On Video Game Player, Character, and Developer Agency

In a strange pivot toward the absurd, Feminist Frequency’s most recent “Tropes versus Women” video, Lingerie is Not Armor waffled on the series’ previous complaints that female game characters lack agency to declare that fictional female characters have NO agency because they’re not real women.

This is, of course, patently false, and it’s important to explore why.  Character agency, along with developer agency and player agency, form a triangle of agency that’s essential to successful game design that tells a cohesive story while the player still feels meaningfully involved.  The balance and flow among these three types of agency is critical to creating a quality game.

Because the player and the character are locked in a partnership through a game’s control interface, character agency and player agency can be difficult to separate.  Complicating things further is that the developer is the one that grants both player and character agency within the game.  A simple example of the separation between player agency and character agency can be shown in Super Mario Bros.  At the beginning of the game, the player can make Mario do two things: run and jump.  If the player has Mario collect a red mushroom, Mario grows larger and can survive one collision with an enemy or projectile.  This is not something the player does.  This is a skill Mario innately has that allows him greater impact on the world.  Other power ups – note the name – give Mario the ability to fly, throw fireballs, and swim.  In Super Mario 2, different characters have different abilities, and those are the agency of those specific characters, not intrinsic to the player.  The skills don’t transfer from Peach to Luigi to Mario even though it’s the same player.

So there.  In one paragraph, we have proof that character agency is a real thing.  Players make choices about companions in video games not just for cosmetic reasons, but also the ability of these companions to act on their world.  Players, for instance, complained that Alan Wake didn’t have a melee attack, but developer Remedy deliberately didn’t give him that skill because he’s a noodly armed writer.

Furthermore, when a game includes a cut scene, these are moments where the player has absolutely no agency within the game.  For this reason, I believe cut scenes should be used only when necessary.  When you completely cut off a player, character or developer’s agency, your game becomes unbalanced.  Yanking control away from a player, making characters inconsistent, or a developer creating an unstructured sandbox that seems to ultimately result in a futile experience are all example of an unbalanced triangle of agency that leads to an unsatisfying experience.

The recent DOOM game is a great example of creating a clearly defined character through action.  The DOOM Marine, solves problems with his fists and guns.  This is his defining character trait.  So there are times in the game’s narrative where the DOOM marine makes choices without the player’s input, smashing consoles, opening doors with corpses, and generally being an asshole.  The glorious thing about how the game is designed is that these aren’t just moments of dark comedy.  They’re indications to the player that an aggressive play style will have the greatest chance of success.  DOOM is not an RPG, because the balance between player agency and character agency comes through the weapon select wheel.

To facilitate this, id Software chose to make the map progression fairly linear, and this is a valid choice.  Id owned its agency as a developer to create the game it wanted to make, instead of trying to make a game “for everyone”.  The successful results speak for themselves.

The thing is, there are no right or wrong answers for this formula, provided the three types of agency stay in balance.  In an RPG, players expect a much larger degree of narrative agency – they want to see the impacts they’ve made upon the world.  The fan outcry to Mass Effect 3 wasn’t just a response to a lack of player agency – that happens within the game, not through the ending.  No, what fans responded to was an unsatisfying end to Commander Shepard’s story.  Fans felt that the original abbreviated ending cut them off from the resolution to the stories of not just Shepard, but his or her companions as well.  They’d still “beat the game”.  The player’s agency was maintained.  But the character’s agency wasn’t respected, and the fans demanded more.

Now, some would argue that the fans wanted to save the world themselves, but I disagree that this was the reason for the outcry.  The disappointment was that there was no closure to the relationships made within the game – what happened to the Quarians?  The Geth?  The crew of the Normandy?  Players truly cared about happy endings – or at least endings that made sense – for the extended cast of the game.  That’s character agency, not player agency.

Of course, the insider rumblings at Bioware were that there were issues between publisher and developer that prevented them from really making the game they wanted to make.  Developers only have so much control – they have limited time, limited budget, and limited technology.  Developer agency matters greatly, because games aren’t just consumer products.  They’re also art.  Sometimes games are going to challenge the player and do things the player doesn’t like.  Deliberately.  Developers must continue to have that freedom to make the game they want.  Discussions about games must be reasoned and reasonable, not the stuff of shame mobs on the internet, looking to pummel developers into changing their content based on sheer numbers and noise.

“Death of the Author” is a principle that I don’t believe has a meaningful role in video game criticism because players work with the developer to author the story within a game.  A huge element of game criticism is whether a developer succeeds in what it intends to do with a game

Often, critics talk about developer intents when they’re actually making massive assumptions – for instance, the assertion that the outfits of sexy female characters are designed to make them appeal sexually available.  However, these critics don’t reach out to the developers themselves to ask them what their intents were, even though many developers are quite happy to answer those sorts of questions.

