The Odyssey of Woman: Representation

I have always been a gamer who enjoys the role play aspect of gaming. Whether I’m playing an RPG or not, as much as possible I will step into the head of whichever character I’m playing as. In those big story games, I need to care about the things my character cares about and to do so, often I will be stepping into the skin of a man. What makes this guy tick? Who does he love? Why does he care? What are his flaws, his strengths, his weaknesses?

A little late to the party, I played Assassins Creed Odyssey for the first time recently and it started me thinking about a few things. I didn’t love the first Assassins Creed back when I had it on the PS3 and hadn’t played another one since then. However sorely I was tempted by the London-scape of AC Syndicate, they all kept passing me by. Until someone told me about the changes that had been made to the franchise with the release of AC Odyssey. For the first time, you could play the whole game (of this major AAA franchise) as a woman. What’s crazy about writing that sentence is that, that small alteration really shouldn’t be something that felt as mind-blowing as it did. But there you go. It blew my mind.

Kassandra and Alexios in Assassins Creed Odyssey

The most interesting thing to me with Odyssey is that the way the two potentially playable protagonists have been written means they are truly interchangeable. Whether you play as Kassandra or Alexios, the dialogue and cut scenes play out in the same way with the only difference being in the delivery of the actors bringing them to life. Neither character has been written as male or female in terms of any of the pigeonholes that often get associated with either gender; they have simply been written as a multi-faceted human with the same back story, abilities, and charm as each other. Male and female NPC’s will flirt with you throughout and it’s up to you whether you reciprocate or not.

The two are also outfitted in the same way with only small alterations to cover the modesty of their unique and strong physiques. One character is not sexualized over another and that is incredibly welcome. The objectification of women across all entertainment platforms has meant a long lasting, painful and often biologically ridiculous depiction of the female form, created and consumed by the kind of men who see women only as a means to fulfil their own sexual desires and not for what they have to offer as equal people in society. The equality that the developers have employed with outfits and outlook in AC Odyssey is commendable and a testament to their commitment to tell the story and to value their protagonists in the same way.

Despite this great dual set up however, I could be forgiven for having no clue that said protagonist was playable as either male or female. In 2018 when the game was first released, the marketing was still very much geared towards portraying Alexios as the lead character with posters and trailers all advertising him with the merest trace of Kassandra anywhere. For a game that excels at letting you be the person you want to be in creating your own Odyssey, its marketing displays a much narrower viewpoint. This choice for the marketing continues now and when you search for the title in retailers, the image accompaniment will be of Alexios.

It’s part of a wider issue that has been fettering the games industry for years but which with each new game that breaks the trend, is starting to shift. It’s a shift that’s allowing companies to realise that not only are non-male protagonist led games financially viable, but that they also offer the option for nuanced and original narrative that is still yet to be explored.

And though I’ve been focusing on it here, it’s not just with female leads that we need to see this shift happen. As the world becomes slowly more aware of the beautiful variety of humans in it, the more creative industries should feel empowered to lean into stories with protagonists and supporting characters that are a truer reflection of the colours of our society. This shift isn’t about erasing the great characters we’ve already seen in previous years or diminishing their value as the fantastic protagonists we’ve all invested in. But it is an important step in acknowledging and esteeming the diverse consumers that support the video game industry.

After the unprecedented year we’ve just had over 2020/21, the audience for gaming has grown even wider with new players young and old flocking to the medium as a way of spending time with each other virtually and having fun with their loved ones from a distance. Video games consumers are not simply one type of human. We are an audience that is not one age, gender, sexuality, colour or creed. We are an audience that is vibrant and who have stories that deserve to be told across all levels of gaming.

As a female gamer you learn early on how to put yourself in to the skin of someone else. There was no one that looked like me in the games I was playing growing up but not having any other choice, I enthusiastically poured myself in to the skin of the protagonist and empathized and cared about his story. That has meant that empathizing with someone else’s story has become second nature. It has also meant that for a long time, my viewpoint of women in games (and by extension myself) was as an object, baggage, an inconvenience to the wider world. I watched the men get things done and the women standby, scantily clad, waiting to be rescued and taken as a trophy.

Things are changing but the slowness of change in this area is indicative of an often vocal section of video gamers who are unable to appreciate the value in a character who doesn’t look, sound and behave in the way that they have been used to seeing for so many years. They are a generation of gamers who have been defined by the characters they’ve played and who glean a strong sense of self from the actions and values they see displayed in game by those characters.

It is perhaps also indicative of the diversity, or lack thereof, that has been seen in industry professionals over the years. There appears to be a shift happening there now too which should further help to guide and create a more multifaceted cast of characters in upcoming games. Because when only one kind of character is readily available in the biggest games out there, it doesn’t offer the opportunity for growth for those players who can easily disregard any game that doesn’t offer exactly the same as what they’ve become accustomed to.

Because that option is still other, lesser, not first choice. Create your Odyssey, play as Alexios!

And Kassandra’s an option too….

