Following Kim’s post on wonderful women in video games, I came to realise that I’m always more likely to choose a female character. I put this down to male leads being more typical and, in my opinion, the boring option when it comes to creating compelling protagonists.
Thinking back to when they announced the box art for BioShock Infinite, there was a backlash about the generic ‘good guy’ cover-art because Elizabeth was the more interesting character. This is a good example of what’s on my mind.
For me it started with Lara Croft in Tomb Raider when I got my PlayStation back in 1997 – and I promise it wasn’t about her pointy physique. Regardless of how good the design of any game is, I struggle to make that attachment between myself and the onscreen protagonist. I always feel like I’m controlling somebody else’s actions and it’s more prevalent when they’re able to speak. I think this is why it’s even more important that they’re interesting, not just in their backstory but also in their motivations and actions.
The closest I’ve probably come to actually feeling like the character I’m playing as was with Gordon Freeman in Half-Life, because that’s exactly how it was crafted to be in the form of a silent hero. The title was groundbreaking at the time of release in 1998 for mixing first-person shooting mechanics with story and game design that made it so immersive. The unspeaking protagonist is quite common today – perhaps because it’s cheaper than employing voice-acting – but back to the subject of women in video games.
There are sometimes clear benefits when it comes to picking the female character. Let’s take the Fallout series as an example. As most enemies here were male, it made sense to pick a protagonist who was a woman due to the Black Widow perk as it gave you a ten-percent damage bonus against the opposite sex. It also provided unique dialogue options outside of combat and you could talk non-player characters into giving up information quicker or helping with alternative ways to complete quests.
More recently in Apex Legends, some female characters had smaller hit-boxes due to their physical character design and this arguably made them more difficult to shoot when they’re not standing still. Not all the small characters were women of course but it does remind me of the same perceived issue with PlanetSide 2. Many players selected to play as a female protagonist as they were visibly leaner in size, with the theory being that they were therefore harder to target.
With the Assassin’s Creed series, we were given us a choice in character during the Odyssey instalment. I felt it would be more interesting to select the female character and see Kassandra after having played as Bayek for so many hours in Origins. Looking back at Syndicate, we were able to freely switch between twins Evie and Jacob with the former having stealth skills and the latter being a hot-headed brawler. This was more of a situational play-style choice, but again I found myself stepping more frequently into the shoes of Evie.
I recently returned to The Elder Scrolls Online after a three-year break from the game and found my main character was a female High Elf named Esamira. I remember making this decision simply to be different. Being a multiplayer title, my protagonist choice led to assumptions by others; many expected me to be a female player. It did make me wonder how many of us stick to selecting characters who are the same sex as ourselves, and what stereotypes we place on those who choose the opposite.
There’s nothing wrong with picking a protagonist who’s completing different from your real self. Choice is important – but is this a conscious decision or something we do automatically? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts in the comments below.