I read this article today on the website ‘The Mary Sue’ about a new video game that’s expected to come out later in 2015, and it got me thinking about the discussions we had in class about what qualifies as a ‘neutral’ protagonist.
The game is called ‘Life is Strange,’ and it’s by the same company that created ‘Remember Me,’ which a portion of the class will soon be playing. The main character in Life Is Strange, named Max, has the ability to reverse time, and the game will center around Max’s search for a missing fellow student. The controversy is that Max is a female character, and so is the main NPC, Chloe. The fact that this can even be labeled a ‘controversy’ is kind of absurd, which I suppose is part of the point. The creators of the game reached out to a few different publishers before choosing Square Enix – mostly because Square Enix is the only video game publisher who didn’t ask them to change Max’s gender.
Apparently, Remember Me had similar issues back in 2013, and similarly, the creators settled with Capcom, who were willing to keep the protagonist female. Multiple publishers, regarding both games, said that the main character had to be male, or the game just wouldn’t sell. There was also an issue with Remember Me where the protagonist, a female, kissed an NPC who was male, and some male gamers objected to the fact that the character they were playing had to kiss a male character.
Here’s the response of Jean-Maxime Moris, the creative director, to this whole situation:
‘“We had people tell us, ‘You can’t make a dude like the player kiss another dude in the game, that’s going to feel awkward,’” said Moris. “I’m like, ‘If you think like that, there’s no way the medium’s going to mature’ … There’s a level of immersion that you need to be at, but it’s not like your sexual orientation is being questioned by playing a game.”’
Honestly, he’s right. I suppose my gut reaction to this article is basically, this shouldn’t be a question. There shouldn’t have just been one publisher among many who was willing to produce this game with a female protagonist.
So why is this still a question?
A typical white male character is considered the ‘neutral’ protagonist in video games. Usually, even if you can play as a female character, or as a non-white character, there’s still a white male as the default. Men I’ve seen online, and once in a while in person, often object if they can’t play a white male. To them, the character often becomes transparent, and they’re playing as themselves. Their game reality is the same as their real-world reality. So what about the rest of us? Don’t we deserve to have the same experience? People often say that the vast majority of gamers are men, but that’s just blatantly not true. The most recent statistics show that 48% of gamers are women vs 52% men, and there percentages have steadily been growing closer over the past few years. (source: (here)) But the concept of a white male protagonist as ‘neutral’ is so prevalent that even if i find a video game with a character who looks like me, the character will still never feel neutral.
As a woman, female characters don’t feel ‘neutral’ to me. Fem!Shepard in Mass Effect isn’t neutral. A female Warden in Dragon Age isn’t neutral. Even Chell in Portal, who never speaks, isn’t neutral, because they’re women, and this is different enough from a typical video game that I notice and think of them as unique characters rather than as an extension of me.
So, can I ever play as a character who is neutral to me?
Because a ‘neutral’ character, a white male character, is not like me.
So what’s the point? Well, I think the point is that more video game companies need to do what Square Enix and the developers of Life Is Strange are doing – make female protagonists. Not as one choice, not as an option to ignore, but as the protagonist. The more that games have female characters and people of color, the more ‘normal’ that will seem in the video game industry. And yes, they do sell. Maybe someday, ‘neutral’ can mean something different to everyone.
So what about right now? Well, ‘neutral’ isn’t the be-all and end-all of a great video game character. Honestly, I like playing as pretty much any character that I see as different from the norm in video games, whether that’s my Shepard from Mass Effect, who looks like me, or Lee from the Walking Dead, a black man. Playing as multiple characters with different identities gives you different perspectives, and can enrich the overall experience of gaming. So if you’re someone who avoids games where you can’t be neutral, hopefully this class can give you a different experience.
I’m a woman who’s played video games as a male, so why can’t men play video games as a female? Let us make games like Life Is Strange, so that someday it won’t be a struggle for even a little bit of representation.