It’s such a shame as like most of the female protagonists that are out there in games, Kassandra is absolutely brilliant to play. She is strong, funny, imperfect, and more than capable of bringing down the entirety of ancient Greece if that is the choice you wish to make whilst playing as her. Additionally the wider cast of male and female characters within the game are all highly entertaining whether they’re making you laugh, cry or burn with a fiery resolve to put a stop to their heinous crimes (Cult of Kosmos, I’m looking at you…)

The option for a male or female protagonist has remained in Assassins Creed’s newest addition Valhalla and this time it’s totally interchangeable as you play. Depending on how you feel in the moment when you pick up the controller, you can switch between male or female. It’s escapism at it’s finest; choose who you want to be today. There is also an option that let’s the game decide for you and as you progress through, at times you will be the male Eivor and at times the female Eivor. It’s baby steps and a good new addition showing that the desire to be inclusive is there. The problem of marketing remains however and even with Valhalla, when you search for the game, the lead is the male avatar, including on the game’s own website.

It shows that two years on despite well-intentioned efforts, things haven’t changed all that much. It’s left me wondering at what point will major game releases that offer choice when it comes to character be willing to choose the female avatar as the marketing lead? Statistically the ratio of male and female gamers is pushing close to 50/50 so the argument of catering to the masses is no longer relevant. For years women have been happy to buy a game that bears the labelling of the male protagonist knowing that in the small print an alternative choice is available should they want one. What would be incredible moving forward is to see those big franchises package upcoming games with the female avatar, in all her considerable glory.

It’s an issue that goes back years.

When you look at Mass Effect, a franchise that allows you to create the character you play as from scratch, the first three games were all led in the marketing with the male avatar and then later for the fourth game, the image used was an androgynous figure in a space suit. Similarly Dragon Age, another huge franchise that offers choice of character when it comes to protagonist, shies away from placing a female avatar prominently in its marketing. Where all three of these great franchises are making such excellent strides when it comes to representing some of our most under-represented groups, they all still feel the need to package it in a way that doesn’t show a woman as the playable character. That choice is becoming increasingly difficult to understand given the success of games that have been released that have been helmed by women.

Perhaps it’s believed that there are a majority of men who would be unable to process buying a game that had the female avatar as the lead in the marketing. That those men would believe it to be emasculating and would be unable to drum up the empathy needed to potentially step into the shoes of someone else. That the idea of a game that supports and promotes a female protagonist in its marketing, but that also provides the option of a male avatar if you prefer, would not do well in sales. Or perhaps that a story of adventure, heroism and fighting to survive just isn’t as believable for some when it’s a woman walking that path… These potential reasons are problematic on many levels.

Obviously the latter is both offensive and inaccurate; you don’t need to look far to see the incredible achievements both physical and otherwise that women make every single day on the world stage alongside their male counterparts. With the former, I would hope that, that assertion does a huge disservice to a larger proportion of men than perhaps some companies seem to give credit for. A disservice to the men that aren’t threatened by seeing a woman on a front cover and that have the capacity to understand that playing a game as a female character in no way changes who they are themselves. It doesn’t somehow turn them in to a woman or make them “less of a man”; that kind of toxic masculinity is just as damaging as a continuing lack of diversity and something that similarly belongs in the past.

Aloy in Horizon Zero Dawn

In terms of sales being affected by having the female avatar lead the marketing over the male, fundamentally until someone takes the plunge, we’ll never know. But given the successes of the “risk taking” that’s happened in this area in the past coupled with the call for change that’s happening globally at the moment, now is very much the time. Back in 2017, with the release of Horizon Zero Dawn, the character of Aloy smashed on to consoles ready to discover her past and uncover the secrets of a post-apocalyptic world now overrun by deadly machines.

Horizon Zero Dawn was one of the first AAA games to be released with a female protagonist that had the full heft, and therefore budget, of Sony behind it and on the lead up to its release there were interviews talking about the risk they felt was being taken by having the playable character be female. It was a “risk” that paid off and the game was a blockbuster success; visually stunning to explore with incredible combat mechanics and fantastic role play elements brought to life by a strong lead who was skilled, smart and agile. And who also happened to be a woman.

Control was released in 2019; an action-adventure game set in the mysterious world of the federal bureau of control. You play as Jesse Faden who comes in to take over directorship and to discover more about her own past which is inexorably linked to the bureau’s supernatural dealings. This game is combat heavy and once again features mechanics, gameplay and a story that celebrates her power, her intelligence and her absolute resolve to cut through the crap and just get on with it. Hidden amongst numerous and challenging combat sequences is an incredibly feminist game that showcases women in the roles that are responsible for fixing the mess that their male counterparts have created. They are then supported by men who give a good cross section of those who have rightfully earned their place and those who are in place due to the gender lottery of being in the “old boys club” (also very consciously the name of one of the missions in the game.)

Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft has of course been a part of gaming history since the mid-nineties. What’s been great to see with the newer releases of this franchise is that the developers have corrected what has long been the highly sexualized way Lara is portrayed in early games. A character seemingly only designed initially to be a disproportionate object of fantasy for gamers to be able to look at whilst playing the game (perhaps to make her more palatable) in later iterations she has become a heroine who is nuanced, resilient and crafty. With a body that is biologically realistic and not the focus of your enjoyment.

The debate over the physicality of women is one that came to the fore very recently with the release of The Last of Us Part Two in 2020. The game is led by two female protagonists neither of whom it would be advisable to mess with and who both have vastly different physicality’s.

Ellie is lithe and small, using her agility, speed and cunning to navigate the dangerous post-apocalyptic world she lives in surrounded by deadly hordes of infected. Abby is broad, with a muscular, strong physique that allows her to take down enemies with her bare hands when required. She is someone who has made it her career to turn her body in to an absolute fighting machine in order to fulfill her mission of revenge for the wrongs she has suffered. Initially when the character of Abby was released, some people were so disconcerted by her appearance that they put it down to her being a transgender character. When it became apparent after the game’s release that this was not the case, some people then couldn’t fathom how a woman would ever be able to look like Abby does (as a side note, there are women in real life that do look like Abby does…. )

Abby in The Last of Us Part Two

For me, it’s honestly not that hard to understand how a person with Abby’s mindset and frame would have been able to get buff. It may be a post-apocalyptic world but Abby lives in a huge military run settlement with a fully equipped gym at her disposal as well as ample rations and frequent drill training and excursions, which would all help to hone her physique. Irrespective of your thoughts on that however, the fact is we constantly see male characters in similarly rationed fantasy worlds who have hugely muscular bodies and it isn’t questioned.

What it highlights is that Abby represented a character inaccessible to those gamers unable to accept a woman as a threatening physical presence rather than an object. She undermines the male power fantasy that men are always faster, better, stronger. Abby could take all of us down and isn’t interested in being coy or flirting with you, and that’s something we’re just not used to seeing regularly in games. It’s a formula that clearly works though as The Last of Us Part Two is now the most awarded game ever; not bad for a story revolving around the lives of two women.

Moving forward it’s not about having no male protagonists anymore – there are still many stories to be told with the historically dominant gendered lead in games. However, what’s needed for growth and true representation is to be proportionate so that the stories of the genders, races and sexualities who have not been so much in the light, get the opportunity to tell their own great stories. In both leading and supporting roles. And for those stories to be told by people in the industry who are representative so that when those diverse characters are brought to life, they are imagined by people who understand their stories and who have lived through those experiences. I know what it’s like to be me but I relish the opportunity for an insight in to what it’s like to be you. Broaden my horizons and educate me, and do it in a game that has the heft behind it to be visually stunning and reach a wider audience. That will be plastered on every billboard and be in every ad break. That will be seen by the masses. In short, follow where Indie games have been leading successfully for years.

This slowly shifting introduction of a more diverse cast of characters in our AAA video games will likely see a growing feeling of exasperation from those gamers who will find themselves in a previously unusual situation. In order to play the big games that they know and love, they will need to step into the skin of someone who doesn’t look or sound like them and find a way to relate. Perhaps someone of a different gender or cultural background, who has the option to flirt with whatever gender they want to flirt with. Characters without rigidity who are realistic, proportionate and representative but who don’t fit the sense of self that some gamers have been leaning on over so many years. And there will certainly be feelings from them about it.

When you have been used to one way of gaming unchallenged for so many years, it may feel like something is being taken away from you. That feeling is both reactive and misguided however and all that the shift means is that where previously 95% of games have been centred around one kind of character, that percentage will go down to make room for everyone else. Those original characters will still be there doing what they do so well, and now they’ll share the stage with everyone else and be better for it.

I would say it’s a brave new world except that it isn’t. It’s just our world. The world as it actually is or at least what it’s striving to be. Where everyone should know they can be a leader or a supporting act, where anyone can be heroic or devious, and where everyone could be thriving or struggling.

Change and growth go hand in hand and on the horizon there are some interesting female led games coming out in 2021 to help continue that positive movement; offering mainstream visibility for women and education for those that need it in the art of viewing women as human beings and not as object or device. Perhaps more valuably though, the potential for new strong female characters alongside their existing sisters excites me as an adult, but I also know how important this would have been for me growing up. To routinely see women sharing the spotlight and being treated appropriately and with respect in gaming narrative matters. The knock-on effect being that this exposure then helps shift ageing views and holds men more accountable for their actions (and the actions of their male friends) when dealing with women in the real world. To think about their own mothers, sisters, wives, friends, daughters and nieces and fully appreciate their strength, their voice and what they are capable of.

For the younger gamer girls out there who are figuring out their place in the world, it gives me such hope that they will be part of a generation that will see women recognized and celebrated. Who will see representation of women that showcases strength, resilience, emotional depth and a value that is not defined by appearance.

That’s the odyssey for women that I want to see. And that adventure is just beginning.

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