I May Freeze To Death, But At Least I Will Die Sexy

The following ad for “Last Chaos” popped up from some game site. Now, I do not know anything about the game (and don’t care much, either), but the images caught my eye, after reading various posts about the depiction of male and female characters in games recently.

The Titan character is one of the few examples of male characters without full plate armor, the rogue (Schurkin) one of the few of females with full (leather in this case) armor. [Note: The image is photoshopped to see both characters without the icy layer, which disappears on mouse-over.] Yes, the second one, the Knight, as well as the third, the Mage and the last, the Healer characters are pretty stereotypical again, but it was enough to screencap it and post it now.

Screenshot of character classes in Last Chaos, showing one male in full armor, one male with exposed abs and legs. One female character wears a full light armor, two are scantily clad in typical Mage or Healer fashion..
"You can do it, oh no you can't." (Devs create characters with sensible armor.)

However, seeing that this world seems to be covered in ice and the heading reads “Survive the icy times”, I don’t see much of a chance of survival for any of them if they don’t have a warm coat and thick fur boots ready somewhere.

I fondly remember Robinson’s Requiem and The Dark Eye/Realms of Arkania, where your characters would die quickly without the proper equipment. Mind you, I wasn’t so fond of this when they died the first time. 😉

So, as I said elsewhere recently, I either want all characters to wear silly armor that exposes their vital organs while emphasizing their assets, or the laws of physics (however exotic they may be in fantasy/sci-fi worlds) to apply to all sexes equally – and that means they should cover up for protection from the weather as well as their enemies’ steel.

Bewitch(er)ed and Bewildered

Note: NSFW but only very minor spoilers.

Another note: Proud to announce that this post was featured on The Border House! If you want to see the comments that were posted over there, follow this link!

I was very excited when The Witcher 2 was released earlier this year, but I quickly got annoyed with a few things (controls, balance) so I took a break from the game soon afterwards, somewhere in the middle of chapter 2. Then, I’ve spent a lot of time playing a lot of Assassin’s Creed for my thesis. When that was done, I put 153 hours into Skyrim and now I’m back to The Witcher 2.

These three games combined would make for an amazing experience: I love the openness and the beautiful world of Skyrim, but the characters are generic and flat. I love the way Assassin’s Creed makes the virtual world physically plausible and movement realistic even though your avatar is pulling the wildest stunts. I love the “adult” setting of The Witcher, it is dirty, gritty and damn funny.

Posts about the other two will follow, but this one will be about Andrzej Sapkowski’s (I spelled that correctly right away, wow!) creation in general, and specifically regarding the representation of women in the game and in its promotion. I am a huge Witcher fangirl, in spite of many things that initially annoyed me about the franchise – I went into detail on this in this post and explained what changed my mind here. I am currently reading one of the books, partly to see whether these problems are built into the franchise by its creator or if it’s the gaming industry’s doing.

If you made out the latter as the culprit, well done, but it wasn’t too hard, eh? Get this bit from the Witcher Wiki about one slight but revealing *giggle* difference between the novels and games:

After her fall at Sodden Hill and her consequent resuscitation, Triss mentions that she “will never again be able to wear a dress with a low neckline”, suggesting that some skin disfigurment still remains on her chest. In the game however, she displays a generous amount of cleavage without any traces of damage whatsoever.

While Triss’ normal attire in The Witcher 2 is almost chaste, you have ample of time to… uhm, inspect her skin for possible scarring in her nude scenes. 😉 Here is, though, her outfit, which I adore:

Triss' standard outfit in The Witcher 2. She is wearing pants, boots and some sort of light armor that doesn't show any cleavage at all.
Triss in The Witcher 2... when not naked ;-)

A general statement before you get me wrong: I do not criticize nudity (in games) per se, I just don’t want it to be an end in itself, and one thing that annoys me in particular is the double standards many guys have, i.e. female characters are expected to wear plate bikinis in combat and nothing at all in romance/sex cutscenes, while male characters wear reasonable armor in combat and keep their pants on at all times. It doesn’t make sense from an in-game perspective and it’s immature if you can’t look at a naked person of the same sex, especially if it’s just pixels.

In a scene in which Triss and Geralt take a bath in some ruins, Triss immediately removes her clothes with a spell and jumps in the water. Geralt begins undressing, but when he reaches his pants in the process, Triss grabs his arm and pulls him into the pool – pixel penis exposure averted!

However, The Witcher 2 does a good job on some counts. While the very explicit sex scenes – which must make BioWare with its “mature RPG” Dragon Age blush – caused “complaints” on forums from guys who didn’t know how to complete the game with just one hand, Triss and Ves are both reasonably dressed when out of bed. And the romancey dialogs are quite well done.

