Should more games let you choose your gender? Part One

If you’re the kind of person that thinks, “I don’t want to play as a [Male/Female] character” or “There are too many [Female/Male] characters in gaming” or “[Men/Women] are underrepresented in video games”, then you [Madam/Sir], are in the right place.

The discussion of ‘Gender in Video Games’ is a tricky subject. Perspectives can often be so polar, opinions so aggressive and mindsets so entrenched that even parties that might agree with each other take verbal jabs and casts hurtful comments at random. The point I’m making here is that I approach this subject tentatively. To raise the issue of ‘gender in video games’ on the internet seems akin to walking into the lion enclosure… ringing a dinner bell… dressed as a lamb chop… singing ‘Be Our Guest’ from Beauty and the Beast

Why do it then? Why write this post? Well, because I believe I have something positive to say. No criticism, persecution or prejudice. I simply wish to talk about a (possible) solution to a Big Problem in gaming. Oh, and it’s not my idea. It’s not even a new idea. There are quite a few games out there that have already employed this solution.

The Big Problem in this case centres on these points:

  • There is a vast disparity in the number of Male and Female playable characters.
  • A lot of people don’t want to play as women.
  • Developers worry that Female protagonists won’t be well-received.
  • There is a perception that Women don’t play certain games so there really isn’t an issue.
  • Many people just enjoy playing games for what they are.
  • Some people want more female characters; some people don’t.

This is not a Problem that can be solved overnight. However, there are already several games that present an answer to the question of representation in games: the choice of gender. Allowing players to pick the character they want is instantly inclusive, and also highlights the fact that not every game has to decide the sex of the protagonist for you. Furthermore, you don’t have to play as a woman if you don’t want to. A long term hope in this scenario would be that game developers become more confident in creating games with female protagonists.

Should there be more of this? If the gender of the main character is not integral to the game, should the player get to pick male or female?Let’s start with one very obvious, very successful example:

Mass Effect did it.

Despite a slightly ropey finale that left some fans somewhat embittered, the Mass Effect series was good gaming. Player choice was a big part of each game. Your character could be kindly or cruel, fierce or heroic. You could pepper you opponents with bullets or psychically torment them. Whatever your choices, Shepard became a galactic legend by the end of ME3, and at no point did gender have an impact on that legacy. Some minor differences occurred during each game – it affected which characters wanted to see you naked – but Fem-Shep was not held back by her femininity, in any way. Furthermore, if a player didn’t want to be awesome as a female character, they could be an awesome dude instead. The aforementioned Big Problem fades significantly.

image

As I’ve said, this is by no means the only game that employs gender selection. In medieval style RPG games with gender choice, I tend to play a man. This is because my History Teacher side reminds me the chivalric code and the realities of the feudal system. In my head, a male knight makes more sense, even if the game is also a fantasy. So in Dark Souls and Oblivion, I choose to play as a man. However, when I started playing Dragon’s Dogma I played as a female character. Why? Because I had just been watching Game of Thrones and I wanted to play as Brienne of Tarth. Why? Because she’s awesome, that’s why.

The fact is, as an individual I have enjoyed games that let me choose. I’m sure there are many of you who feel the same. The fact is that letting players choose their gender might just be the way to start bringing more female protagonists into gaming without angering people who only want to play as men. It won’t completely solve the issue, but it’s a way to head in the right direction.

Boy or Girl?

There are other games that go even simpler. No character creation or character modelling, just a simple question at the beginning of the game: Male or Female?

image

I still remember the first time I switched on my Game Boy to play Pokemon Blue. The game soon asked me to name my character and my rival. The names were fairly boring because my younger brother would have told on me if I had gone with my first choices. I then got to pick my first Pokemon, which was Bulbasaur (the right answer, by the way). That was it – decisions made. It made no difference to me that “are you a boy or a girl?” was not a question introduced until Pokemon Crystal.

You might argue that it doesn’t matter if that little set of pixels you control is a boy or a girl. And you’d be right: it doesn’t matter to the game…and that’s the point. Gender selection in Pokemon wasn’t necessary, but it was added nonetheless. The game creators took the time to make the smallest change to their games, and now all the children (and adults of course) that play Pokemon get that choice.  A small gesture, that allows gamers to feel just a little bit more included and respected.

