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.

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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.

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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

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.

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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.