Gender in Play: character diversity

This article is the second part in our blog post series on representation of women characters and character diversity in Finnish games (click here for the first part and the introduction to the series). In this post, we will highlight some positive examples and good practices regarding character diversity and representation in Finnish games.

When looking for diversity of characters, three games were of particular note, Your Royal Gayness, for its portrayal of its gay protagonist and a non-binary support character, Raanaa, for its Sámi main character and themes, and Control, for its leading women characters and subversion of a common videogame trope.

Your Royal Gayness

Your Royal Gayness is a game that puts the player in control of Amir, a gay prince, who is left in control of a not-too-LGBTQ+-friendly nation when his parents leave for two months. Besides being the only game found in the previous analysis to have characters explictily described as gay, YRG also puts the protagonist’s sexuality as an important part of both the game’s plot and mechanics.

Instead of going for the more utopic option of having the game set in a place where there is no prejudice, the game chooses to go for a more “realistic”, yet still humorous, approach to LGBTQ+ issues. At the start of the game homosexuality is illegal in Amir’s kingdom, and throughout the game the player must balance a “suspicion meter” in order to avoid being discovered by the people beyond his close circle of advisors (who are very much supportive of him). These choices in plot and mechanics bring experiences relatable to many queer players into the game. While most LGBTQ+ people have not had to rule a kingdom for a couple of months, many have had to hide their identities from the world. The close circle of advisors, who know about Amir and help him navigate through the game, is also something relatable to the “queer experience”. 

Picture 13. Prince Amir and two of his advisors, Seraph and Magda.

Despite touching on those heavy subjects, however, the game is not a heavy drama in any way. Instead, it has a tongue-in-cheek narrative through and through using parody as a way to expose the absurdities of homophobia, such as when the prince is brough to judgement accused of being “really, really gay” and the judgement itself involves the prince having to quickly choose between objects related to stereotypical ideas of sexuality.

Picture 14. The final judgement of Amir depends on his choice of vegetable.

The prince is not the only LGBTQ+ character in the game, as there are a number of other such characters in the cast. One deserving special recognition is Seraph, the non-binary spymaster and advisor of prince Amir.

Seraph is a non-binary character who uses they/them pronouns. While not every character really understands their identity, through the game the matter is always handled with respect. Depending on the player’s choices, Amir can talk with Seraph about their identity and what being both non-binary and pansexual means to Seraph. Once again, those conversations are handled in a natural and sensitive way, with Seraph scolding the prince when he brings up their deadname (i.e. name they were assigned at birth) and explaining that it is hurtful to do that, the prince listens to Seraph and learns from them. 

Picture 15. Seraph tells Amir it is bad manners to look up into someone’s dead name.

Another interesting way in which Your Royal Gayness promotes the portrayal of a diverse cast is with its random body generator, used to create the other kingdoms’ princesses and princes. Those are secondary characters which are different in every playthrough, as the game creates new ones every time, taking from a pool of different body shapes, skin colours, hairstyles and outfits. This is a very interesting and well-meaning idea, which in most cases seems to work as intended. However, a few times it seemed to backfire, as some kingdoms had random characters all with the same skin color or some characters who looked exactly alike.

Picture 16. Kala and Juliet look like twins.

Raanaa – The Shaman Girl

Raanaa is the only Finnish game found in the previous analysis to have a definite Sámi character. This is especially noteworthy as the Sámi people are a historic minority as the indigenous people in Finland. In Raanaa the player takes control of a young Sámi girl who is called in her sleep by the Foremother Goddess Máttaráhkká to come and help her in the spirit world.

Picture 17. Raanaa the shaman girl.

Throughout the game Raanaa finds other figures of Sámi mythology like Ruonánieida, the Maiden of Spring and Barbmoáhká, the Guardian of the Birds. With their assistance, as well as with her shaman abilities and magical dress, Raanaa helps to maintain balance and protect both the spirit and the human world.

The game not only is inspired by Sámi mythology, but it also has an interest in being accessible to Sámi players, having the option to be played in Northern Sámi language. The game was also supported by the Sámi Parliament in Norway and Sámi people were involved and consulted during the development of the game, which is a good practice if the intent is to have positive representation. The game’s narrative designer and producer is also Sámi.

Both the recognition of the Sámi players by giving them the option to play in their native language, as well as the involvement of Sámi people in the development of the game are meaningful and imply an interest in a sensitive portrayal which does not fall into the sometimes caricatural depictions of Sámi people found in media.

Control

In Control, you play as Jessie Faden, a young woman with strange powers who is investigating the headquarters of the Federal Bureau of Control (FBC) while searching for her missing brother. Shortly after arriving there, Jessie ends up receiving a new weapon, and with it, the position of Director of the FBC. From then on she has to defend the building against the invasion of a paranormal entity known as The Hiss, while finding out more about herself, her brother and the friendly paranormal entity called Polaris.