Another series which has implemented gender choice is Halo. Whilst the early multiplayer warriors were all men, Halo: Reach and Halo 4 have allowed players to fully customise male or female Spartan armour. Again, the impact that this has on players who want to ‘be men’ is negligible. For players who want to ‘be women’, it’s at the very least a sign that game developers know they exist. That they have a place in gaming. I found some of the customisations look better on the female Spartans (don’t look at me like that, you know what I mean).

On a slightly tangential note: I’ve often thought that if the original Halo had been made after Mass Effect, then the developers may have been inspired to make Master Chief’s gender changeable. There’s very little in Chief’s character that suggests that he could not be Fem-Chief if the player so wished it.

Which games could let you choose?

It’s an idea… could it work? I personally don’t think it would work with every game; it is often possible to argue that a character’s gender is important. However, I believe there is more room for gender selection – a simple message at the start of the game that asks “would you like to be a boy or a girl?”. To demonstrate this, I intend to write a ‘Part Two’, in which I will talk about the biggest games of the last few years and discuss how they would have coped with the addition of gender selection (including games where the protagonist was female) and whether the ability to choose genders has any impact on the games themselves.

image

I could continue writing here, but I wish to pause, even for just a few days. This is because I want any following discussion to go in the right direction. Firstly, I want to hear your views on just the concept of more gender choice in games, before picking out particular examples. Secondly, if I’ve made an error in judgement or said something you disagree with at this stage, then it’s best to deal with that first. Thirdly, you get your chance to share your own experiences with games that have let you pick the character’s gender, or suggest games I should talk about in Part 2.

Your Thoughts?

  • Do you think there should be more games that let you pick your gender?
  • What other examples of games with gender choice have you enjoyed?
  • What games would you add gender selection to, if you could?
  • Or do you disagree with the idea of promoting gender choice in video games?

Why do the silent start speaking in sequels?

I’m sure that if I asked you to name your favourite video game characters, your list would include one or two silent individuals. Many of the most legendary protagonists are taciturn, and are often respected for staying quiet. Unvoiced characters often let their actions (or their games) speak for them.

Whilst many of these voiceless stay hushed, the decision to grant speech has occurred in many game sequels. In the past, this could be attributed to what games were capable of doing – voice acting in video games didn’t develop until the 1980s. Nowadays, this character change needs to be considered carefully. In my opinion, the addition of a character voice can change the very foundations of a game. Occasionally, a franchise will eject its original silent protagonist for a speaking lead, which has a definite impact on how the next game plays out.

Below are a few examples of games that gave their heroes permission to speak. I discuss how I reacted to the change, and the difference that change made.

1. Isaac Clarke from the Dead Space series

image

In Dead Space 1, Mr Clarke arrived on the space ship USG Ishimura, to find the crew had been reduced to reanimated corpses suffering with serious finger nail overgrowth and a tendency to hug and kiss a little too enthusiastically. Now, if this was you or I, we might have something to say about the situation…

“Oh my word” we might say. “There are an awful lot of monsters trying to chew my face off. I am slightly perturbed by this predicament, and find this whole scenario quite taxing.” And so on.

Isaac Clarke however relies on a series of grunts and groans to communicate his feelings as he trudges, stomps and blasts his way through his own personal nightmare. At no point did I find Isaac’s silence off putting. On the contrary, in a game where isolation and paranoia factor heavily, the absence of a lead voice added to the atmosphere. Mr Clarke was alone and he knew it.

Then he starts talking in Dead Space 2. I know why they made the decision; I understand that they wanted to flesh out the story and the characters. At the end of the day, it hardly breaks the game. I just didn’t appreciate the change. The inclusion of more speech detracts from the lonely-helpfulness of the original. There were some other people in the first game, which Isaac refused to speak to, but in the second game he jabbers on with anyone who will listen. If he can talk, why did he never call out to his girlfriend in the first game? That was the whole reason he was there.