Ves is a kickass soldier, who exemplifies the “beauty vs. talent” dilemma, because she does get picked for special assignments that make use of her pretty face.

Her journal entry in the game reads:

The fair-haired Ves stood apart from the rest of Vernon Roche’s unit, and not only in that she was the only woman in an elite formation of hardened cutthroats and swashbucklers. Her girlish face and shapely body would stand out even if a uniform did emphasize them. For there is something in soldier women that attract a man’s gaze, and Ves was no exception. The reader should not, however, be mislead by this description – one does not earn a Blue Stripes membership with good looks, but with skill, determination and, at times, ruthlessness. Anyone disregarding Ves would pay dearly for misjudging this young woman. Because of her gender, Ves would sometimes receive assignments where her beauty was more important than her combat abilities and efficiency. Roche had used Ves as his trump card more than once.

Here’s a screenshot of Ves – I love her outfit, stance, hairdo, everything!

Soldier Ves in her armor (boots, pants, a blouse showing a bit of cleavage but not overtly much, and a studded uniform jacket)
Ves, as she should be

Of course, we can’t have reasonably dressed female characters, so we have to create a mod that changes this outfit to the default whore apparel… I do suppose people who prefer this one have no imagination whatsoever. Their loss, right? (btw, when I last looked, the mod had only 400-something unqiue downloads.)

Ves, when using the mod, wears the game's standard "whore outfit", consisting of hotpants, a half-unbuttoned jacket over a barely-there vest and a massive choker
The extremely essential "Ves Whorification Mod"

Incidentially, a bug in The Witcher 2 made it possible for Geralt to undress without exposing *any* kind of skin… 😉

Geralt stricken by a bug that, quite ironically, strips him of his pants
They DID say he can't keep his pants on...

Seriously though, unlike the first game, there is much less blatant sexism in the second one. The awkward pin-up cards were dropped, to name one example. Similar to the two main relationships in The Witcher 1 with either Shani or Triss, you can choose whether Geralt remains faithful to Triss or not. In general, I find Geralt to be very respectful towards women, taking into account his general disrespect towards authority, religion or mages.

Yes, The Witcher 2 is a very adult game (both regarding the general setting and sexuality), but it is much more than that. It has a beautiful world, interesting quests, intriguing and nuanced characters, original details like the bestiary that is refreshingly different from other RPGs and much more to please a fan of the genre, whether male or female. It certainly diserves the Mature rating for the nudity alone, but apart from that, there’s cursing, blood, torture, incest, drug abuse… and the aforementioned dirt and grit that makes it “adult” in the other meaning of the term. It’s not a fluffy fairy tale, it’s a story filled with pain, death, injustice, prejudice, loss in a harsh setting.

What has been used to promote the game, however, boils down to naked skin in its truest sense. For example, Triss was on the Playboy cover in Poland and in Russia, a nude calendar was produced, here’s a video from the shooting, showing a completely naked Triss and a fully dressed Geralt:

[Side note: Perhaps she dropped the Triss outfit because it didn’t look as awesome as in the game?]

I really don’t care about the calendar or the video per se. What I do care about is that this is the part of the campaign that sticks, and gives a skewed image of the game. It does not do the game justice at all. I am not sure if I would have given it a second look if confronted with the marketing campaign. This is hardly how you promote a game to female gamers (who, if I am any indication, might come to love this game almost as much as the guys), or to male gamers who expect more from a game than pixel porn and are against sexism in or outside of games. Most feedback I get here on my blog is from guys, not girls, so I know they exist. 😉

Now for a little experiment: Imagine an Oscar-winning Hollywood film with a great plot, characters and special effects that features some explicit sex scenes was marketed primarily with explicit material. I am finding this incredibly hard, to be honest. It is economically stupid to give your product an image that does not correspond with its actual content, but will most likely alienate parts of your audience while not gaining considerable new target audiences. This is of course guesswork, but I don’t think that many RPG-hating shooter fans (sorry for the stereotype, but I’m trying to make a point *cough*) would think “Hey, I hate RPGs, but this one has sex scenes, so I’m going to buy it” especially in times where you can watch screencaptures of everything on YouTube two days after the game’s launch.

After noticing similar differences between the content and campaign for Dragon Age 2, I get the impression that while many developers are (trying to be) more inclusive of the interests of female gamers (and the wonderful group of male gamers that support gender equality), the publishers go behind their backs and leave out these aspects and emphasize the “made for the male gaze” parts instead. So I can’t help but wonder: Why is the game marketing obviously more sexist than the game development? Are they too dense to realize that pleasing a decreasing percentage of gamers while alienating an increasing one is plainly irrational?

