Devil’s advocate: on plot, gender and Deep Down

Deep Down. From left: Knight Dude, Pig Man.
Not featured: half of humanity.

UPDATE: Whoops. So, as it turns out, Capcom spoke out following Brenna’s original piece, clarifying that Deep Down does not, in fact, offer multiple male characters and instead focuses on one male character and his cohorts. I do feel that most of my points regarding the tricky nature between plot and gender in video games are still relevant, but in the interests of accuracy I’ve included this update with a link to the new information. Consider me suitably chastised.

So if you missed it, Capcom has stated that Deep Down – their up-and-coming F2P dungeon crawler – won’t be including playable female characters. This is, well, unfortunate at best, downright discriminatory at worst. Journalists like Brenna Hillier were angry about the situation and Capcom’s reasoning behind the decision, and rightly so. However, on the Internet with the be-all and end-all nature of any argument, nuance is occasionally lost and people make assertions that aren’t, perhaps, fully considered.

I’d like to address the criticism being bandied about that, since a developer is in control of the plot, it is mere insolence when they choose a fixed player perspective with a single playable gender.

To be clear: I’m not arguing for maintaining the status quo. We all know that the industry has problems regarding inclusion and representation of women. Hillier’s anger is not unjustified in any way, shape or form. But it needs to be balanced against when plot does, in fact, limit the player’s gender.

Narrative in games is… complicated. Unlike other mediums, the interactive nature of games means that players are capable of subverting the flow of your story. There’s a specific term coined for this very behaviour, unique to video games: ludonarrative dissonance. It describes the discrepancy between what the game is telling you your character does and what you are actually doing. 

It’s used to describe ridiculous scenarios in which you have, for example, your brother in Red Faction attempting to win you over to a rebellious cause, a resistance movement fighting against oppressive overseers. In response, your character exclaims that you don’t want any trouble and just came to Mars to earn an honest day’s pay – all while you spin around in circles waving a hammer, obliterating any destructible terrain you come into contact with and generally acting like a complete asshole.

Saints Row IV is the serious story about the President of the United States who cures cancer then turns a Dubstep Gun on his own citizens. Citizen Kane of Video Games, rosebud rosebud rose-rose-rose wubwubwubwub.

So you have a choice. You can either embrace this chaos, in which case your character becomes a mere cipher, the story an element separate to your character. Or you can intertwine this, to a greater or lesser degree, in how the world responds to your character’s actions.

RPGs in particular are excellent at capturing this level of cause-effect. One of my favourites remains the critically-received, commercially-tepid Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura, in which I created a female gun-slinging idiot savant whose gambling prowess was unquestionable but whose autism results in her dialogue being at a pre-schooler’s level – and the game takes cognizance of the fact. NPCs would take advantage of you, patronising your character while your most ardent supporters exclaim to anyone who’ll listen that they can’t believe the “Chosen One” was born into the body of an imbecile.

Motivation is key. The degree to which your character is merely a frame on which to drape a canvas or a fully-realised character with their own motivations or personal history will create the fence that corrals your story in a given direction. Demon’s Souls offers you extensive customisation in both genders, but the world hardly notices it, barring some gender-restricted items – your personal motivations are, in short, meaningless.

Ahhh, Analogue: A Hate Story, but I am a man pretending to be a woman understanding computers. Ludonarrative dissonance, right?

There are games that play effectively on the amorphous nature of player character gender.  Analogue: A Hate Story, for instance, tells the sci-fi tale of a frontier ship where the colonists ended up adopting, for reasons unexplained, a variant of the Korean patriarchal society prominent during the Joseon dynasty. You encounter two AIs, one deeply liberal and the other indoctrinated in the culture of the ship’s long-dead inhabitants. You only choose gender in response to questions from both, which generally reveals interesting facets of the AIs’ perceptions and beliefs.

Should I have been presented an option in Gone Home to be a brother, rather than a sister? No, because the story implicitly plays off the fact that you’re both girls and the conflict this creates between your parents and your sibling.

Beyond Good & Evil specifically uses a female protagonist – Jade – with her own motivations, aspirations and goals, which you enable through direct control. The world isn’t responding to you, it’s responding to her. Personal experiences enrich our own uniquely created characters, but it is the characters purposefully created to fit their respective games – the Jades and the Kaitlins – that we remember most. I don’t want a male Jade nor a female Kratos – they exist as their own entities.

The common response here is that of course I’m happy with it, since I have a gamut of other games to choose from that reflect men of all types and varieties while women battle to receive the same opportunity. This is true; I’m not sure if women would prefer the option to choose Kratos’ gender. Perhaps the problem is that, in games like God of War, women only exist – and I’m being deliberately crude here – to be fucked or to die as vengeance fuel. This is about better representation, and it certainly isn’t going to improve by just ticking some box where now I can choose my gender.

And this is where I do disagree with Hillier’s sentiment that we’d be better off with “lazily-crafted women than no women at all”. Because if a developer does create “lazily-crafted women”, they’re going to be called out on that as well. They will warrant comparison and criticism to their in-game male counterparts, as they should.

Beyond Good & Evil. I’m not going to be sardonic about this, it’s a great game.

It seems to me that if the developer can justify their reasons for doing so, then you can work from that as a base. Deep Down failed in this regard. If you’re going to allow players to customise their character, whether in single-player or multiplayer, then you’d better damn well include a female option. If, however, your primary character’s gender IS fixed, then ensure that there are non-playable characters of both sexes, and that those you do encounter are representative and fleshed out in their interactions without relying on common industry tropes or blatant sexualisation. Don’t half-ass it, don’t rely on caricatures or cut-outs, and certainly don’t stereotype.

But to suggest that any developer that chooses a fixed perspective for the main character is simply trying to “negate” an entire gender is, to my mind, absurd. It happens. Of course it does. But you don’t always need an option. Sometimes your story is more powerful and poignant because of the lack thereof.

I have no doubt everything I’ve said is wrong and the Internet stands ready to correct me. I look forward to the discussion, because comments are open.