Senua and designing female characters

This is an article I’d written about a year ago around the time the game first came out, but I never published. Now, as the game has won several BAFTAs, I’ve decided to revisit this topic.

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a game that deserves praise. It has accomplished so many things that few game developers seem brave enough to even attempt. First of all, the creative minds at Ninja Theory chose a female protagonist, which – for those of us keeping track – is already a significant rarity. More importantly, they chose to give us a female protagonist that is more than eye candy, the closest example I could think of being Lara Croft of recent iterations, and Aloy of Horizon: Zero Dawn. As if that wasn’t enough, the decision was made to focus on this female protagonist dealing with a form of psychosis. Now that’s brave. Especially since this was not done in any kind of simplistic or ham-fisted sort of way, but with great care and attention to both represent it faithfully and respectfully. If choosing a female protagonist is akin to walking on coals, this might as well mean throwing away your shoes and replacing them with gasoline-dipped socks.

Well done. Well done indeed.

I’m not here to speak on the mental health issue. I do not feel equipped to do so. However, I would like to put the spotlight on Senua and shower her with the praise she deserves. From her aesthetic design, to her personality, she is a truly unique character.

From the outset we are met with a warrior. The game starts with the character literally (and yes, I mean literally in the literal sense) going to Hel (with one “L” because it’s the Norse version). Initially, her motivations and history are unclear, but as the game progresses we learn more about her. She is a warrior of her tribe – Pictish would be my best guess – and, for once in a videogame, I can say that this female character undoubtedly looks the part. The “barbarian” trope was not used as an excuse to expose skin. Except for her arms (more on that in a bit), Senua is covered head-to-toe in hide and fur. One might even go so far as to call this armour. Interesting to note that nearly all the mostly male enemies she encounters are bare-chested.

Furthermore, unlike the “Hollywood” protagonist whom neither mud nor dust ever seem to touch, Senua starts the game in a bit of a state and it only gets worse from there. Mud, muck, blood and who knows what else in literal Viking Hel – she’s drenched in it all. Gashes from multiple wounds show up as the game progresses and – remember those bare arms I mentioned? – her arm is consumed by a slow-moving rot that spreads the more you die (allegedly, it’ll kill her if she dies too many times – but that’s another topic entirely).

Finally, the trope of the “strong female character” has had its detractors. It certainly is a good idea and something we need to see more of in videogames (and other media). But the nature of videogame narratives seems to make them rely on a simplified form of storytelling and some tropey shorthand to deliver their message. Unfortunately, this often turns said strong female character into a kind of parody of itself. An example of this is equating “strong” with “able to dish out violence” (the implication of violence and strength being inherently male characteristics is exactly the kind of thing that videogames often struggle with).

Senua is a strong character. Fullstop. Pictish, female and other adjectives to describe her may as well be secondary. The fact that she is a woman is a blessing to videogames – one that I sincerely hope the medium as a whole learns from and embraces. The fact that she’s a Pictish (or possibly Celtic) protagonist in a game steeped in Norse mythology is even better. But most importantly, she shows the kind of strength that one simply has to admire in anyone. Her going to (again, I say) literal Hel is only the start of her strength. Her determination shines in the face of all forms of adversity. She has the strength to say no when others would have her change (yes, change because she is a woman), and she has the strength to face the gods of the Northmen and demand a reckoning for the wrongs she has suffered at their whim.

That is exactly the kind of strength you want in a character who struggles with psychosis. That is exactly the kind of hero I want to be inspired by.

I can’t say if she is the hero we deserve, but Senua is the kind of hero we most certainly need right now.


“So this is what it feels like”

I’ve been struggling for a while to write something about “Logan”. It’s been difficult, because even though the film was great… it was not an easy watch. It’s bleak, it’s oppressive, it’s sad. And it’s beautiful, and impactful. This film didn’t just resonate with me, it didn’t just have an impact. It broke me.

It starts with that line from Johnny Cash’s version of “Hurt” that plays on one of the trailers…

“I hurt myself today, to see if I still feel.”

That lyric aptly describes my experience seeing “Logan” in cinemas. Going in the second time (because once was not enough for me), I knew I was willingly hurting myself to take it all in. And it was worth it. It hurt just as much at the second viewing, and it was even better. Even the first time around, I had an idea of what was going to happen because I’d had the story spoiled. It didn’t bother me, and it didn’t diminish the effect of those specific moments.


And speaking of spoilers, there will be many in this post. If you haven’t seen it already, and if you don’t want to know ahead like I did, turn away now. But if you want to know what you’re walking into, or if you want to commiserate with me, pour yourself a cup of comfort liquid and let’s carry on. Salud!

As I said, I wasn’t completely unaware of what was about to happen on the big screen in front of me. I just desperately wanted it to be good. Going back to the Johnny Cash trailer – that had me more worried than anything. I’d been looking forward to this film for a long time. I knew it would be Hugh Jackman’s last as the Wolverine, and like many, I greatly admire Jackman’s representation of the character. He brought that feeling that’s hard to adequately portray in a blockbuster character, especially a comic book-inspired one. Jackman consistently delivered a great performance as Logan, so I desperately hoped this one would be good too.