For instance, when the Tomb Raider reboot came out, there was a popular complaint that Crystal Dynamics had made Lara’s voice work sound deliberately pornographic.  I decided to ask a developer at Crystal Dynamics about this theory, and the poor guy blushed crimson, then explained that those were just the noises the actress had made while performing the physical motion capture.  That’s all it takes to eliminate speculation on intent.

But what if a developer actually wants to use sexuality and sexual entitlement against a player, the way the Metal Gear Solid games do?  This is a valid artistic decision, even when it doesn’t quite succeed in the experiment.  The Metal Gear Solid games juxtapose sex and trauma in a way that is deliberately disturbing – a mercenary may be very resistant to physical damage until he’s distracted by a cunningly placed porn magazine.  Men cartwheel naked through voids while the player is forced to watch.  It’s a decidedly alien approach to sexuality for a Western player.

Meanwhile, the Bayonetta games use the Male Gaze to make a point: the heroine of the game is seen as a villain to the Lumen Sages.  At the core of Bayonetta is a cautionary tale against oppressive sexual taboos.  The war between the Umbra Witches and the Lumen Sages started because of a child born in violation of the blood purity rules, and the ensuing slaughter nearly wipes out both groups.  Bayonetta, therefore, examines lust in a way that is often uncomfortable, even objectifying, to a modern player.  But this also allows the player to understand the strictures under which the Umbra Witches have lived.  Bayonetta’s empowerment comes from her gaming the system, and the sexualized camera angles help establish that in game reality for the player.  Is it comfortable or respectful?  No.  But it’s really powerful.  The developers deliberately empowered Bayonetta in a way that appears sexual to the player.  The player can beat the game, but they can’t overcome the pre-programmed moments when the heroine they identify with is treated like a piece of meat.  The player must choose to see past that and embrace Bayonetta as a whole person or reject her as a whore.  Welcome to being a woman who tries to publicly accomplish anything hard.

But where is the line between developer agency and player agency?  This is where I come back to the triangle of agency.  The connection between the player and the developer is both through the game the developer creates, and the character the player controls within game.  Different types of games grant the player varying degrees of agency within a game world.

Unfortunately, the video game industry is both cliquish and obsessed with trends.  We don’t get two first person shooters in a cycle.  We get six.  We don’t get a couple open world or team based combat games.  We get a glut of them.  This is limiting the number of meaningful consumer choices in gaming.  The success of Grand Theft Auto, The Sims, and World of Warcraft can be attributed, in part, to how different those game franchises were when they launched.  Player agency isn’t just about what a player can do within a game.  It’s about those market choices.  Fresh experiences, and an industry that shows respect for consumer dollars.  Player agency isn’t serviced by making every game an open world game, or a shooter, or a graphics-heavy epic.  The industry can better respect player agency by giving players greater freedom of choice regarding the types of games available.

And, yes, some players like games featuring sexy women, based on the assumption that these women are choosing to dress that way, not forced to. Being forced to do something isn’t sexy for a mentally healthy person.  Some players, on the other hand, don’t want that, and it is possible to provide products for both camps.  But this solution comes from encouraging the products that you like, not attacking the stuff that you don’t.  Personally, I prefer the Saints Row games to the Grand Theft Auto games, but I don’t need the Grand Theft Auto games to change as long as I have an alternative.  No game is going to appeal to everyone, so these waves of outrage seem to me like a waste of time.

Attacking every game with a scantily-clad Amazon character isn’t going to create better games.  Nor does it help to dump on the creative process by denying the in-game agency of fictional women.  Talking to each other and setting examples of respect for others is the only healthy path forward.  In our discussion of representation and inclusion in games, it’s important to remember that developer agency, character agency, and player agency are all real, they all matter, and they all have to work together.

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The Sarkeesian Sexism in Uncharted 4

(Warning: Spoilers for Uncharted 4, blahblahblah)

I really enjoyed Uncharted 4, as I have enjoyed all the Uncharted games.  They’re top notch in many ways, and I recommend them.  What they are not, however, is feminist.  That’s okay.  They don’t have to be.  I still like them.

But it’s important to point out that the Uncharted games are homages to serial adventure stories, and those include some decidedly dated gender-based tropes. In order to effectively modernize the adventure serial, its important to recognize these tropes for what they are.

So it’s baffling to me that Anita Sarkeesian fan Neil Druckmann, the creative director on the game, decided to shame a playtester on Uncharted 4 who, among other things, had the reaction that many gamers are having to the second generation mercenary character, Nadine Ross.  He got pissed off that Nadine seemed like a “Strong Female Character” instead of a developed character.

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I totally disagree with the playtester’s additional opinions on giving Nate and Elena a daughter, but playtesting is supposed to be a confidential process where people are honest about their feelings.  People don’t sign up to be mocked by the devs for having an honest reaction because that reaction was wrong.  You want unfiltered feedback, even if its stupid.  You can’t get that if playtesters think you might mock them in the press for political correctness points.

