It’s no secret that the world of videogames has a pretty pervasive sexist streak, which is often reflected in the way they show male protagonists overcoming traditionally ‘masculine’ problems, being the all round hero for whatever vague and undeveloped female character appears to have been killed, kidnapped or locked in a castle. In gaming you are less likely to encounter a game that offers an interesting, female driven plot, and even less likely have this game actively portray issues that are relatable and important to women.
However, whilst it can seem that much of the industry relies on this tired cliché of using women as a mere plot device, there are games out there that are actively pushing back, creating games that not only use women as central characters, but give the plot a female-centric story that speaks to players about issues such as sexuality, harassment and body issues. Here are our picks of some of the most boundary-pushing, issue-driven games out there at the moment (probably should go without saying that there may be some spoilers in this article – I’ll try my best but don’t say I didn’t warn you).
1. Freshman Year
Freshman Year is an autobiographical game created by designer Nina Freeman, based around her personal experience of sexual assault whilst at university. The game places the player in the shoes of freshman student Nina whose somewhat flakey friend Jenna persuades her to come out to a bar for drinks, which leads to a series of simple choices the character can make about the night ahead.
The game plays out in a similar way to a ‘choose your own adventure’ – there are options throughout that change the narrative of the story, be it choosing to wear your day clothes vs. a new skirt, going into the bar alone vs. waiting for Jenna outside, drinking a little vs. drinking a lot.
Since the game only takes around 10 minutes to play, there are many options to go back and choose from once the game is over. However, the one moment in the game that remains exactly the same is the assault the player experiences toward the end of the game, by a bouncer at the bar– it’s a truly jarring moment as the score changes to a low, uncomfortable bass and both the player and character become absolutely powerless to what is happening to them. In the end, no matter what you wear, how you travel, who you speak to and how much you drink can affect the end of the game – the assault is completely out of the player’s control, and have absolutely nothing to do with how Nina dresses or behaves. It is a bleak, stark, but oddly refreshing take on the experience of sexual assault, which expertly shifts the blame away from the innocent student by allowing the player to make all the ‘safe’ choices only to lead to the same unavoidable outcome.
2. Gone Home
After a year abroad, Katie Greenbriar returns to her home to find everyone in her family is missing, with a note from her sister saying not to go looking for them. Gone Home is a game entirely focused on Katie searching the house to figure out what happened to her family – especially Sam. As players, we explore the coming of age of Sam through a series of letters she has left for Katie during the year she has been away, which express the alienation and frustration she feels at moving to a new school, and her confusion as she begins to fall in love with her female best friend, Lonnie.
Gone Home treats Sam’s coming of age with dignity, with a love story that is both genuine and realistic – the intricacies of Sam and Lonnie’s relationship are both endearing and convincing, which is a refreshing change from how much of the media tends to treat lesbian relationships. It’s also a story that highlights the difficulties of feeling out of place as a teenage girl, especially one struggling with their sexuality – as players we get to experience the frustration of being told by Sam’s parents that she “just hasn’t met the right boy”, and the pain of being bullied at school for daring to be being different, all with a sincerity that leaves the player thinking about Sam, Lonnie and what their fate might be long after the game is over.
PS: In case you missed it, the game also has an absolutely killer feminist soundtrack.
3. Life Is Strange
Life Is Strange is a “choose your own adventure” game that places the player in the shoes of Max Caulfield [Ed: not the guy who played the lead in Grease 2, apparently], a teenage girl who returns to her hometown to attend the elite (and largely corrupt) Blackwell Academy – and realises she has the power to rewind time. Not only is this one of the most original and interesting games of 2015 so far, it also speaks directly about sexual assault – in particular, creating a strong and defiant commentary on date rape, and the level of disbelief that exists around victims.
Throughout the game, the player becomes gradually aware that more than one of the school parties has ended up with a girl being drugged and assaulted. Two main characters, Chloe and Kate, admit to this, yet the parties continue and the danger of assault continues with it. In an all too familiar narrative twist, the aftermath of Kate’s drugging is videotaped and passed around, with many of the students dismissing Kate’s behaviour as her being merely wasted –with respected teacher Mr. Jefferson even claiming she “brought this on herself” if you push him far enough in your questioning. Life Is Strange directly speaks out against the way this sort of dismissal and lack of support has serious psychological implications for the victims, with depression and a suicide attempt being just two of the outcomes of these attacks and the following ignorance.
It is also worth noting the struggle the creators of Life Is Strange had in getting backing for making their lead character a girl – as detailed this short video, Dontnod Entertainment shopped around Life Is Strange to a bunch of publishers, who questioned why the protagonist was female, and requested she be changed to a male character (which, when you play the game, is a ridiculous request).
4. Tampon Run
Tampon Run is a game created by two teenage girls, Andrea Gonzales and Sophie Houser, as a project for a “girls who code” summer camp they attended (hooray!). Aiming to take away the stigma of menstruation and periods in general, this is a quirky and simple 8 bit game where essentially you collect and shoot tampons at bad guys that come your way, trying to keep as many as you can before you finish your moon cycle (as in life, not realizing you have run out of tampons can mean GAME OVER).
The game itself is entertaining and incredibly easy to get into, and the message behind it is as smart as it is shrewd – the taboo of menstruation is discussed in a simple and accessible way, with the introduction warning that yes, a game about shooting tampons may seem a little strange at first, but is this any stranger than the complete comfort players tend to have when shooting guns in video games? Violence and weapons can often appear pretty much the norm in video games, yet for many even the idea of tampons and periods is unspeakable and crude, both in gaming and in life. Now, I don’t have any scientific evidence to back this up, but I would argue more gamers have had some sort of experience with menstruation than they have had with machetes, and having two high school girls point this out whilst emphasizing the complete normalcy of periods in general, seems like a bloody good idea.
Main image: © Ninasays.so