I’m imagining all of you sitting across from me at a very long banquet table, staring me down like I’m on the receiving end of the world’s weirdest interview. There’s Elizabeth from BioShock: Infinite, Lara from Tomb Raider, Ellie from The Last of Us, Nilin from Remember Me, Jodie from Beyond: Two Souls. Lingering in a dark corner is Daisy Fitzroy, and in the doorway with a cup of lukewarm coffee is Rosalind Lutece (the coffee was warm, will be warm, has been warm, is warm).
Before you all give me the side-eye, I have to tell you– if you don’t already know– that I am at times a cliche of a girl gamer. I like games with female protagonist. I like books with female protagonists, I like TV shows with female protagonists. I’m old enough to have been in high school when Buffy: the Vampire Slayer aired on TV for the first time. I like strong girls, I like watching strong girls, and best of all, I like playing as a strong girl. So, yeah, I gravitate towards games with powerful women. I always, always played as Sonja Blade in Mortal Kombat on the Gameboy, I’ve played The Longest Journey more times than I can count, and FemShep is the only true Shep in my eyes.
There are a lot more people who could have been invited to this, but we all know that this one’s about you: the girls who ran the length of the games we played this year. The word protagonist means the chief character, but in common usage also means the character that propels the story forward. This is an austere lot, and all of you protagonists. And wha’s hitting me is that it never mattered to you that you were a girl, did it?
None of you were ever concerned with the conventional or unconventional trappings of what it might mean to Be a Girl. Most of you never changed clothes, let alone glanced in a mirror to fix your makeup. Only one of you bothered with dating, but it definitely wasn’t the definition of your existence. You all had other things to deal with. You had life and death, memories, fate, ghosts, souls, conflicting narratives, time, and bows and arrows to deal with.
I’m trying to think, Lara, what you might have said if I had asked you to go on a date with some boy I was bringing by. I’m picturing your face, Elizabeth, if I’d wanted you to change to a new pair of heels that had nothing to do with the major life changes you went through on your own. Jodie, I know you changed clothes several times, but I’m letting that one skate by.
So here we go.
Lara, we kicked off the year with you in March, and you slinked your way through rain-soaked jungles into our hearts. You were smart, appropriately proportioned (gone are the polygonal breasts of yesteryear), and you could handle your way with a bow and arrow and pickaxe. You were intellectually stimulated by old books and treasures you found on the island you washed up on, and you had genuine moments of badassery in your quest to save a friend. It wasn’t hard to feel like if you didn’t have to beat the crap out of all the lunatics left on the island, you could have outsmarted them. You’re the Hermione of video game girls, if Hermione could kill a man with a piece of rock. You were perhaps the only girl in 2013 to be in a game to pass the Bechdel test, and for those of us who grew up with you– I was 13 when we first met– you were a welcome and much-needed revamp of the awesome woman you’ve always been.
And then came you, Elizabeth, closely on Lara’s heels in March too. I don’t know how to explain to you how we’ve all been conditioned to feel about escort games and escort missions (see: Enslaved). Maybe that’s unfair to Enslaved. I only ever played the demo, after all, and then realized that I could barely keep myself alive, let alone someone else who could barely fend for herself. I was worried about you when we first met. You were inside a giant statue, after all, with a giant mechanical songbird as your best friend. But the second we bust out into the world of Columbia and the words on screen came up “You don’t need to protect Elizabeth in combat. She can take care of herself”, I knew we had a pipe of a different color. I knew you were different. And I’ll never know how to repay you for those medkits and salts you tossed my way. You were coy and angry and beautiful and defiant, scared and smart, honest and endearing all in one breath. So, yes, there are some issues with the game you inhabit that have nothing to do with you– those pesky time paradox kinds of problems, but I hope you don’t mind if I tell you that you occasionally haunt my dreams with your Bambi eyes and your murderer’s hands. The most fascinating part of BioShock Infinite is your story, the one I help facilitate. Your character growth is the growth that I treasure, and it’s you I’m protecting even if I don’t have to mechanically do it.
But, look, Elizabeth, to say that you’re the only girl in BioShock: Infinite worth mentioning is to ignore some of the most fascinating characters of the year: Daisy Fitzroy and Rosalind Lutece. Daisy, you’re a cipher, more of an archetype and plot element than you were a person (“You’re complicating the narrative,”) but you represented a female Big Bad, in Joss Whedon parlance, that we didn’t have another example of in 2013. You’re a solid enemy in a world full of morally ambivalent characters. And as for you, Rosalind (or Robert?), Infinite is the world you created. Elizabeth may have been the protagonist, Daisy a protagonist, but you were the catalyst. Hell, the first line in the game was yours– and yours. We don’t meet women (slash-men) like you often. I keep praying for an iOS game where I can just have grammar-bending conversations with you-and-you all day long, but I suspect Irrational has other things to do.
