Across every genre, horror is one of the few anomalies otherwise dominated by men that we, as an audience, are regularly exposed to. When you think of horror movies, a series of scrappy women likely parade through your mind. Many of the most famous horror movie franchises feature women at the center: Halloween, Scream, Alien, Friday the 13th, The Silence of the Lambs, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, as well as foreign films such as The Ring and The Grudge, just to name a few. In fact, horror is one of the few film genres that produces more movies with women leading the narrative than men.
Yet, for whatever reason, this preference for women is not as readily apparent in its sister medium: video games. Though by no means devoid of women, there is a clear tendency toward men in many of the most popular horror games.
For instance, last year, GamesRadar compiled a list of the 20 best horror games of all time, and only four out of the 20 had leads who were explicitly women: Alien: Isolation, Resident Evil 2, Fatal Frame II, and Until Dawn. Even then, only two of those four games had a protagonist who featured a woman as its sole lead, and the other two games split the narrative between a woman and a man.
The protagonist is often a man even in first-person perspective horror games that feature a lead with no character design or voice actor. For instance, the named protagonists of the popular Five Nights At Freddy’s games are men, and even the unnamed protagonists are implied to be men.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker is that, as the player, it’s not your job to prevent the end the world. Rather, your goal is to ensure an apocalypse that has already occurred is not reversed. In an ironic role-reversal, it’s the villain of the game, Ganondorf, who wants to save the world by correcting a cataclysmic ecological disaster. He is not wrong to do so. Why, then, is he the villain?
The Wind Waker encourages the player to understand that the natural world must be allowed to transform itself at its own pace without drastic human intervention. Ganondorf is not wrong for wanting to save the world, but the deeper message of The Wind Waker is that the world does not, in fact, need to be saved.
The Wind Waker has a backstory that is surprisingly dark and complicated for a game with such cute graphics. It’s difficult to explain how the apocalypse that proceeds the game happened, but suffice it to say that, because of an environmental apocalypse, the once-flourishing land of Hyrule lies beneath a seemingly endless body of water referred to only as “the Great Sea.” No one remembers the ancient kingdom, and people live on small islands rising from the waves.
Link’s journey begins on one such island, appropriately named Outset Island. A giant bird suddenly appears and kidnaps his sister Aryll, so he hitches a ride with a passing gang of pirates who deliver him to another island called “the Forsaken Fortress,” which is rumored to serve as the base of operations of someone searching for girls with pointed ears — a marker of the ethnic heritage of the royal Hylian race.
The master of the Forsaken Fortress is Ganondorf, and he is in fact searching for the descendent of Princess Zelda. Before Hyrule was flooded, the Hylian kings and queens guarded a magical artifact called the Triforce, which was said to have the power to grant the wishes of anyone who touched it. Knowing that Zelda’s descendent will be able to lead him to the Triforce, Ganondorf scours the Great Sea for her, hoping to use the Triforce to make the waters of the Great Sea vanish. Link’s sister turns out to not be Zelda’s descendent, but this has nothing to do with the boy’s desire to rescue her, and so his quest begins.
From childhood bullying to fake concern from friends and family to society physically and emotionally rejecting your body, being fat has always been hard. Where can a fat person turn to for an ounce of respite? Video games might be a viable option, but alas, they are sprinkled with all the fat-shaming a person finds in the real world. I decided to dig deeper into how fatness is portrayed within video games and I found the impossible: a positive portrayal of fatness. However, before I can showcase that example, I need to explain a bad one, which will be easy due to the abundance of negative portrayals.
I decided to pick a character from the games series that I am currently playing. It is called Atelier, a typically super cute series that features adorable girls. These games revolve around a central protagonist (sometimes two) who is an alchemist. They must either solve some kind of overarching problem with their alchemy or simply train to become a better alchemist.
In Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book, Sophie is our main protagonist. She desires to improve her alchemy skills, and one day, she finds a book from her late grandmother … that can talk. This book ultimately guides her through becoming an alchemy master, however, the book has lost all its old memories. While Sophie continues to build upon her skills, she looks for a way to recover what was lost. Sounds cool, right? I mean, I like them. They can be a bit corny (okay, a lot corny), but sometimes a girl wants corny games.
The character from Atelier Sophie who is shown as fat is named Oskar Behlmer. Although he actually looks realistically fat and not like a balloon, the game still ends up making his weight a crucial part of his personality. He is described as extremely lazy and irresponsible, and throughout the game, Oskar leaves his mother to maintain their shop alone while he lays around in nature. Except his special ability is talking to plants. Who wouldn’t want to be around nature if they could talk to plants?
Sadly, Atelier Sophie portrays Oskar’s love of plants as shirking his duties. Even on the Wikipedia page for his character, Oskar is described as “lazy and unfit.” He also constantly gets fake concern from literally every single character in the game; from comments like “Wouldn’t you feel better if you lost weight?” to the grossly inappropriate “You would be so handsome if you lost weight!”
[Editor’s Note: British spellings have been preserved upon request.]
There is a moment near the end of the first Uncharted game in which Elena Fisher falls through the crumbling boards of an old bridge. Protagonist Nathan Drake scrambles to catch her hand as she hangs from her fingertips. In order to save herself, she has to drop the camera that she’s had with her for the entire story into the river far below. Contained within is a record of all their adventures that she wants to report on — as is her job and passion — upon her return.
And she’s forced to lose it.
I joked that, for me, this was what the game was about: mourning the loss of Elena’s camera. But as the games went on, it became less of a joke. Elena became the centre of my investment by creating moments of emotion and humanity that kept the story interesting. That’s why she’s featured in this installment of “Leading the Pack,” a series examining some of the best women and nonbinary folk in games.
