If Valve Avoids Horror Film Tokenism but No One Gets it, Does it Count?

I really like the GiantBombCast. The guys are pretty funny, though the Joystiq crew has a much closer taste in games to my own. But not a week goes by when Jeff Gerstmann doesn’t say something casually sexist, which is like sudden sour note in an otherwise fun song.

Last week, in talking about Left 4 Dead, he described the characters as your typical survivors of the zombie apocalypse: “the old veteran, the businessman, and the girl.” Whoa, what? The GURL? Her distinguishing characteristic is that she’s female?

The problem is that, while this may be the treatment of women in many horror films, this is Valve we’re talking about, here. These are the people behind Half Life 2 and Portal. Even working within the “three dudes and token woman” format, Zoey has a personality and background just like the others; she’s NOT just “The Girl”, she’s a student, a slacker, a horror flick buff, in the same way Louis isn’t “The Black Guy” (another token in horror films–also notice “The Girl” is always white unless noted otherwise), he’s the IT technician frustrated with his job. So this is a criticism of peoples’ perceptions rather than what the developers of the game did; in this case the developers actually made an effort to elevate their characters above the typical horror film stereotypes while still working within that framework, yet that framework made it very easy to fall back on the genre’s sexist tropes when thinking about the characters.

(Let’s leave aside for a moment the fact that that the only “super-zombie” that is female is called The Witch and sits around crying. She’s also the deadliest, but there are still no playable female zombies; apparently when women become zombies they’re either in the horde or sit around and cry. This feels silly to complain about–rest assured I am dying (*groan*) to play the game more–but also it’s kind of baffling.)

I’m not really sure what my point is here. I guess that it’s frustrating when a developer does some things right but people just go with their preconceptions.

While I’m at it, I don’t think this warrants a whole new post, but I just finished Prince of Persia and what the heck is up with The Concubine? The token female enemy (yet again one of four) and she’s the “Scorned Lover”? This is the motivation of like 99% of female villains. Quite unoriginal for such an overall unique game. Why couldn’t The Alchemist have been female as well? Or do women only have motivations relating to love and sex? I’m really frustrated with so many female characters being pigeonholed into roles that focus on their sexuality.

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Quest for Feminism, Part I: So You Want to Be a Hero?

I’m working on a post about Crisis Core, but I realized I should really get at least somewhat near the end before I start making judgment calls, especially about the story. In the meantime, I’ll be talking about Quest for Glory‘s feminist and not-so-feminist ideas.

Quest for Glory is my favorite game series of all time. For the uninitiated, QFG is a series of classic Sierra adventure games (similar to the more well-known series King’s Quest, Space Quest, etc.), with the twist that it incorporates role-playing elements such as class selection, statistics, and combat, as well as the ability to export your character at the end of each game in the 5-game series to be used in the sequel (up until the last, of course). QFG is one of few game series to truly deliver a sense of adventure and heroism for me. In addition, it has the best magic system of any game, ever, by using magic not only by hurling fireballs in combat but to solve problems; this is something I rarely see in fantasy literature, let alone games. And who can forget the charming, pun-filled humor?

But how does this classic series stand up to feminist critique? I’m currently replaying the series yet again in honor of the release of the previously-mentioned Trial By Fire VGA remake, so as I play through the games, I’ll try to answer this question to the best of my ability.

Let’s start at the beginning. This post contains spoilers, by the way.

Throughout the series, you play as the Nameless Hero–a white, blond-haired blue-eyed male (though I think he does somehow dye his hair light brown at some point). The original idea was to offer the player a choice between races (fantasy races; more accurately: species) in addition to class, but the technology was too limited at the time1. In today’s world, choice of race and gender, sometimes even species, are pretty much expected in RPGs. The choice of avatar does, however, fall in line with both the setting progression of the series as well as the intended evocation of other fantasy heroes like Luke Skywalker. It also makes sense in the context of SYWTBAH alone, with its Germanic/European-fairy-tale setting.

Oddly, but also hardly surprisingly, every character in this first game is white, except for Abdulla Doo, a guest at the inn in Spielburg. Race–and Abdulla Doo–will definitely be revisited in posts about Trial By Fire and Wages of War, the second and third games of the series. For now, I’ll just say that Abdulla Doo marks the beginning of a trend of racial stereotypes that the series never really bucks.

