This year was pretty mixed for women in gaming. On the one hand, women in and out of the industry got treated like absolute garbage by an irrational "movement" that let loose a lot of sound and assholery signifying nothing. On the other? The representation of diverse women in actual video games was unaffected by these temper tantrums, and I dare say was an improvement on last year.
Here's a look back at some awesome games that did representation right in 2014. If you have more suggestions or excuses about ethics in game journalism, feel free to leave them in the comments!
Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel
Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel passes the Bechdel Test, casually introduces a lesbian character, and presents a handful of interesting, diverse women all within the first hour or two of playing. Yep. And it only gets better. From jokes that blatantly decry the usage of the term "friendzone" to a bevy of women of all types (strong, resourceful, smart, sexy,) Pre-Sequel earned favor in my book despite its multitude of glitches and pacing issues because of its fantastic representation.
It also drove home the point that games (or movies or TV shows) don't have to be occupied predominantly by men to be funny or clever. Too often, the idea of "humor = funny guys" gets employed, and it was nice to see the people at Gearbox, Anthony Burch in particular, do their best at demonstrating the falsehood of such a mentality. This was a funny, fun game full of interesting women, and I came away quite surprised at the whole thing overall. Good representation in a game with dick jokes? Who'd have imagined.
Dragon Age Inquisition
A trans character in a AAA game? A AAA EA game, I might add? It's more likely than you think, and it's just part of what made Dragon Age Inquisition such a progressive game. For starters, said trans character was incredibly well-written, and not treated like a freak, or a joke, or anything of the sort. He was portrayed as a human being, not a weird token. And that deserves some props.
The Alien franchise, as a whole, put female representation in action movies on the map. Ripley is still one of the absolute finest examples of good characterization in cinema, and one of the only female "action heroes" in existence. A pretty high mark, I'd say. So, of course, almost every game based on the franchise has some grizzled white dude as the protagonist. Because WOO games are for MEN, right? Anyway. This year, things changed, and not only did we get the first game to hew close to the Ridley Scott original, but we got the first big one with a female protagonist.
And what a protagonist she was. Amanda Ripley is one of the best characters I played as in a game this year, without hesitation. She's strong but not an overpowered meathead. Vulnerable but never because she's a woman. Smart, but not some annoying wunderkind. Simply put? She's a realistic character thrown into a horrible situation and forced to survive, yet somehow still manages to be unique and compelling enough to stand out and not just be a stand-in for the player. All this, and the game itself is also just a fucking great time.
Never Alone (Kisima Ingitchuna)
Never Alone has three characters, one of whom is a fox (well, sorta,) and the other one a villain, and on top of that, has no dialogue. Why is here, then? Well, uh, that's just it. How many dialogue-less art games exist out there? A lot, right? How many of them feature a female protagonist, let alone a woman of color, let alone a woman of color from an indigenous tribe? And that's why I think Never Alone is actually a game that does female characterization quite well: they could have made yet another art game with a male protagonist, but realized that male doesn't have to be the default and didn't do that.
So, maybe Never Alone doesn't pass the Bechdel Test or whatever, which isn't always a dealbreaker for me personally, but it does give us a crafty, resourceful and resilient little girl of color in a game that, despite some technical issues, is a visual masterpiece and one of this year's absolute best. Representation always matters, and always will matter, and it's nice to see some devs stepping up to the place to include diverse characters that we don't get to see every day.
The Walking Dead - Season 2
To me, the second season of The Walking Dead was a tad bit of a step down from the first. Not to say it wasn't good, or wasn't exciting, or didn't make me cry like a baby, because it was, and it did. But it just didn't feel as fresh as the first... or something. I can't put my finger on it. But one thing that was awesome was that Telltale continued its good pattern of great representation by letting players step into the shoes of Clementine, the little girl from the first season that players acted as surrogate parents to.
Only, she's not a cute, innocent little girl anymore. She's seen some shit and it shows. Players have to guide her through some terrible, awful, heinous stuff, both physically and morally. They have to watch as she learns and grows in the hardest ways possible, all while undergoing all of the hormonal and physical changes that come with growing into a teenager. Clementine was not only a badass, but a convincingly human character, and that's a pretty tough thing to pull off for men or women. Despite my overall issues with Season 2, Clementine's development was definitely one of the biggest highlights of my 2014 gaming experience.
I consider Bayonetta to be a strong feminist role model in the same way that I consider Nicki Minaj to be one. That is to say, both of them are overtly sexual people that are quite profane, not to mention have a propensity for talking violently. And yet, both of them demonstrate to women the virtues of wielding one's sexuality freely, of staking your claim in the world, of being unashamed of being a woman and being empowered by it. Could some people construe both of them as problematic? Oh, yeah, sure. But I've also seen women embrace this unabashedly over-the-top kind of person and portrayal as liberating, as opposed to all of the media in which women are cast in the "downtrodden survivor" kind of role.
Perhaps as a guy, it isn't entirely fair to make a claim in one direction or the other, but I have an opinion, and dammit, I'm going to share it. I think that, despite some problems with how she's portrayed, Bayonetta herself is a wonderful character. She was primarily created by a small team of women, with her character designer wanting to make a "female empowerment fantasy," and that kind of shows in the way she behaves, the stuff she does, the way she acts. As a character, she's a ridiculous amplification of traditional societal femininity, turning things like high heels and lipstick into things that can crush and overpower anyone and anything. So despite the occasional leering camera angles (which are usually played for laughs anyway,) Bayonetta 2 could make an argument for itself as having good female representation, and it's an argument I'd buy into any day of the week. Of course, that's just my opinion, and if you don't think so, that's okay too!
The Best of the Rest
Again, 2014 was a pretty good year for women in video games. First off, we finally got to play as Elizabeth in the second episode of Bioshock Infinite: Burial At Sea, marking the first time that the excellent character was not being seen from the perspective of Booker Dewitt. Speaking of seeing strong women from a male perspective, I have to give a shoutout to both Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, Wolfenstein: The New Order and Murdered: Soul Suspect, because despite having a grizzled tough guy protagonist, both featured compelling female leads (Ilona, Anya and Joy, respectively) that were intriguing, autonomous individuals, never relegated to "the love interest" or "the surrogate daughter." And hey, if I recall correctly, Wolfenstein even sort of passed the Bechdel test, even with a male lead. Pretty cool, if you ask me.
As far as other interesting female leads, I have to say that despite some ridiculously offensive elements, Drakengard 3 had a great lead who was cocky, violent, sociopathic, and all-around nasty, which are things that women don't get the chance to be a lot in modern games. Ditto for Deception IV, which was also no stranger to potentially offensive material, but offered us a quatro of refreshingly devious ladies that we obviously weren't supposed to totally like. Good female representation means all kinds of women getting represented, and that's why I think those are pretty bomber despite some personal issues I have with them.
Nintendo as a whole kind of killed it this year, too, and in places you might not expect. First off, I'd make an argument for Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney having great female characterization, with a multitude of diverse, intriguing, well-written ladies that serve as driving forces in the plot. And while Samus in high-heels is still hella dumb, Super Smash Bros. For Wii U/3DS went out of its way to include more playable female characters than ever before, which was nice, and Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker let players take the role of Toadette, not as a love interest, but as a platonic "adventure pal." Neat!
And there were more games, for sure, but these were just the ones that stood out... and the ones I played. For example, I've heard tell that Child of Light has a great female lead, but uh, I haven't played it yet, so yeah... Anyway, 2014 was a pretty good year for female representation in gaming, and even though it's not where it could be, it's still in a far better place than it has been in the past. I know I'm not the only one who's looking forward to what the industry offers up in 2015!