Brenna Hillier. Damn it. The internet was not prepared.
So what happened was a developer of Deep Down chatted with some people on a live stream about the game. Standard fare, really, for an upcoming game. Some new info got dropped, questions got asked – it was all very innocuous. Except for one small detail: Deep Down will not feature playable women characters.
This, understandably, made a few people sigh resignedly. Another game with a bunch of dudes in it doing dude things and killing dudes. Yeah, familiar dance.
But not Brenna. Over on VG247, Brenna Hillier got mad. Very mad. She wrote words. They were angry words. And they are important and fantastic and hilarious and so so real. Read them.
I can’t top that, but I’m going to have my say, because I am also fed up with the current state of manly man games.
I’m not fed up because I am not represented. As a guy I’m pretty much guaranteed representation. Everywhere. What I am fed up with is being talked down to as a member of the male demographic. I am a man, and I want some strong playable women. I am sick of all these men, and I am sick of the lazy excuses used to justify all these men.
Yep. “Narrative reasons”.
Here’s the thing about stories – they do not exist fully formed in some creative aether, ready to be plucked whole into this world by a writer. Stories are entirely and completely created. The writer chooses the setting, themes, complications, structure, characters. And, by making those choices, they are making a statement about what is to be valued by those interacting with that work.
If you make your protagonist a three year old shetland from Winnipeg, you are stating that they are, in some way, important. Conversely, if you make a story where there are no playable women at all, then you are making the statement that women have no agency, and are almost certainly subordinate to men.
If Deep Down can tell a story that does not give agency to half of the world’s population and still have narrative integrity, that’s fine. If Deep Down’s story can justify removing 3.5 billion people from existence and still make sense, that’s fine. If the narrative relies on having zero playable women around in the (entirely created) game world, that’s fine.
But why would you want to write a story like that in the first place?
Why, as a creator, would you say “okay, I want to write a story. It’ll have its own world, own lore, own history, own characters. It’ll be a universe that can be made in any form I choose. But I want it to be men only! No girls allowed!” Why is that a good thing? Why is intentionally creating your own entire universe for the entertainment of others in an image that is deliberately and obviously exclusionary a good thing?
I believe in artistic freedom. Creators can do what they want to make the things that they want in the way they want to make them. But I also believe that if you’re making deliberate creative choices to actively exclude any group of people from your creation, then you might just be a little bit of a wanker.
Creators can make what you want how they want, but I can also say that I think that their decisions are rather silly.
So, the next time you see someone calling out a creator who doesn’t include [x-group] in their creation for “narrative” reasons, remember that it’s okay for that person to be upset, and that the creation might not have as much societal value as other creative works.
This isn’t an argument about creative freedom – because the creators clearly have freedom, and will continue to have freedom, and nobody wants to force creators to make things they don’t want to make – it’s an argument about whether all art is equally worthy. Bottom line is – it’s not. This isn’t just true for video games, this is all art – some art is damaging, and it should be identified and called out.
Part of the problem is the lack of faith financiers have in games that star women. A lot of people still think of gaming as a “male” pastime – which it statistically is not. Another part of the problem is the lack of women in top creative positions (or any positions at all) in the gaming industry – which is statistically proven. But these are reasons, not justifications.
So let’s look a few justifications, shall we?
There is the old debate about the cost of resources – and it’s not technically wrong. It DOES cost money to create female character models in addition to male character models. It DOES cost money for potential extra voice work. But, after a certain point, that argument falls over, since developers will be expending some of that money anyway, and the potential gain of being inclusive far outweighs the initial expenditure during development.
Besides, if indie devs on shoestring budgets (or not quite shoestring, but nothing near the bottomless pockets modern AAA studios have) like Volume’s Mike Bithell and Ground Branch’s BlackFoot Studios can decide to spend the cash on the resources, then surely AAA publishers can afford to do so too.
And yes, male characters do have a problem with representation in games. Yes, male characters are barely-there caricatures that represent unrealistic concepts of masculinity and body image. But that’s not an excuse to not try harder to include women. A badly written woman is better than no woman at all. And writers and developers will never get a female character right if they don’t ever practice.
Of course, another much better writer than myself has already looked at some justifications and written eloquently and intelligently on the topic, so you should just read her article instead. Damn you Keza MacdDonald!
The irony is, this isn’t really about Deep Down. Deep Down is just the latest straw in an ever expanding paddock. The real issue commentators are making is that, as an entire industry, there are whole groups of people being left out. Women. People of colour. Non-cisgendered people. LGBTI people. If you aren’t a straight white man, you aren’t visible in the mainstream gaming narrative.
Is it sexist to have a game that has a male protagonist? No. But it is sexist to have a hundred male protagonists to every game that has one female protagonist. Sure, there have been some games with strong women – Beyond Good And Evil, Mirror’s Edge, Tomb Raider. But that’s a vast vast minority of titles. The usual titles trotted out as part of a “it exists” checklist, as if those few, well known, old examples exonerates the penis plantation that is the modern video game lead drawpool. But that’s not good enough. It’s not about ticking boxes and moving on back to the male status quo. It’s about being able to have great games that everyone can enjoy and identify with that treat everyone fairly and inclusively.
Creators, you can do better. Gamers, you deserve better.
Oh, and if you’re a grumpy disgruntled little man on the internet complaining about the wimmins in ur gaems – don’t worry, nobody is going to take your toys from you. Nobody wants your filthy, used, stained toys anyway. You’ll still be able to indulge in over the top escapist male power fantasies – they will never go out of fashion. The best thing about capitalism is that if you don’t want to buy a thing, you don’t have to buy it. More women in games will have absolutely zero effect on you.
But it could have an enormous effect on a whole bunch of other people, and I don’t know why you would fight so hard to prevent other people feeling like human beings.
P.S. As for Brenna closing the comments on her article, that’s not an assault on free speech as many often decry. VG247 is a privately owned and run company, and they can dictate what is and is not allowed to be said to or about them at their own place of business. Commenting is a privilege, not a right. While I’m keeping our comments open (because you’re all awesome people), if I see any personal attacks on anyone at all in our comments I will prune them. Gleefully.