I also never felt that Isaac needed more character. Dead Space was a game designed to scare the player, to make us feel insecure and lead us to question what was going on around us. We didn’t need to connect with Clarke to play the first game, so why are we being told to make friends with him in the sequel?

2. Jak from the Jak and Daxter series

image

Jak and Daxter are a little arrogant. They celebrate the collection of every Power Cell with the bravado of an entire football team. There’s a level of self-assured smugness about Jak too. In the end though, he turns out to be a charming protagonist. In Jak and Daxter: the Precursor Legacy, his physical reactions – eye-rolling, shoulder sagging, head shaking – convey all the audience needs to know about the current situation. With the bubbly Daxter quipping from his shoulder, Jak was never called on to say anything. He didn’t need to; he was the hero and he was going to get things done, high-fiving and fist-bumping all the way.

Then Jak is given a voice. Not just a voice though, he gets an overhaul. Everything from his hairstyle to his underlying personality were remodelled. The sequel itself is leagues apart from the predecessor. The series took a sudden left turn into ‘dark and edgy’ territory, and slung a pile of personal baggage over Jak’s shoulders.

The overhaul is one of the reasons why I personally accepted the ‘Talking Jak’. The transition itself is dealt with pretty well. There’s a defining moment early on the game when Jak begins talking, and it’s instantly used to show that the hero has gone dark and brooding. He never needed to say anything when he was happy saving the day. After two years in prison he’s got issues he needs to resolve. Daxter’s comedy relief is not only welcome, but is now also pretty important in keeping Jak on the right side of the line that separates Good and Evil. The jokes at the expense of Jak’s former silence are a nice touch.

“Maybe this guy’s a mute, like you used to be.”

3. John “Soap” MacTavish from the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare series

image

The Call of Duty games are full of mutes. From World at War to Black Ops, the world is seen through the eyes of numerous people, and most of them remain hushed. There are (and I’m sure to be chastised for a miss-count) six playable characters in the first Modern Warfare and the majority of your time is spent in the head of John MacTavish. He’s happy to act as trigger finger for the player without making a sound. This lends itself to the ‘every man’ feeling of the First Person Shooter; you’re playing as a character, but it’s really you that’s saving the day.

When Modern Warfare 2 rolled round, “Soap” MacTavish got a voice. The problem is… he’s really weird about it. When he’s a Non-Playable Character fighting alongside you, he’ll chat freely. When you take control of him in the final few missions of the game, he goes quiet again. It could be that MacTavish is conforming; maybe the “CoD characters don’t speak in first-person” is actually a strictly enforced rule. Either that, or when the player ‘pilots’ MacTavish, they’re actually sitting on the part of his brain that controls speech.

4. Claude from the Grand Theft Auto series

image

As mentioned, sometimes it’s the game that changes rather than the Player Character. When Claude rolled up in Grand Theft Auto 3, the franchise was greatly advanced. The world was now 3D, the story and characters more fleshed out. The one thing that was yet to change – Claude, like his ancestors, was entirely silent. He would walk up to a payphone or into a cutscene. The mission giver would talk at Claude, congratulate him on the good work he had done so far, and then offer him a new mission. Then Claude would walk off again. Half the time, he wouldn’t even nod or show any sign that he had understood the instructions; he would just leave.

The fact that Claude was mute (he is the one very literal mute on this list) made no difference to the enjoyment of this Grand Theft Auto. In fact, from an immersion/gameplay point of view, it could be argued that his lack of voice made sense. The fact that he never comments on missions or describes how he feels about characters illustrates that Claude is not invested in the story, which (let’s face it) many people wouldn’t be either. It often seems strange in later GTA games that the protagonist will spend two minutes of a cutscene expressing raw, barely-controlled hatred for an antagonist in the game, but between missions the same character can spend their time collecting taxi fares or shooting pigeons. Claude’s lack on investment makes sense inside the GTA sandbox.

