Back in 2013, Gamespot (alongside other gaming sites) published news detailing how Dontnod Entertainment's creative director, Jean-Max Moris, had told Penny Arcade that while trying to secure funding for their first game, Remember Me, they had been faced with strong words from some publishers regarding their decision to feature a female protagonist.
According to Moris, there were a few publishers that told his Parisian studio: "We don't want to publish it because that's not going to succeed. You can't have a female character in games. It has to be a male character, simple as that." Despite these setbacks, Remember Me was released, with Capcom picking it up and releasing it as a multi-platform title in the summer of 2013. Its sales were disappointing, though, and at the start of 2014 the future of Dontnod was looking bleak. One can imagine those naysayers, silently mouthing from the other side of their computer screens: "Told you so."
But things have changed for Dontnod. Today, just 18 months after they were reportedly filing for bankruptcy, the company is enjoying success with its second project, the episodic adventure Life Is Strange (which VICE Gaming has run plenty about – check these pieces out). Another female-fronted title, Dontnod's latest also bumped up against barriers with potential partners, thanks to the developers once again insisting that they didn't want a male lead.
"Some wanted us to change the gender of Max, the main character," co-director Michel Koch told Eurogamer. "Square Enix was the only publisher that would allow us to let the game be released as it was." A few episodes later – three of five are playable today – and Life Is Strange has proven to be a critical and commercial triumph, applauded for its character development. I've only played one episode, but I would highly recommend it. It's got its problems: the lip-syncing is worse than Ashlee Simpson in concert, for example. But so far I've found the choice system to be very thought provoking, the story gripping me from the moment I walked up the rain-sodden hill of its dramatic opening scene. I also love the characters, protagonist Max in particular, her social awkwardness reminding me of my teenage self.
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Dontnod's story serves as a terrific example of how a female-led video game can become successful in an era where it's not uncommon for bigger publishers to stick with the "safer" option of (usually muscular) male hero-fronted experiences. But it's not quite so simple as that. Life Is Strange is great because of its high quality writing, and how it effortlessly engages its player, whatever their sex or gender. In my experience, many people don't care what gender their main character is, as long as the title they're playing provides them with some sort of excitement, entertainment or escape from the real life worries about paperwork and how many bacon sandwiches it is acceptable to eat in one day (that could just be me). Just days ago, the Guardian wrote that "teenage boys are sick of sexist video games", citing a Time magazine report concluding that "70 percent of girls and 78 percent of boys said it does not matter what gender the lead character is".
And older gamers feel the same way, too. Hassan is a 28-year-old PlayStation 4 enthusiast, a video games player for over 15 years. When I ask him whether he really cares or not as to the gender, sexuality or religion of who he plays as in character-driven games, he responds: "Not at all. [I'm] not fussed as to what the character looks like, or what sexuality they are. If you're able to empathise, sympathise and believe in their journey, that's all that matters."
I appreciate that some gamers prefer to play as characters that match their own gender, but scanning forums and listening to my own circle of friends reveals that a great many simply don't mind who that on-screen avatar is, so long as there's some means of relating to them. Personally, I don't discriminate against the "me" inside a video game, if "me" happens to be a burly space marine – though, that said, I do love a good female character who's got a thing for romancing the ladies. If a character is written well, if they have a believable personality, feelings and thoughts that I can sympathise with, and they can make me laugh, then I'm in.
If (a great many) people really aren't fussed about their protagonist's gender, why up until last year were there still publishers insisting on male leads? The ignorance displayed by the potential partners that Dontnod spoke to prior to Square Enix signing Life Is Strange is an entirely alienating attitude to have, one that actively opposes the modern ideals of the gaming audience. Publishers have been harming themselves, too, by not appreciating that dudes don't mind being dames for the duration of a game, if that game is worth a damn. Have been, because this year's E3 highlighted that a sea change is underway.
