One of the saddest things in videogame culture is seeing a developer trying to explain the inappropriate wardrobe choices for a fictional female character.
The most recent case of this is the character Cortana in Halo 5. The absurdly convoluted reasoning, the mental gymnastics, and the obvious embarrassment for all concerned when trying to justify her nudity, is just awful. This miserable spectacle is the tortoise on its back of gaming culture and one day the emotional reaction such situations provoke will be a cornerstone in replicant testing.
We’re assured that she manifests as a nearly naked hologram rather than a clothed one like the others for a very good reason. According to the developers, “she does it is to attract and demand attention. And she does it to put people off so they’re on their guard when they’re talking to her and that she has the upper hand in those conversations”.
The problem here is not the character design itself. It is that the nonsensical and unnecessary arguments rolled out to justify the design demean both the intent of the creators and the character themselves.
As poor as the justifications are for Cortana’s wardrobe they are not the worst by any means. The character of Quiet in MGSV holds that prize. The explanation is embarrassingly terrible: she’s in a bikini for most of the game because she breathes through her skin so she can’t wear clothes – except later in the game when she can, for no reason. That such an explanation was even offered, that it was considered better than simply saying “because we wanted her to wear a bikini” is borderline insulting to the intelligence of the audience.
But how did we get into the ridiculous situation of needing to justify character portrayals like this in the first place? Developers seem happy to portray women as incongruously sexualised ornaments in their games – that certainly hasn’t stopped – but, for some reason, when they do it they feel compelled to deny that they have, and serve up a variety of impressively ludicrous reasons why things are how they are.
A combination of factors is behind this.
On the one hand, we have developers who are trying to have their cheesecake and eat it too with regards characters who are designed to provide eye candy for a male audience. Developers want to be seen as young, forward-thinking and progressive, but the thing is most of the senior staff are not, and their attempts to appear so can be painfully awkward.
At some point a developer should just admit that, as unfashionable and hackneyed as it is, they want attractive female characters in a game because they want their game to have attractive female characters in it. This admission would not bring the end of civilisation, it would not cause frogs to rain from the sky; it would just be honest.
Instead, we see developers choose to cook up these asinine justifications within the game, because they’d rather shred what little internal logic their game had than admit that an attractive female character was put into the game because they wanted one there. The fault here doesn’t lie with the developers alone, because as insultingly stupid as their answers to these design questions are, they are only providing these answers because people keep asking the questions to provoke them.
This brings us to the second element in this perfect storm of shame: the games media themselves, who continue to indulge these idiotic excuses from developers. That is not to say character design should be exempt from criticism – quite the opposite, reviewers and critics should go to town on how characters are designed.
However, if the character is in the game, play the game and write about what’s in there. Don’t make some sleep-deprived, crunch-broken peon freshly dragged from whatever game developer pinched off this month’s big franchise title justify everyday sexism in female character portrayal. Their answer will help no one.
What’s perhaps most galling about seeing developers insincerely trying to explain why their games are how they are is that it feeds further into the thick layer of dishonesty that exists between game creators and game buyers. Developers and publishers lie, cheat and steal from their audience at almost every turn and even on something as trifling as why a character looks the way they do, they still can’t bring themselves to be truthful with the public.
Ultimately it’s now fair to say that games developers are making art, it took a while to get everybody on board with this idea, but here we are and it’s time to start treating games as such. Developers should feel free to express themselves without needing to carry around a bunch of excuses for why they do the things they do. They should own their work, be proud of it, and if they don’t like how it is received – maybe think about that next time.
By the same token, critics should feel absolutely justified in pointing out what they see as flaws in the work. But the focus should be on the games themselves. Not on the promotional materials and not on trying to get a developer to say something controversial that can be spun out into a couple of weeks back and forth between outraged editorials and outraged-about-the-outrage rebuttals. It looks increasingly like we are getting the industry we deserve, rather than the one we want, and that can only be a bad thing.