Overall, I enjoyed the Uncharted games, but there were definitely things about them I didn’t like. Often, the pacing felt off (especially in Uncharted 2), like I was just waiting for the next bit of story by slogging through endless firefights. I felt that Nate was let off or even glorified for some of his worst traits — impulsivity bordering on obsession; cultural insensitivity bordering on outright racism; dismissal of people’s lives and property if they are in the way of his already ethically dubious aims. Elena often mitigated these narrative issues.
Elena is an adventurer, too — a thrill-seeker or adrenaline junkie, even — but she’s also pragmatic and reasonable. Would Nate have dropped something of equal importance to him had he been in the position of Elena and her camera, or would he have been too stubborn or hot-headed? This is not necessarily a judgement of Nate — I might have failed to let go, too — but rather a commendation of Elena and the wider perspective that she brings to the game. Her presence makes us consider the narrative more deeply than the surface level excitement of it all.
“Greatness comes from small beginnings,” the game tells us. What is greatness? Elena seems to respond. And what might it cost us and others to achieve it?
“Blanket Fort Chats” is a semi-regular column featuring women and nonbinary game makers talking about the craft of making games. In this week’s post, we feature Elaine Gusella, a game designer and storyteller currently working as an indie dev in Montréal. She is the co-founder of a startup studio specializing in gamification and life-size video game installations. When she isn’t making games, she enjoys playing RPGs and spending time with her partner and beautiful baby girl.
Miss N: Can you tell us a bit about your background and how you got into making games?
Elaine: I studied classical music for years, and then went on to get my BA and master’s in ancient languages and literature. Nothing that would bring me to game making, although it’s now proving very useful. After that, I worked in book publishing where I had the chance to participate in some very interesting digital publishing projects. As fulfilling as that was, the book industry is hard, and I eventually decided that I wanted to go in another direction. I had been writing scenarios for LARP games for about ten years by that time. I decided to make the transition into game making as a career. That’s when I heard about Pixelles for the first time.
I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t making some kind of game, to be honest. It’s always been a huge part of my life. I met most of my friends and even my husband in LARP games, but I had never thought of it as a career path before being selected for the Pixelles Game Incubator. I gained a lot of confidence through it. After that, I went back to school to do a postgraduate certificate in Game Design where I met my friend and now business partner Véronique Bouffard.
Miss N: What’s your earliest memory of playing games?
Elaine: My mom used to make games out of everything to help me learn. I remember that she had made cardboard squares with different syllables on them to teach me how to read and had me match them to form words. I must have been three or four. Soon after that, we got a NES and I started playing Super Mario, but the real hook was when I played Final Fantasy — the very first one. I’ve been a fan ever since.
Miss N: What’s your creative process like? Where do you get your ideas?
Elaine: From everywhere. I try always to stay alert to new ideas. I carry a notebook with me everywhere I go. I stopped doing that for a while actually, using only my computer, but I went back to paper. There’s something more direct in writing things out that I enjoy. I find that the more I spend in an iterative process, the easier ideas come to me. Often, game jamming is part of that, too. It keeps me in that creative mindset.
Like everyone, I do get creative blocks. When that happens, I’ll go have a walk, change my environment or talk with other people about what I want to do. It’s usually enough to get me back on track.
I often hear people say that creativity is a talent that some people have and others don’t. I can’t disagree more. Creativity is something that can be cultivated through exercises and changes in perspective. I use many tools not only to get ideas, but also to test them and make them better. I like to use design patterns, for example, to break down ideas to their simplest expression. It helps me see if there are ways to improve the game design and the experience of my games.
[Editor’s Note: All screencaps courtesy of littlenancydrewthings.]
The Nancy Drew games have been revolutionary in many ways, but regressive in others. While the developers have tried to evenly round out racial representation (overall — not counting individual games), feature a 50:50 ratio of men to women in the entire series, and include suspects who struggle with depression and/or anxiety, there is one particular aspect of diversity that these games have been sorely lacking in: queer diversity.
Her Interactive (HI) — the company behind the Nancy Drew games — has made a point of making their titles “family-friendly,” and extended this policy to their official message boards. The Golden Rule was to keep it G-rated. While the idea behind this approach is understandable because of the series’ original target demographic (pre-teen girls) and the personal responsibility HI felt to keep their official boards safe for minors, the execution fell short. This isn’t to say that the boards weren’t safe for minors, which they were by standard internet safety precautions, but the manner in which they were meant to be safe was built around heteronormative constructs of what constitutes as “family-friendly.”
To comply with the series’ consistent E rating, any romance or relationships in the games — implied or explicitly shown — had to be pair-ups between (presumably) heterosexual men and (presumably) heterosexual women. Because of an underlying assumption in the ESRB ratings that to be queer was to be hypersexual, abiding by the ESRB standards meant absolutely no explicit references to characters being even remotely queer at all (in the games or on the HI boards). As a result, queer fans of Nancy Drew were told to be silent and weren’t allowed to even speculate that a character was gay on the forums without risking a ban (a rule that was recently lifted a few years ago).
For a while, it seemed as if the Nancy Drew series would never be anything other than heteronormative in their relationships and characters; or that any characters who might be queer could only ever be expressed as such through queer-coding, and would never rise above anything other than subtext. And then one day, along came the latest (as of this typing) game in the series that bucked the trend entirely: Sea of Darkness. [Minor spoilers for SEA ahead.]