Celebrating the First Women of First-Person Shooters
<b>Made possible by Bethesda:</b> From <i>Unreal</i> to <i>Borderlands</i>, the macho side of FPS games has been kicked in the nuts. And that's a good thing.
This article is part of DOOM Week on VICE Gaming, exploring the legendary 1993 title and its 2016 counterpart, out now, and the wider world of shooters – of which this piece is a part. This content is made possible by Bethesda.
My first experience falling in love with a first-person shooter was with Unreal back in 1998, when I was a grumpy ten year old. I'd previously liked Quake and DOOM, but in those games the playable character was set: you are a dude, who must fight epic fights, playing out a power fantasy and saving the world. They were cool, but Unreal was different. In Unreal, you weren't trying to save the world – you were just trying to survive. You play as an unnamed character, going simply by the moniker of Prisoner 849, who has survived the crash landing of the prison ship you were held captive aboard. When you come to and realise what has happened, your goal isn't heroic: your goal is simply to find a way to survive and maybe get back to your homeworld.
And also, you could play as a woman.
Whenever I played Unreal, I always picked Gina. Gina looks tough and battle-worn. Her dark hair is up in a ponytail, she is wearing nondescript fatigues, and she looks rough. She isn't glamorous. She looks like an escaped prisoner. It's also worth noting that in Unreal Gold, Gina is the default skin for players starting a new game. She looks like what the sparse narrative wants you to envision for the unnamed protagonist: tough, somebody you need to believe is dangerous enough to be sequestered on a prison cargo ship, and severely pissed off.
Unreal offers little story and even less character backstory. Yet playing as Gina sets a certain narrative in the way I experienced Unreal. Being able to play as Gina let me put a little bit more of myself in the game, and let me connect more fully with the narrative. And this made me invest so much more in the game. Even now, almost two decades later, I'm still so heavily invested in Unreal, in large part because of the connection I was allowed to form with Gina.
And that's just it: having options for women characters to choose from allows us to see ourselves in the game and can allow us to form deeper connections to the story and the gameplay. For me, it makes me feel less isolated, like the connection I want to form with the narrative and game can be fostered. I want to imagine myself as the person wielding that gun. And hearing a woman's grunts when I got shot or died allowed me to partake in this. I loved Unreal more than Quake or DOOM in part because by being able to choose Gina to play as, I was allowed to see someone who looked like me and I was allowed to connect personally to Gina's mission – and the entire goal of Unreal.
This connection I developed with my chosen avatar in Unreal would go on to inform and influence all the other relationships I would develop with women characters, but especially women characters in first-person shooters. FPS is my genre of choice, and I love that FPS boasts some of the most amazing women characters I've ever had the pleasure of playing as. Iconically, there's Portal's Chell, a playable lady character who often is seen as a significant pinnacle for how FPS can portray women as subjects with agency (i.e. more fully realised characters) rather than just sexualised objects for consumption. Chell's gender – and the lack of objectification of her as a woman – is often discussed as a subversive marker of Portal. Rather than just creating Chell as a stereotypical, sexualised and one-dimensional character, Portal made her a fully realised character, no different from the male leads in similar games. If women characters are put behind the camera, as seen with Chell and Gina, they can become vessels for the player's agency rather than as objects merely for sexualised consumption.
Like Perfect Dark's Joanna Dark. Jo Dark, the secret agent who can boast that "when James bond goes to sleep, he dreams of being Joanna Dark." In Jo's original conception, she was created and designed as was appropriate for a secret agent: with dark hair and inconspicuous clothing. You know, so she can go about her secret agenty ways in relative stealth. This is in direct comparison to her makeover in Perfect Dark Zero, where she is given bright orange hair and her appearance becomes designed more for strict visual pleasure (*cough*, objectification) rather than for utility. Martin Hollis, the man who initially conceived Jo, explains the dissonance with her redesign perfectly: "But I can't imagine why she would wear the orange. It's uncharacteristic. Quite apart from the practical problem of being a beacon for bullets – secret agents don't wear orange for good reason."
With Perfect Dark Zero, there is an explicit shift from Jo as a character whose design reflects her personality and her job to a thoughtlessly designed character meant to be looked at, rather than considered as a believable secret agent. And that's both boring and alienating.
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And then there's the Borderlands series. The ladies of its universe make the game what it is. Not only is the franchise populated with awesome lady NPCs who are distinct from each other in appearance and personality. For example, even though Moxxi and Ellie are mother and daughter, the two could not look and act more different from each other – they are distinct, even though it would have been so easy to make them replicas of each other.
But then there are the playable characters. While Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel sometimes gets lambasted for not being as good as its two predecessors, it does provide two playable female characters that are radically different from each other. There's Athena, a queer, pissed-off assassin whose single-mindedness in accomplishing her mission is paralleled only by her supreme awkwardness when flirting with the lovable mechanic Janey Springs. And then there's Nisha, a woman of colour who is also the sheriff in a town full of homicidal and cannibalistic bandits. She is a bandit who has become a bandit-killer herself, if you will.
The amazing thing about the above-mentioned playable characters is that, by virtue of the first-person perspective, their bodies are less on display and allow for them to be treated as subjects rather than just sexualised objects for consumption. Nisha, who is a very sexual character, especially as seen with her interactions with Handsome Jack, sidesteps this by being the one to define her own sexuality. When her body is presented on-screen, it's treated no differently than Wilhelm or Claptrap, the two non-women playable characters in The Pre-Sequel. Nisha is sexual, and not only is this not her only defining aspect, but it's presented as a facet of her personality that she has control over.
Because FPS games puts these women behind the camera, it opens up the possibility that, hey, maybe ladies are capable of being pretty strong and competent, too. They become more than sexual objects: they become an avenue for women like me to forge deeper connections to a universe that is no longer created without us in mind. This doesn't mean we can't be both sexy and powerful. It just means that showing a range of playable women characters that aren't explicitly sexualised means that the experience of playing games is less overwhelmingly alienating and isolating. It's nice being treated like a person, and not just an object.
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It's wonderful to a see a variety of women characters that we can choose to play as. And it's important for this range to keep growing. We need more women of colour playable characters. We need trans women characters and characters who are non-binary. We need women characters with different body sizes, just as much as we need women characters with different appearances and personalities. And I love that first-person shooters offer an avenue for doing so.
Why? There are a lot of reasons. But most importantly, it'll keep making games more narratively interesting, and FPS is a genre that runs the risk of becoming stale by every fifth instalment of the same franchise. Most of all we need more diverse women characters so that more women gamers can have the experience that I had with Unreal, so they can also fall in love with games, and not feel entirely alienated. Maybe they can feel even a little bit welcomed.
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