On The Sketchy Woman Character

On The Sketchy Woman Character

I think the various "sidekick" trends in gaming are really interesting.

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I think another factor in the proliferation of 'Dad Games' is the advancing age of developers and audiences.

These days it seems that the 14-24 year old gamers are matched if not outnumbered by the 25-35 year olds. That is to say, guys who are at the age where many people start thinking about families and kids.

It doesn't take a great leap of imagination to see why themes of parenthood might resonate with players and developers at that stage of life. Combine that with the ongoing trend of male protagonists and boom, Dad Games.

That makes sense, Shamus- interesting point of view. And I think Zhukoz has a good point.

And sorry you needed the preamble.

Today's good idea is tomorrows lazy writing.

I think the "Not a female protagonist, but not a sausage fest" theory is probably spot-on, I've been thinking similar things ever since Yahtzee did his own "Why are PCs suddenly Dads" article.

I remember getting a bit of pushback from reasonable people making reasonable arguments when I called The Last of Us a tiny bit sexist for relegating the female character to an adopted daughter/sidekick role. Then, especially when it came out, people were like no, it's like that, even feminists don't mind etc etc.

And that may have been true, I never owned a PS3. I suppose my main objection wasn't even purely from a feminist perspective, it was just "why not just make her the protagonist?" I mean, that's a decent enough game right there. Young female protagonist, having to learn how to survive and make her way to the safe zone or whatever the premise is would have its own interest in it. In some ways I think when it comes to games, people often want to use complicated social arguments advocating for more women in games, when a much simpler argument could be "because putting a guy in EVERYTHING is really, really boring." And no number of sidekicks, no matter how well written, is going to make it less boring.

The small cast size of many video games (especially smaller, "indie" productions that still insist on using voice acting) can't help but exacerbate the problem of the "romance question". If someone is working in a company of a hundred people, male and female, it's entirely possible that people will keep their professional and romantic lives separate. If two people, without prior romantic entanglements, of the appropriate sexes and sexual preferences, of similar age, are obligated by circumstance to spend long periods of time alone or nearly alone together... The expectation of fiction, certainly, is that they might end up romantically involved. But even realistically, it's far from incredible that the question would at least come up.

I wrote a review of a book a few years back noting a similar situation, and had to suggest that the failure to even mention the possibility of the two characters connecting romantically was a bit of a failing. I wasn't by any means suggesting that the two should end up together, that a romance was obligatory, but merely that failing to have so much as a sentence saying "We agreed long ago that our relationship would remain strictly professional" was to the characters' detriment.

Oh wow, i was quite literally musing this trend last week; get out of my mind!!

Let's not forget The Talos Principle, though not sketchy or a sidekick...still a prominent bodiless voice with a soft, female (Maybe Californian? I don't know US accent subtleties). The developers seem to require a precise softly spoken casual US female voice. This could also be related to that theory that men seem to take more notice if the voice is female. SatNav speak was apparently based on such findings.

There is also the woman-with-computer-access-advicing-you-through-earpiece trope which goes beyond just this trend, into TV series, comics, films etc etc which could have some relation to this.

hentropy:
And that may have been true, I never owned a PS3. I suppose my main objection wasn't even purely from a feminist perspective, it was just "why not just make her the protagonist?"

If you ask me, Ellie pretty much is the protagonist; the whole story revolves around her. This is especially true if you played Left Behind; you never get to play as Joel through the entire side story, and Ellie is the only one to get any character development in the DLC.

I've always defined "protagonist" as the individual who is the driving force behind the plot, and that character isn't always the PC. For example, in Final Fantasy XII, the player character is just a street urchin with potential who, in a twist of fate, gets caught up in Ashe's campaign to reclaim her throne. Likewise in the FF series, Final Fantasy X gives us the insufferable, whiny Tidus, who is simply a hanger-on to Yuna's quest to destroy Sin, and he doesn't even become important to the plot until the very, very end. Vaan and Tidus are almost never the driving force behind their respective plots, even though they are ostensibly the lead characters.

