At E3 2014, a call for more diverse video game characters


#1

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#2

"When we think about the Halo universe, we think of it as a real place
inhabited by real characters," Ross said during her brief appearance on
the stage."

Really?

Because when I think about the Halo universe, I think of it as a fantasy place inhabited by a bunch of faceless space marines, legions of faceless enemies who exist solely to be slaughtered, a physically powerless support character who exists solely to advance the plot and direct the player's actions from afar, and a power-fantasy-fulfillment vessel for the player to control who is essentially completely interchangeable with almost every single AAA action game hero ever.

It has been pointed out that Master Chief, and all the other one-note hero characters like him, might as well be called "Steve". He's a generic, muscley, gravelly voiced, serious, tough guy who engages in violence against overwhelming numbers and odds to accomplish his mission. He's Gordan Freeman, and Nathan Drake, and Alex Mercer, and Solid Snake, and Marcus Fenix, and Isaac Clarke, and dozens of others all alike, all interchangeable stereotypical pastiches of the idealized "American soldier".

And yet people love Master Chief, and all his various counterparts. Why?

Is it because they're interesting characters? Probably not, although they each have their own interesting quirks and mannerisms and slight differeneces from one another.

No, I think these characters aren't loved and appreciated as characters. At best they are stock characters - they don't need to be well defined or to have robust personalities because the enjoyment of the game doesn't come from the characters, but from the mechanics of the game.

You don't play Doom because it has a compelling storyline - you play it because it has compelling game mechanics. You don't really give a damn about the token storyline about space marines battling demons on Mars - all you care about is the experience of roaming through the claustrophobic, maze-like corridors of an alien setting; scrounging up weapons, ammo, healthkits and powerups; and blazing a path of destruction through ever tougher legions of baddies.

Hence, I think, why so many characters in games are just generic tough guy protagonists. It's like the old theatre style of commedia dell'arte - the specific archetypical characters themselves aren't the focus of the medium, they're merely the blunt instruments necessary to deliver the actual comedic content you're actually after.

Why has the "Silent Protagonist" worked so well in games? Because a lot of games aren't out to deliver a gripping character drama, they're out to give you a certain mechanical experience. Everything else is often just token, symbolic placeholder, existing only as a framework in which to place the mechanics of the game.

It's only recently that we've come to expect strong writing and story and characters in every game that comes out, when historically the medium has purposefully been almost entirely uninterested in those very same thing.

Now, that certainly doesn't preclude good storytelling in games. There have been a great number of games in every age of the medium that purposefully set out to deliver compelling writing and deep, fully fleshed characters - and the results have often been wonderful.

But I think looking at games like Halo and Call of Duty and God of War and all the rest like them and complaining that they have bland, non-diverse sets of character is like watching a mindless blockbuster action film and complaining that it isn't thought provoking and deeply moving.

And I also think that people are missing the point by saying things like:

"That branding has never really appealed to me and when I watched the Microsoft press conference, it felt very more of the same to me," Alexander says. "I didn't experience any diversity."

More of the same is exactly the point! Diversity is antithetical to what these games are about!

Does the games industry need more high-brow, story focused games? If we have worthwhile stories to tell, and if they work well as interactive games rather than as books or movies or otherwise, then absolutely!

But that doesn't mean the industry can't or shouldn't also have its stupid Steve-populated shooters and action-adventure romps that couldn't care less about delivering a meaningful story and are just there to give us an excuse to mindlessly play around with game mechanics with a minimum of pretext.

We get it - you want more "Oscar Award Nominee" and "Cannes Film Festival" quality games, and the industry isn't making them. They're busy churning out vapid, profitable, low-brow "popcorn flick" experiences that exist purely so you can mindlessly partake of them to fill time.

You're sick of waiting for someone to make the next "The King's Speech", and you're sick of seeing a never ending stream of advertisements for the upcoming "Lethal Weapon 9" and "Die Hard, Again: Back With Revengeance".

But you can't compare apples to oranges. Stupid macho video games should not be judged the same as intelligent story-based video games, and vice versa. The average gamer doesn't identify with Master Chief - they just want an empty vessel they can inhabit for a little bit so they can go shoot things in the face on an alien world rendered in fancy graphics.


#3

Weird that you mention Gordon Freeman as one of these "stupid macho video game" characters. (And not just because Gordon is a pencil-necked MIT Ph.D. in physics rather than a "generic, muscley, gravelly voiced, serious, tough guy".) Anyone familiar with the series would probably realize that Half-Life: 2 and its two extra episodes are everything Sydell is asking for. Gordon's life is saved several times by Alyx Vance: a strong, independent, intelligent, technologically-inclined woman who wears sensible clothing and likes to make hell with a SMG when the situation demands. (Her father is a brilliant scientist who happens to be black.)

