At our second-ever meeting as an IGDA chapter, one of my fellow members, Danielle, brought up something that has been bothering female gamers for as long as I can remember: the depiction of their sex on the game screen…and I do mean sex. Much like badly-written comics that I mostly ignored in the 1990s, Danielle pointed out how too many games made female characters’ sex appeal a central (if not THE central) facet of their character. The more ridiculous their bust size, the harder a time she had taking the game itself seriously.
Now, I love to oogle such women as much as the next straight guy, but the writer in me had to concede that Danielle was onto something. She then asked a question: when was the last time that any of us had seen a blockbuster game where the female character wasn’t known to be extreme eye candy in addition to whatever else the creators had gotten right or wrong? I know that some of you out there could point to the newest incarnation of Tomb Raider but you’re not fooling anybody. A great deal of that franchise’s early success was driven by the very thing that Danielle was harping on. Don’t believe me? I still remember early Internet devotees quoting measurements of Lara Croft that made her a little better than a life-sized Barbie doll.
As often happens, my mind was still grinding on Danielle’s question after the meeting had broken up. It was then that I realized that there was such a series of games that fit the bill: the Bioshock series. While I initially felt like kicking myself for not thinking of this BEFORE the meeting was over (but don’t we all find the right words way too late to help us sometimes?), I realized why it hadn’t entered my mind straight away. As a game franchise, Bioshock is known for its mashup of genres , disturbing themes on everything from misguided idealism to bad parenting, and the most sophisticated storytelling of any first person shooter in existence. But its depiction of women, which has been handled in just as deft a fashion as any other aspect of these games, is something that rarely comes up. In light of Bioshock Infinite’s release, it is long past time to correct the oversight.
Bioshock I: The Prodigal Scientist
Women don’t figure in too deeply in the original Bioshock. The most you get out of any female characters in that game is the recordings of their thoughts scattered throughout that decaying 20th Century Atlantis called Rapture. Even then, most are archetypes that we’ve seen before for female characters, whether you’re talking about born follower Dianne McClintlock who switches from being the mistress of Rapture’s founder, Andrew Ryan, to being a catspaw to his main opposition Atlas or the doomed Jasmine Jolene, a dancer whose demise you have the dubious pleasure of watching replayed in the club where she worked (she apparently had a sideline that involved dancing of kind). There is, however, one exception to all this, someone who not only breaks the mold but also is alive and therefore an important part of the plot late in the game: Brigid Tannenbaum.
Her background, as described in her recordings, is certainly twisted enough. She was imprisoned in one of the German concentration camps during the Second World War, where she demonstrated to her captors that she had a talent for science. They, in turn, had her begin helping them with experiments on other prisoners (and if you’ve heard anything about how such experiments went, I hardly need to fill in the blanks on how horrific those likely were). Tannenbaum herself was bored by what the Germans were after, the shallow ideals of blue eyes and blond hair. She was more interested in what made human beings so different in the basic fundamentals: strength, intelligence, and so forth. It wasn’t until she got to Rapture that she found what she was looking: the substance Adam, which rewrites the genetic code at its most fundamental level. From that process, she was able to create one of the game’s signature inhabitants, the Little Sisters.
As the picture of her on the various broadcasts and voice recordings where she speaks show you, Tannenbaum is a fairly pretty woman with a dark complexion but she doesn’t ooze sex appeal in any way, shape, or form. She actually sees herself as something of a monster for feeling maternal instincts for her creations. You never shake the impression that she could never have anyone touch her in an intimate way, man or woman. Her most distinguishing feature (outside of the odd bit of German that leaks into her dialogue when she’s annoyed) is her intellect, which she uses to keep the world at bay. While you never interact with most of the human characters in any meaningful way when you are brought face-to-face with them, that isolation only makes sense in Tannenbaum’s case. She stopped considering herself human a long time ago.
Bioshock 2: Mommy Dearest, Lady Way, and Sister Salvation
Quick aside: the arguments for this sequel being non-canon always irritate me. It’s a video game, not a documentary. As such, Bioshock 2 is no less imaginary than the original was, regardless of what team made it. Okay, rant over…let’s focus on the point of this post.