I imagine the only reason Ellie wasn't the PC in The Last of Us is because it'd be a bit odd to see a 14-year-old girl slaughter her way through government security forces, bandits, and infected for an entire game, even though she is fully capable of doing so. That, and we'd miss out on the relationship dynamics of Ellie being escorted by some loner who doesn't recognize that she's fully capable of taking care of herself.

Although, the odd thing about not wanting romance, I'd argue that Firewatch was just that. The "sketchy lady" and the main character bickered a lot while simultaneously flirting a lot. So it's an interesting mix of the two, despite the fact that one half is supposedly supposed to lead to the other.

SlumlordThanatos:

If you ask me, Ellie pretty much is the protagonist; the whole story revolves around her. This is especially true if you played Left Behind; you never get to play as Joel through the entire side story, and Ellie is the only one to get any character development in the DLC...

It's a fair point that a protagonist doesn't necessarily have to be the PC. On the other hand, playing games where a female character is the focus but I'm still forced to play a grizzled dude only gets you so far. Of course, it's not just about that one game, which could have done it all perfectly, but if the overall trend continues I do think it's a troubling "compromise" to keep PCs male for entirely stale, corporate reasons but give a mulligan to feminists or women in general.

As Shamus pointed out, we've already been in this with the movie industry. People got tired of females being nothing but side note love interests, so they started pulling greater focus and then producers would give them "attitude" or make them superficially "feminist" or "strong" in order to appease the women watching and make them forget that her whole role is still as a love interest.

I imagine the only reason Ellie wasn't the PC in The Last of Us is because it'd be a bit odd to see a 14-year-old girl slaughter her way through government security forces, bandits, and infected for an entire game, even though she is fully capable of doing so. That, and we'd miss out on the relationship dynamics of Ellie being escorted by some loner who doesn't recognize that she's fully capable of taking care of herself.

It's certainly not that odd if you watch anime or play more Japanese games, though it is true that it would be somewhat jarring to western sensibilities at large. But I think it would be interesting without going "full anime" and keeping it more grounded, but still facing the realities that younger people are not left out of wars, societal collapse, and zombie uprisings, and there are ways to approach it without being too melodramatic.

So gay male lead? It fits the requirements and is far less restrictive on on the kinds of women you can include.

Having a mother/grandmother as a support character. Rare but awesome! But I guess a little too close to home for wish fulfilment stories and teenage targeted games.

There are some good examples in TV of this. Spaced for one. Sure, it shows its age and low budget pretty badly in some places, but its still damn amazing. Spoiler alert! Tim and Daisy don't get together. Not even once.

My money's on siblings being the next big one, following Assassin's Creed's lead. Not "we grew up together, we may as well be brother and sister!" ('cause that trope always leads to eventual romance) but actual siblings.

Then shall come the Eunuch bodyguard protecting the princess phase.

hentropy:
I think the "Not a female protagonist, but not a sausage fest" theory is probably spot-on, I've been thinking similar things ever since Yahtzee did his own "Why are PCs suddenly Dads" article.

I remember getting a bit of pushback from reasonable people making reasonable arguments when I called The Last of Us a tiny bit sexist for relegating the female character to an adopted daughter/sidekick role. Then, especially when it came out, people were like no, it's like that, even feminists don't mind etc etc.

And that may have been true, I never owned a PS3. I suppose my main objection wasn't even purely from a feminist perspective, it was just "why not just make her the protagonist?" I mean, that's a decent enough game right there. Young female protagonist, having to learn how to survive and make her way to the safe zone or whatever the premise is would have its own interest in it. In some ways I think when it comes to games, people often want to use complicated social arguments advocating for more women in games, when a much simpler argument could be "because putting a guy in EVERYTHING is really, really boring." And no number of sidekicks, no matter how well written, is going to make it less boring.