And damn, bub, was it good! In fact, it wasn’t just good… When I managed to clear through the mists of “what the hell did I just watch?” and the confused feelings, I realised that this was the best “comic book” film  since “The Dark Knight”, and all in all, one of the heaviest, deepest, most emotionally engaging films I’ve seen in a very long time.

Logan / Wolverine has been one of my favourite comic book characters since I was a kid. Like many people of my generation, I was introduced to the X-Men through the animated series (the one with the fantastic intro song, you know the one). Wolverine was my favourite character in that. Later in 2003, thanks to the underrated X-Men: Evolution, I had another character that I loved: X-23.


Of course, Logan as a character, when written poorly, can fall into all the tropes of toxic masculinity and hyper-machismo. When written well, you get a character who has to deal with those issues. The graphic novel that ostensibly inspired this film, “Old Man Logan” is one of those gems where you get a chance to relate to him as a person. And you might think, how am I supposed to relate to a 300-year old, super-healing, super-strong dude-bro with metal claws coming out of his hands?

“Logan” answered that question expertly.

It should be made clear that this isn’t a superhero movie. It isn’t a comic book movie. It’s a film about loss. It’s a story about dealing with pain, both physical and mental. And in a strange kind of way, it’s about family as well.

The film tugs on your heart strings early on with Patrick Stewart’s unmatched performance as Charles Xavier. He’s an old, dying man, suffering from some form of degenerative brain disease. This is where the film delivers. And it delivers like a punch in the gut. Seeing the legendary thespian portray a beloved character in such a vulnerable state – it isn’t just heart-breaking, it’s devastating. And Hugh Jackman matches Sir Patrick’s performance admirably, and delivers a vulnerable, aging Logan that is engaging at a viscerally emotional level. We see the old Logan – tired, alcoholic, his healing isn’t what it used to be, his eyesight is failing him – and he has to take care of the withering Xavier – who, when he has an “episode” could very well kill Logan and everyone else in the vicinity. In fact, it’s hinted that he has had one such episode where he did kill several people – perhaps most of the original X-Men. It’s in this scene that Patrick Stewart delivers one of the most memorable lines of the film. One that clearly shows how much the writers took care in their portrayal of the characters, and shows a deep understanding of the issues they had decided to tackle. When told by Logan that he can’t even remember him anymore – something which would already resonate with anyone who may have had a family member who suffered from such a disease – Charles replies that “I always know who you are. It’s just sometimes I don’t recognise you.”


I’ve seen the film three times now, and that line always gets me.

Both characters have to deal with trauma. And we get to see it through Logan’s eyes. Having taken away his healing factor, he becomes vulnerable. Not just physically, but emotionally as well. At first, we see him deal with that in true Wolverine fashion – drugs, alcohol and anger. That all changes when he finds out that he has a daughter: Laura, or X-23. And I thought back to the Johnny Cash song in the trailer and the lyrics above “I focus on the pain, the only thing that’s real.” Laura, like the other two main characters of this story, is dealing with pain. And there’s a small scene that shows that so well and fits those lyrics perfectly. A brief cut of her in the hospital that “created” her; we see young Laura slashing her arms with her metal claws to watch it heal before her eyes. Those who’ve read “Innocence Lost” will recognise this scene.

I’d like to take a moment to point out that his is Dafne Keen’s first role in a film, and apparently her second ever role on TV or cinema, and she completely steals the show. For a character who doesn’t speak for the vast majority of her screen time, she deftly conveys whatever emotion her character is feeling, and she manages to sink her claws (pun intended) into your attention and aggressively hold onto it for the rest of the film. And the trio of Jackman, Stewart and Keen work so well on screen, you completely believe they’re a family. A broken, hurt, and dysfunctional family that’s trying to find sense in a world that’s completely devoid of it.


“Logan” shines in its portrayal of the titular character as an inept father figure and an ill-prepared care-taker to his mentor. Logan is out of his depth throughout the whole film and we see him struggle. It comes across expertly in his scenes with Laura. Like the one in the store where, in the space of a few seconds, he tries to tell her what’s right and what’s wrong – then completely managing to ignore his own code and steals some cigars, because he’s The Wolverine, folks! The relationship between him and Xavier is tragically funny and heart-wrenching. And we see just how unprepared he was for all this in the scene where he buries Xavier.

I can’t even speak of the scene leading up to this. When Logan says “it wasn’t me”, I was already shattered. I knew beforehand that Xavier was going to die in this film, and I was as unprepared for it as Logan himself was. Then when he buries his long-time friend and mentor, who died thinking not of his amazing life or the incredible trauma he’s endured, but of the yacht they were going to buy… the only words the physically and emotionally drained Logan can bring himself to say at the unmarked grave are “Well… It’s got water.”, referring to the pond he was buried next to. Just to emphasise the fact that instead of the ocean where he and Xavier were going to escape, his only remaining friend, his mentor and protector… gets buried next to a pond in the middle of nowhere. He has a moment where it seems he’s about to show how vulnerable he is, but instead rushes to his car and when it fails to start, takes all his anger out on it. He’s too powerless to control himself, and he can’t even damage the car all that much. We see the Wolverine broken. And we see him deal with pain and loss in the only way he’s ever know… anger and violence.

