Minor spoilers for Bioshock Infinite’s Burial At Sea DLC, The Last Of Us: Left Behind DLC, and The Walking Dead Season 2.
Dads and daughters in video games are nothing new. It’s become almost a trope to have a protagonist’s main motivation be “rescue daughter/daughter equivalent” or “avenge daughter/daughter equivalent,” to the point where Kotaku wrote an article back in 2010 dubbing the phenomenon “The Daddening of Video Games.” This past year or so has seen this trend continue and maybe even expand, with critically acclaimed games such as The Last Of Us, The Walking Dead, and Bioshock Infinite featuring a father-daughter relationship (either literal or figurative) as the lynchpin of the story. However, what has changed is not so much the role of the father, but the role of the daughter. No longer content to be damselled away or stuffed into a fridge at the beginning of the game, daughter-figures have been stepping up to the plate as sidekicks and co-conspirators to the paternal protagonist, even getting some blood on their hands alongside him. However, there is an additional reason I highlighted The Last Of Us, The Walking Dead, and Bioshock Infinite as examples of this phenomenon; not only do these games feature daughter-figures as one of the central characters, but all of these games are releasing DLC/sequels where the role of the player-protagonist is transferred from father to daughter. This rise of daughter-characters (which requires an equally-cool name: The Daughters Of Slaughter, maybe? I’m open to suggestions) raises several questions. Is there a reason for this development? Why is it happening now? And what does it mean for the future of female characters in games?
One reason for the growing inclusion of female protagonists in general is the increasing visibility of female gamers. A 2013 report from the Entertainment Software Association revealed that 45% of the whole game playing population are women and that women are the most frequent video game purchasers 46% of the time. That’s a major demographic and potentially a major loss of profit if alienated. The rising visibility of female fanbases, combined with mounting criticisms against sexism in game development and gaming culture (perhaps most famously spearheaded by Anita Sarkeesian’s series “Tropes Vs Women In Video Games”) means that game developers are under increasing pressure to give female characters more roles than simply “damsel” or “reward.” Some developers have responded to this pressure by releasing games with female player-protagonists. Remember Me, Between Two Souls, and the Tomb Raider reboot come to mind. However, launching a game with a female protagonist (especially if it’s an original title and not a sequel or reboot) can be a daunting prospect in an industry so accustomed to male leads. Remember Me developer Dontnod Entertainment was rejected by multiple publishers because the protagonist of the game was a woman. Meanwhile, Naughty Dog had to fight just to have Ellie, one of the game’s main characters, appear on the front cover with Joel, amidst arguments that “if you put a girl or a woman on the cover, the game will sell less.” Bioshock Infinite yielded to the same pressure, relegating Elizabeth to the back cover (despite her arguably being the main character of the game) over fears that showing anything other than a male character with a gun would discourage your average “frat guy” from buying the game.
So what’s a game developer to do? On one side, you have a growing demand for female protagonists, while on the other, you have frightened publishers and marketers telling you that female leads simply don’t sell. The simple answer is, you compromise. The player-protagonist remains male – but he gets a female sidekick, a constant companion whose characterization and story are at least as important as his. It seems like a win-win: you get a female lead and your publisher/marketers don’t have to worry about soiling their khakis.
But why daughters and daughter-equivalents? Why not a significant other or a female friend? This question is a little more complex. One could argue that it’s to distance the female character from the all-to-common sexualized depictions of women in video games. It makes sense; a character who is portrayed as your child is going to be a lot harder to fetishize than a character who is a romantic interest, or even a friend. However, I also feel that there’s another, more deeply rooted reason: game developers (and plenty of gamers too) are reluctant to give up on the archetype of the damsel.
…Okay, okay, hear me out. I can already hear people countering with, “But Elizabeth/Ellie/Clementine isn’t a damsel! She’s too smart/powerful/resilient!”
Well, you’re kind of right. These characters are not the damsels of video games past, waiting passively in a castle for their hero to slay the beastie holding them hostage and whisk them away to safety. They’re your partners in crime, with their own unique personalities and strengths. But they are still women that you are expected to protect as you both travel through extremely hostile environments. The fact that they are depicted as your daughters is a means of justifying this – you are their father or at least, their father-figure and thus your roles are already decided; you are the protector and she is the protected. In this way, game developers are able to kill two birds with one stone: female gamers get to see more central female characters while game developers don’t have to worry about making male gamers feel emasculated by taking away their role as protectors or (gasp) having them play as a woman in the first place (if you think this is a condescending way of treating male gamers, you’re totally right and you should take it up with the people who reasoned that having the protagonist be a woman with her own private life would be too gay for male gamers. Can’t make this shit up, people).
Now, I bet there are going to be some of you calling me a pessimist. “Come on, Hannah,” you say, causing me to become immediately uncomfortable by your sudden first-name-basis familiarity, “You got three amazing, badass female characters and all you can focus on is how they’re still semi-damsels. Can’t you just be happy with what you’ve got?” Well, my answer to this, dear hypothetical, somewhat unsettlingly intimate reader, is that I am happy! I am thrilled to bits with these characters not just for being so spectacular in their base games, but also for being popular enough to get their own DLC/sequels. To quickly sum up for the uninformed, Elizabeth will star as the player-protagonist in the second episode of Bioshock Infinite’s Burial At Sea DLC, Ellie in The Last Of Us: Left Behind, and Clementine in the second season of The Walking Dead. The way I see it, this pattern that we’ve seen of games introducing female characters as daughter-figures before giving them their own spotlight is a way for the industry to test the waters. The first test is simple: “Can we get the (presumably male) player base to like this female character?” The answer to this can largely be seen in the reaction to the base game. The second test is even more crucial: “Do they like her even when she’s the hero instead of the sidekick?” and of course even more importantly “Do they like her enough to pay money to play as her?” Now, two of these add-ons haven’t even come out yet, so I can’t quote any figures and who knows, maybe they’ll both be flops and I’ll have to eat my words, but the optimist in me sees the enthusiasm and admiration fans already have for these characters and doesn’t doubt that these DLCs/sequels will serve as proofs of concept to developers, publishers, and marketers alike.
To me, the rise of the daughter-figures (still looking for a better name, people) shows that the video game industry is at an important turning-point in terms of how they treat women in games. By having these well-written, capable female characters who nonetheless require the male protagonist’s protection, game developers are moving closer to a more balanced representation of women in their games while still holding on to the traditional roles of the man as the hero and the woman as the one he must safeguard from harm. Though video games as a whole still have a long way to go in terms of diversity and equal representation, they are at an important milestone and one that should be celebrated – just don’t get too comfortable, game devs. As awesome as these Daughters of Slaughter have been, sooner or later, you’re going to have to step out of your comfort zone entirely and include female characters who not only know how to be strong, but who learned how all by themselves.