Having said that, the Grand Theft Auto games that followed have all been superb. The next instalment, Vice City, still holds the title of ‘favourite GTA game’ in my brain. Whilst the more story-driven approach tends to go against the free-roam nature of the franchise, allowing protagonists like Tommy Vercetti and Niko Bellic to talk has made (at least) one positive change to series: whoever you are playing as…it’s their story now. In GTA 3, you’re completing a random bunch of missions for other people; fixing their problems for them. From Vice City onwards, you were completing missions so that you could succeed; fixing problems so that you rise to the top.

5. Jack from the BioShock series

image

This is the most recent transition from silent protagonist in the list. Again, the new, talkative character also came with a bold new direction for the series. Or at the very least, a new altitude (look at how clever and witty I am).

Jack isn’t completely silent in BioShock. He says/thinks an introductory statement, and then shuts up for the duration. Just as Isaac’s silence allows the atmosphere to press in on the player in Dead Space, so too does Jack’s reluctance to speak. Jack is clearly confused by underwater madness of Rapture and it’s equally doolally occupants, and we share in his puzzlement.

Booker DeWitt is Jack’s opposite when it comes to all things oratory. Not only does he spend the length of the game conversing with the ever-enchanting Elizabeth, but he will also comment on pretty much anything remotely interesting. Whilst Jack is determined to sneak and creep around the maze of pressurised tubes of the underwater asylum, DeWitt bounds around Columbia, commenting on the scenery, the enemies he faces, the contents of bins…everything.

Now of course, these are two very different games. Yes, one is in the sky and one is in the sea. The moods and atmospheres are different. The stories too, are contrasting. I believe that the use of speech in BioShock Infinite was necessary for such a dramatic change to work. DeWitt’s relationship with Columbia, Elizabeth and his back story would not carry the same narrative weight without his verbal contributions.

It also goes some way to showing that FPS protagonists can have voices. Although… Infinite does have a few weird moments where DeWitt is talking about things he remembers… but you’re playing as him and only hearing these things for the first time… which means the way you perceive Booker and his surroundings are different to how Booker sees things…which means you’re not seeing the world from his perspective… but you are literally seeing the world through his eyes… now I have a nosebleed.

Your Thoughts?

  • How do you feel about silent characters that gain voices, or the games that abandon the silent character?
  • Do you disagree with my assessment of any of these sequels?
  • What other examples of this transformation are worth mentioning? (I’ve missed a few obvious, big series like Sonic, for example.)

The Search for the ‘Ideal’… Melee Weapon.

You! Yes you! You have a decision to make! Well… that’s not true…you don’t have to. It’s just a bit of fun really. I didn’t mean to put you under that much pressure. I’m sorry I shouted. Let’s start over.

For my first post (which was a whole month ago! How the time flies) I asked a simple question: Which games would benefit from a Zelda Weapon? What was most intriguing was that many of the responses from readers reached a consensus: every game could be improved by the addition of Link’s Hookshot.

image

Continue reading “The Search for the ‘Ideal’… Melee Weapon.”

Minecraft & The Roman Empire

I am a history teacher, and I have used Minecraft to teach my students.

When you want to help someone learn, at any age, you start small. You begin with a simple concept, and then you build on it. The better that starting point, the easier it is to add more information. It also helps if that starting point is interesting and relevant to your audience. I’m not the first teacher to realise that Minecraft fits the bill as a starting point for learning. Nevertheless, I’d like to share my experiences with Minecraft as a teaching device.

Education warning: This post contains small amounts of learning.

Continue reading “Minecraft & The Roman Empire”

Weird Theory: Is Kratos really the God of War?

There is no doubt that the God of War series is excellent, most of the time. I wouldn’t try to convince you otherwise. There are, however, a few aspects of each game that don’t add up; details in each episode that don’t quite fit; features of gameplay that don’t belong; strange moments in Kratos’ behaviour…

Individually, these minor issues mean very little, I could brush them aside with comments like “oh, that’s just a small mistake, no harm done”. When brought together and treated collectively, I have gradually begun to realise that these ‘small mistakes’ could be subtle clues to the true story behind the whole series. Clues to the true identity of the main character.

I could keep my ridiculous views to myself, but I’m of the opinion that every theory, no matter how bonkers, should be addressed and discussed. And this theory is truly bonkers. In fact, it’s crazy on more than one level…

THE THEORY:

Short version: ‘Kratos’ is completely insane and he is not the God of War.