Meanwhile, Laura is watching on, unsure what to make of all this. And it was that little moment… where she reaches out to grab his hand, and then he flies into his hopeless rage. The one little moment showed how important a father figure can be, and how much we feel its absence.


When I left the cinema, I described the film as relentlessly bleak. Now that I’ve had the time to process it better, I’d say it was viscerally emotional. Some would say that the excessive violence (and it is excessive at times) undermines this aspect of it, but it could be argued that it serves to set the tone. This world that Logan lives in is violent, it is bleak and ruled by a pervading hopelessness.

It all comes to a head in the climax of the film, where Logan fights his younger, more primal self in the form of another clone. Ultimately, it’s not him, but his daughter Laura that defeats Logan’s “animal” self. And with his dying breath he tells Laura, who had just accepted him as a father and now lost him: “Don’t be what they made you.” As his eyes close, he utters the words “So this is what it feels like”.

I’ll be honest, I’m still not sure what he meant. What dying feels like? Probably, but who knows? What I do know is that, as someone who had been completely numbed by films and was losing hope in the medium, when the credits roll and Johnny Cash plays again, I remembered that films can engage you at an emotional level, that they can tell a story about loss and pain, and I thought to myself…

“So this is what it feels like.”

The Human vs. The Gamer, part II: This time it’s personal

Falling out with Fallout 4.

So last time I talked about ludo-narrative dissonance. Or the inner struggle between the human and the gamer.

For me this was most obvious and jarring in Fallout 4. (Warning, spoiler territory up ahead. Nothing major, but still).

The game starts out well enough – on paper, at least. You get to spend some time with your allotted spouse (in my mind, it was an arranged marriage because at no point did this “role-playing” game ask me if I wanted to play the role of a dutiful 50s wife, but whatever). Then there’s the kid. Now, I don’t know what it is with children called Shaun in videogames, but oh blimey do they get kidnapped. Fair warning to all prospective videogame parents, if you don’t want your kid to get abducted, don’t call him Shaun.

And while I’m at it, let me just… Shaun! SHAUN! SHAAAAUUUN! (You don’t even need to have played Heavy Rain to know what I’m talking about.)


Then hey ho, the bombs drop, the wifey/hubby gets offed and the Shaun (SHAUN!) gets David Caged off the stage in a rage, but without Ellen Page. I’ll stop now. The problem is, it all happened too fast and felt a bit rote. Even the scene where the spouse dies. There’s a bit of a running gag in the games industry, that the only way to elicit an emotional response out of gamers is to kill off a character – or a dog. That’s part of the reason I never took Dogmeat with me… I remember what happened in Fallout 1, you ain’t doing that to me again, game. Well, in this case, your randomly assigned 50s spouse (in my case, the husband… was it John? Jack? Nathan? I never loved him anyway), gets the axe, or the .45 round to the head. To be fair to the game, the scene (locked to first person), was harrowing and emotional. But here’s the general problem with this scene and other times the game tries to engage the player at an emotional level… it hasn’t earned it.

One can draw a good parallel with Heavy Rain. For those of you who don’t know, David Cage, the French Kojima (he wishes), released Heavy Rain, an “interactive drama” type videogame where a boy called Shaun (SHAUN!) gets abducted and you play an ensemble of characters, including the father, the cop, the private dick and the token female journalist (don’t get me started), to try and uncover the mystery and recover the Shaun (SHAUN!). Both games start with a scene in a completely different colour palette – bright, vibrant, happy colours in the intro. You get to play the part of the happy family. But whereas Fallout breezes through the whole shtick, with Heavy Rain you get to actually, properly play the part of the father – you play with the kids, you get nagged by the wife, you do a bit of work. Heavy Rain let me be the character, I grew attached to the kids (but not the wife… again, don’t get me started). In Fallout the interaction is limited to “press X to coo the baby or comment on the Nuka Cola in the fridge”. For the first 15 minutes of the game (after the two hours of designing her look), my character was a walking billboard for all things 50s America loved. It was so odd, I had this theory that she had been brainwashed as well. Then the bombs drop, the drama happens, Shaun (SHAUN!) get whisked away and you’re thrown into post-apocalyptic Boston and an open world.

White picket fence and everything.

And then you craft settlements, pick tomatoes, save people, fight Deathclaws and Raiders, there’s a thing called the Institute and they’re bad, there’s the Brotherhood of Steel and they’re cool, the Railroad are interesting and the Minutemen… fuck the Minutemen. Fuck Preston Garvey and the defenceless settlements of Boston. The fighting Irish my clover-shaped… ahem, anyway. Ah, wait, there’s something I’m missing here. I know I didn’t come to the Wasteland to paint my power armour pink, there was a different…

Oh, right… the kid. Who cares about the kid anymore? Eventually (spoilers!), you find him. I won’t go into details, but my character was in tears. She was in tears because I chose the dialogue options that I knew would lead to that. Because it’s what my character would have done. But the person behind the controller wanted to mash the “Sarcastic” dialogue option and tell Shaun (SHAUN!) to git gud and stop being such a baby. Even though he was a literal baby the last time I saw him.

My character in Fallout 4. She’s having another moment of “Why the fuck do I care, again?”