You could say it's a bit sexist, but not in the 'relegated to sidekick' kind of way. You look at The Last of Us, Bioshock: Infinite, and The Walking Dead, and the recurring theme beyond the 'father' one is that they all feature young girl companions. I doubt you can name me a similar game where it's a 30-something male protagonist accompanied by a teenaged boy. This is most likely because the developers knew their target demographic is guys, and that guys would find it easier to strike up an emotional bond with a girl companion then with a boy. Ellie herself feels specifically written to be as inoffensive to male audiences as possible. Like one of the guys, but not one of the guys.

SlumlordThanatos:
If you ask me, Ellie pretty much is the protagonist; the whole story revolves around her. This is especially true if you played Left Behind; you never get to play as Joel through the entire side story, and Ellie is the only one to get any character development in the DLC.

I'd disagree.

Joel is very much the protagonist in the main story. Ellie is... I guess you could call her the catalyst character; She's the one who brings about a change within the protagonist, and forces that change to snowball. But you never really get to peak inside her head the way you do with Joel. Not even really in the DLC apart from one single moment.

Male lead, female non-human lead or vice versa. A dragon or robot or whatever.
I don't think anybody expected a romantic subplot in drakengard or system shock no matter how much shodan wants you to pant and sweat in her corridors and from what I've seen in my limited exposure to halo games, master chief never got it on with cortana and nobody expected that to happen.

Could also be a kid male lead and female adult sidekick.
I doubt the expectation of a romantic subplot between, say, steven and garnet in steven universe ever came to anyones mind.

Any wedge between them that cements that no, they can't and won't bonk so let's just move on will do.
Being kids, relatives, different species, whatever.

Only sketchy male character I can think of along those lines would be the one from Bioshock. Can't remember his name, but Would You Kindly ignore that >.>

They could try to pull off an ex-wife at some point, but that entails respect for the maturity of their audience. Maybe in a few years, once the dad-devs start going through their divorces.

Wasnt Dredd kind of filling a dad role? He was more experienced and was evaluating Anderson, helping her stay in control of the situation.

Mentor maybe, but not really 'Dad'. That implies a level of emotional investment and care that Dredd doesn't (and shouldn't) display at any point during the film. If a father's daughter gets gunned down, that's a lifer changing trauma. Whereas Anderson going down would've been a bummer, but Dredd would've just told the chief Judge 'told you she wasn't up to it', then gone back to work.

You can't tell the player how to feel; Only good story-telling is going to lead to an actual emotional response from the player. A side-kick though can be written to feel whatever the story needs and if handled competently will help convey the situation to the player.

Related: there is a perception that men should be more stoic with their emotions so it's easier to convey those emotions if the side-kick is a female character. Conversely it's easier to write a male lead for that exact same reason (the less actual character the character has the easier it is for the player to imagine themselves in their position)

And sometimes you don't want your boring male protagonist to bump uglies with the emotional ball of exposition that is your side-kick.

Stereotypes lead to tropes, and tropes lead to stereotypes. What came first, the stereotypes or the tropes?

It sounds like the key here is to leave no room for the viewers to suspect that there's a hidden lust lurking within both of them.

I suppose you could have one be the other's gay friend and have them both compete for the same love interest.

Also, while I'd never recommend this, create two characters who are so bland and unconvincing that the audience cannot see them as people no matter how hard they try, thus killing any sense that feelings exist beneath their exteriors.

Blur effects in games suck! They're just an unnecessary gimmick to make games more movie-like; but they end up getting in the way of the gameplay, while wasting GPU in the process.

OT: Brother & sister. No matter how much they care for each other, people usually doesn't expect romance between them.

Casual Shinji:
Ellie herself feels specifically written to be as inoffensive to male audiences as possible. Like one of the guys, but not one of the guys.

See that's interesting, because "stop writing women as special-snowflake-goddess-trophies and just write them as people with a personality and interests of their own, whatever those may be, and remember that female doesn't necessarily mean feminine(because sex and gender are distinct)" is a fairly accurate summation of the sentiment expressed by several different female authors who gave talks at a creative writing course I once attended, yet I often see people attribute that "they're making her blokish to avoid threatening men" motivation when writers try and take aforementioned advice.

