Video Game Heroines In 2013: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

Seems like 2013 was a pretty good year for video game heroines. We saw Lara Croft go from being the quintessential video game pin-up character to something resembling a real human woman. Compare:

laraoldandnew

What’s better about the new Lara Croft? Where to start? She’s wearing actual clothes. She’s wearing pants, which, you know, makes sense for an adventurer. Her proportions are realistic! There’s still a sexy vibe about the new Lara, but that’s not the point of her new character. Her design speaks to the kind of athleticism you’d expect from someone who goes on adventurers and climbs and hikes and all that. In short, while she may have sex appeal, she’s definitely not a sex object anymore.

I think this is a step in the right direction for video game heroines. It’s a sign of progress! We’re moving in the right direction, at long last. We’re finally recognizing that 45% of gamers (at least) don’t have a Y-chromosome. 2013 has been a great year in this regard!

And then this happened:

Meet Quiet, the new protagonist for the upcoming Metal Gear Solid 5:

quiet

Sigh.

Underwear? Check.

Prominently displayed cleavage? Check.

Impractically sexy clothing damage? Check.

I can’t think of anything else to say about her character based on this design. She has the same distant, snarky expression of the Lara Croft from the previous decade, the one that says, don’t worry, I won’t be ruining the sex appeal by showing any actual emotion like fear, anger, or determination.

True, this is only concept art and her actual personality might be very different in the final game. On the other hand, I think you can tell a lot by looking just at the concept art. Let’s compare Quiet to 2013 Lara.

laraquiet

Aside from the fact that she’s basically in her underwear, we can see that Quiet’s leggings are torn in several places. Is this supposed to suggest that she’s been through a harrowing survival experience? Maybe, but if so, the fact that everything else about her appearance is flawless suggests that actually, she just likes to wear leggings with big holes in them. She doesn’t look like a warrior. The gun-belt doesn’t communicate anything of the sort; if anything, it just sends the entire design further in male fantasy land. Chicks with guns + underwear = hot.

With the two character designs side by side, you can really see the difference. Lara looks like she’s been through a survival experience. She’s covered in dirt and grime, with several makeshift bandages here and there. Her clothes are torn, but not in a way that’s strategically sexy. Is she still unrealistically beautiful for someone in a life-and-death situation? Yes, absolutely. In “real life,” she’d likely be a lot worse off. But we’re talking about video game protagonists here; male and female alike are allowed to have the “attractive” attribute, as long as that’s not the primary attribute for the character. As soon as you have a character parading around in their lingerie instead of actual clothing, you’ve sacrificed characterization for sex appeal.

Because, let’s be honest: you know what’s really fucking useful when you’re fighting or surviving in the jungle?

POCKETS.

Pants have pockets on them. Hell, even shorts have them. You know what doesn’t have any pockets? Bikinis with ripped lingerie leggings. Huh, imagine that.

Basically, it comes down to the fact that when I look at Quiet, my first thought is “stripper.” When I look at Lara, my first thought is “survivor.” I’m not a woman, so I can’t say which character design would give me a feeling of female empowerment, but I do know which image is more heroic to me. I know which character I’d want my daughter to look up to.

Regardless of hypothetical scenarios, I know which kind of character I enjoy and appreciate more. Evidently, that taste isn’t mainstream yet. I thought we’d come further along than this. Alas.

8 thoughts on “Video Game Heroines In 2013: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back”

  1. Quiet’s design is quite possibly one of the most ill-conceived character designs I’ve seen in a long time. I can’t imagine why anyone would think that outfit (or lack thereof) could ever be considered practical or even sexy. Most of the guys I know are completely put off by Quiet and some were downright insulted, wondering if game developers realized that not all male gamers are horny teenagers.

    As a female gamer, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry…

    1. True, it’s a disservice to male gamers as well who have aged out of the “horny teenager” bracket. Having aged out of that bracket myself, I cringe when I think about what I was like then I don’t blame the younger version of myself for being that way; the hormones at that age are pretty insane. I’d still prefer if gaming stopped reminding me of it, though.

  2. From a feminist viewpoint, I am really disappointed the developers of MGS5 cannot think beyond their penis and this is a real backward step following the positives of the new Lara. I for one has now been put off from ever considering such a game that paints women in such a light.

    Ashame, as in this country, 50% of gamers are female. Shame the developers don’t think so on this game!