Long Version: Kratos is not a Spartan. He is not, and has never been, the God of War. He is not even alive during the time of the Ancient Greeks or Greek Gods. Kratos, whatever his real name is, (probably something similar like ‘Craig’ or ‘Chistopher’) lives somewhere in the modern world, deep within the walls of a psychiatric hospital. The gods, monsters, scenes and violent acts ‘Kratos’ perceives are, in fact, incredibly vivid hallucinations.

image

At this point you might be thinking: “Red Head, you could argue that every game is imagined, a dream, or make believe.” That’s true, but in the GoW series, that’s the point. My theory is that Kratos’ insanity is a deliberate part of the game’s design, gameplay and story – I believe that the games’ creators have deliberately placed clues throughout every ‘episode’ to the truth behind the illusions. I expect that in the next few instalments of the God of War series, the real world will begin to seep into the game, cracks will begin to appear, as Kratos’ mind begins to come to terms with the fact that his adventures are all in his head.

Warning: This blog contains itty bitty God of War spoilers.

THE PROOF:

1) ‘Kratos’ doesn’t know his own strength.

I wrote a blog last week about double-jumping, in which I make fun of Kratos. I pointed out how he seems to have trouble lifting himself off the ground, despite being strong enough to boot open giant doors and stamp creatures to death. This isn’t the only irregularity concerning Kratos’ physical power.

image

He can murder monsters a hundred times his size with brute force, but opening chests causes him to struggle and strain. At one point in his adventures, we see Kratos forcefully prise a titan’s finger and thumb apart. But not just any titan… a titan strong enough to hold up the earth. Yet time and time again, we watch the God of War whimper and whine as he wrestles with closed gates, straining painfully to lift a few bars of metal. I used to be worried that he might have a hernia.

This discrepancy could just be an oversight in game design. Just maybe though, we should have already realised that Kratos isn’t really using physical strength. Instead, his troubled mind is making up rules as it goes.

2) The guy is always raging.

What did you do when you were last angry? Shout and swear, pace up and down, grumble to yourself? Maybe you played a violent video game? Whatever you did, at some point you would have begun to chill out. It might have taken you a while, and you may have been quickly annoyed by something else, but for a time you were a little calmer.

​Not Kratos…

image

No matter who or what he impales, crushes or eviscerates, there isn’t a moment when Kratos shows any sign of calming just a little bit. He actually seems to get progressively angrier. I don’t know about you, but if I literally pulled someone’s head off, there would be a tiny release of some of that built-up rage. I might want to sit down somewhere quiet and think things through… maybe take a walk and reassess…

Kratos doesn’t relax, even for a second, because there is no release. The man behind the scenes is someone most likely sat cross-legged, held fast in a straightjacket, inside a padded room. He can imagine all the terrible things he would do to with beasties, fictional or otherwise, but he’s not actually able to deal with the real problem. Whatever that is…

3) The mythology is all over the place.

Call it what you want: poetic license; a touch of creativity here and there; the writer’s own interpretation of Greek myths. There’s no denying that the GoW series has taken Greek mythology and dropped it in a blender. To me at least, it’s easy to see the events of each game for what they are – visions formed from a mind that has absorbed, enjoyed and even obsessed over Greek myths, but hasn’t fully remembered or understood all of it. The myths are so muddled, so mixed, that it must surely be a deliberate message to the audience.

  • There is only one Minotaur in Greek mythology, and there’s only one Cerberus, yet Kratos sees them everywhere, all around him, wherever he goes.
  • The big, flashy Pandora’s Box in God of War 1 that super-sizes Kratos is… well it’s all wrong. In design, origin and purpose. It wasn’t even a box in the myth – it was a jar.
  • Finally, the mystery ‘patient’ himself has Kratos all wrong. There is an actual Kratos in Greek mythology, and he’s already a God – the God of Strength and Power. The ‘real’ Kratos also had wings… which would sort out that pesky double-jump problem.

4) It’s all a bit convenient.

