There is a growing appreciation for story rich games as we move past the idea that gameplay and story are two things that cannot be married. We’ve seen it in the behemoth epics of the AAA industry that are the Bioware RPGs, we’ve seen it in puzzle platformers (Thomas Was Alone) and hack and slash games (Bastion). Even in the action-heavy genre of first-person shooters there have been strong contenders for incredible storytelling in games like BioShock: Infinite and Spec Ops: The Line.
The evolution of stories in video games from ‘Princess A has been kidnapped by Bad Guy B’ is amazing to watch, but for every great stride we make, there are pitfalls which can be hard for even great storytellers to avoid.
There has been a conscious effort on the part of certain developers to put forth positive female characters who are fully fleshed out and given their own hopes, backstories, shortcomings, and dreams. It seems like a great deal of effort has been put into female characters and their presentation within the game. This attention to detail and the scope of imagination within the games themselves makes it all the more disappointing when those females are either raped or surrounded by rape imagery.
Elizabeth Comstock (an NPC in BioShock: Infinite) is a prime example of this. Throughout the game, she was portrayed as a naive girl who was slowly but surely losing her innocence as the game progressed and Elizabeth saw more of the world. The event that finally stripped that last shred of innocence away from Elizabeth was the worst situation that Elizabeth had personally been in. The fight that Booker and the player engage in while Elizabeth is going through this final transformation is a painful one, punctuated by horrified screams and pleading.
This can also happen to playable characters as we’ve seen in the Tomb Raider series as well as in games like Dragon Age: Origins where the choice of a playable female city elf means that you will get to deal with the triple threat of racism, sexism, and sexual assault.
It is not the use of rape within stories that makes it a lazy, horrendous shortcut that ends up making light of what should be a serious subject. Instead, what cheapens the rape of women within games is the lack of impact. It becomes an easy way to raise the stakes for a woman, to characterize a villain, or to goad a hero (usually male) into action.
It is a horrible event—one that is meant to create a terrible sense of dread for the player, but it loses all weight when it becomes nothing more than a plot point. In DA:O, my female elf was more broken up about the death of her fiancé whom she’d known for less than a day than the rape of her friend. The dialogue options allowed my character to draw attention to the lingering pain of losing the man she was supposed to marry, but does not allow us to think about the woman who was our best friend and who had been violated. It did not even allow my character to come to any sort of terms with how close she had come to being raped herself—to the desecration of not only the material goods of the elves, but also their bodies.
Rape is one of the most horrific things that you can do to a person and to take it so lightly invalidates the experiences of rape victims. Usually there is no period of time where victims in video games are allowed to recover from the horrible experience that they had been put through. Victims are either forced to swallow down those wretched emotions and push forward undeterred or are allowed to be angry and with a fatal kind of hopelessness.
Rape should not be a footnote. It should not be an arbitrary tragedy tacked on to characters and then forgotten about or misrepresented. There should be some insights into the healing process or the convoluted mess of emotions that being a victim of rape leaves you with. This process would undoubtedly be too much for some games to carry—and that’s a good thing. It shouldn’t be something that’s taken so lightly, especially when female characters are the target of this very specific kind of violence.
When it comes to video games, rape is seen to be a female problem and only a female problem. It is so engrained in the culture of video games that men cannot be hurt in this way, that there is never a question or fear of a male character being raped when a guard leers at them. A male character may be beaten up, possessed, or killed horribly, but they are not in danger of sexual assault. They do not have men (or women) violating them on such a regular basis that sexual assault has become nearly mundane in video games.
I’m not arguing for more rape scenes involving men. Far from it—I want to see less sexual assault in video games as a whole, but sexual assault needs to stop being a problem that only female characters must deal with. The belittling, objectifying, sexualizing, sensationalizing scenes of sexual assault need to stop. Sexual assault is not a “female problem” and it never has been.
We are too callous with events that are life-changing when it comes to video games. All too often, huge life events—whether they’re good or bad—are glossed over. It’s a problem that needs to be remedied and, in some cases, it already is being worked on, but it needs to be said: the sexual abuse and assault of women is not an issue that should be used lightly. The pain of rape victims is not a plot point, not a clumsy attempt at character growth, and not something to urge another person into vengeance. It is demeaning, demoralizing, and disheartening that game stories can forget that.