But that’s the problem. The story, on its surface, should be emotionally engaging. It’s an abducted child, for crying literally out loud. You play the mother (oh, and videogame mothers… alright, I said I’d stop, but seriously, this needs to be talked about), or father if you prefer. But I played the kid’s mother. In the game world, that ungrateful little rugrat came out of my womb (it feels so weird to write that), I gave his polygoned arse life and yet… I’d rather go talk to Preston Shit-eating Garvey about another clucking settlement that’s been raided.

There’s nothing, no feeling, no tug on the ol’ heart strings. Nada.

And don’t tell me Fallout doesn’t do emotions or that the game format won’t allow it. To Fallout fans, all I have to say are a choice few words: Boone, Bitter Springs, Veronica and the Chains that Bind (that went S&M really quick, didn’t it?). Those were engaging stories, they made me feel for the characters involved. It made me want to reach through the screen and hug Boone, or Veronica. Arcade, Raul, all of them needed a hug, come to think of it. Except Benny, he needed a bullet. And he got it.

I won’t say Bethesda don’t do good writing. They do fantastic writing. And you can’t say that open-world games don’t lend themselves to great stories either. The best example of this to me is Fallout 3 and Liam Neeson as your character’s father. Oh, did that get me right in the feels.

I… sniff… I just need a moment.

I love Liam Neeson. That voice like melting butter, oh dear me… And having Oskar Schindler play your loving father, and by all accounts a fantastic father figure at that… oh, Bethesda, you plucked them heart strings right, you did. But it’s not just that. The writing is great, but the gameplay enforces it. Much like in Heavy Rain you get to spend the intro with your family. And you meaningfully interact with them. Except your mother. Cause she’s dead. Because videogames… oy vey.

But You literally take your first steps as a baby in front of Papa Liam. You get a birthday party with your friends and your adoring father. You take part in the Vault equivalent of a bar/bat mitzvah when you receive your Pip-Boy. Some criticised this as “slow” gameplay, but it was well worth it, because it paid off later. When you leave the Vault, you get a message from dear dad before he buggered off (tree, meet apple). I refused to play it… I still hated him at that point. Then, when I was in Minefield, fearful for my life, I finally decided to play Dad’s last message. And it brought me to tears. You don’t get this kind of emergent gameplay anywhere else. Eventually, the two get reunited, and in my case, he told me how proud he was of me that I had saved Megaton… Do you have any idea how wonderful it is to hear Liam Neeson say he’s proud of you? Because if you don’t, you need to stop what you’re doing right now and play Fallout 3. Do it!

I didn’t get that with Fallout 4 at all. And I can’t fault the characters. They’re some of the best written NPCs I’ve had the pleasure to engage with since… well, since New Vegas (or Mass Effect, but again, don’t get me started). Hancock, MacCready, Piper (yes, Piper, shut up), even Danse if you get to know him. Hell, all I have to say is Nick Fucking Valentine (the sound you heard there is the mic being dropped). And here’s something Bethesda did very well… they got rid of Karma (controversial, I know, but that mechanic belongs in the 90s), and instead they gave us characters who reacted to our in-game actions. I genuinely felt bad when Nick told me he hated something I’d done. And I couldn’t care less when Danse went on about blah, blah… until the tough macho guy opened up to me and I nearly cried.

But did I get that with Shaun (SHAUN!)? No. I turned off the game and went to listen to Liam Neeson’s recorded message again.

Why am I doing this again?

The gamer had been asleep at the wheel. The gamer in me wanted to complete the story AND do all of the fun bits in-between. But when I got to the pay-off – meeting the kid – the human in me rebelled. This is bullshit. I feel nothing. I no longer have anything invested in this story. Leaving aside some of the criticism (hah, “some”) with regards to the gameplay, Fallout 4 is a great game. Fallout 4 has a great story. It’s just a shame that the two don’t mix.

I give up.

I’ll see y’all on the Strip in New Vegas. You’ll find me playing Blackjack at the Tops.

Some people just want to watch the world burn.

The Human vs. The Gamer

The Prince and the Tomb Raider

Videogames, it can be argued, were never meant to be cinematic, much as David Cage would like to pretend otherwise. It can be said that the work of auteurs such as Hideo Kojima (a man I both respect and loathe), has pushed the medium further into the realm of cinema – for better or worse. Say what you will about pervy uncle Kojima, but he does a fantastic job in the direction department. Like him or no, he’s contributed to pushing the medium further towards being recognised as a true art form. At the same time, the hour-long cut-scenes and the opening credits on every single mission make it clear what the creator’s intent was: recognition by way of imitation. Likewise, playing Cage’s Heavy Rain is like watching an HBO drama unfold where you’re being constantly asked for input. Rather repeatedly and annoyingly, at times.

But this isn’t what Pong was about. It was about moving a simple pixel from one end of the screen to the other. It all went downhill from there. The more sophisticated videogames grew as a medium, the more we players felt like we could relate to the increasingly detailed stick figures on screen. We even started creating our own stories around some of them; creative minds filled up the gaps where we felt they needed that added narrative that the game itself either didn’t provide or was found wanting. It may or may not have been the creator’s intent, but people are an imaginative bunch – as hard as that is to believe at times. Since childhood we’ve been used to this. Give a kid a pair of sticks and by the end of the day you’ve got a veritable telenovela unfolding.

