[SPOILER WARNING: This post deals with Bastion, an excellent action-RPG PC game available through Steam. Be warned that some pretty serious spoilers lie within; if you haven't played and are a fan of action-RPGs, I'd recommend picking up a copy and playing before coming back to this post. Bastion is easily the best action-RPG I've played since Kingdom Hearts.]
I’ll admit, folks, that without a regular tabletop group, I play video games just as much as I play tabletop or board games these days. That “mostly” in the GAW tagline is something I asked for, because sometimes I play a good video game that just begs to be blogged about. There’s also quite a bit of overlap between video game and analog gaming culture. So I doubt that this will be the last post you see from me dealing with video games.
So. Bastion. It’s a fantastic little (10 hours or so) action RPG that manages to deliver (mostly) linear story-telling in some pretty interesting and innovative ways. You have the narrator, Rucks, who narrates your progress through each level. The villain, Zulf, who manages to be both compelling and sympathetic. And the Kid, who is a compelling character in his own right, which is a feat considering that he is a silent protagonist without any dialogue or even a real name. The story revolves around them and their relationship to each other as they try to navigate a violent clash of cultures in the wake of horrible calamity. Engaging stuff!
…oh, and I almost forgot. There’s this girl Zia that kind of tags along for the ride. She. Um. Sings and stuff? Oh, and let’s not forget that one time where she gets kidnapped and you have to rescue her. Because that’s unique storytelling. (Okay, to be fair, she wasn’t actually kidnapped. She just left. Which is about the only decision she makes the entire game, and even then she returns with the hero to the bastion when he comes to get her.)
It’s aggravating because the three male characters all have depth and agendas of their own. They all wrestle with morally ambiguous choices and are sympathetic characters – which is a hard thing to do in such a short game. But Zia? Zia doesn’t make any tough moral choices, she doesn’t do anything heroic, and she doesn’t get to have any real sense of depth. She’s just kind of… there. In the absence of any real character development, her defining character trait is “female”. And in light of the innovative story-telling techniques, it’s especially maddening that it all comes back to dogs and smurfs.
The sad truth of the matter is that as a culture, we assume that any protagonist will be male and that female characters are secondary, existing only to provide motivation for the hero to overcome extreme obstacles in times of strife. The creators of Bastion clearly put a lot of thought into the story, its characters, and how the story it would reveal itself. But it’s clear that they never thought about the gender of their characters beyond the cultural assumption of male as the default protagonist. The main characters are complex and active, so of course they would be male. There is a passive character who provides motivation, so of course she would be female.
It’s disappointing, because any of the main characters would have been fantastic female characters. Zulf would have remained an engaging and sympathetic villain without falling into any of the awful “bad girl” cliches that tend to plague female villains. Zulf is not a seductor, nor is he “overly emotional”. And his motives are sympathetic and very logical. It’s easy to picture yourself making the same choices – all of which is very atypical for a female villain character.
Rucks would have been an even more engaging female character. Not just because of his role as narrator, but because of his history as a scientist with severe doubts about the morality of his work and as a mentor figure for the Kid. There are certainly few enough female scientists in fiction out there. And while I’ll admit that Rucks’ voice was one of my favorite parts of the game (I seriously would listen to him read the phone book), the gravelly-voiced older male narrator is a rather tired trope in and of itself. There are lots of fantastic female voice actors out there who I’m sure could have lent the role an equal amount of gravitas. Just look at the fantastic example of Jennifer Hale’s work on the Mass Effect series as an example of amazing female talent that’s already out there.
Heck, I honestly would have been content even if I had just gotten to choose the gender of the Kid. The Kid is a pretty androgynous hero already – it wouldn’t have required much modification to the model and the art to accommodate the choice. Also, usually the whole point of having a silent protagonist is to make the protagonist as relateable as possible – a character where its easy for the player to step into their shoes. Being able to play a character that looked like me would have allowed me to do that. As it was, I was never able to shake the nagging disappointment that the Kid was male. That the hero would never look like me because women are, in the end, not heroic. And so my enjoyment, great as it is, of this wonderful game is tinged with disappointment for a lost opportunity for the story to be more than it was.
When telling stories, THIS is the assumption that we need to challenge. Look at the success of The Hunger Games as proof, if it’s needed, that a story that centers on a female hero can be every bit as appealing and engaging as one that centers on a male. Don’t just fall into the trap of assuming that protagonist = male, because that’s lazy story-telling and it will ultimately hold you back.
(To close, I’ll leave you with this visual bit of wishful thinking: a gender-swap that I drew of Bastion’s characters)