Since QFG, as both an adventure game and an RPG, is all about character and story, it’s important to look at the roles and actions of female characters.

  • Zara: Magic Shop owner, accomplished wizard
  • Amelia Appleberry: aka, The Healer
  • Hilde: Centaur farmer’s daughter, produce seller
  • Elsa von Spielburg: Baron’s daughter, absent for 99% of the game
  • Baba Yaga: Hag, evil witch; antagonist of the game

There is also the enchantress Erana, who never actually appears in this game and is actually said to be dead, but her character is introduced as the creator of the protective aura around Spielburg and the peaceful, magical valley known as Erana’s Peace.

Oddly, yet again unsurprisingly, the majority of characters in the game are male (and all of the nameless brigand enemies–the only human enemies in the game–are male). The occupations of the female characters are overwhelmingly magical, especially if you include Erana. This unfortunately feeds into the same stereotype common in RPGs: women as magic users and men as melee fighters (though the latter is balanced a bit by Erasmus and the ability to choose to play as a magic user). The only exception to this rule appears to be Elsa.

Ah, Elsa von Spielburg. A slight twist on the tired and very un-feminist damsel in distress trope. Elsa, the daughter of the Baron, has been missing for ten years; she was kidnapped by brigands. In the climactic encounter of the game, the hero discovers that the notorious leader of the brigands was actually Elsa under an enchantment by Baba Yaga.

When it comes down to it, Elsa needs to be rescued by the male hero. And yet the storyline isn’t totally offensive because of one important fact: the only thing the enchantment changed was Elsa’s memory, meaning that her leadership and oft-mentioned sword skills are 100% her own doing. (After the enchantment is broken, Elsa mentions wanting to learn to swordfight before she was kidnapped, but the elitist weapon master refused to teach a girl, so she had to learn on her own.) However, we do have to wait until Dragon Fire to find out what happens to Elsa after returning to her (seemingly boring) place as the Baron’s daughter…

Baba Yaga is the primary antagonist of the game. Unfortunately, it’s obvious the game falls into the “beautiful = good, ugly = bad” trap, with our antagonist being an ugly ogress. While it’s clear that she is the willful cause of everything bad that happens in the story, it’s also clear that everything she does is for her own gain first and foremost. In that she is a step above most fantasy antagonists, as a character: she has some motivation, rather than just being evil for the hell of it. The Baron slighted her first, so she put a curse on him. The hero’s first encounter with her allows him to strike a deal; luckily she needs mandrake more than she needs to kill him.

This brings us to the interesting streak of gray that runs throughout the series, from the beginning. One of the three classes the player can choose is the Thief; as a thief, you can, in fact, break into villagers’ houses and steal their belongings, then sell them at the Thieves’ Guild. And yet you still end up a hero at the end of the game. More and more unhonorable and unheroic options are opened up to the player as the series progresses, and is even tracked by the Honor stat introduced in the second game. Other characters further demonstrate that things aren’t black-and-white: the rescue of the baron’s handsome but arrogant son, for example, reveals that the “evil” Kobold likely had a good reason for imprisoning him.

To sum up, So You Want to Be a Hero? is, for the most part, typically unfeminist fantasy fare, though it does show signs of wanting you to think a bit about your actions; we’ll see in future segments how the series matures and grows in complexity, and how well the series does in its portrayals of various cultures, both real and in myth.

1. I read this in an interview with Lori Cole, and I really wish I could find it again. She used centaur as an example of an alternate race, but human races and gender were not mentioned, as far as I remember. Naturally, I would love to see a QFG-style game with robust character selection/creation options. Well, I would love to see more QFG-style games period, but…

PSA: Quest for Glory II VGA Remake

I realize this isn’t a great way to come back from a several week hiatus, but I just wanted to get the word out there to all you adventure fans: AGD Interactive’s long-awaited (approx. 6-8 years) remake of Quest for Glory II: Trial By Fire should be released within a few hours. is out!! And it’s guaranteed to be amazing.

I also wanted to briefly mention that there is currently a special going on over at Himalaya Studios (the commercial company for the AGDI team): if you purchase Himalaya’s first original adventure game, Al Emmo and the Lost Duchman’s Mine, you can get a free QFG2 poster with it. So definitely check this stuff out if you love classic adventure games. In the meantime I will be trying to finish up QFG1 so I can import my character! Also: new posts coming soon, promise.