[Edit: If you understand German, here’s an article with the opinions of the male journalists of PC Games Hardware, who seem to agree with me. And this English forum conversation is quite fun to read.]

Isabela’s Fate – from Pirate to Pinup

Feminist geek rage time! I read (of all things!) an article on mobile games introducing more and more women into gaming on an Austrian website today and first was thrilled to spot an ad for Dragon Age 2 in it. It didn’t take me long to realize that the enthusiasm was misplaced. All this ad does is show stills of Isabela with those lines: “Wanna meet this woman?” – “Wanna get close to her?” – “Play the demo; she is waiting for you“.

See here (in German):

To me, it seems that whoever produced this text has formerly made a living in the porn/sex hotline business… There is NOTHING about the game in this ad, all it does is appeal to male fantasies. I can hear many of you saying “But she’s still dressed” or “I’ve seen more sexist ads for games”. Believe me, I am aware of that. But this is Dragon Age we’re talking about. Dragon Age: Origins was an RPG that appealed to many female players. It’s very inclusive – we’ve seen homo- and bisexual characters and romance options, we’ve seen topics of gender identity (Shale’s history) and of racial discrimination (elves, mages) and many other social issues. BioWare itself has a history of being the good guys, in my book especially regarding gender issues. It is known for high standards in dialogs and plot, not cheap thrills.

Of course, Origins had its saucy moments – but they were witty and cleverly written in comparison to this stupid ad – I really, really enjoyed them. One example is to follow shortly.

But first, a little bit on Isabela’s history and character. When the Warden meets her in Origins, she is in The Pearl, a brothel. But don’t jump to conclusions: she’s not employed there, she’s a customer. She’s a self-sufficient and quite quarrelsome pirate captain, capable of handling three (IIRC) men in a swordfight. She unlocks the Duelist specialization for your party. Depending on your gender (and maybe other factors, I haven’t tried it) you can have sex or even a three- or foursome with her.

If that’s not enough, here’s another example of dialog that shows how it’d be her to make Alistair or the Warden a pinup, not be turned into one herself:

  • Isabela: “My dear, you wouldn’t consider…leaving Alistair with me, would you? Perhaps let me borrow him for a week every summer? I’m sure we could work out a deal.”
  • Warden: “Would you lend me your ship?”
  • Isabela: “Of course not! You would misuse the ship– Which, I suppose, is exactly what I would do with Alistair, though I suspect he would enjoy it while the ship wouldn’t.”
  • Alistair: “Not that the idea of being borrowed isn’t terribly fascinating, but let’s not forget the darkspawn. There may not be a week every summer, or any summer.”
  • Isabela: “Darkspawn! Is this the only thing men think about these days? What about the good old obsessions? Breasts, firm buttocks, wet frocks?”
  • Alistair: “Hmm… wet frocks…”

As you can see, she not a prude, she’s a proud, witty, (sexually and otherwise) self-determined woman. She could really be a feminist role model in this fantasy setting. Instead they made her a fantasy model in a sexist setting. From being an active protagonist that holds great meaning for the game’s story, the ad turns her into a passive sex object. I hope that this gets corrected in the game itself… and until I can check that, I’m trying to convince myself that this ad was done by evil EA marketers, not BioWare.  😉

[Edit] Thanks to @aeazel on Twitter, I have just read The Games We Play: The Whitewashing of Video Games on Bitch Magazine. It made me realize that, while Isabela is supposed to be a woman of color, she is pearly white in the above ad and other promotional material. The only thing I find funny about that is that you meet her in “The Pearl” – other than that all I have is disbelief and growing anger. BioWare, please cast Crushing Prison on your marketing people.

Larry Croft and Gordana Freeman

I’ve recently stumbled upon an interesting feature on Game Career Guide. Time for Change is about what would happen if you swapped the gender of game heroes and heroines, and how that would affect them (and the game we’d get to play if they were for real).

“The aim of the project was to examine how female characters are created for games, what purpose they serve, and how they could be designed to stay true to the spirit of an exisiting character while offering a new experience that might appeal to a broader audience, and making sense in a real-world context.”

