There were two occasions in high school where I was received an invitation to a party – both being last minute pity offerings via Facebook Events. I appreciated the inclusion nonetheless, and also, the fact that they were costume parties. Although the idea of social shindigs themselves instilled me with a great deal of anxiety, the opportunity to dress absurdly ultimately won me over.
To the first of them, I dressed as the Joker, and received a number of comments about how I should’ve dressed Harley Quinn and been “hot-scary” rather than “just plain scary”. Needless to say, I rolled my eyes so far back in my head that I could see my brain cells dying. I got a lot of ocular exercise, if nothing else.
Not a great start, but I tried again.
On the other occasion, I dressed as Scooby Doo. A kid who was seemingly wearing casual clothes told me I would’ve been so much cuter as Daphne. This was frustrating. Everyone (who’ll listen) knows my Scooby Doo character preferences are ranked as follows: Scooby, Velma, Shaggy, Daphne, the Mystery Machine, Scrappy, Old Man Jenkins, and Fred (look, he’s a sweet goof, he just needs to find the words to describe a girl without being disrespectful). I am open to critique of my costumes, but this needs to be constructive, and I’d prefer it coming from someone who has made their own cosplay attempt too. With that in mind, I asked the kid what he was dressed as, and he told me he was Alan Wake. I bit my lip to stifle some ugly laughing. It made sense. Of course he was.
For those who don’t know, Alan Wake is the eponymous hero of a series of horror games. He is one of the most bland, archetypal video game protagonists ever – and he’s certainly not lacking in some stiff competition there. He is, just casually, a famous author. He wears jeans. He is white. He has brown hair and a short, scruffy beard. His wife, Alice, is a blonde photographer whose interests include her husband and his novels. Alan Wake is the imaginative equivalent to the experience of eating a giant hard-boiled egg, as its dry, black-tinged yolk clogs your throat with vague discomfort and an overwhelming, slow-moving blandness.
Video game diversity leaves a lot to be desired, which is somewhat odd considering the medium – after all, if a character can be an alien, a robot, a domestic dog, a square, a slice of bread or a metaphysical concept, is it so crazy that they could sometimes be a woman of colour? Dare I dream?
Gender diversity in the industry itself is improving, but still leaves much to be desired in becoming a safer and welcoming field for women to participate in. At least progress is being made here – unfortunately, game development has a long way to go in regards to racial inclusiveness. It is largely a Westernized and masculinized industry, but it shouldn’t have to be. Eventually, games should be as socially modern as they are technologically. Slowly, but surely… please, please, surely.
For those who adore video games, and those who may have shied away but are interested to dip their toes in, here are a couple of picks for games with interesting protagonists who exist far beyond the realm of Alan Wake’s cookie cutter nightmares:
Broken Age is a story-driven adventure game, with two interlocking tales and separate protagonists to switch between. I enjoyed this unique feature, as sometimes point-and-click games can lose their novelty the first time you get stuck, so having two perspectives assisted with maintaining a sense of progression. The game is artistically delightful, and this is showcased by the variety of landscapes and fantasy elements of its universe. I particularly loved playing as Vella, a young woman of colour who is offered as a ritualistic sacrifice to the monster that has historically been calling the shots on her village. She, of course, resolves to destroy the beast instead. The premise itself is quite classic, but the game brings enough original twists and turns to make it worthwhile nonetheless. While Shay, her male protagonist counterpart, is a likeable character, I find that Vella specifically shines with her loving but strong-willed nature.
Undertale is a character-rich game with progressive sensibilities in the relationships and personalities depicted. Although the gameplay is a throwback to old RPGs, it is revitalised by the influence of player choices – the game differs based on whether it is played as a pacifist, anarchist, or a happy medium between the two. The dialogue is also sincerely funny: I’m talkin’ puns! While it does not overtly push a feminist agenda (unlike myself, let’s be honest), Undertale is refreshing in the way it normalises its own diversity: female characters are not tokenized, non-heteronormative romantic feelings are commonplace, and our protagonist, Frisk, is non-binary and/or androgynous. Simply by rejecting male or straight as the default way of existence, the social narrative of the game feels a little less prescribed. Undertale leaves space for the player to bring their own interpretation, and subverts the argument that representation is a form of pandering or politicising. Rather than the developers of this game asking, “why should we have female or non-binary characters?” it feels like they’ve simply asked “why not?”.
Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor
This is a game of dichotomies. Trash and treasure. Hope and hopelessness. Vibrant and plain. Busy and mundane. Alien and familiar. Individual and society. Haze and clarity. The Janitor, described as a girlbeast, is an enigmatic protagonist who reflects the unique but humble way we each play bystander to the worlds of others, while simply trying to survive our own. It is not climactic in any sense, but is nonetheless compelling to play with a focus on exploration, existence and emotion. It possesses enough intrigue and personal connection to feel invested in, and even touches on some of the complexities of depression and gender dysphoria.
Fran is a girl with a mental illness. Just like me. But also, not. Not at all. She is institutionalised within the hellscape of reality and perception, an experience that entails both an uncomfortable familiarity and a chaotic terror about it. The game, and our hero, are equally unsettling. Despite this, Fran retains some of the endearing and youthful qualities which humanise her. In a game tackling themes of mental illness, it is crucial to establish depth of character and ensure Fran is not a reductive token of “insanity”, but is also engaging to play. The world around her is explicit, darkly humorous, and changes as she self-medicates. It is a point-and-click, but is full of puzzles and minigames which add extra depth to the gameplay.
Dex is a woman of resistance in a futuristic world, where she is persecuted as a cyborg by a powerful network of governments and corporations. Sound familiar? No, it is not the political climate of 2017 so far, it is a humble video game! The setting holds all the elements to a classic cyberpunk tale – a city bleak but for neon fringing; a focus on advanced technologies, run-ins with hackers, and artificial intelligence; a downtrodden, low quality of life. The community is diverse and intriguing, and the gameplay incorporates elements of a platformer, an RPG, a side-scroller, and a beat ‘em up brawler.
Never Alone (Kisima Inŋitchuŋa)
Kisima Inŋitchuŋa (I Am Not Alone) is an aesthetically beautiful game about a young Native American girl, Nuna, and her Fox, as they try to save their home from a powerful blizzard. The gameplay takes the style of a platformer with some puzzle elements, particularly in how both characters must be navigated in tandem. The collectibles in this game unlock educational insights into various aspects of Alaskan Inuit culture and folklore, which I find to be a creative way to utilize video gaming as an informative and connective tool. The premise of this game and its focus on Native peoples is a unique strength. It’s also near impossible not to adore Nuna and her gorgeous animal friend.
Gone Home is a bit of an oldie but definitely a goodie. It was created by a group inclusive of female developers, features a female protagonist, and also incorporates Sapphic relationships. Lots of ticks there for social progressivity, but it is also genuinely fun to play! It’s got a rad 90s nostalgia feel, and a healthy dose of mystery. It plays as an unfolding story that is masquerading as a suspense game. While you begin by searching for a what, as is often the assumption, you eventually come to focus more on the why of your discoveries. This game also subverts the idea of who the protagonist is – I felt that I (the player) was not necessarily the main character, but rather felt more connected to the characters we never interact with, but delve intimately into the lives of. Gone Home reinforces gaming as an immersive and interactive means of telling stories regardless of genre.
Our protagonist, Red, is a renowned but controversial singer, left voiceless and with no choice but to fight a corrupt world wielding the weapon that it intended to use to destroy her. The transistor is a unique article which absorbs the consciousness and knowledge of all it vanquishes. It also serves as Red’s ally and narrator to the game. Transistor is visually stunning, and like Supergiant’s previous popular title, Bastion, it offers a melodic soundtrack produced by Darren Korb and featuring vocals by Ashley Lynn Barrett. This ties in nicely with the tale of music as a form of social and political capital, and contributes to a highly-developed gameworld experience.
Sunset, like Gone Home, is a game where storytelling is uncovered through exploration and context. We play as Angela, who has needed to take up a housekeeping job in 1970s Latin American during a time of political tumult. There is a civil war, and through Angela’s unique perspective we are immersed into the world of the bystander – of conflict, of wealth, and of class systems. The world outside suffers as Angela watches from the creature comforts of a high rise, albeit as a housekeeper and not a resident. She is between worlds, and this premise allows for greater depth in the developing the plot and the connection between she and her employer. The gameplay itself is simple, but I appreciate the unfolding of the story and how it is incorporated into everyday existence.
So, there you have it, for now. Some games to play for when you’re not in the mood to play as some dead-eyed white dude with a bland romantic subtext involving his female equivalent. I hope you enjoy them – they are all available on Steam, which frequently offers sales and discounts. Get gaming!
I am not sorry for the comments I made about Alan Wake.