The only GoW game I haven’t played is Ascension. My main question when I eventually play that game would be: “Is there anyone new left for Kratos to bump into?” Sure, it’s an origin story (sort of), but we always expect to see something new.

By now, the red and grey ball of rage has bounced around every corner of Ancient Greek mythology. Inaccuracies aside, the number of famous people, gods and creatures Kratos has come into contact with is remarkable. I struggle to recall anyone (or anything) that Kratos has not met, murdered or… mounted.

In the first GoW, Kratos was a Spartan leader affiliated with the original war god, Ares. By the end of God of War 2 Kratos is the son of Zeus and is best buds with the Titans. By the end of God or War 3 Kratos has butchered pretty much ever big-league god on Olympus.

​Then there are those moments where you turn the corner to find another random person plucked from Greek mythology, for no apparent reason…

image

Kratos: “Oh hey, Perseus, what are you doing here?”

Perseus: “I’m a boss battle!”

Kratos: “Oh… weren’t you the demigod who really killed Medusa and pulled her head off.”

Perseus: “……..I’m a boss battle!”

The reason, of course is simple, it is not enough for the ‘modern day Kratos’ to fantasise about taking on Ares, Zeus and the other gods. In his mind, he is at the centre of all Greek mythology. He is the most important man in the room. He will eventually be the only man in the room, the way he’s murdering his way through the cast list.

5) Read between the lines

​ When you begin to see that these games are little more than the imaginings of a tortured mind, you begin to see the signs. The ‘relationship’ he has with Zeus can be attributed to deep-seated father issues. The way every single person in the game seems to betray him or try to kill him: clear signs of abandonment. The chains that bind his arms reveal his feelings towards the asylum that holds him. I’ve played the demo for Ascension, so I know that Kratos begins his story chained up, before breaking his shackles and setting himself free.

image

Plus, think for amount about the sheer amount of breasts in every game…on almost everything. Freud would have a field day.

All of this, in my mind, paints a very clear image of who the ‘true Kratos’ is.

Your thoughts?

Which is more insane: Kratos, or my theory?

Have you seen anything else in the series of games that confirms or counters my ideas?

Are you upset that I have potentially spoilt the end of the God of War story??

D’You Dig Double-Jumps?

Now there’s a blog title I can be proud of for a long time. In my ongoing battle against the pile of games labelled “Want To Play” play sat upon various shelves and inside hard drives, I wandered into the side-scolling Mexican playground that is Guacamelee! One of the many aspects of the game I enjoyed were the the power-ups (special wrestling moves) which can be used in combat and in the platforming sections.

Early on in the game, you unlock the ‘Rooster Uppercut’, which allows your character to punch into the air, flaming fist first. Jump before using the attack, and Juan the Luchador will leap twice as high into the air, allowing you to reach higher platforms. Or groin-punch unsuspecting flying opponents.

image

“That is an interesting way to bring the classic double-jump into the game”, I thought to myself.

Continue reading “D’You Dig Double-Jumps?”

Has Mario been lying to all of us?

I don’t own a Wii U, and I have only recently become the owner of a 3DS. This means that my knowledge of more recent Super Mario games is limited. Last week, I discovered a startling fact about Super Mario 3D World – this time Bowser does not kidnap Princess Peach.

Now this may not have made waves with you, but I… well I was appalled. How could this happen? How could Bowser do this to Peach? After all they have been through? And after everything that Mario has done for him?

Continue reading “Has Mario been lying to all of us?”

Which games would benefit from a Zelda weapon?

I am currently in the final stages of The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds; I’m one of those gamers that can’t possibly take on the final boss if there is still a collectible out there. Each Zelda series has always been full of items and weapons, but when playing Link Between Worlds it really strikes me just how much item variety there is.

This thought then manifested: why do Legend of Zelda games get so many tools and weapons, but other game characters are restricted to a pile of slightly different guns. Could a game or franchise be vastly improved by borrowing an item from Link? Below are a few suggestions to show you what I mean:

Call of Duty found the Power Glove!image

Continue reading “Which games would benefit from a Zelda weapon?”