I don't play DOOM at all. I do play the Half-Life games in part because they have compelling storylines.

The binary you draw is, I think, artificial. The games we're discussing fall on a continuum rather than into two buckets. One can make a FPS with really great mechanics that also has excellent characters and storyline.

My question for you is: what is wrong for requesting that in the future more games fall towards the "intelligent" side of that continuum than currently? Especially when we have several examples of getting the whole package: mechanics, story, characters.


#4

One can make a FPS with really great mechanics that also has excellent characters and storyline.

I never said that you couldn't.

You can also make an explosion filled action movie that has excellent characters and storyline. I'm certain someone somewhere already has and I just don't know about it.

My point isn't that all FPSs are stupid "popcorn flick" games. My point is that stupid "popcorn flick" games aren't deep, inspiring, character driven games because they never set out to be. And the fact that they are stupid "popcorn flick" games isn't a bad thing.

My question for you is: what is wrong for requesting that in the future more games fall towards the "intelligent" side of that continuum than currently?

I never said there was anything wrong with requesting that - in fact, I said exactly the opposite in my previous post.

What I did say was that complaining that games which aren't interested in telling a deep story fail to tell a deep story is silly.

What I said was that comparing games like Halo to the theoretical video game equivalent of Citizen Kane would be absurd.

What I said was that it is hilariously missing the point to express your desire for meaningful, well written characters you can personally identify with by pointing to Master Chief and saying "See, this is what you have that I would like for myself! He's a character you can relate to and who appeals to you!"

Bullshit he is! He's a living stereotype, a walking slab of meat with all the relatability of a brick wall. Master Chief is a terrible, flat character. He isn't what appeals to players - it's the act of filling the empty vessel that he represents that is what appeals to people!

No one plays Halo because Master Chief is a stunning, dramatic, impactful character - they play Halo because they want to run around in colorful space locales and shoot aliens in the face!

Master Chief isn't the appeal of the game - he's merely the medium through which the experiences which the game is about are delivered. He's an icon, in almost the religious sense.

Master Chief himself doesn't inspire awe in people who play Halo - it's the experiences which he symbolizes and represents that people love and worship.

He's just the "tangible" face of those vague, nebulous experiences. He's something people can point to as a common stand-in and reference point for all the things about they game they actually enjoyed, but find it hard to describe, explain, or even conceptualize.


#5

It would also be silly to request more intelligence in video games without somehow making reference to the amount of intelligence in current video games. It seems to me that if you truly said "exactly the opposite in [your] previous post" then you are simply violently agreeing with Sydell while taking the opportunity to groundlessly dismiss her as "silly".

But I don't think anyone was actually doing this.


#6

While I agree that there needs to be more diversity in characterizations in videogames, let's start with some genre diversity for crying out loud.

Does everything need to be a freaking' shooter? Even RPGs are almost entirely focused on combat these days, with few exceptions. Broaden the definition of what videogames are not just in the character archetypes the industry leans on repeatedly, but the actions available to the player to experience your game world with.

Prove that console games are for more than dude-bros by making games that don't exclusively cater to them.

Stop hiring almost exclusively male writers to pen your characters, and stop assuming that men are the only people who game. If the proliferation of mobile gaming has taught us anything, it's that both sexes like videogames. Hopefully that space will drive more women into the industry, but we shouldn't have to wait decades for it to happen.

The console audience may skew more male than female, but look at the contenton offer as a whole. It's not just about avatars people can identify with. It's about most AAA games being sociopathic genocide simulators, and that's coming from a guy who likes those games. Unfortunately, if you don't like those kinds of games, there's very little reason to own a console from Sony or Microsoft .That's not a new problem.

Throwing a female character into a shooter only underscores the mysoginy that drives the content of the industry's biggest brands.

Why does every female videogame character, with few exceptions, get reduced to a male archetype with tight clothes and large breasts?

Of the games I've played the last few years I can think of one female character that actually seemed like an authentic female, and that was Ellie from "The Last of Us", who was a 14 year old girl.

Though to be fair I don't think of 95% of the male characters in games are authentic either, but at least they're not in short supply.


#7

I think this is very true for many types of games, but really only underscores the point. If the identity of the protagonist doesn't matter, that means it doesn't need to be the same white male every time.