One of the oft-overlooked aspects of this game is how deeply female characters are plugged into the plot from the very beginning. Hell, let’s start with this game’s Big Bad, Dr. Sophia Lamb. As with Tannenbaum, her looks are good but not mind-blowing as befits a woman who appears to be somewhere between her late thirties and early fifties. She was brought to Rapture to help the powers-that-be deal with the psychological problems that the inhabitants were experiencing from being at the bottom of the ocean, only to wind up getting imprisoned when her popularity with the locals was threatening Andrew Ryan’s control.
For all her empathic talk with the people around her (one devotee, Gilbert Alexander, actually declares her a “secular saint” in one recording), her true focus in life is her daughter, Eleanor. Her every waking moment was dedicated to molding Eleanor into a perfected human being, whether Eleanor liked the idea or not. Even Eleanor’s becoming a Little Sister was a situation that Lamb wound up exploiting in pursuit of that goal.
The player has plenty of reasons to hate Lamb…literally from the start. She makes Subject Delta, the player’s character and Eleanor’s assigned Big Daddy, commit suicide right in front of Eleanor in the introductory sequence (still one of the most understated horror sequences I’ve ever seen in a game, right down to the final echo of Eleanor’s “Daddy!”). But as the game progresses, you get hints of Lamb’s hidden pettiness poking its head out of the ground like a groundhog in the middle of a patch of high grass. She claims that she has no personal hatred of Delta and yet every action that she undertakes is dedicated to either destroying Delta or throwing him into moral situations where she can prove to Eleanor (and herself) that Delta is every bit the monster that she treats him as. Joan Crawford had better self-awareness.
Grace Holloway (who I suspect was based on famous hard-living jazz singer Billie Holliday) is a more maternal figure than Lamb, a black woman whose hard times didn’t stop when she got to Rapture. Back in the surface world, she’d known plenty of hardship, whether it was growing up in the St. Louis Hooverville during the 1930s or losing a son through some tragic circumstances. Through a number of racially-driven maneuvers against her (where the racism involved was flat out denied), she went from being a leading singer of Rapture to being the de facto governor of the Rapture slums known as Pauper’s Drop. That put her in Lamb’s orbit. The help that Lamb was able to provide Grace made her a staunch supporter of the doctor. So when the player rolls up into the Drop via the Atlantic Express, she doesn’t think twice about sicing every goon she has in the neighborhood on him. When you finally meet her face-to-face, she’s older than you’d expect and walks with a limp thanks to Delta knocking her around back when he was with Eleanor.
Even in such hard circumstances, the first word that comes to mind with her is “dignity.” The world has literally taken everything from her but her pride and her voice. You can hear both in a tune that she sings if you wind up having a Little Sister harvest some Adam inside her home base in the Sinclair Deluxe. At the heart of her character is the issue of prejudice and how it poisons the discriminated person’s outlook if they take too much of it. Grace sees Delta as just as much a monster as her benefactress Lamb, endlessly mocking him as “Tin Daddy” while she tries to kill him. It is up to the player to either confirm her worst thoughts about Delta or make her reconsider, both of which add a nice layer of pathos to the plot.
Finally, there’s Eleanor herself, the female Messiah who never wanted the job. Lamb couldn’t even bother to give birth to Eleanor in the conventional way, just mixed her genetic material with that of Delta’s in a gestation tank. Lamb saw that as necessary if Eleanor was going to fulfill her “destiny” as “The People’s Daughter.” But the recordings Eleanor leaves behind tell the audience how little she thought of her mother’s schooling. Whenever possible, she rebelled against the indoctrination process and went her own way so that she could find her own answers. She remembers her time as a Little Sister as an artificially-induced time of peace and bliss, an experience that she seemed to loathe from start to finish. But the one good thing that she got out of that time was Delta, whom she genuinely loves as her father. As such, she helps Delta throughout the game in any way that she can.
