Gears of War 3 hasn't been announced -- although the game's teaser debuts a week from today, and the game itself will be out in April 2011 or later. So, why am I thinking about Gears right now? Well, the recent "Girls & Games" PAX panel and its accompanied discussion about female characters made me think about how difficult it is to portray women in a male-centric story without making it seem like the entire gender has been forgotten and/or passed over.
Gears of War, one of my favorite franchises, is a story of hyper-violent meatheads packed with brawn and lacking in brains ... and it's almost completely female-free. The Gears series is a celebration of masculinity, almost to the point of parody: the men in this game look like they eat steroids instead of Wheaties for breakfast.
The female panelists at the PAX panel cited the Gears guys as examples of "idealized" men in an attempt to defend the bajillions of idealized, over-sexualized female characters in, oh, every game ever -- but these men aren't idealized sexually. They're idealized for their masculinity: they are physically fit to the point of absurdity, and they can even be emotional without seeming like sissies.
Gears' lack of romance and female influence actually makes the game seem ... well, kinda gay. (Think Achilles and Patroclus, not Boy From Oz.) I am not the only person who has picked up on this. Even though Dom has a wife, Maria is a MacGuffin, not a character, and she only has a couple of throwaway lines in a flashback.
The only female character, Anya Stroud, is a lieutenant -- but you'd never know it, since the petite blond spends the game getting in and out of helicopters, narrowly escaping danger (off-screen, of course), and staying out of the real action while advising male soldiers over her headset. She must have been a heavily armored COG at some point, in order to move through the ranks -- but if that's the case, where are all of the other female COGs?
This brings us back to the picture at the top of this post. Who's that redhead in the COG armor? That would be Alex Brand, a character from the Gears of War spin-off comic books. She's rumored to be a new character in Gears 3, which would make her the first female to actually see any action in these games -- and the first to wear some real armor, unlike Anya's crisp business casual skirt-suit (the female uniform doesn't include pants?).
Here's where it gets a bit weird. Epic Games design director Cliff Bleszinski spoke about this issue in a recent article about female characters in GameInformer. Apparently, the reason why we never see any women in Gears is that they're all busy ... having babies. Because the Locusts killed so many humans that the women need to spend all of their time procreating. Instead of fighting. Oh, of course.
Just in case you couldn't hear the disappointment between the lines in that paragraph, I'll be a little more specific.
Sera is a futuristic planet. There's technology to heal soldiers in the heat of battle from just about every wound, not to mention invisible robots, crazy mapping technologies, and so on. They couldn't figure out a way to grow babies OUTSIDE of a woman's stomach? I distinctly remember cut-scenes where we see the Locusts growing their "babies" in pods -- and the Locust Queen is a woman. Do you think she's sitting around going, "Sorry guys, can't fight, pregnant." I doubt that! (Although we don't see much of the Locust Queen [no more than a couple mintues], she's a great example of a powerful female character who manages to be both feminine AND a bad-ass-- but she probably deserves her own blog post, so let's table her for now.)
If the humans ever hope to keep up with the Horde, maybe they should learn their creating-babies-in-a-lab technology and get some women out there on the field. They're sacrificing half of their potential troops for no reason! And even if women are "too weak" to fight hand-to-hand, maybe they could fly some bad-ass fighter planes or massive mech armor, Samus-style (or take some of the magical steroids that the guys appear to have been taking). But, no. Apparently, women need to be human incubators instead. Because men can't be bothered to raise children. And because women most certainly shouldn't be fighting.
So, why is Alex Brand in the story at all? Well, it turns out that it's because she's sterile. She can't make babies. So she's allowed to fight.
This ... is problematic.
First of all, I've already explained that there's a work-around for the story's argument that women "need" to be making babies -- which sounds like a fake argument to me anyway, and maybe even a retcon, given that Anya was supposed to be a soldier before she became a wimpy lieutenant.
Secondly, now that there's finally a chance to include a female character in this hyper-masculine world, ... the developers have decided that the reason she's there is because there's something "wrong" with her that makes her an "ineffective" woman (at least according to the rules of this universe).
What if a woman just didn't want to make babies, and wanted to serve humanity in another way? Can the developers really not imagine a scenario where a woman wouldn't want to to choose this path? According to this premise, the only reason why a woman would want to fight off an endless Locust Horde destroying her planet would be if she had absolutely no other way to spend her time.
Leaving aside those problems -- which are so awkward that I can't even think about them very long without getting a headache -- there's the issue of Alex Brand's personality. Her favorite insult for her male co-soldiers in the comic? "Princess." Right, because women love insulting their male friends by insinuating that they are ... women. Because being a woman in this universe is pretty much the worst insult that anyone, including women, can imagine.
Halo: ODST made similar mistakes with their introduction of Veronica Dare. After reading this article about ODST's problems, I actually decided not to get the game. A big deal for me, since I pretty much buy every single co-op shooter that the market provides. I really don't want to see the Gears franchise make embarrassing mistakes in their first real foray into female soldiers.
It's perfectly fine to write stories about men. Problems arise when you are write stories for men ... and only for men. Gears already has female fans, but if the developers hope to keep those fans (let alone get more), caution is advised. Going in the wrong direction with Alex Brand could be a dealbreaker.
I don't want to suggest that these games might be better without a female character, because I don't think that's true -- I think every story benefits from diversity of perspective (in gender, race, background, class, whatever). It'll generally make a plot more interesting, and it'll get a wider variety of people interested in the story because they'll be able to relate to the characters in it. But if you make a "token minority" character into some sort of stereotype, or a minority who self-hates to "fit in," you're going to drive away the very people that you want to attract to your game. It's a bit of a tightrope -- especially for male deveopers who have no personal experience with, y'know, being a woman. So, what should they do? Talk to a woman. Or even more than one! Get some feedback.
Personally, I'd love to playtest this game, or maybe just look at early dialogue. But since I doubt I'll get to do that, I'll just spell out the basics: leave the self-hating "princess" insults out, don't bring up the baby-making nonsense, and please don't have an ODST-esque subplot where Alex Brand gets kidnapped and has to be rescued, okay?
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