AAA

Female Protagonists: How An Indie Revolution May Never Happen

by Jed Pressgrove

Note: “AAA” is in quotation marks throughout this piece because of its presumption of high quality.

I have no great expectations for Ubisoft — or any other “AAA” company, for that matter. Don’t get me wrong: I want big-budget games to be good, especially the ones that I spend money on. But I have zero faith that a “AAA” game will inspire a revolution in regard to any worthwhile or interesting idea.

Anyone who keeps up with game writing knows that “AAA” female protagonists is a highly discussed topic. This discussion often comes in three forms:

1. Some people say a “AAA” game should have a female protagonist for purposes of representation and/or a new approach to a series. In response, some people say the company/developers/artists should have the freedom to do what they want with protagonists, while others dismiss the concern about female protagonists as something not worth thinking about, sometimes via insults and generally immature attitudes. The latest highly anticipated “AAA” game to inspire such a discussion is Assassin’s Creed: Unity, which was announced by Ubisoft at E3 (which has gone from a necessary informative event that excited me as a youngster to the most annoying game-related thing of the year that clogs up my Twitter feed, generally rendering any attempt to talk about games outside of a marketing context as futile, unwanted, and irrelevant). Even Time featured an article about the lack of playable female characters in Assassin’s Creed: Unity.

2. Some people say a “AAA” game needs to handle its female protagonist in a different way. In response, some people do the exact same thing I described above. Others argue that perhaps the female protagonist in question is a good thing. The latest highly anticipated “AAA” game to inspire such a discussion is Rise of the Tomb Raider — another E3 announcement. Leigh Alexander wrote the most interesting piece on this subject.

3. Some people point out a “AAA” game will or might feature a female protagonist. This discussion doesn’t typically result in as much heated debate. The latest highly anticipated “AAA” game to inspire such a discussion is the Zelda Wii U game announced by Nintendo at E3.

At this point in the year, it’s fairly obvious that if you’re talking about female protagonists, you’re talking about “AAA” female protagonists. While I don’t begrudge people for having these discussions … OK, that’s dishonest. Frankly, the “AAA” focus is a disservice to any current discussion about female protagonists. At the same time, it’s not impossible to understand why these discussions occur. Ubisoft is the reigning king of moronic PR. Male protagonists do tend to dominate “AAA” games. Leigh Alexander makes several fair points about how male and female “AAA” heroes are treated. And even I, the guy who hates E3, am intrigued by the idea that the new Zelda could star, well, Zelda.

Meanwhile, I highly doubt an indie revolution in regard to female protagonists can occur if the misleading “AAA” bias continues. When the most reassuring article about female protagonists focuses on “AAA” games featured at E3, we have a problem. In a world where we can read about indie games more than ever, it seems counterintuitive to say indies don’t receive the credit they deserve, but it’s true. Braid, Journey, and company have accomplished virtually nothing for indie games from a critical standpoint. Sure, people write and read about indies a lot. Yet discussions overwhelmingly lean toward what’s happening in the “AAA” sphere. The discussion about female protagonists is prime evidence of this trend.

Nevermind the question of whether it’s even a good idea for an immoral game series like Grand Theft Auto to include female protagonists. How about the fact that indies are doing things with female protagonists that critics rarely reference? When Rise of the Tomb Raider comes out, many will discuss Lara Croft’s therapy sessions for post-traumatic stress disorder, but will many bother to mention that The Cat Lady featured a female protagonist talking about her life and depression in therapy sessions? What if the new Zelda stars Zelda? Will anyone mention Shipwreck, the Zelda-inspired indie game starring a female protagonist? Indies even have trouble getting attention for doing completely different things with female protagonists. Last year, writers were happy to talk about Choice: Texas, a then-unreleased indie game about abortion featuring multiple female protagonists, when they could deem it a potentially controversial game. However, since going live on May 14, Choice: Texas can’t seem to get much attention from anyone. So much for controversy in regard to indie female protagonists, right?

Indeed, going by the current dialogue, readers will be lucky if they learn anything other than what big game companies announce, or fail to announce, at E3 in regard to female protagonists. The impression I get from many commentaries is that “AAA” games must function, at all costs, as the vanguard for female protagonists in gaming. Sounds like a nice prophecy to me: if “AAA” games do somehow spark a fantastic new trend in female protagonists, many can be happy that they, in a small way, contributed to the cause. An indie revolution is truly impossible when people look to the big studios for every answer to their critical concerns about female characters.

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Money and Popularity Have Game Criticism in Check

by Jed Pressgrove

Game critics are drawn to “AAA” and hyped indie games like insects to light bulbs. The urge to discuss what everyone else is discussing is an understandable urge, but we should explore the message that these limited discussions send: money/popularity = greater relevance.

The focus on well-marketed games implicitly comments on what we find valuable in gaming. People often treat “AAA” as a term about budgets, franchises, and marketing, but the capital “A” is clearly associated with “better” (the education system has made sure of that). We expect “AAA” games to be better, and when they are very good, we often proclaim them the best. These expectations, along with the fact that “AAA” games generally cost $60, translate into critical relevance.

Hyped indie games like Braid and Gone Home have somewhat challenged this truism. These games may not be “AAA,” but a lot of people have bought them, so they are relevant and ripe for discussion — some might even nominate or call them Game of the Year. One could see this as an improvement as far as broadening the critical discussion is concerned, but the fact remains that neither “AAA” nor hyped indie games are consistently outstanding enough to warrant critical obsession, unless we believe a lot of discussion automatically makes something relevant or good.

Game criticism should be about fitting ideas and design into an insightful historical, cultural, or political context. When video games were relatively new and a smaller hobby, criticism could focus on fewer games. But now that video games are ubiquitous (developing games is the new playing the guitar), you can only gather so much insight from focusing on “AAA” and hyped indie games. For example, critics have written obsessively about how Bioshock, The Walking Dead, and The Stanley Parable handle the concept of choice, but it’s not because these games have made significant strides addressing or presenting choice (unless you pretend Deus Ex, Fallout, and their predecessors never existed) — it’s because those games are hyped and people are already talking about them. The discussion on hyped games is a cycle of obviousness that ignores video game history and actual innovation.

Meanwhile, a free game like Chris Johnson’s Moirai receives little attention despite its original handling of choice and consequence (first with prepared dialogue options, then with dialogue created by the player, and finally by the decision of another player). Devi Ever’s A Game of Cat and Mouse, another free title involving choice, has inspired some interesting feedback that the developer had to seek out, but the game criticism community is largely unaware of the game’s emotional sophistication. (I would love to see how the smug Stanley Parable would criticize Moirai or A Game of Cat and Mouse. Galactic Cafe should thank God it had Bioshock to pick on — easy target, easy publicity … kind of like Ayn Rand and the United States.)

As video games multiply, critics must do more than comb through games people already know about. They should take pride in reminding people of game history and pointing readers toward exciting and provocative titles outside of the hype. I have criticized writers for citing critic Mattie Brice to forward an agenda, but her advice to broaden one’s video game diet is not a personal agenda — it’s a principle of criticism.