And I know I’ve just written a post about Lara Croft, but…

Yup. Lara Croft again. Deal with it.

At this point, I have to bring up that word that some people who write videogames seem to hate so much… ludo-narrative dissonance. That’s two words, but fuck it. It’s a good pair of words. It describes what happens perfectly and efficiently. It is a real and present issue in the writing and execution of videogames and their respective stories (if they can be bothered to have one). Sometimes, it’s not a problem. If you’re playing a shooter and you’re told to shoot people, then that’s your lot. You get what you pay for, well done. Sometimes, it goes into the weird… why is a plumber jumping on mushrooms and turtle things… don’t think about it too much. But when games profess to tell an engaging story, a human story and try to make that jive with the gameplay, it will happen that it’s just not going to dance to the beat that the writers envisioned.

Remember Ubisoft’s reboot of that classic, Prince of Persia? The best part about that game’s story, it can be argued, was that the gameplay reinforced the story perfectly. The Prince starts as a runny-nosed little twerp of a royal kid who just wants to impress his dad, and still manages to be a spoiled brat while on a clucking military campaign, Zarathustra grant me strength. As the narrative progresses, you unlock new skills for the runt, the combat (such as it is) evolves, you get new abilities, and the Prince himself evolves as a character. He matures literally overnight (in terms of the game’s timeline), and he becomes wiser and a much more likeable character in the process. Visually, this is represented by the wardrobe change. Rather amusingly, the Prince loses bits of his garb the whole way through. It’s justified by what’s happening (the man’s taken a beating), but it’s still a bit of cheese (or, I guess, beef), and by the end he’s a bare-chested, scarred and grizzled veteran… and still a hunk. Ah, remember when male characters were objectified as well? Maybe that’s a topic for a different article. But I digress… point is, the new gameplay elements back up the story’s arc expertly, and the two are in lockstep the whole way through. Masterfully executed. And oh, sweet daeva, that soundtrack… did I mention the soundtrack?

Would you just look at that slab of man-meat?

Then there’s Tomb Raider. A story about a girl growing up, similar to the Prince (Notice how many of these games are really about puberty? I should stop planning my future posts…). On top of that, you get an arc about sisterly love, in place of your usual throw-away love interest. And the story was wonderful, it actually had me in tears. And I mentioned this before, but that’s because it illustrates the point so well, there’s this scene where Lara tearfully kills a deer in order to survive (something you never have to do again, by the way)… and then proceeds to unquestioningly murder her way through an entire island’s population, because I guess, videogames.

Had the game been more of a platformer than a shooter this would have worked. Had Lara’s story been more like Kate Walker’s (see previous post, yadda yadda, shameless self-promotion), this would have been perfect. If it had given me no combat but the boss fights, maybe one or two fight scenes (or the one with the wolves), I’d have been satiated. I wouldn’t have even complained if they were mostly quick-time events. As it stands, though, I have to say Lara’s got a bit of a Jekyll/Hyde thing going on. There’s the writer’s Lara who is a beautiful, human character, and there’s the gamer’s Lara… an unstoppable, petite murder machine.

And there’s the rub. The real dichotomy isn’t between game and narrative. At the player’s side of things, it’s between the human and the gamer. See, the human in me wants Lara to be the character in the deer scene. I want her to be kind and emotional, I want to feel what she feels and get that cathartic ending where she overcomes her demons (and those of the island). The gamer in me wants to finish this bloody 60 dollar product I bought, and there’s a heap of gameplay between now and the ending I want. Then there’s the collectibles, and the secret bits on the map, so the completionist in me wants that 100% badge. That’s where the immersion breaks, the 4th wall implodes in on itself and I stop caring about the STORY and just want to finish the GAME. In other words, the human element is played down and the gameplay takes prominence.

And that just gets me right in the feels.

This isn’t always the case. It’s not a given that videogames can’t tell a good story. Just look at Prince of Persia, or Heavy Rain to name but a few. Most of Bioware’s RPGs are famous for good writing. But good writing isn’t the issue. It’s marrying the writing to the gameplay and telling them to see the Rabbi before they decide to split. Then you have to argue about who gets to keep the kids and who gets the cat, it’s all just a mess, really. Why get into it at all? Why can’t we just get along?

But isn’t that just the cliché. There you are, a sensitive, well written story and you know what you’ve got to offer… a nice, tried and true linear structure with a dramatic build-up and a great pay-off at the conclusion. Then you meet this wild child… a real rebel, with that mischievous look that promises exciting action, pace like a Formula 1 race and all the spectacle you can… spectate. They lure you in with violent violins, mellow cello and a brass section that makes Hans Zimmer go “wait a minute…”. It’s never going to work, is it? You know it, they know it, but there’s that twinkle in the eye, that little guilty spark that makes you think… hey, maybe we can swing it. Sure enough, it doesn’t work and it ends in tears, as it was always going to.

But sometimes you don’t have a choice. Your mum makes you get with the bad boy with the bad temper but the good finance. Or you get paired off with the shikse whom you know is too good for you, but hey, you can show her a good time. Ok, this metaphor has gotten away from me now.

