croft used to be.

    Good piece. Cheers.

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    2. Thank you. I'm not sure if it's an actual increase in female gamers or an increase in visibility over the last few years, but the fact that women feel more inclined to actually come to EGX is encouraging.

      In terms of Lara courting the male gaze, I was (ambiguously) referring to the 1990s Lara of the previous paragraph. While she's certainly tough, independed free-willed and fun-loving, she also exhibits these qualities wearing short shorts and a tight top. I've updated the article to make it clearer, thank you for pointing it out.

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  2. The issue with vulnerability as a character trait in TLOU & TR is that these games are not adventure games or even survival games. They are action games. This means that Lara Croft is not the equivalent of Robinson Crusoe or James Sunderland, she is the equivalent of Nathan Drake. As much as it wants to hide it with its intro and setup, Tomb Raider is a game about killing ten million human beings while shrugging off fifty billion bullets. It is not a survival scenario. It is not a "deep" game. It is not a game where periodic cutscene weakness is justified or explained. Neither is The Last Of Us.

    See, it's like, you note that there aren't a lot of vulnerable men in games, but chalk it up to the medium's immaturity. Here's an idea: maybe it's because we keep making games about MURDERING THOUSANDS OF PEOPLE and it's really weird and inappropriate to shoehorn in things like PTSD. Maybe it just fucks everything up instead of making the world more compelling and real. Maybe MECHANICS should change before STORY does, so we could theoretically get a game where killing a single human being is a huge, impactful event instead of a jelly explosion caused by a popgun. But we don't do that, so if we're going to keep making games about badasses, it makes sense to include women in those badasses instead of tempering them with the silken hand of "weakness" to make them seem "human" in this game about near-genocide.

    And then you get to the part where you're saying that there's already diversity for female characters. We have female action characters! We have Bayonetta! And Chell! And old Lara! But you know what we don't have? The Strong, Flawless Female Characters you claim in the opening. We don't have those. There is no female Nathan Drake. There is no female Duke Nukem. There is no female Marcus Fenix. There is no female Doomguy. The closest thing we have is a gender-in-potentia Shepard whose badass quotes and approach are tempered by Mass Effect's milquetoast writing and focus on romance. There is no "badass action hero" for women. There are only people like Elie and Lara, tempered by the need to retain feminine weakness in order to stay compelling. Old Lara is dead. Samus had Other M. Bayonetta was barely a character. There is nothing.

    Oh, and James Bond & Batman being psychopaths isn't a "character flaw". It's an innate part of what makes them escapist fantasy.

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    1. I agree that the mechanics of action/adventure games need to change in order to better support the story, instead of the other way around. But I thought The Last of Us actually avoided this dissonance quite well by making the story ABOUT the dehumanizing effect of violence, and how it is capable of turning people into a worse nightmare than any "zombies" running about. Naughty Dog made each kill a slow, ugly, demoralizing experience - quite apart from the normal satisfaction the average gamer gets from of "taking out the baddies." The writing spends a lot of time considering how Ellie is pulled into this cycle of violence, and how it affects her... and Joel's entire character arc is centered around his inability to confront his own emptiness.

      So yeah, maybe we shouldn't make our game narratives work so hard to support the gameplay. But in this particular case I thought The Last of Us justified itself quite well, and also served as an interesting commentary on the devil-may-care attitude of its brethren.

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    2. @J.Shea you are right in that action games do normally involve ludonarrative dissonance whereby a character who we're asked to like in cutsces is a mass murderer during gameplay. And it's not something that's likely to go away while the most popular game mechanic is shooting. I personally really enjoy shooting games, but I willfully refuse to empathise with the people I'm killing because it would stop me liking the main character (Lara, Nathan). In a game where narrative and character are more closely tied together, I would not have to do this. In narrative terms, I should not have to do this, the gameplay should contribute to the narrative.

      The fact that in Tomb Raider it doesn't, quite, is a problem with action games as a narrative medium.

      I'm less sure about The Last of Us because I am not convinced you're supposed to like Joel. A big part of me didn't, and that made the game no less powerful or affecting for me. Killing all those people wasn't such a problem when I half thought the guy I was controlling wasn't such a good guy himself. In fact, controlling someone whose motivations I questioned (and eventually, disagreed with) actually made the narrative resonate really powerfully for me, in the way the airport scene did in CoD. Games have the power to make you become someone who does horrible things, and the discomfort you feel is actually quite powerdul.