Eleanor is a young woman by this point, but she’s no supermodel. The best way to describe her thin, waifish looks (complete with a bust line that is so nonexistent that it makes Kate Moss look like a Playboy centerfold) is “lost innocence.” Thanks to the adults in her life, she never had a childhood and all her mother has done is continue the pattern of exploitation as she’s gotten older. This has given her a low affect that some would label either psychopathic or sociopathic.
Consequently, Eleanor is the fulcrum on which the whole game turns. Lamb has done everything in her power to make Eleanor in her own preferred image and one can almost feel the sense of outrage at Eleanor’s “ingratitude” on the subject. That Eleanor prefers her father (probably because he never used her and was something of a victim himself) is what drives Lamb’s unacknowledged hatred of Delta, which comes to full boil before the end of the game. Compared with that, who needs sex appeal?
Bioshock Infinite: The Golden Child
As good as the above was in terms of creating female characters that were more than Penthouse Letters fantasies come to life, the series found its ultimate expression of such characters in Bioshock Infinite. I’m speaking, of course, of Elizabeth, a character who is to this game’s success what Gollum was to the Lord of the Rings trilogy. While early designs of her showed the expected low neckline and above-average bust, the Elizabeth of the game proper is a much more conservatively designed and dressed character. There is no denying that she is appealing to look at in the manner of a Disney princess (my personal points of reference are always Belle from “Beauty and the Beast” and Don Bluth’s animated version of Anastasia) but she gets to the player on a deeper level than just the lust factor.
She is yet another girl who is being groomed by her elders to be a vindicating savior for their prejudices. The exploiter in this particular case is Zachariah Hale Comstock, the founder of the floating city of Columbia at the turn of the 20th Century. He rules his city with a disturbing mix of Christian theology and nativist American doctrines that deify Washington, Jefferson, and Ben Franklin as demi-gods, excuse the Confederacy for its rebellion, and vilify Abraham Lincoln for making “his” country into something he loathes. Comstock plans to use Elizabeth and her ability to manipulate quantum fields to destroy what he perceives as the corrupt world below in the manner of a Biblical flood. But Elizabeth herself has other ideas, ones that she is able to put into play when Booker finds her in her angel statue tower.
While Elizabeth is very much trapped beyond her ability to get herself out of her own cage in the beginning, it quickly becomes obvious that she is neither a shrinking violet nor a damsel in distress. Being locked away has given her nothing but time to study and she can now do such useful things as crack codes and pick locks. Aside from that and the useful ability to summon up or scrounge needed supplies at certain points, the game makes a point of emphasizing that she has a mind of her own. She is believably tenderhearted at key points of the game (the player picking up a guitar triggers my favorite example of this) but she’s also nobody’s fool and has no desire to ever again be exploited by anybody, her rescuer included. The moment where she compares Comstock’s plan to exploit her to her unfulfilled desire to have a puppy makes me laugh for showing how tough-minded she is on the subject.
But none of the above really does justice to how much Elizabeth is likely to get under the player’s skin in a way that I have not seen in 30 years of playing video games. Ken Levine and company are emotional sadists for taking the player through all these highs and lows (and trust me…there is one point in this game where the lows border on the absolutely helpless). But that’s the mark of a good storyteller, whatever their medium. Had they gone for the sex appeal route of the original design, I would argue that this wouldn’t be nearly as effective.
So What’s The Point?
I’ve spent this entire post tearing apart the things that I thought worked for Bioshock’s female characters (and I’m sure there’s a few folks who will say that I skipped a few people in the process like Daisy Fitzroy in Infinite). But it’s only to show off the one critical common denominator out of the mix that all these characters share: their sex is treated as just another detail like hair color, height, or clothing. There have been some modern games that play up the sex-bomb aspects that I knocked in the beginning and still came up with fully-formed female characters (yes, Mass Effect, I’m looking at you). But I would argue that we are rapidly approaching a stage in the gaming industry where that kind of storytelling alone is not going to cut it anymore.
With just about any visual entertainment medium you can name, that’s how it works. You start off with the simple stuff to get people to look at you and then you start telling stories about people that resemble folks that they know from the real world. Especially given the increasing number of female gamers that are getting into the action, don’t you think that it’s about time that we started coming up with MORE characters like the above?