Not all of them are really appealing to me, but the idea made me think. I usually play games in which I can pick the gender of my avatar and that are dialog-heavy, already giving lots of options of behavior and thus a feel of being able to customize your avatar’s personality. Some of these options are more traditionally male, others are traditionally female. I might go one way in my first playthrough as female, and an entirely different one in a consecutive playthrough as male. But that’s my interpretation of the game, not an intentional “feminine path” that is offered to me. It is, as I have explained before in this post, that the “masculine path” is the norm of what we get to play, and often enough, all that get’s changed is the body of the avatar and the address of Sir to Ma’am.

[Side Note: Check out this list of action heroes on Wikipedia. See how Commander Shepard from Mass Effect is listed as male, but not female? MaleShep is considered the “iconic Shepard”. FemShep, in spite of being loved by many fans for her great personality (thanks to the fab voice acting by Jennifer Hale) is not mentioned.]

One of the gender-swapped concepts in Time for Change is Princess of Persia, who relies on subtlety and (even more) agility than the Prince. Another is Leisure Suit Larissa, whom you have to help finding a mate suitable for a lifelong relationship – ok, maybe not that exciting a game for me and many of you – that’s not the point right now, though. A third is playing Zelda instead of Link in Ocarina of Time, paying attention to the physical differences between men and women – i.e., Zelda has no heavy shield, but casts a magical barrier for protection, and so on.

I clicked more links, hoping for more such great ideas… and I promptly found a more ambiguous one showing sketches of a few gender-swapped action heroes and heroines. I like the ideas of the artworks, but as one of the comments suggests – there HAS to be more to heroines than big boobs and small pieces of fabric. [Mind you I like mini skirts myself, but I wouldn’t want to be defined by that choice.] I wish I could draw some sketches myself – instead I have found another great image of how different male body types can be within one and the same game, Team Fortress 2 in this case. (Although I must point out that TF2 doesn’t feature any women, so that’s not a perfect performance in my book, either.) These are all different classes from Medic to Heavy Gun Specialist, Spy, etc.:

Body types in Team Fortress 2

An artist took these as basis for designs for females… designs with which I’m in love!  😉  Note that these were, at least two of them, implemented in the game, so the basic models had to remain the same for the animations to work. That’s why these ladies have unchanging, and slightly off proportions within their class, but nonetheless, they are awesome! I had to laugh because the left gal in the 2nd row has visibly unshaved legs, and her creator wrote the note “stubble legs” next to it. I suppose survival should beat beauty on the battlefield.  ^_^

Concepts for female classes in Team Fortress 2 by Shaylyn Hamm

Of course, these are just female faces and bodies again – not a “feminine path” to play. But as I’ve talked about interpreting meaning into the choices we do have – I think I can more easily interpret game heroines like these as realistic women with character than “tits and ass in a steel bikini” [quote from the producer of Mirror’s Edge about a fan-made adaptation of its main character; also to be found in Shaylyn’s article at Game Career Guide, see link below].

Big recommendation: The whole article from which the two images were taken: The Aesthetics of Unique Video Game Characters by Shaylyn Hamm. The article features a link to her whole thesis about this topic. Great job!

What are your ideas for gender-swaps in games? What could work, what couldn’t at all?

[Edit: A friend sent me this link with more gender swap images.]

Jeanne d’Arc, one of the guys

Very short post here, as I noticed something “funny” in Civ5 recently.

The female leaders (as the male ones) are designed with great care and love for details. They are definitely fewer in numbers, but then, it’s supposed to be a realistic historic setting. That’s ok with me – I have learned a great deal history (AND English) beginning with the first Civ game.

As an example for the female leaders, here’s Catherine of Russia. I picked her for my first play – I find Russia intriguing, and of course I always play ladies first. 😉

Catherine, a great woman of history

What’s not so ok with me, is a theoretically VERY VERY VERY small detail in the game. It’s like the devs thought they could get away with it, nobody would notice, it’s not a big deal, blah blah blah. I noticed, and do care. Look at that:

Enchanté, Jean...

Don’t get me wrong, I was happy to see Jeanne D’Arc included in a game once again (Did anyone play the RPG Lionheart? She KICKED ASS as NPC!), and I’m thrilled that she is “one of the guys” regarding her abilities, but… was the beard really necessary? Taking into account that we’re talking major developer and publisher on a big budget… how much would it have cost you to make this 2D image of Jeanne look like a girl? Let me know, and I’ll gladly send you a check before you publish Civ6…

Hey Little Gothic Girl!

One of the (or THE?) most successful German game series, Gothic, is soon going into its fourth round (Release date is October 12, at least for the German version). After a lot of quarrel between publisher JoWood and developer PiranhaBytes, “Arcania” aka Gothic 4 was developed by Spellbound. That’s not what I’m going to discuss though – if you’ve read some of my previous posts, you can probably guess this is about GIRLS IN GAMES! First off though, let’s start with two points I want to make. 🙂 [Spoiler Note: This post contains plot spoilers only for the Gothic 4 Demo.]