      I don't think I did claim that we had those "strong, flawless" female characters in video games, rather I was saying that instead of criticising those characters (Ellie, Lara) who don't measure up to that ideal, we should actually be looking for something more interesting. And I definitely disagree with the suggestion that Ellie and Lara are "tempered by feminine weakness", the whole point is that their vulnerability is human and has absolutely nothing to do with their gender. Calling said vulnerability out as being sexist on the basis that the person exhibiting it as a woman is based on a leap of logic.

      As for the lack of female Doomguy, Nathan and Marcus, my point was that the lack of such female characters is really no big loss since the male ones aren't really that interesting. Maybe there aren't those female characters, but I don't want those female characters, I want more interesting ones. (On a side note, I'd personally exclude Nathan from that list because I love his character arc but I understand why his bulletproof bravado and easy charm mean he isn't universally loved.)

      My final point would be that Bond and Batman's mental health issues* are imperfections that it's easy to allow for in male characters but object to in female ones on the basis that while they make male heroes more compelling without rendering them unheroic, any sign of weakness in a woman is (apparently) enough to make her entirely weak. While there seems to be plenty of room for male characters to have flaws and shortcomings, women aren't allowed to have any. Far better that the female characters should be allowed to have them too.

      *Please don't take my choice of words in the article and in this comment to mean that in real life, people with mental health issues are "flawed". Batman and Bond are not real people, and talking about psychosis as a "character flaw" is inappropriate in terms of real people.

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    3. @Allison, thank you for your analysis of The Last of Us, while I thought the action was brilliantly done in terms of its consistence with characterisation, I hadn't really made the final connection about the dehumanising effect of violence. Ellie's responses are disturbing if you view her arc as a whole. At the beginning she verbalises ("oh man!") whenever you kill someone, but eventually her reactions trail off and you know each individual kill is no longer having the effect on her that it would in someone healthy. And then there's the way the decision to give her a gun and condone her violence is initially very difficult for Joel because as soon as it's done, he can't take it back, he can't ever protect her from what it means to kill someone or say that it's not ok for her to do it.

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  3. Feels like an overcompensating measuring contest born of insecurity. Such an infantile view on strength and weakness. They get a good character with strength that's actually not devoid of soul but want Mary Sueperwoman to measure up to male power fantasies that are in reality only designed to impress the 14 year old in us.

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  4. I'm not sure how much of this is on topic.

    There are spoilers below.

    I think the Last of Us is probably one of my favorite games now.

    When you switched to Ellie, I had the mindset that I was going to play the rest of the game as Ellie (though the game started to hint otherwise). Ellie was more violent than Joel ever was by necessity. Joel would choke someone quietly, while Ellie lacked the strength for such moves, she had to be more fierce.

    When you switched back to Joel, I assumed it would be Joel to the rescue. Naughty Dog didn't go that route. They could have and it would have been so easy for them to. Ellie had to save herself. Even though Joel was coming to the rescue, he would have never been there in time. Ellie had to save herself.

    This might have been me, but the violence in the Last of Us felt it was something that had to be done. It wasn't anything I enjoyed. I found myself trying to sneak around and not kill anyone unless I had to. The game even rewards you for this by not wasting your precious supplies. Every life taken left a bitter taste in my mouth. I don't know if this was ND intent, but it felt like that to me.

    Joel as the bad guy. Well, he sure as hell wasn't the good guy, but I don't think he was the bad guy either. In the end Joel saved Ellie, the rest of the world be damned. There were hints about Ellie's fate if Joel turned her over to the Fireflies. I think if they would have waited for Ellie to wake up and talk to her about it, she would have given them the go ahead. If Joel heard it from Ellie's own lips that she was down for playing martyr, I think he would have let her go. But the fact that the Fireflies expect it of her.

    I seen a lot of the world and people of The Last of Us and I would have given a lot of things to save it. But if that world lost Ellie, then it wasn't worth saving. (That's me, thinking like Joel.)

    Then Joel lied to her. That was selfish, he didn't want to lose her or her hate him for it. Then Ellie accepted his lie. I think she knew and chose to believe him. She needed an out without her being hated by everyone around her, she is already going to hate herself.

    End the end, Joel lied to Ellie and Ellie needed to be lied to.

    Did The Last of Us have it's flaws? Yeah, sure. But it's one of the only games that I've ever lost sleep over when I wasn't playing. Long after I finished that game I couldn't stop thinking about it.

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  5. I'm going to go ahead and leave a comment thanks to being directed here, and realistically I expect I won't look back since enough time has passed since the original article and I doubt anyone will see this for a while.

