So, female characterization… It’s kind of a hot topic nowadays, especially considering that several controversies have been about sexism and discrimination in the gaming industry; plenty of people have claimed that female roles in gaming are lacking, if not completely non-existent.
We’ve had some good female leads in gaming already, but they tend to go under the radar. Tonight, we’ll take a look at 3 of them and see what makes them so popular in the world of gaming. Particularly, we’ll be looking at what makes them work, what are their failings, and above all, what do they all have in common?
The question isn’t really “how to make a good female character”, but rather “how to make a good character”, since really, while sex and gender are an important detail when creating a fictional person, it’s not the defining factors – and anyone who tells you otherwise is pulling your leg – With all that said, let’s begin!
Joanna Dark – Perfect Dark
A charm that’ll soften up even the coldest gamer heart, and perfect aim that’ll hit any mark; Joanna Dark is described as “The perfect secret agent”; to many fans of Perfect Dark, she is also the epitome of the female lead in any kind of videogame.
What makes her so liked by gamers, exactly? Well, it’s not what she can do, but rather how she does it. Joanna’s main strength as a character is, primarily, her personality; dry wit and a good sense of humor accompany her throughout the entire game, making what would otherwise be a stock, boring female character, into the kind of character that can literally carry an entire game on their own.
She is shown as a complete badass, yes, but she is more importantly shown as a real human being. She isn’t some killing machine that says 2 or 3 lines just to confirm that, yes, she is alive, but rather a character that does have her own thoughts, forms relationships with her co-workers and boss and, above all, who has to rise up to the challenges of being “The Perfect Agent”.
That’s not so say she is actually perfect, however. Some of her characterization depends a lot on her physical presence; and while it is good for a female character to express femininity, there’s a slight problem when you give her mascara and painted nails in the middle of Black Ops missions. Seriously, Joanna, couldn’t you lay off the make-up for a bit?
The apparent need to make her look as stereotypically attractive as possible is, to be honest, the one smudge on this character that pulls it away from being the “go to” example of female leads.
Speaking of appearances and the like, let’s jump onto our second character of the night: Lara Croft (from the 2012 reboot, that is)
Lara Croft – Tomb Raider (2013)
Part of the legendary family of archeologists and adventurers, Lara Croft has very big shoes to fill. Thankfully, she is more than capable of doing so, and proves not just to herself, but to gamers everywhere that – whether in brains or brawn – she can kick anyone’s ass ten times over, provided you piss her off enough.
Now, we’re focusing on the 2013 rendition of Lara since, let’s be honest here, it’s the best version of her there is out there. It’s more modern, more sensible to current female archetypes and… well, a lot less obscenely voluptuous. Now, I know I know, some of you really like big boobs, but you have to admit they were ridiculous to begin with and a bit counterproductive for Lara either way.
Lara’s 2013 version is a lot less experienced than her previous versions; we see her at the beginning of her journey, long before she becomes the Tomb Raider she is known for. She struggles to learn how to handle weapons and survive, copes with loss and manages to topple down the insanity that lurks inside the mystical temples she is thrust into.
Unlike Joanna, Lara needs to learn as she goes along, and there’s always a feeling of dread and uncertainty, even on the player’s side of things, about whether she’ll be able to muster up the willpower and strength to survive. In this case, rather than a character who we know can handle these things
We guide her through the horrors of the island, and we see her develop her into the badass Tomb Raider that, like many characters remind her during the game, her father used to be. It’s a matter of keeping up a family tradition, the burden of high expectations which she overcomes through her actions, not for her family’s namesake, but rather to assist her friends, who are in dire needs.
Much alike Joanna, she suffers from one problem that smudges her entire character; in this case, that problem is the fact that her development, while logical and understandable, is sometimes very fast and feels rather forced. It’s understandable that they wanted to speed up some of the process, given that this is a videogame and not a full TV series or book, where you could explore every bit of the character, but it still feels bad; What’s odd is that, you could attribute this to either Lara reacting with carelessness to her situation, or to silly writers (personally, I believe it’s the former)
Despite this, Lara still manages to be a very like-able character, one that you can relate to in trying times; there are other characters, however, who are completely despicable, and yet, it’s undeniable that they are magnificently crafted individuals. With that said, let’s go for our last character… One that most of you probably despise.
Doll Face – Twisted Metal (2012)
Krista Sparks – Better known as Doll Face – is one of the three leads in 2012’s Twisted Metal reboot, where insanity reigns in every sense of the word; smoke fills up your lungs, bullet casings rain down on the scolding asphalt, and vehicles explode left and right, no matter where you go. She’s right at home.
Doll Face is not a hero, like our two previous characters, but rather an anti-hero – a villain, even – who is driven forward by obsessive narcissism, greed, and the will to do absolutely anything to achieve her goals. As you can imagine, she’s despicable, to say the least, but this doesn’t mean that she’s a bad character.
See, where Joanna and Lara are meant to be there as a humanizing force, someone who we can relate to and look up to, Krista is meant to be someone we can identify with but loathe; how is this possible, exactly? Well, her goals are of fame and fortune, for one, which are something that’s deeply ingrained in most of us. We want recognition, to be known as the best in our chosen careers and paths in life, just like Krista craves.
The difference, however, is that Krista is there to show the dark side of those feelings; she works hard, day in and out to become a successful model, but she also takes it to extremes by sabotaging, and sometimes even outright killing off the competition. Some players may even feel identified with these actions, as they themselves could have thought up once or twice “Gee, maybe things would be easier if I just killed Bill from accounting”. (Please note: we do not condone murder. So please don’t hurt Bill. He’s a nice dude. Honest.)
Ruthless, manipulative and deadly with any kind of weapon; she is the artifice of her own downfall, and yet you can’t help but feel a little bad for her. This is mainly because, while she is an anti-hero or villain, she is still shown as a character who has goals, dreams and even ideals that some of us, begrudgingly, can relate to.
Despite the insanity of her origin, and of course, of the world she lives in, we see and understand – in some ways, at least – why Krista becomes what she is, and of course, why she’s so adamant and obsessive to achieve them. It’s also a grim reminder, that dreams can be twisted into something truly horrifying if you let them consume you.
The problem with Krista is that, while she works really well as an anti-hero and villain, she still does things that are horrifyingly cruel, even for the Twisted Metal series. Her narcissism and insane obsession over her goals is extreme. While you can relate and understand to what she does, to an extent at least, by the big end you just want to see her get her come-uppance.
So, what can we really take away from all of this? For starters, the fact that you need to carefully balance what your character stands for, whether that’s the best secret agent in history, or one of the most terrifying combat racers since Sweet Tooth the clown.
More importantly, humanization is the key factor that’s shared between all of them; showing their emotions and reactions (or lack thereof) properly; people aren’t machines, after all, and whether they are battling a conspiracy or their own shortcomings, we need to relate to them one way or another.
Furthermore, thanks to Doll Face we can see that great characters aren’t necessarily “good”, at least not in the heroic sense. Just as easily as we could have excellent character representation for women in heroic roles, we need good representation in the other side of that coin.
Above all, I think it’s important for us to point out that, while none of these characters are perfect, they do not have to be.
Humans aren’t perfect, neither should be fictional characters. We all have shortcomings in one way or another, and designing a character that doesn’t have some, even if that’s just on skills, their way to react to things or simply their inadequacy to deal with their own emotions during a situation. It all works to create the characters that’ll live on for generations to come.