First point on the graphics: They are really pretty. I’m not usually this sparing with words 😉 I just quickly need to get to something I’ve never seen before: Gothic 4 features two color modes. A brighter “American” and a toned-down “European” mode. Do we like our grass less green here? And, is it really always greener on the other side? I haven’t really thought about this too much so far. But it’s a fascinating thought – tell me where you’re from and which you like better! (I’d include a poll WITHIN this post, but I don’t know how! I’ll start and say after a lot switching back and forth, I stuck with the less bright European mode. Here’s a split-screenshot for you to base your judgement on:

 

Left: European colors. Right: American colors.

[Update:] Here are two screenshots atop each other (The first one was kind of a bad choice because there is dirt to the left and grass to the right. Thanks Digiom for the comment!)

American mode top, European mode bottom

[Update End]

Second point. I often have trouble finding loot and items in the game worlds, and it gets worse the prettier and more detailed the graphics get. (I often tell other gamers that I like the (unique item) Plasma gun in Fallout 3 because it’s easier to spot the loot when it’s fluorescent green goo…) I often wished there were markers, or a Hint key, or something to make sure I didn’t miss something good. Gothic 4 has solved this problem very elegantly. It’s not simple markers. They’re animated, context-sensitive and very subtle. Items have a faint glow, herbs have butterflies circling them, and loot has….. yes, flies and swirling stink!  🙂

Left: Butterflies around herbs. Right: Ughhhhh.... what a smell!

But now, let’s get to the girly gist of this post! Yeehah! 🙂 Something that has always bothered me about the series, is that it didn’t feature any women. Truth be told, I haven’t completed all of the them, but I can’t remember a single female character that bore any kind of significance to the story. If the demo is any indication, this is about to change radically: Meet Ivy! (And if you know the song my post title alludes to, you might grin at the notion that she already has a sun tan! I did!)

Ivy. Non-poisonous.

In ArcaniA, it’s a few years since the events of Gothic 3, and you’re a different Mystery Man than in the prequels, And you’re about to get married to Ivy during the Demo. I like her! She’s natural and very non-sexualized, probably still underweight, but let’s not get too bitchy, eh? (I just had dessert!)  😉

To gain weight…. no, wait, that’s not it. To gain her father Gromar’s consent, he sends you to drive off a certain guy from your home island of Feshyr, and then get an engagement bracelet for Ivy.

The guy is good old Diego. “Old” in a literal fashion. “Diego the Grey”, as someone called him (would quote but can’t remember who it was. Really LOLed!) You’re friends and he taught you to fight, so you simply strike a deal to trick Gromar into believing you killed Diego (of course it’s a bit more complicated than that!).

Diego the Grey

You get the bracelet by helping Gromar’s Orc Slave get his fix of his favorites shrooms (of course it’s a bit more complicated than that!) and then eventually have Gromar’s permission to marry Ivy…. who is pregnant. Before settling down as a happy little family though, she wants to see some adventure – yay, action girl!

To get off Feshyr, you once more talk to Diego, who wants one last favor (of course it’s a bit more complicated than that!). In the course of this quest, you meet Lyrca, a witch who activates your magic talent through a ritual. You wake up in a cave, and get to fight creatures that have two “states”, one of which makes them immune to physical damage. I usually hate game mechanics like that, because they usually don’t work as well as I’d like. I had fun this time though! Before the demo ends, you get to try out several weapons against several types of enemies, and for the first time in the Gothic series, I REALLY, REALLY ENJOYED COMBAT so early on in the game. (As much as realism has its charm, Gothic usually really makes a painful point about proving to you what a n00b you are during the first hours of the game!)

The demo ended before I got out of the cave system, but it really left me wanting more! I am curious to see what happens with you and Ivy. Remember: You’re a shepherd who wants to marry her – she wants adventure! 😉 So she’s definitely got potential, but ever since Queen Amidala’s transformation from kickass girl to whiney dumbass girl between Star Wars I and II, I’m somewhat paranoid in that regard.

I really hope that it’s MUCH less buggy than Gothic 3 and turns out a success… ’cause you see, the developer is German – and the publisher is Austrian! So it’s my patriotic duty to say great things about this game!  😉

To prove that I was just kidding, I will post the ONLY hiccup I experienced.

The hero takes the inward turn. In fact, he takes it quite literally!

With that inlook ends my outlook to what looks like a great game!!! (Three‘s a charm, right?)