Point is, sometimes you get a well-written story that gets paired off with unsuitable gameplay. Most of the time, you’ve got a massive company with two completely different teams working off the same whiteboard but reading completely different things into the same game plan. Sometimes it may very well be just cynical corporate execs telling the “artsy types” to suck it up and give the gamers what they want. And that’s the one that grates my cheese the most. “Give gamers what they want”.

You hear that bandied around a lot. Some call it pandering, some call it marketing. But that’s not the part that bugs me. It’s the notion that “gamer” somehow implies your typical, basement-dwelling, Doritos-munching, Mountain Dew-soaked, pockmarked teenager with a boner for violence, disproportionately chested women and the shooty-shooty bang bang. Somehow, despite a medium that has given the world The Last of us, Telltale’s The Walking Dead, and Life is Strange… there’s still this stigma that gamers will not or can not appreciate a well-crafted story that isn’t paired off with a Michael Bay level of spectacle.

To illustrate my point about gamers, here’s concept art from the Prince of Persia sequel.

Those can be fun too, I wouldn’t imply otherwise. But you can’t give the mechanics of Battlefield to Syberia’s Kate Walker… and, as it turns out, you can’t even trust them with a story of World War 1, but more on that some other time, maybe. The gamer in me will always appreciate fun bits of gameplay, but the human in me can’t stand to see a good story waste away in a bad pairing.

I’m soft like that, I guess.

Feminism in Siberia: Lara Croft & Kate Walker

I love Lara Croft. I’ve always loved Lara. As a kid, I enjoyed playing the role of the intrepid adventurer – swinging from vines, solving complicated puzzles and parkouring across ancient temples before Altaïr made it look cool. She was everything a star-struck kid hoped to see in a hero: adventurous, self-reliant, unerringly cool and eminently badass in a way generations of videogame characters have been trying to capture ever since. And she had a gorgeous pair of… guns, but more on that later.

Plus, she was English. Which meant her accent was proper for a change.

Archaeology like it’s 1899

Of course, when you’re a little kid, excited about jungle temples, ancient mysteries and Lara’s amazing set of… athletics skills, you tend not to care that much about realism or the fact that you’re shooting endangered species and destroying precious relics for the fun of it. Undoubtedly, Lara went to the Indiana Jones School of Archaeology, where Nathan Drake got his degree as well. But hey, it got me interested in palaeontology (it’s more or less the same thing).

And despite all the criticism levelled at the character, from feminists and modern game critics (justifiably so), I found the character to be quite relatable. More than other characters at that time. Despite the obvious… exaggerations, Lara felt real. She was good at the parkour because she was a gymnast; she knew her way around ancient temples because she had studied archaeology (under Professors Indiana Jones, Charles Marlow, and Kurtz, admittedly); and she’s good with guns because this is a videogame so of course she is. And she can afford to do all of this because her family’s rich and they live in a place called Croft Manor, for goodness’ sake! You might say this makes her hard to relate to, but she’s still about 6 black belts away from being Batman, so I call that realistic enough.

A survivor is born.

Put on your feminist trousers.

The 2013 Lara is even more of a real character. Unlike her older incarnation, this Lara shows emotion. She’s vulnerable, but strong of will, and she’s determined. The new Lara is a step in the right direction for female game characters and for games in general.

Let’s talk about the obvious first. 2013’s Lara looks more like an actual human being. The 2016 sequel even more so. She has a normal-sized waist that looks like it can actually support her body, and she no longer looks like she’ll break her back from the weight of her double D’s and I’m not talking about the twin Desert Eagles. Everything about the new character design is great. She’s not sexualised, she looks more realistic and she’s even wearing sensible khaki trousers instead of the signature hot pants of old Lara.

But more than that, Lara starts the game by being insecure. She’s young and inexperienced. We learn that she has quite the shoes to fill, and an impressive name to live up to. Meanwhile, she’s still a young girl with a life ahead of her. That life and all hope of normalcy gets taken away when she and her crew shipwreck on a dangerous island inhabited by a Cult of Demon-worshipping White People on a Japanese Island (let that sink in for a second). Through various trials, we see Lara grow as a hardened individual and as the adventurer we remember her to be.

There is an incredibly emotional moment when Lara has to kill a deer in order to survive. Moments like this are rare in videogames these days, and the care and attention given to it say a lot about this new Lara. The moment is somewhat ruined by how she later proceeds to gleefully murder her way through the entire populace of a small island nation. Despite a certain degree of ludo-narrative dissonance, Lara’s journey to becoming a survivor is believable, emotional and relatable.

Unlike your witty cookie-cutter rogues like Nathan Drake, Lara is a character who shows a full range of emotion. She is an extraordinary human being who nevertheless feels very real, thrust into extraordinary circumstances, and her journey is a beauty to behold.

I’m looking forward to playing Rise of the Tomb Raider when it finally arrives on PS4 in October, and I can’t wait to go on adventure with Lara in Siberia. The new setting and the possibility of world exploration are particularly intriguing, and it reminded me that there are a whole slew of female badasses who have explored Siberia under worse circumstances.

