Lately, I have read several disparaging articles about the lack of female protagonists in video games. The release of Tomb Raider seems to have re-ignited the call for major publishers to let girls into the mostly-boys’ club that is triple-A gaming. Some of the more popular gaming sites have even called out the lack of marketing funds behind titles with female leads. Amidst all of the banter about “target markets” and “historically male consumers,” there is a bold truth that many in the gaming industry seem to be overlooking: for most titles, the gender of the lead character has no bearing on the fundamentals of gameplay.
Before tempers flare and comments are hastily typed, let’s take a step back to 1986, shall we? The Nintendo Entertainment System was taking off in the US. Several prominent game characters were making their debut, one of whom was none other than the Intergalactic Bounty Hunter, Samus Aran. At the time, this video game heroine was eliminating space pirates in the first installment of the Metroid series. The gameplay and atmosphere of Metroid was rather revolutionary, and this template set the standard for sci-fi adventure games (along with most of the Castlevania series) for many years to come. Today, most gamers use Samus as the sort of poster child for the existence/endorsement of female leads in video games, but when Metroid first came out, Samus’s gender was not touted as a revolution in the medium, but used in an M. Night Shyamalan-esque twist ending.
Originally, Samus was meant to be a male character underneath that bulky power suit. But somewhere during development, the design team decided it would be interesting if the protagonist turned out to be a woman; a secret only revealed if the player beats the game within a certain time limit (or to anyone who read Nintendo Power). Just in case this seems like an urban legend, take a look back at the instruction booklet for Metroid, where all of the pronouns are decidedly masculine. In this case, the fact that Samus is a woman has no bearing on the actual gameplay of Metroid; it is just a neat fact that affects each player’s perception of the story between the pixels.
To this statement, many in the pro-boys camp may be rattling their sabers and heartily concurring that there is no need for leading ladies if there is no impact on gameplay. But watch what happens if we extrapolate the Metroid example to another popular science fiction franchise. What if after fighting countless waves of Covenant battalions, turning the tide against the Flood, and preventing the destruction of organic life in the galaxy, Master Chief removed his helmet not to a cinematic cut-away, but to reveal a woman underneath all that power armor? As a trained and quite cybernetically augmented soldier, gender would have no sway on Master Chief’s performance. Hell, even the character model could stay the same (although a name change may be in order). Once more, all that changes is the individual perception of the story between the polygons.
There is one glaring issue that I have avoided so far: when the perception of the player or the overall narrative is altered, the entire tone and style of a game can shift drastically. However, changes in story and tone do not necessarily take away from the entertainment value of a game. Exploring tombs and ancient civilizations with Lara Croft is no less engaging than doing so with Nathan Drake, performing ridiculous combos and killing of piles of enemies is just as fun with Bayonetta as it is with Dante, and silence still speaks volumes whether you take control of Chell or Gordon Freeman. There are even stories of programmers hacking roms of old video games and swapping the traditionally male protagonists with female secondary characters. These differences do not detract from the gaming market at large; they add to it with variety and a rich amount of options from which consumers may choose.
As I grow older, and my schedule seems to have less and less time for gaming, I want my time spent in front of a screen to be worthwhile. Playing bland re-hashes of the usual crew-cut white dude trudging through a dirt-brown and gun-metal gray environment with an assault rifle just seems like a waste of time. When you take all aspects of a video game into consideration, the key thing to bring to the table is an engaging and innovative product that stands out from the crowd. Whether that means more female protagonists, a wider variety of tools and items, or just putting more dinosaurs behind the steering wheel, I hope to see game publishers encourage more variety in their triple-A titles.