I'm not saying you're wrong in this specific instance, but if the outcome is a solid character who avoids or even subverts some annoying tropes do we really need to be second-guessing the intentions of the writers? It's not as if such "one of the guys..." women are vanishingly rare - they may be somewhat more concentrated in certain subcultures than others, but almost everyone will have known a few people like that.

Ark of the Covetor:

Casual Shinji:
Ellie herself feels specifically written to be as inoffensive to male audiences as possible. Like one of the guys, but not one of the guys.

See that's interesting, because "stop writing women as special-snowflake-goddess-trophies and just write them as people with a personality and interests of their own, whatever those may be, and remember that female doesn't necessarily mean feminine(because sex and gender are distinct)" is a fairly accurate summation of the sentiment expressed by several different female authors who gave talks at a creative writing course I once attended, yet I often see people attribute that "they're making her blokish to avoid threatening men" motivation when writers try and take aforementioned advice.

I'm not saying you're wrong in this specific instance, but if the outcome is a solid character who avoids or even subverts some annoying tropes do we really need to be second-guessing the intentions of the writers? It's not as if such "one of the guys..." women are vanishingly rare - they may be somewhat more concentrated in certain subcultures than others, but almost everyone will have known a few people like that.

It's more than that. Ellie is just a bit too perfect. I know the term is getting thrown around a lot recently, but yes, I would call her a bit of a Mary Sue. She's just never (morally) wrong or weak, as opposed to the other characters, both male and female. She's still a solid character, and by the end of the game I like her a lot, it's just a shame the writers were seemingly too afraid to expose her faults. This is probably due to the developers fearing that (male) audiences might get annoyed with her if she had moments were she'd be bitchy, or nagging, or crying etc. There's only one time we see Ellie being truly selfish and it's in the DLC, which isn't any good apart from that one moment.

Thank you for years of content Shamus. This column and, when it was up, Stolen Pixels were favorites of mine. Good luck with your future endeavors!

Per Shamus' challenge at the end:

-A man and elderly woman.
-A cross between Fight Club and Tiresias of Greek mythology in which the main character routinely changes gender while still interacting with the opposite version of him/herself through hallucinations.
-A gay man and his female friend.
-A man and his lesbian friend.
-Either of the above two who aren't friends at all but coworkers, professional partners, or uneasy allies.

Thanks for the good reads, Mr. Young. I should have commented more, but it's always that thing where you read something that DOESN'T have something egregiously wrong in it, and you move on to complain about something that does. Definitely one of my favorite columns on the site, though.

All the best in what is to follow.

nomotog:
So gay male lead? It fits the requirements and is far less restrictive on on the kinds of women you can include.

True that, but that's a can of worms that can blow up even more epically than any of the gender based land-mines.

One of my fave friendships in media at the mo is Black Widow and Hawk Eye for the precise reason that their best buds. It's such a freaking rarity for opposite sex, platonic couples in ANYTHING! Yet, peeps still flipped out when Hawk Eye's family showed up.

I feel like 'making the female lead somebody it would be socially inappropriate for the male lead to screw' doesn't really solve the problem so much as make it simultaneously more subaltern and way grosser.

Let people fuck. It's okay. But maybe give it a little more screen time than kissing for two seconds at the end 'because they're supposed to.' Relationships are cool. Dating is interesting. Relationships gone south can make for fantastic fiction.

But if you want to keep a relationship believably 'Platonic' (scare quotes because the term is itself a way Renaissance people used to pretend that the ancient Greeks weren't super gay), give the protagonist a significant other (no worries, they can stay largely offscreen if you suffer from Chris Avellone disease and are absolutely frightened of depicting video game relationships). Then, unless they're the sort of guy/gal who does that sort of thing, they'll stay 'just friends' with pretty much whoever else because cheating on people is shitty. Problem solved!

 

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