    I hate the new "Tomb Raider." I also have never played it, and never will, because of what it has done to "Lara Croft." I'm saying that outright both so where I'm coming from is obvious, and also because that tends to be all that needs to be said for some people to ignore an argument, as if you can't grasp the content of a game through videos, screenshots, summaries, interviews, etc.

    The real Lara Croft did have problems, I'll admit that right out of the gate. The biggest was that over time, she was increasingly depicted as more valued for her sex appeal than any actual qualities of her character. Her ability to appeal to the sexual interests of men became overemphasized, which goes harshly against the original purpose of her creation of going against the two female character modes at the time of bimbo or dominatrix. She was increasingly depicted and perceived as simultaneously both.

    What the new "Tomb Raider" did was throw those problems out, which is good, but it also threw the baby out with the bathwater. At the time of the newest game, Lara was the ONLY strong female protagonist left in the industry. Aya Brea was reduced to a scared little girl running around in fetish outfits that tore off when attacked, all while constantly being sexually objectified by her allies and ordered around by men. Jill Valentine and Claire Redfield were reduced to damsels in distress, valued entirely in Chris' "suffering" at seeing Jill controlled by Wesker (rather than Jill's own suffering at being controlled and forced to kill her friends for two years, among other things, taking precedence) or Leon's having to go bail Claire out of trouble not once but twice. Samus Aran went from being a tough bounty hunter to letting a father figure order her around, refusing to use her own weapons until big daddy gave her permission, even when it meant nearly dying from heat. Not to mention that Samus was either rescued or "outsmarted" by men around her but not once did she save the men.

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  6. I had to split my comment into two because of character limits.

    That is the atmosphere we're surrounded by when we get the new "Lara Croft," who as a fully grown adult, is forced to become something that is presented as completely unnatural to her. She's not the innately tough badass that all sorts of male protagonists can be, she's the scared survivor girl that reluctantly "toughens up." To become tough enough to be taken as an equal to the likes of Dante and Kratos, "Lara" has to be forced to suffer getting repeatedly banged up and dirtied on a secluded island with no escape, with the threat of big bad men around every corner (also, note there are no women for "Lara" to face until a specific type toward the end that frankly doesn't count due to her nature; it's all men being manly around her).

    In one game, Lara Croft went from tough badass that could stand beside the men (albeit with a slight image problem in being too valued for her sex appeal), to innately inferior and only their equals because she had to be forced through a wringer not of her own choosing. Men are allowed to become tough by choice, or are fully tough and competent by adulthood. Not women though. As "Lara" demonstrates, women can't choose to be tough, nor can they be naturally tough. They have to be tortured into it against their will.

    If the new "Tomb Raider" was a brand new IP with a brand new character, I would have absolutely no problem with it. There's plenty of room in the world for a character like "Lara" here. But to take an already established character, one that's always been such a powerful symbol of female power, and reduce her to something as low as this one is reduced is just wrong.

    At this point, we have NO strong female protagonists left in the video game industry. All the old ones have been turned into something they're not either to get guys' rocks off or to make women look inferior to men because god forbid we have even one female protagonist that has superhero-like badassery on display. The only two female protagonists I've seen this generation that could be called truly admirable are Chell from Portal and Milla from Tales of Xillia. Milla, because even though she loses her powers and even ends up crippled from the waist down during the game, she never once gives up on her mission and doesn't waste time wallowing in a puddle of self-pity like every single female character to star in a video game is apparently supposed to wallow in now. Loss of ability to walk? Still gotta save the world no matter what it takes, gonna keep on keepin' on as long as she's alive.

    After them, the closest we have right now to popular female protagonists are Bayonetta and Juliet Sterling, and they're mostly hypersexual parodies. That's a far cry from the slew of women badass enough to sell their own games in the late 90s, from Lara Croft to Aya Brea to Jill Valentine and Claire Redfield. No matter what "Lara Croft" does from here on out, she can't be called a real equal to the male protagonists around her. She lost that aspect of her when she got rewritten from badass to victim that had to force herself to become a badass. No matter what she does in any future game, she's now defined by victimhood and having to be something she's not by her inherent nature. It's going to take another reboot for a chance to fix that, and I don't see that happening for another couple decades when the next generation views this "Lara" as lowly as the current generation views every single thing about the real Lara. Until then, I hope the next console generation brings a strong female protagonist to fill the void created when Crystal Dynamics decided she should stop being one.

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