Which reminds me…


Syberia with a Y

While the new instalment of the Tomb Raider’s adventures takes our teenage crush Lara to the cold reaches of Siberia in search of ancient treasures, six years after Lara’s first adventure hit consoles in 1996, another game was capturing my imagination: Syberia. With a Y. Y? Because of reasons.

At a glance, the two games have nothing to do with each other. One is a puzzle platforming adventure game with the shooty-shooty bang bang action, while the other is a point-and click with practically no violence in it. But both feature memorable female leads, and interestingly, both take place in some fictional form of the cold Siberian wastes.

Adding to the list of brave women who’ve explored the tundra is Kate Walker, an American lawyer whose law firm sends her to Steampunkville, France (the town is actually called Valadilene and I don’t think it explicitly says it’s French, because to me it feels more like Switzerland, but anyway). When Kate arrives just in time for her client’s funeral procession lead by automata, she then goes on an adventure across a Steampunk version of Europe and Soviet Russia, to locate the sole heir of the company, an eccentric recluse who is obsessed with finding mammoths, even though we all know they’re extinct. Eventually, she helps him reach the island of Syberia where (spoilers) the last living mammoths are found!

Feminists today might find the character not quite what they expected in a “strong female lead”. She often finds herself helpless in situations where Lara Croft would somersault her way out of trouble. While the Tomb Raider would dive into freezing water to retrieve her quest items, Kate has to enlist the help of small boys, old men and (I kid you not) penguins to be able to move forward. But this is more a fault of the game genre. Try getting Guybrush Threepwood to do anything physically demanding.

But Kate is intelligent. Both in the problem-solving, puzzle-breaking, moon-logic way of the old school adventure games, but also on an emotional level. She empathises with her automaton companion, and manages to relate on a deeper level with the world and the characters around her. She relies on her wits to get out of sticky situations because she did not study at the John Travolta School of Law. The game’s story is quite deep and despite the cartoonish fantasy style, it gets pretty dark at points. In other words, Kate feels like an ordinary person thrust into extraordinary circumstances, which makes for great storytelling.

As the main plot unfolds, we learn more about Kate and we witness as her personal life evolves. We get a front row seat to her deteriorating relationship with a jealous fiancé, and the constant arguing with her overbearing mother. Given the trend in videogames today, watching this seemingly mundane story was quite refreshing. I felt happy for Kate when she finally broke up with her fiancé. It felt cathartic, it was a big moment in her becoming an adventurer. But more importantly it showed a curious quality in the character… she was just so damn nice.

And you don’t see that in games these days.

You’d even be forgiven for saying the kind of look the same.

Militant feminism? Or just joining the boys club?

Just take a look at this year’s roster at E3, broken down by gender of protagonist and percentage of games that rely on violence as a game mechanic. It’s a little disheartening.

Not only are compassionate characters a rarity, especially female ones, but more and more, problem-solving in videogames revolves around unchecked violence and wanton destruction. Lara Croft is a feminist icon in her own right, but she tends to play the same role as a male character would – resolving the plot by shooting her way through it. Some would argue that feminism is about more than just doing the same things that male characters do.

Lara’s old-school sex-appeal and newfound badassery makes her a figure of female empowerment to some, but to others she is a product of the patriarchal establishment. In this sense, Kate Walker is the subversive character – the non-violent, unbelievably friendly lawyer whose only weapon is her razor-sharp wit and her unyielding empathy. In the end, it’s all about agency. Both characters have it, both survive their respective challenges in their own style. It’s up to you to decide which is right.

Syberia 3 is meant to launch December this year, after so many years of wait. And I’m definitely looking forward to it. I played the original games again recently with a friend spectating. We both found it strange and amusing, sometimes infuriating how Kate never said a mean word to anyone, she always helped people no matter who they were, she always listened and understood to all the characters. In other words, she made the world around her nicer and made the people she met feel better about themselves.

You can’t do that with guns, Lara.

The legend of inclusivity

Or Korra and the struggle for more inclusive writing.

Recently, Dark Horse have announced a comic book series continuing the stories of Avatar Korra, focusing on her relationship with Asami (here‘s the Mary Sue article for more details). Now, if this sounds like gibberish, I’ll explain. The Legend of Korra is the sequel to Avatar: The Last Airbender, which was a 2005 TV animated series that some people liked. Vague? Alright. It’s basically Kung Fu meets magic in Mysti-China. A world inspired by various Asian mythologies that featured a cast of ethnically diverse (but predomninantly mystic-Asian) characters (who were played by a bunch of white guys, but we’ll get to that in a minute). It touched upon topics of spirituality, peace and loving the environment. At the same time it was essentially an American coming-of-age story starring the most white-American mysti-Chinese character I’ve ever seen. Nevertheless, it captivated audiences worldwide and inspired a lot of people to… do Kung Fu and love nature, I guess?

I’ll be honest with you. I didn’t watch the original series until much later. Oh, what’s that sound? It’s my geek cred slamming against the floor. Bear with me. I actually watched the original series only after having watched the sequel, The Legend of Korra. The peer pressure finally became too much so I agreed to watch “that silly cartoon”, but I guess the female protagonist just appealed to me more.