And that playtester wasn’t wrong about Nadine Ross.

The very thing that creates weaknesses in Nadine as a character was the Sarkeesian-inspired thing Druckmann is patting himself on the back for: changing male characters into female ones “to be different” instead of creating female characters from the outset.

Nadine is a stock character with a makeover.  Remember the big sub boss dude in Raiders of the Lost Ark that Indiana Jones fought around the airplane?

That’s the role Nadine plays in Uncharted 4.  And yes, absolutely, that character kicks the crap out of the hero unless the hero fights dirty.  But there’s a physicality to that character trope that isn’t there with Nadine: these characters tend to look physically intimidating, not like retired supermodels on high protein diets with gym-sculpted shoulders.

Nadine fell into a trope that didn’t end up on Tropes vs Women: Superwoman Syndrome.  Superwoman Syndrome is a state recognized by post-second wave feminists as a “double enslavement” of women.  Not only are women now supposed to be perfect wives and homemakers, but we’re supposed to be perfect at everything else too.

The problem with Superwoman Syndrome is that it’s impossible to be perfect at everything.  So the ongoing attempts to be perfect at everything wear women down and make us physically and mentally sick.  It’s a uniquely profound issue for black women, something Nadine’s motion capture actress, Laura Bailey, couldn’t bring to the part because Naughty Dog cast a white woman.  That’s the developer’s right, but in light of how the character turned out, I think it’s fair to criticize them for that decision.

The film Deadpool uses the same type of character, but did it right.  When audiences first see Gina Carano’s Angel Dust character, they have the same reaction that they did to that guy in Indiana Jones,  “Oh my freaking god nothing is going to stop that human tank.”  Carano brought a physical presence that was appropriate for the part, and the very same guys complaining about Nadine absolutely love Carano in that role.  It isn’t about misogyny.  It’s about failing to replicate the requirements of the trope in the switch from male to female.

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With Superwoman Syndrome comes a tightening of the beauty myth.  Gina Carano smashed it in Deadpool because she was physically large, but still beautiful and desirable.  But she’s an exception that proves the larger rule that in most media, women look like models no matter what they’re supposed to be playing.  Cops look like models.  Firefighters look like models.  Doctors look like models.  So real life female cops don’t tend to look like the ones you see on TV, while real life male cops do.  That becomes a PR problem for real life first responders.

The social impact goes deeper than that, however.  The body type that keeps getting replicated is decidedly and profoundly white.  The b-to-c-cup breasts, boyish hips, and the lean muscle; the slightly freckled skin and “modest” Western dress that are the hallmarks of Sarkeesian-brand false-feminist character design… this rigid standard marginalizes the beauty paradigms of other cultures.  Latina and Black women have to reclaim their fuller hips and “Oakland booties” to get around accusations that their natural bodies are fat or obscene.  The fear of naked female bodies is colonial thinking.

All Sarkeesian’s followers have done is swap one set of racist, sexist ideals for another, instead of actually reducing racism and sexism.  They’ve just created another trope: The Sarkeesian.  It’s no less sexist to force a woman to conform to the Sarkeesian — a woman who is the embodiment of “strong” until the point that strength might threaten or offend — than, say, a Ms Male Character.

Ellie in The Last of Us and Angel Dust in Deadpool were embraced, because they are not Sarkeesians.  Trishka in Bulletstorm is not a Sarkeesian.  They have personalities and say and do deliberately offensive or “unfeminine” things.  Nadine doesn’t have quotable lines, a distinct look, or any sort of swagger or spark, because those might put someone off.  A Sarkeesian trope character never offends with intent.  That’s what makes them so offensive.

As I said, no one expects the Uncharted games to be paragons of political correctness.  The four most prominent characters in Uncharted 4 — Nate, Sully, Nate’s brother, and the main bad guy – are all white, cisgendered men.  Uncharted games have always been bromances, and that’s fine.  There’s a place for that.  Just don’t piss in my ear and tell me it’s raining feminism.

Furthermore, making a game about men doesn’t mean there’s license to get lazy with the writing of the female characters who ARE included.  There’s a distinct, if subtle, difference in how certain plot and character points are handled in Uncharted 4 than in the previous Uncharted games… when the games were written by a woman, Amy Hennig.  I have never been a big fan of Elena Fisher, but Uncharted 2 and Uncharted 3 did a lot to pull her away from her stock character “feisty Girl Friday love interest” origins in the original game.  Of course, a lot of men love Elena for the very reasons I despise her in Uncharted and Uncharted 4 – she enables Nate’s truly bad behaviour.