    1. The thing that’s puzzling about this choice in design is when you compare it to Kojima’s previous work. The character of The Boss from MGS3 had a design that, admittedly, went for sex appeal with the stealth suit, but didn’t go crazy sacrificing functionality and practically in its appearance. I wonder what changed?

  3. Alright, here’s my problem with this analysis: the game isn’t out yet. We don’t know what the in-story or literary justification of her appearance is, and according to Hideo Kojima, both exist.

    When I see how extreme Quiet’s outfit is, my first reaction is to be appalled. My second reaction, however, is to wonder if it is a deconstruction of the trope. Based on Kojima’s cryptic response about people being ashamed once they learn the reason, I think deconstruction seems even more likely.

    All of this reminds me of the panic one feminist had over My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, before it premiered. Based on early promotional art and the synopsis of the first episode, Kathleen Richter from “Ms. Magazine” concluded that the new version of My Little Pony was going to be racist, homophobic, and smart-shaming. She felt the show would try to convince girls that being smart is wrong for a girl, and that it’s better to be a popular bubbly airhead than a booksmart nerd.

    Richter was way off base, though. The show’s creator, Lauren Faust, actually drafted a rebuttal that was later printed. The creator, as it turns out, is a lifelong feminist herself, and her goal was actually to create a show for little girls that highlighted all of the different ways you could be a girl. Her bookish lead, Twilight Sparkle, is never smart-shamed, and there are many episodes where she is lauded and relied upon for her intelligence. I would go so far as to say that MLP:FiM is exactly the exposure to feminism that little girls need in their formative years.

    So, does that mean that we shouldn’t call out Kojima on the design of Quiet? Certainly not. Putting him on the spot and saying, “This looks sexist.” is perfectly appropriate, and is part of being a moral guardian. But when Kojima reassures us that there is, in fact, a specific purpose for her design, we should give him the benefit of the doubt until the game itself surfaces. Who knows? We might be surprised at the biting commentary the game levies against objectifying women.

    1. Ahh, I forgot wordpress strips links out of posts. Here are the articles to look up:

      “Kojima responds to criticism of Metal Gear Solid V’s Quiet”

      “My Little Homophobic, Racist, Smart-Shaming Pony”

      “My Little NON-Homophobic, NON-Racist, NON-Smart-Shaming Pony: A Rebuttal”

    2. I did note that I was comparing the character design on the merit of its role as concept art, which is why I tried to limit my analysis of Lara to only include details that seemed apparent from the concept art image (this was the image that first showed off Lara’s new design when the game was previewed).

      I’m not quite willing to take the “there’s a story reason for this outfit” on faith. Developers have a tendency to say things on these topics that don’t pan out, for better or worse. Not all story justifications are equal; Bayonetta getting less clothed as she fights comes to mind, which is justified in the story’s conventions but still feels exploitative to me. On the other hand, Mystique’s design in the X-men movies made sense; she’s a shapeshifter, she can mimic clothing, it makes sense for her to be naked.

      Your point about My Little Pony is a good one, even though I can’t speak to that particular controversy with any authority. I do know there are other examples supporting your point.

      After all, it was originally Tomb Raider 2013, the very game and character design that I’m holding up and praising, that was drawing similar criticism for producer Ron Rosenberg’s comment that “you’ll want to protect the new Lara” and that “when people play Lara, they don’t really project themselves into the character.” The game itself doesn’t have that effect at all and Rosenberg basically had no idea what he was talking about. Not to mention the whole “attempted rape” scene controversy, which turned out to be over-hyped to such an extent that I didn’t even realize I’d played through it until I’d finished the entire game.

      It’s certainly possible that the game will have a reason for the character dressing up in this fashion and that reason will be compelling enough that I’ll eat my words. In fact, I hope that does happen! I’ll happily admit I was wrong in that case, because it means we are indeed moving away from the objectification of women, which is much more important to me than being right.

      1. I definitely agree that even a plausible in-universe reason doesn’t really help matters, and I actually wasn’t speaking directly to that sort of thing. Literary purpose, however, is a different matter.

        Mystique’s sexualized design, for example, has a strong literary purpose. It tells us about her character, showing that she owns both her sexuality and her body. The fact that there’s an in-universe reason (she can shapeshift to create any clothing she desires, and she likes that form she takes) is completely secondary to the fact that by giving her that appearance clearly marks her as a dangerous femme fatale.

        We’ll see what happens when the game comes out. I’m guessing either Kojima is full of shit and this character will be awful OR she’ll be a good deconstruction of the objectified action woman.

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