PROGRESS

06.23.15 9:15 AM ET

Gamergate Fail: The Rise of Ass-Kicking Women in Video Games

At the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), the largest video game industry event of the year, developers unveiled a half-dozen games with female protagonists. The tide is turning.

When video game historians look back on their medium’s history, they won’t want to remember 2014. It was a bad year for video games. Not the games themselves, really—there were plenty of fine games released last year. No, it was a bad year for the culture of video games. Last year was, of course, the year of Gamergate. The year when everybody got to see the worst parts of that vast swath of people who call themselves “gamers.” The ones who ruined that word for the rest of us. The “movement’s” rampant misogyny hit the mainstream and hit it hard.

Gamergate is still around. The petulant children who threatened female video game developers and personalities for daring to, um, have an opinion are still there. But no one is talking about them. No one cares about them.

And it seems that maybe, just maybe, we’re starting to learn from them.

There have been more than a few instances where women lamented the lack of female protagonists in video games. The response was invariably something to the effect of, “If you don’t like it, go make your own games,” with some slurs and/or threats thrown in for good measure. And though there are dozens of things wrong with that line of thinking, the most practically obvious is the fact that the games they were asking about weren’t the sort of titles that a few people can just get together and make. They wanted (and want) games with $50+ million budgets that star interesting female characters. And let’s not pretend like this only goes one way. I want that too. I’m sick of playing as muscly men. I think the vast majority of us are.

And though this year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) underwhelmed, there was a glimmer of light that maybe, just maybe, people working in the industry are too. It’s the largest gaming event of the year, where the industry’s companies tell the world what to expect from them in the year(s) to come. And more than a half-dozen new games were unveiled with female protagonists or generally playable female characters. The gender gap is still a chasm, to be sure, but these are significant first steps.

There’s a new Tomb Raider game coming out. Lara Croft is undoubtedly the most famous female video game protagonist, what with Angelina Jolie’s portrayal of her in some not-particularly-good film adaptations of the series. But for far too long, Lara Croft has been the exception to the rule. The Metroid series stars a badass female character, Samus, but she’s always suited up and the designs of her out of suit hit the same problematic stereotypes that have always plagued female characters, Lara Croft included. A character like Faith, the free-running protagonist from 2008’s Mirror’s Edge, breaks from that mold, but in this industry, properties can die for any number of reasons, and that one has been in development limbo for years. It wasn’t until this E3 where its sequel, Catalyst, was finally unveiled at EA’s press conference. And it looks awesome.

Two of the most interesting new titles announced at E3 this year were the terribly named Horizon: Zero Dawn, announced at Sony’s conference, and the not-much-better Recore, announced by Microsoft. Horizon, from the developers of the Killzone franchise, is about a tribe of humans struggling to survive long after humanity has been wiped out. It’s the far-flung future with a prehistoric twist (and fittingly features mecha-dinosaurs as enemies). Less is known about Recore, but it follows a woman and her AI dog companion as they fight off hordes of other dangerous AI. Both of these games are brand new properties being backed by major companies, and they star badass women. But not just badass women: badass women who aren’t sexualized.

Footage of 'Horizon: Zero Dawn' unveiled at E3., Footage of 'Horizon: Zero Dawn' unveiled at E3., Footage of 'Horizon: Zero Dawn' unveiled at E3.

Of the big games announced, only one, a sequel to the niche game Nier developed by the team behind the highly sexualized Bayonetta series, dressed its female character up in a skimpy outfit designed to get the audience’s imagination going. The rest looked like, well, just people, dressed the way you would expect a person to dress themselves rather than dressed by some third party with poor intentions. Considering that the first thing anyone could notice about Lara Croft in 1996 was how ridiculous her polygonal breasts looked, we had a long way to come. And when Rise of the Tomb Raider was shown off at E3, Croft spent the entire demo in a parka.

A sequel to the stealth game Dishonored surprised everyone by featuring a female protagonist. Later, it was revealed that there are actually two main characters—one male and one female—but that Bethesda chose to highlight the female character during the game’s reveal speaks volumes. They also made a point to note that the upcoming Fallout sequel will also allow you to play as a woman, though that isn’t new for the series.

But the Dishonored reveal makes a particularly notable counterpoint to the other reveal of a female character in a franchise sequel. If any company had to prove its commitment to equality this year, it was Ubisoft. It’s one of the largest video game publishers out there, but the 2014 entry in its flagship franchise, Assassin’s Creed: Unity, was marred both by technical failings and conceptual ones.

The game featured a co-op mode where up to four players could go out assassinating together. But all of the playable options were male. When asked why there were no playable women, the response was jaw-dropping: Ubisoft creative director Alex Amancio said it was simply too much work: “It’s double the animations, it’s double the voices, all that stuff and double the visual assets. Especially because we have customizable assassins. It was really a lot of extra production work.” And the company’s other big release of the year, Far Cry 4, had the same problem, though that game’s developers at least seemed aware of why people were upset about it.

But here’s the thing: What Amancio said wasn’t even really true. Sure, to really build a female playable character from the ground up would require that much work, but to get a decent approximation? Animator Jonathan Cooper took to Twitter to say, “In my educated opinion, I would estimate this to be a day or two’s work. Not a replacement of 8000 animations.” And who’s he to talk? Well, he was the animation director of Assassin’s Creed III. And he also worked with the team that animated Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation, a series spinoff that actually featured a female protagonist, using much of the work done for the main series entry. It’s a simple and obvious fact: Characters in games share animations all the time. To pretend as though each new character model requires a fresh start is a blatant lie.

So the company had a lot to prove this year. And if you were to only watch their stage, you’d think they’d done it. Their lineup of speakers was by far the most diverse. They had Aisha Tyler as the host again, as they have since 2012, but she was not the only person of color on that stage, nor the only woman.

But if you were to just see the games? You’d think nothing had changed. A man with a terrible British accent in Victorian England is Robin Hood or something. So what?

It wasn’t until later that evening, when Sony showed off a different trailer, that I was interested. That trailer starred a woman named Evie, apparently the elder twin of that far-less-interesting guy. But Evie shows up and assassinates the hell out of some random guys in some particularly brutal ways. It was pretty awesome... except for the fact that Jacob narrated the trailer, not Evie. Two steps forward, one step back.

But it’s progress. Real, tangible progress. And even though there is much more work to be done, we have to acknowledge that we’ve taken some steps forward and celebrate it. And, most crucially, we need to reward it. At the same time that we condemn companies that refuse to diversify their characters, we need to help those that do. We as a culture need to send a very clear message to game companies that this is the sort of thing we’ve been waiting for. If every female-fronted game is a sales flop, publishers will get spooked and we’ll be back to nothing but muscled marines for the next decade. We can’t let that happen. We won’t let it happen.

The tides have begun to turn. It’s up to all of us to help make sure they never turn back.