Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Feature, Not a Bug


So, the first thing to note on l'affaire Ubisoft is that it came about because a journalist actually bothered to ask a games developer just why they hell they still aren't putting a playable female protagonist into their multimillion-selling flagship series. That alone is fairly staggering; you're a games journalist, man, you're not supposed to ever ask difficult questions, let alone call someone on their obvious bullshit! The piece is, of course, currently rocketing its way across the channels and byways of the internet, giving lie to the oft-repeated claim that these questions aren't asked because people aren't interested in this sort of thing. We are, of course. Especially when it's a question-and-answer which cuts to the heart of the problems with representation in the games industry.

A female character was, we are told, on a "features list" for a long time, but simply had to be cancelled owing to the unfortunate exigencies of developing games to tight budgets and schedules. They'd have had to do different animations. Costumes. This would have doubled the dev time on those things, so unfortunately, the lady got canned. Sorry! And besides, they're doing history, and women were all in cupboards or something back then...?

All of this is nonsense, and it's hardly worth spending time on debunking. Ubisoft are a big company; the Assassins' Creed franchise sells millions of copies every year; the biggest expense as far as I'm aware wouldn't have been costumes or animations at all (there's female characters in the multiplayer mode) but rather in voice-acting, and so it's possibly telling they don't mention it.

No, the core of the problem here is that a woman was not conceived of as a credible focus for the story Ubisoft was trying to tell from the get-go. Despite their protestations to the contrary, it's clear that they started off with a male character to tell a man's story. The female counterpart was never a core part of the experience but a feature to be jettisoned. The woman is peripheral from the start: she is not integral to the experience except as an ancilliary character in the orbit of a man, deployed to chide, harden or propel the male character's adventure. Men get to be free-running sexy assassins; women get to be rescued.

It's not like Ubisoft are exactly alone here, although the Assassins' Creed, Watch_Dogs and Far Cry releases are all prominent offenders in perpetuating the utterly ubiquitous bestubbled-meaninglessly-angry-loner-male protagonist known and reviled as Doomguy. It is, as I said at the top, a problem the games industry has: because it's still male-run, male-driven, and creating for a notional audience of awkward teen boys (despite the large and ever-increasing numbers of women who play games), it is an industry utterly accustomed to putting a man at the centre of things and viewing women as a peripheral, an added extra: a feature.

When you're relegating half the world's population and a good section of your own audience to the level of a gun -with-some-flames-on-it DLC, something's badly wrong.

The maddening thing is that there are examples out there - good, successful ones - of how to do this sort of thing, and have been for years. I'll glance briefly at two here - Mass Effect and Dark Souls.

Mass Effect, as well as offering a broad palette of character customisation in terms of name, appearance and background, was constructed around a character-driven narrative that could be altered (within limits) at the player's discretion. If the character was male or female, the world subtly shifted around them, as it did with many of the choices the player could make. This kind of agency reached its zenith in the third instalment, where the character could choose to pursue a relationship with basically any of the main supporting cast. Want a chaste, do-gooder male space marine with stubble? Go ahead, you boring fuck! Want a remorseless black lesbian space-racist? Knock yourself out! Whatever you choose, you get to be the hero or heroine of your own story - and the gender choice, from the perspective of running around blasting fuck out of galactic bastards, is entirely arbitrary. It is still a masculine story and structure (ultraviolence in space; the loner against those who doubt him) - it's just that the game developers cared enough to give the player some level of control over it.

Dark Souls offers the character customisation but does something quite different with the narrative: which is to say, Dark Souls doesn't actually have much of a narrative as such, and as a result the player is given remarkably free reign to put his or her interpretation on it and, indeed, to construct their own character's story as they traverse the world. The silent protagonist is a perfect cypher for whatever the player wants them to be (with the stricture that the player has to want them to be a mouldering undead who batters monsters with a club).

There are plenty of other examples out there, of course, which just makes it all doubly maddening. Nintendo's ever-more-androgynous Link and the prospect of a Zelda game where you get to play as Zelda (!) are tantalising glimpses of progress, even if the company will have to do more than that to atone for its shameful handling of the Tomodachi Life fiasco. People who self-identify as "gamers" are constantly anxious that people aren't taking the medium seriously enough. There's something of a point there. But I expect that the Ubisoft news story will be met with the usual calls from the gamer grognards that attempting to have this discussion is somehow "injecting politics" into something that's meant to be fun, oblivious as ever to the fact that this sort of thing means games aren't fun for a lot of people. Until game-players, developers, producers, journalists - in short, the industry - get a grip on its problems with women, minorities, and all the wondrous variety that is human expression and experience, then games don't deserve to be taken seriously.

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