Thursday, May 30, 2013

So Is It Still Okay To Fight Vampires?

The second installment of Tropes vs. Women In Video Games is out now. I'm interested in this series not only as a consumer of video games, but as a wannabe storyteller. The story elements called out by Anita Sarkeesian are both troubling and overused. As a storyteller, my job is not only to understand the messages I'm conveying, but also to avoid the blind repetition of cliches. I've been watching this series and trying to understand the underlying message and hazards behind the "damsel" tropes that Sarkeesian has been presenting, so that I can build better, more inclusive stories.

This latest episode calls out recent uses of the "male character must rescue female character" and "male character must avenge dead female character" elements in video games, as well as the "male character must attack/kill female character for her own good" element. The point here is not that women should never be killed or abducted in video games; the point is to understand how violence is being used in the story, and whether it's being used to confine women to the role of "helpless prize" or "innocent victim".

I've been trying to consider how a simple story premise might be expanded into a stereotypical male power fantasy, and how that same story might be rewritten to retain the core concepts but maintain a healthy viewpoint toward all genders. My little thought experiment goes something like this:

Start with this core concept for a game: a female character is turned into a vampiric monster; the monster then goes on a spree of violence until it is destroyed by a male character. By itself, this isn't particularly egregious; the antagonist could easily be male, and there's no real gender-focused violence here. Vampires are bad; the player destroys vampires.

So let's expand the story using the typical stereotypes. The female character was romantically involved with the male character until she was transformed. Flashbacks during the game depict her as pleasant and pure and virtuous: little more than a white dress and a smile. After her transformation, she dresses in a lot of revealing leather and less, flirts aggressively, and cackles a lot. The player chases her around the game world, fighting her minions, foiling her plans, until he catches her and defeats her at last. When she is rendered helpless, she reverts momentarily to her former "nice girl next door" image, long enough to beg the male character to put her out of her misery. An on-screen icon then shows the player the necessary button to hit in order to kill his former love.

That wasn't hard. Practically wrote itself, didn't it? And I've managed to use the same female character to fulfill three unpleasant roles: first in the flashbacks, she's someone's rather empty view of the "ideal girlfriend"; second, when she's a vampire, she's high-intensity eye candy (and since she's sexually aggressive in this role, turning the traditional sex roles upside down, she's extra threatening); third, at the end, the game gives the player the power to commit a final act of violence against a helpless female character. This last act of violence is justified because it's necessary to "fix" the female character, and because, after all, she's literally asking for it, thus vindicating the ever-popular excuse of the violent male.

Even if you're not convinced about the misogyny, you have to admit that the story as presented looks a lot like twelve or fifteen other games. It's just a collection of stuff everyone has done over and over; the same tawdry story elements recycled over and over to establish the same effect.

So how do we rescue this game from itself? At first it seems as if the obvious thing to do is just to reverse the genders of the two characters, but I don't like this solution, as it seems to suggest that this kind of treatment is offensive when directed at women, but it's fine when directed at men.

My solution is to keep the character genders, but to make the flashback sequences playable. Furthermore, the flashback sequences are playable as the female character. Make her a vampire hunter in her own right, searching for the clues necessary to destroy a master vampire, little suspecting that she will become one herself. She's on her own, fighting her own battles, solving her own problems. Develop her character a little; make her a real, interesting person. We switch back and forth between the flashback scenes with the female character, and the current-time scenes with the male character, and we find that the male character is executing a plan devised by the female character. She discovers the secret to destroying a master vampire, and just before she is captured and transformed, she leaves her notes where the male character will find them.

In the current-time scenes, the vampire that was once the female character is horrific, an inhuman monster. Nothing feminine or seductive remains; there is nothing left of the female character to save. She was destroyed in her quest to defeat evil, but in the end, she is just as much of a hero as the male character, since it is her notes and plans that help the male character to destroy the vampiric monster in the end.

In my opinion, not only is this a more original and interesting concept, it also allows both female and male characters to share the role of protagonist during different parts of the story. The female character is not here as scantily-clad scenery, not as a prize to be won, not as a misbehaving woman to dominate and correct. We've built a more gender-inclusive game, and it turned out to be a better game in the bargain.

I'm still missing the ace game development team necessary to build this game, but at least the thought experiment was interesting.