Powerful women are sexy, and this cuts both ways. MobyGames, a game documentation and review project, has a categorization for female protagonists that shows that there have been about as many games released in the first three years of this decade as there was in the entire previous one. There’s a bunch of factors involved, one of the biggest being that if women took to playing games like guys do, the market would effectively double.
But Lara Croft is the real reason.
Potential markets are all well and good, but why innovate when you can imitate? Regardless of its many knock-offs, the success of the Tomb Raider franchise seems to me to be a bit of a fluke — I’m pretty sure the creators wanted to create an Indiana Jones clone, and the gender switch was just to protect them from lawsuits. Whatever the case, it’s given the green light to a lot of video games with female leads.
I’ve heard sly speculation that boys playing the part of Lara amounts to digital cross-dressing, and that this was a reason for its success. I wish it were that interesting, and certainly it could be subverted in this way, but I suspect that it has far more to do with the way that the player controls Lara. There’s a critical distinction to be made between a first-person perspective (i.e. where only the gun/knife/fragger is visible) and a third-person perspective like Tomb Raider — the latter allows something academics call the Male Gaze.
Powerful women are used all the time to sell us stuff. I’ve been noticing the dominatrix image used a lot, and it’s not being used soley to appeal to those with a submissive streak; it’s because the leather-clad, conventionally sexy woman has a broad cross-gender appeal. Her power makes her appealing to women; her kinkiness makes her appealing to men who figure her dominance is a pose.
So while the main character in BloodRayne (Majesco, 2002) is a vampire/human hybrid dressed like a dominatrix, she’s not exactly delivering blows against the patriarchy. Equipped with arm-blades and killer legs, Rayne’s on a mission to hunt down and kill her vampire father who raped her human mother. (Oh, women and their family issues, eh? Why aren’t the guys ever questing for their mothers?) The fighting isn’t terribly interesting, but a feature allows you to replenish her energy: pressing a button when you’re close enough launches Rayne fluidly onto an enemy; she wraps her legs around him in a carnal embrace and starts sucking, complete with little ecstatic moans. If you can get into campy, Nazi-killing goth fantasy then it’s kind of fun, but I found the ass shots in the cut-scenes drained my enthusiasm.
Primal (SCEA, 2003) is a similarly flavoured dark fantasy, with you playing Jennifer, a twentysomething whose boyfriend gets kidnapped by a demon after his rock gig. She finds herself searching through various dimensions with a gargoyle teacher/sidekick and saving the world as a by-product. “I’m just a waitress,” she argues with the gargoyle when he explains the importance of keeping the forces of chaos and order in check. The majority of the game is puzzle solving — you can control both gargoyle and waitress to get into castles, over rivers and the like — but occasionally you’ll be attacked by monsters, although even more monstrous to my ears was the accompanying ’80s metal guitar-battle music. Hearing Jennifer’s weak little grunts and moans every time she does something like open a door is also annoying: realistic though it may be, you don’t hear the male heroes complaining. However, the mix of puzzle-solving (often assumed to be appealing to females) and action (with the male gargoyle turning to stone while Jennifer kicks ass) make for pretty engaging gameplay.
Resident Evil Zero‘s (Capcom, 2002) protagonist is a medic investigating a train dosed with a corporation-engineered virus in the middle of a forest. She’s doing OK despite being a manga-influenced tiny girl-woman, gunning down ravenous zombie-dogs and zombie-conductors, and then Billy shows up. An ex-marine with big bad-boy tattooed arms and a patronizing tone, the first thing I had Rebecca do was shoot him. But you can’t — he just stands there against the wall, smugly. The game continues and you team up with this jackass to get to the bottom of this admittedly intriguing mystery. As in Primal, you can control both characters and get them to work together to solve the puzzles and beat back the undead. Also like Primal, this undercuts the female protagonist’s power — co-operation may be realistic, but why are the designers only sticklers for realism when it comes to women’s physicality?
These games, for all my criticism, are more interesting than those with conventional male protagonists. As the game industry and the criticism around it becomes more female-driven, we’ll begin to see more diversity in female characters and the kinds of things they’re doing in games. A noteworthy example of this is Game Girl Advance, which features critical articles about games that manage to be both celebratory and analytical.
Someday, hopefully, there’ll be a game in which, if you don’t do anything for a while, the heroine will turn around and say, “Stop staring at my ass and get on with it!”