Fast forward to 2010 and the film of roughly the same name (The Last Airbender) was – what’s the polite way of putting it? – not well received. It featured a cast of mostly white people in mysti-China which already looked dumb. They threw out a lot of the mystic and spiritual topics in favour of shadow-punching and choreographed Dung Fu that looked plain silly. I love M Night Shyamalan and generally think he gets too harsh criticism on most of his films, but I can’t defend this one.

Hope seemed lost until two years later when “Legend of Korra” hit the screens. And Holy Shyamalan Shaolin, Batman, was it good. Alright, I’ll admit, I thought the first season (or book, whatever) was quite… what’s the word? Meh. The second one was ok… ish. We were still dealing with a white-American coming of age story, only this time of a girl from an Inuit-like tribe who really, really liked sports. Hold on, Nickelodeon, I’m not giving you points for originality just yet.

It was nice to have a female protagonist in a children’s cartoon, since, well… we really should. Right, that’s the end of that discussion, what do I talk about for the rest of this post? Oh, I know. The series, I felt, really came into its own when they ditched the boring romance that Korra (the protagonist) was in (hint: it’s with a sports jock, it was awkward at first and then they fought, then they kissed, then they broke up again… wow, so original) and turned the story over to some really interesting villains who pushed Korra’s limits. In the end, she won, but the main bad guy broke her. Bane vs. Batman style. In the fourth season (book, give me a break), she had to rebuild a Kingdom whilst thwarting its dictator all on her own. No pressure, Korra dear.

But that all pales in comparison to that last episode (and the build-up to it), and that scene between Korra and her friend Asami (who used to be her ex-boyfriend’s girlfriend… talk about complicating things). In that scene, after they left a party together they… wait for it… they… still waiting… they… hold hands.

Yeah, I know. The writers later went on twitter to confirm that “Korrasami” (as fans have dubbed the relationship) was officially “canon”, otherwise known as “a thing” (See IGN for more details). And that’s… great? I guess?

Personally, I felt robbed. Like they didn’t go far enough with it. Here, we have a perfect story for the new age. A story of diversity, inclusivity and pushing boundaries. A children’s cartoon with a female main character who is not white and, in the end, a bisexual. This is so great. On the one hand, we’ve blown away the “white male” standard with an uppercut straight to its bearded hipster chin, and not only do we have a main character who is not straight, but she challenges the simplicity of “straight or gay” in terms of sexuality. So, why is my reaction to it lukewarm at best?

First of all, the shortage of minority actors. You could argue that it’s voice acting, so the colour of the characters is what’s important, regardless of the voice. Fair point, but allow me to expect more. Take the Southern Water Tribe from whence Korra came. It shows Native/First Nations and Inuit influences in its culture. It is a highly spiritual society with a deep connection to the spirit world (and in this Universe, that means something). Why not hire some Native actors to do the voice? I’m sure Adam Beach is dying to get another gig, or recruit others too (Sorry, Adam, you’re great, but you’re fast becoming the Samuel L Jackson to Wes Studi’s Morgan Freeman of Native actors, give others a chance, eh?). I guarantee you, an actor with that cultural background will bring a whole new dimension to the character that transcends the boundary of the TV screen, reaching out to the audience in a way that a white actor cannot.

But it’s not that the actor voicing Korra is white. (Way to create jobs for minority voice actors, Nick.) It’s not that it was yet ANOTHER coming-of-age story (like we don’t have enough of those already). But it’s that last scene. Them just holdings hands. I loved it the first time I saw it. I still do. I thought it was sweet, innocent and hinted at something great for children’s TV (i.e. no longer pretending like other sexualities are not a thing). But it was vague enough that it let “fans” take to twitter in a storm and say “no, she is not. I’m taking my strictly hetero marbles and leaving, yo.” But I wanted more. I wanted them to embrace and kiss while rose petals fell from the ethereal planes and spirits danced in a spiral around them, while violins played in the background and sparks flew. If you’re wondering where the sparks came from, it would be from the screens of all the homophobes watching. I mean, keep it PG-13, but give me something! Go full Hollywood with it, just to rub it in everyone’s faces. “Yes, she’s bi. Deal with it!”

I’m not blaming the authors. I guess what they did is already pretty bold by today’s standards (which is a sad statement in and of itself). I just want a bisexual non-white female character in a children’s TV show to be seen as something perfectly normal. Why? Good question, I don’t know, because… it is? I want that to be the shtick of a popular TV series and not cause a fuss. And I want to be able to stop praising people for writing “inclusively”. Because inclusivity implies that there is exclusivity to be fought.

The inclusion of a scene with two girls holding hands in a way that may or may not be romantic may be seen as a step forward from nothing. But is it enough? For me it was wishy-washy, non-committal, maybe-maybe-not-maybe-bother-someone-else. What I’m asking is… own it. Commit to it. Embrace it. Make sweet, sweet love to it and let it bear babies. Diverse, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, polyglot babies who don’t go “ewwww” when they see two girls kissing on screen. A next generation of art that acknowledges that someone’s sexuality does not need to fit neatly in a box, that girls kissing girls is normal and that we’re all free to be what we want.

And, in the end, Korra and Asami are perfect together, and you know it!