An idealized soldier could just as easily be black; Chell and Samus are as good vessels for the player as anyone else. So why keep treating one type of person as the default, and everyone else as unusual deviations from it?


#8

And this is a problem with the industry, frankly. It's as if all Hollywood made was Arnold Schwarzenegger movies. The game industry continues to spend the vast, vast portion of both development and marketing money on games aimed at adolescent boys, despite the fact that they're not the core game-buying audience and haven't been for a good number of years. (The core retail game-buying audience is, on average, 35 years old and about half women.) People want more complexity, but the industry isn't stepping up. Instead we get lip service about "a real place
inhabited by real characters" which end up being laughable, regardless of the game being talked about. So players cling to those empty icons, because there's nothing else.
I'm a game designer, some of my friends are game designers. We talk about our design ideas, and occasionally someone will bring up a really compelling idea with some complexity, where emotional depth contributes all sorts of interesting elements to the mechanics of the game and would result in richer play. Inevitably, we'll all talk about what a great idea it is, then pause for a second, and say, almost in unison, "Well, that'll never get made."


#9

Gah! Don't tell them that. They'll stop hiring writers entirely.


#10

Good point.


#11

I just slap a wig on Sackboy and go to town.


#12

How many AAA games with playable POC and/or female charaters are there even? I play a lot of games and all I can come up with w/o a Google search are these (and most are RPG's):

Skyrim/Morrowind/Oblivion/TESo (custom race/sex)
Fallout series (race/sex/sexual orientation based on perks)
Mass Effect Series (race/sex/sexual orientation)
Prey (Native American)
Metroid Series (Female lead)
GTA5 (Black character)
Assassin's Creed series (Persian, Native American)
Prince of Persia (Persian, obv)
Tomb Raider (Woman)
Lego Series (Women and assorted PoC)
Wolfenstein (confirmed Jewish protagonist)

Now that's all I could come up with, can anyone add to this list? RPG games seem to dominate, but the fact that I can't think of any more that are clearly top rank games in terms of marketing and development is disheartening when I look at my game shelf and know that out of a couple hundred or more games only a small percentage try to reflect any notion of diversity.


#13

How recent are you looking?

Most AAA RPGs released in the last five years have some kind of female character option (to add to your list, Diablo 3, FFXIII and sequels, the newest Pokemon, and Borderlands 1+2). If you're looking for POC characters or a different sexual orientation, then the options are much more limited (especially if you want these characters not to end up as shallow stereotypes).

Diversity is slowly getting better, but I wouldn't hold my breath. The AAA industry is in denial that a problem even exists (just look the the recent Ubisoft comments concerning the absence of female characters in Far Cry 4). Although, AAAs are also creatively bankrupt by this point, and most of the fun, innovative games I see coming out tend to be indies.


#14

It's generally slim pickings to get a main character that isn't a chronically mute white dude, but here's a list I've personally played.

Written Leads

The Longest Journey
Dreamfall
No One Lives Forever
Heavenly Sword
Mirror's Edge
Gone Home
The Last of Us
Portal
Heroine's Quest
The Walking Dead
Prototype 2
Suikoden III
Okami (A sun goddess in the form of a wolf kind of counts)
(Most Japanese games will have Japanese leads)

Character Generator Options

Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines
Fallout
Mass Effect
Neverwinter Nights
Elder Scrolls Morrowind/Oblivion/Skyrim
Dragon Age
Saints Row
Mount and Blade


#15

Some of those aren't really AAA, though. I would consider Gone Home and The Walking Dead to be smaller titles.

If you add in indies, then protagonists get a lot more diverse (e.g. Transistor, Guacamelee, Spelunky, Broken Age, Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams, To The Moon, Mark of the Ninja, Rogue Legacy, just from the ones I've played recently).


#16

New indie games are pretty refreshing.

If you want to go simply by budget, you'd only be left with Tomb Raider, Heavy Rain, and a few MMOs on this list:


#17

I guess the AAA label is kind of poorly defined. I tend to apply it to high budget, high production values, technologically proficient games, developed or published by well-known companies (e.g. Bethesda for Elder Scrolls and Fallout 3, Bioware for Mass Effect, Neverwinter NIghts, and Dragon Age, Valve for Portal 1+2, etc.).

I would also say that, comparatively speaking (even without going over 50 million), the budget for something like The Last of Us vastly outstrips the budget for something like The Walking Dead.

Unfortunately, AAAs largely define the public image of video games (giant marketing budgets and all), so seeing the same parade of gravelly-voiced, grizzled white men year after year gives the impression that there's no progress at all.


#18

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