So now we come to Nilin. I feel bad for you, in some ways, because you were handicapped from the start. The game that surrounded you just couldn’t hold up to its own premise and your impossible coolness, and it sank under the weight of its own confused bloat. That happens. I like to think of it like a papier mache parade float in the rain– messy and sticky but with an idea that maybe it was once attractive. But, hey, let’s put that aside and focus on you. You were the shining star of a game that should have been better, a beautiful girl (and the only biracial one in this letter) with an amazing outfit, awesome fighting moves, and a doozy of a memory problem. I felt sometimes like I could sense your frustration, sitting on those digitized stairs between chapters, staring down at your memory glove/Omni-tool, wondering what more you could have done with it if you’d been given the chance. Your game should have been better. You were still cool as hell.
Which brings us to you, Ellie. The Last of Us is an emotionally hard game. It just sucks in places, in the best kind of way, and when I finished it I felt like I needed to go overdose on My Little Pony episodes. And a huge part of that came from you. The Last of Us is partly Joel’s story, partly yours, but we did what we did as Joel so that we could get you through to the end– to save humanity, and then, ultimately, to save you. But there are parts of the story that are wholly yours, devastatingly so, like when you crawl around the burning tavern, desperate to save yourself from David, who was kind of an asshole, but that didn’t make killing him any easier. You were tough, smart, sad, wise, young, naive, and brutal in turns when you needed to be. And it’s hard not to feel like when you asked Joel, in the end, to swear that his story about the Fireflies is true, that you weren’t a lot like Buffy asking Giles to lie to you.
But you know what? The Last of Us didn’t just have you, when it comes to awesome females. Naughty Dog has a history of epic women (I see you, Elena and Chloe), and you had a pretty stunning round-up of Tess and Marlene and even Maria. These were all battle (and zombie)-hardened women just doing the best they could to survive. You know better than I do, Ellie, that Tess was supposed to be the bad guy, but she grew sympathetic all on her own. It’s still hard to watch her die. Be glad you never had to do that.
It wasn’t for a couple of months that Beyond: Two Souls came out, which was when we met you, Jodie. Let’s get out of the way that you’re the only one whose life resembled a dating sim on occasion (to include choosing which outfit to wear on a date). Let’s focus instead on the fact that we saw your life, albeit disjointed, from your birth to your adulthood, complete with all of the complications in between. We watched you suffer through humiliation at a birthday party, snowball fights with neighborhood kids that nearly ended in tragedy, homelessness in the most gut-wrenching of ways, and, yeah, romantic options. In some ways, you were the most girly of the bunch, in both the best and the worst of ways, whatever the word girly means. But you were also strong, brutal, sad, devastated, dreamy, funny, cynical, biting, smart, and hopeful all in the same breath. So what if your romantic choice came down to a decision on which button on the PS controller I hit. And maybe tha’s a lot like real life anyway, so who can fault you that?
I nearly forgot about you, Clementine. That might be easy to do. You’re small, you know? And you cut off all your hair so walkers couldn’t grab you. We spent a long time as Lee trying to protect you from all of those things that wanted to do terrible things to you in the woods or on trains or in hotels in Savannah. You have the most unabashed sense of hopefulness of anyone here, and even in 2013, which found you zombie-hardened, it wasn’t hard to feel like, with your guidance, optimism would spring eternal. You lost some friends, you made some hard choices. Your story has just begun, honestly, but it’s hard not to feel like you and Ellie should spend a little bit of time together, swap notes, compare guns, and find some time to be hopeful about the future. People have done some bad things to you, but they’ve also been impossibly kind. I hope the future does treat you kindly. I hope people do too, even if I know they won’t.
This isn’t any kind of letter without acknowledging the boys of GTAV. I see you sitting in the corner, drinking your whisky, smoking your cigarettes, wondering how you got here. Guys, maybe you noticed this too, but the women who surround you seem to have shrillness as their primary character motivation, and you don’t treat them very well–but, it seems, San Andreas isn’t much of a place to treat women all that well. Franklin, your conversations with those stripper girls is as much a terrible reflection on you as it is on her, and I have to wonder where her Interior Life begins, or if she even has one. I guess it’s okay to touch them, as long as you flirt badly, isn’t it? And Michael, you’re right, probably your wife is the bad one here. Her only modes seem to be yelling at you and cheating on you, so how could you possibly be to blame, right? And Trevor, well, you’re only redeemable in my eyes when you have a full beard, but that’s neither here nor there. I hear what you’re muttering at me; it sounds a little like, We’re not bad, we’re just drawn that way. It’s not your fault that the women who surround you come from Vapid Women Central Casting.
I think a lot of people like to accuse you guys of hating women. I suspect you hate yourselves a little bit too.
So there’s a little bit of mourning here, hence the pouring one out. It’s hard to imagine a year with better female protagonists than this one. Where do you go from Elizabeth and Ellie and Lara? To some degree, where we go is to a future of our own making– bear with me. Like the FemSheps of yesteryear, some of the women of 2014 may be the ones we create for ourselves. In Destiny (Bungie, 9 September 2014), in Elder Scrolls Online (ZeniMax, 4 April 2014). And if not, we have Zoe’s story to explore in Dreamfall Chapters (Red Thread Games, November 2014). The women of 2014 may be the RPG women we create. And there’s nothing wrong with that– but it’s hard not to hope for something better.