Replaying ‘No One Lives Forever’ Shows Us That Sexism in Gaming Never Dies

Back in 2000, gaming welcomed Cate Archer, a secret agent ready to challenge male authority. But how little things changed in her wake.

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jan 22 2016, 9:20am

Promotional art for 'No One Lives Forever'

My favourite James Bond film is On Her Majesty's Secret Service, and it's because of one particular scene. Bond escapes from Piz Gloria, Blofeld's base in the Swiss Alps, and flees to the village of Lauterbrunnen. Unarmed and tired, he runs onto an ice rink, trying to lose his pursuers in the crowd of winter sports enthusiasts. But he can't go on. There's this brief moment, where Bond sits on a bench, panting for breath, and you can see he's absolutely terrified – he knows that he's going to die. And then Tracy, played by Diana Rigg, appears and saves his life.

People rave about the Daniel Craig movies, and how they show not only a more vulnerable and fragile Bond but also more capable, and less objectified women. It's not consistent – there are still some damnable sexual hijinks involving Blofeld's harem, the Angels of Death – but a full 37 years before Casino Royale, OHMSS gave a woman in a Bond movie something to do above looking pretty and swooning over James. In that scene, Tracy is the hero. And when she's later killed, after marrying James in Portugal, her death isn't throwaway and tacky, like Jill in Goldfinger. It's the climax of the film, and we close on Bond crying over the body of his wife.

Then George Lazenby's agent convinced him the Bond films were going nowhere and that he should drop the part, and we got first Diamonds Are Forever, a total disaster, and then Roger Moore, whose tanned wrinkles and spiked punch drawl have become synonymous with the very worst in sexual politics. Despite its faults, OHMSS stands out from the other Bond movies. In an ocean of sleaze, innuendo and cheap shags, it's an island of at least vaguely more palatable treatment of women. So too is the 2000 first-person shooter No One Lives Forever, by Monolith Productions (or, to give the game its full name, The Operative: No One Lives Forever). Amidst myriad boisterous FPS games, both before and after its release, NOLF has the guts to not only put a woman front and centre, but to openly challenge male authority.

Cate Archer, as she appeared in marketing for the 'No One Lives Forever' sequel of 2002, 'A Spy In H.A.R.M.'s Way'

The game's protagonist, Cate Archer, isn't trying to fit in. She isn't along for the ride, doing what the boys do and trying to disguise her identity. Besieged by chauvinistic 1960s attitudes Archer nevertheless stands firm and makes her point. She's doubted from the off. "Emotional inconsistency and assassination hardly make good bedfellows," remarks her handler, less than convinced that women belong in the field at all. "Drop the Joan of Arc routine," says Tom Goodman, Archer's male counterpart. The UNITY agency's gadgets department even develops for her a special corpse-dissolving spray, since it's assumed, as a woman, she won't be able to physically carry and hide bodies.

But Archer continues to assert herself. In so many video games, her confidence would be illustrated through action – the badass heroine is one of gaming's most popular archetypes, because she's so cheap and easy. You simply re-skin a male protagonist. But those characters – Bayonetta, Lara Croft – still feel to me largely created to satisfy, or at least not threaten men. The former is not so much a strong character as fulfilling of a male dominatrix fantasy. Before she is acceptable and can become "Tomb Raider", Lara Croft has to prove she can survive in a man's world. The majority of female characters in big games are, in some surreptitious, very well disguised manner, made with men in mind. There's a knowing behind Evie Frye, Samus Aran, the heroines of the Final Fantasy franchise. They feel like they've been sanded down and made palatable by a committee of men, afraid that overt strength of character will spook their audience of teenage boys.

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Archer, by contrast, is unapologetically herself. How often in video games do you get character that carries a gun and blows things up, and then sits and talks about feminism? "The point is letting young women be whatever they please," Archer tells Goodman.

There's something to be said for the fact Cate's gadgets are all disguised as female fashion accessories – her cigarette lighter is a blowtorch, her perfume bottle sprays sleeping gas, her lipsticks are grenades. It's a smart touch, taking these artefacts of stereotypical femininity and turning them into weapons. The standards of beauty and emblems of womanhood pushed onto Archer by a visually stimulated male society are turned back around and used, quite literally, against men. More subtly than Bayonetta using her legs and leather to manipulate her pursuer-cum-admirer Luka, it's Archer embracing, owning and using her sexuality – at no point does it feel like, maybe instead of empowering women, this game is about titillating men.

There's also something telling about No One Lives Forever's mission structure and how, in the first half of the game especially, the story wrong foots the player. Repeatedly, and beyond your control, missions go wrong – you fail objectives, comrades get killed and targets get away. That leaves Archer to face admonishment from her superiors, who use every botched assignment as proof that women belong back at home.

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But it's not your fault, and by extension, it's not Archer's. Missions go wrong not because of your shortcomings or hers, but because of absurd, unforeseeable factors. It transpires that one of your handlers, Mr Smith, the most vocal opponent to female field agents, is in fact a traitor, who's engineered most of the mission failures himself. What both you as a player and Archer as a character face is frustration towards a stratified system, one that simply won't give women, no matter how deserving they are, any credit. Wage disparity, the presumption of advancement law, being prohibited from front line jobs in the military – this kind of legislative sexism is reflected in Archer's struggle to be taken seriously at work.

In that light, the attitudes of Archer's bosses seem daft and unfair – the more you play NOLF, the more their remarks sound bigoted and behind the times. The game's 1960s setting highlights archaic, outmoded beliefs still prevalent in the modern gaming industry. That line about emotional inconsistency and assassination is reflected perfectly in the 2013 Tomb Raider's executive producer Ron Rosenberg's remark about players wanting to "protect" Lara Croft. The spy agency's reticence to accept a female operative is representative of gaming's enormous gender bias – video games are made by men, for men. We boast about graphics and VR and "new experiences", but politically speaking, the majority of video games are stuck several decades in the past. And of that, Cate Archer remains proof, even this many years after her debut.

@mostsincerelyed

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