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Elena doesn’t, I believe, get nearly angry enough when Nate yet again lies to her for no good reason.  Of course, it’s very possible that Elena was furious when she first discovered her husband had lied to her a-gain, but we never see that, because her wifely rage happens off screen.  So despite the piles of laundry in their house, Elena is still a Superwoman: she doesn’t have limits or boundaries where a fully-formed woman would.

Nate, and the player, is never truly confronted with the depths of what lying does to your partner.  The game does not confront the player with Elena’s raw, authentic feelings in response to being deceived.  Where Ellie swore, yelled, cried, and smashed stuff in The Last of Us, Elena pouts and offers sage words of understanding.  We don’t see the depths and immediacy of Elena’s pain, we don’t empathize with her the way we do Ellie, because we never see Elena at her worst, so she’s not totally real.

Because Elena is the perfect wife who only gets angry in perfect, private ways.  I’m sure I’m not the only woman who plays this game who has been married long enough to go “Oh come on!  That’s BULLSHIT.”

Oh but we’re not supposed to have that reaction, see?  We’re supposed to be “understanding” and “supportive” partners.  Because when our husband FEELZ BAD, the dutiful wife understands that it’s okay that he acts like an irresponsible manchild instead of discussing the situation like a grown up.  We’re supposed to accept that this is just the way men are.

Bullshit.  Bullshit bullshit bullshit.  There are different ways to be a man, but grown up men are honest.  Lying to your spouse about important things is the fastest way to destroy a marriage.  Nate and Elena broke up multiple times because of his immaturity.  He was supposed to have grown up some at the end of Uncharted 3, which is why they got back together and everyone cheered.

But in Uncharted 4, he’s back to being a dishonest baby, and Elena lets him be a dishonest baby with smiles, loving stokes to his face, and little more than the occasional pout.  He’s worn her down, and at this point she’s accepted that he’s going to lie to her whenever it’s convenient for him to do so, as long as he’s sorry later.  When a partner lies for that long, that consistently, he’s going to keep lying.  He has to want to change not to stop her from leaving — which is still manipulating things to get a desired outcome — but because he realizes that lying to her shows her no respect.  (The same goes for when women lie.  Just in this case, Nate and Elena are a heterosexual couple and the lying partner is male.)

So Nate and Elena go off into domestic bliss, where she never again sets hard boundaries because he’ll just lie his way around them.  Yes, that’s not what the game is supposed to have us believe, but that’s what someone like me, who has been married for seventeen years, sees.  A hard lesson of marriage is that feeling bad isn’t enough.  In order for your partner to trust you, you can’t keep doing the same crap to them over and over.

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Nate and Elena do not have a believable, healthy marriage of equals.  They are a manboy married to a Superwoman.  That’s disappointing, because those marriages don’t tend to last in the real world.  A cycle of passive aggressive resentment forms because the Elena is constantly biting down her anger to be “supportive” and the Nate justifies a string of “white” lies because he doesn’t want to trouble the little wife with the truth.  If he does, she might say no.

These sorts of on-screen marriages are a sexist trope that gets replicated to falsely portray women as superior people in inferior positions.  Since we have to give cutesy names to all these tropes now, let’s call it “Wifey McAwesomesauce”.  Wifey McAwesomesauce is also seen in numerous sitcoms, in which no one can quite figure out why a mature, competent woman is married to Schlubby McScrewup.  Wifey McAwesomesauce has a great job, great clothes, great hair, and raised great kids.  Schlubby McScrewup is a misandrist stereotype who can’t change a diaper, make a school lunch, or drop the kids off without “hilarious” calamity.  And yet the show is always about Schlubby McScrewup because no one actually cares what’s going on in Wifey McAwesome’s mind.  Her perfect perfectness of perfection is only there to validate the comic struggles of her schlub husband.  It’s a rare sitcom, like All In The Family, Roseanne, and Blackish, where the spouses actually seem believably matched.  In these sitcoms, both partners screw up, and they actually yell at each other.  Like, really yell.  The way people do in real life.  The way Elena didn’t yell at Nate.

I’m not saying Naughty Dog should change any of this.  It’s a particular brand of escapist male fantasy, and that’s fine, since the tradition in which the games exist is soaking in that stuff.  But Naughty Dog doesn’t get to play in that sandbox and also collect “Great Male Feminist” points.  Elena may put on a few non-perfect post-baby pounds if they keep trying to have their cake and eat it too.

 

Note: Someone on twitter asked me what I would have changed in Elena’s reaction to make her seem more real.  There are various ways to do that.  A complex way would have been bonus content that allowed the player to play through, as Elena, discovering Nate lied, so we got to see her reaction.  A much faster way would be to have her be less damned nice to him right off the bat.  Saving his life is one thing, but it would have been more satisfying if she saved him without forgiving him right away.  We lost out on a lot of good potential dialogue because Elena was too nice to be fun.

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