'Horizon: Zero Dawn', E3 2015 trailer
Ladies were everywhere at 2015's E3. ReCore, Rise of the Tomb Raider, Mirror's Edge Catalyst, The Walking Dead: Michonne, Hellblade, Beyond Eyes, ADR1FT – the conference was swimming in leading-role women. My favourite of all the new games announced has to be Horizon: Zero Dawn, footage of which showed the hunter Aloy taking down a gigantic robot dinosaur in a (beautiful) post-apocalyptic future Earth. FIFA 16, Call of Duty: Black Ops III, Mass Effect: Andromeda, Fallout 4, Fable Legends, The Division, Battleborn, Assassin's Creed Syndicate and Dishonored 2 all feature options to play as females, to varying degrees. E3 in 2015 was the most progressive the annual event's been in far too long, its lengthy roll call of female protagonists cause for celebration.
Perhaps the biggest introduction of females into gameplay, or certainly the most significant given the male-dominated sport it draws inspiration from, is in FIFA 16, which will include 12 international women's teams (some way from the 32 that contested this summer's Women's World Cup in Canada, and doesn't include beaten finalists Japan, but it's a start) when it launches in September. As a kid, I used to play football for a girls team, and I've long loved a good game of FIFA. The introduction of women's teams is a big deal for me, as I've always seen them as an important element of the football world. FIFA is, arguably, the most popular sports series all them all, so this is a massive step forward for female representation in the medium, regardless of genre.
'FIFA 16' trailer: women's national teams are in the game
E3 2015 illustrated, and about time too, that games publishers are beginning to come on board with the idea of having female characters leading, or at least being an option in, their titles. And while I don't condone telling anyone in another creative job what to do, I do believe that having a variety of different protagonists in video games is a great thing, benefiting everyone. I mean, who doesn't like choice? This year's E3 also caused some in the industry to reflect on 2014's event and suggest that, just maybe, it wasn't quite the sausage-fest we remember it as. Writing on Medium, game designer Adrian Chmielarz reinforces the "variety, please" mantra that's becoming prevalent, but posits that E3 2014 had its share of strong females, too. "We could swap the narratives (between the years)," he says, "and it would totally work." There most certainly have been more male leads than female ones in modern gaming, but all the same: the rush of playable women at E3 2015 didn't erupt from nowhere. The games industry has been making progress, behind the scenes largely, for a while, and there were traces of it at E3 2014. It just took the global spotlight of this year's event to catapult this evolution into the world's eyes.
Diversity is here, now, in the games industry. It's not yet as realised it will be, but the options are increasingly there for gamers who want to play as women, at least. Further representation is far from perfect, though, as people of colour continue to find themselves so rarely reflected in their digital experiences. Would the actions and motives, emotions and adventures of Nathan Drake be so different if he was a black or Asian character? Certainly not, so long as his surrounding story was strong enough to bring him to life. There aren't nearly enough homosexual or transgender characters in video games, either, and the problem of over-sexualising female ones persists – the recent Batman: Arkham Knight is just one of many major games guilty of this.
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What the likes of Samus Aran and Lara Croft began, Fetch, Ellie, Clementine, Aloy and Faith are continuing, with a deeper cultural and commercial impact than ever before. These are all female characters, but importantly they're all incredibly different from one another, not defined by their gender but by their actions, which is a great deal more than can be said for the stereotypical space marines that action-shooters so often go in for. We're also seeing greater character customisation, being asked to play as blind characters, and others struggling with mental illness. Sometimes we get to play as cuddly balls of yarn that are so damn cute I could eat them up.
So, let's no longer dwell on the past's promoting of all-dudes, all-the-time game design, as that's gone, over, done. We'll always have those games, full of machismo and muscles and sweat and blood and jiggle physics, but not at the expense of so many alternatives. It's time, therefore, to concentrate on what's really important: hey, Ubisoft, quit making a new Assassin's Creed every bloody year and give us another Beyond Good & Evil already.
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