Control is a game with a strong cast of women in different positions. Not only the main character, Jessie, but also three notable side characters: Helen Marshall, the African American, grey haired, Head of Operations for the Federal Bureau of Control, Emily Pope, who is the FBC Head of Research, and genius scientist Raya Underhill.

Picture 18. Helen Marshall introducing herself.

While these three characters require assistance from the protagonist to achieve their goals, they are generally represented as capable in their own roles, and retaining some sense of control despite the exceptional events happening during the game. Pope wants to research Jessie and understand what is going on with The Hiss, while at the same time organising the survivors in the building and assembling protection equipment. Underhill is in the building’s basement focused on her own research, about a different type of entity than the game’s main enemy, and does not seem to care much about the problems happening above ground. Finally, Marshall is commanding the larger group of security officers in the defense against the Hiss, and has her own objectives which are further explored in the game’s downloadable content (i.e. expansion), The Foundation.

Beyond that, Control subverts one particular trope of videogames with a woman protagonist. It is often the case in such games that the player exists as a “protector” of the protagonist. Whereas in games with a man as the main character the player gets to “be” the character, games with women often focus on the idea of “helping” or “defending” them. This can be understood as part of the male gaze at work in video games.

In the start of Control, it seems that the game is following that trope, as Jesse appears to talk to the player about how they have helped her get in the building. As the story progresses, we learn that the invisible presence that is assisting and watching Jesse is not the player per-se, but Polaris, an entity from another dimension who has been with her since her childhood and is in fact gendered as a “she”. To an extent Polaris can still be understood as a stand-in for the player, as she is not seen by the camera, but still always present in the game and assisting Jesse, who constantly speaks to her. In that way, the gaze of the camera/player is also the gaze of Polaris. This turns what could have been seen as a paternalistic/male-gazey relation with the camera into what can be seen as an alliance between women.

Picture 19. Jesse having a conversation with Polaris.

Narratively, Polaris also works as a motherly figure, with Jesse’s original mother having disappeared when Jessie wished her and her father away with strange magic. This idea of motherhood is further seen when the player eventually finds the body of Polaris, which is a construct in the shape of a  womb/egg which eventually bursts, appearing to die.

Picture 20. The body of Polaris.

After the burst of Polaris, Jesse seems to experience a rebirth experience (accepting her role as the Direct of FBC) and realises that even if that form (womb/egg) of Polaris died, the Polaris she knew was still with her and had never left her.

This is of note because it does not assume the player as a man. The recognition of an audience other than the stereotypical straight man is valuable and opens possibilities for more diverse games and characters. While research points out that the distribution of women and men in gaming are much more even than what common stereotypes still point to (as noted in our literature review of character representation and diversity in games), games themselves often seem to be interested in catering primarily to a mostly hetero-masculine audience.

Returnal

In Returnal, you play as Selene Vassos, a space scout who is stranded on mysterious planet Atropos after crash landing her spaceship, Helios. Selene quickly discovers that she has been on the planet before, and that she cannot escape it, not even through death. As death on the planet only means that she wakes up again at the crash site.

Picture 20. Selene is reborn in Atropos once again.

The story of Returnal, and Selene, is not told in a straightforward manner. Instead, it is inspired by the roguelike mechanics of the game and told in little pieces, which are unlocked as the player advances through the death/rebirth cycles of the game. The narrative and gameplay help connect the player with Selene, as she experiences the frustrations of failure — the game is not easy — in a similar way to what the player may be experiencing. Many of the pieces of plot uncovered through the game are also mysterious, and highly symbolic, and the player may not get a full sense of what exactly is happening to Selene, until finishing the game for the second time.

The nature of Returnal’s narrative leaves much of its understanding up to the player’s interpretation. Much of its imagery, cutscenes and even action is highly evocative and metaphorical. Therefore, much of what is discussed here reflects the interpretation of the authors and seeks to raise discussion points and considerations about the character in the context of the game, and games in general, rather than provide objective facts.

Picture 21. Returnal’s narrative is often told in flashes.

What is learned, however, tells an interesting story, with themes unusual to a triple-A game. Themes of mental health, motherhood and guilt, which are discussed through the complex character of Selene. 

As the story advances, it becomes clearer and clearer that Selene has depression, there are references to medication and grief spread throughout the game. Selene handles depression actively, if indirectly, by battling the actual monsters inside her mind.

Mother protagonists are rare but they are not unheard of in video games, for example: Kara from Detroit: Become Human (Quantic Dream, 2018), Sally from We Happy Few (Compulsion Games, 2016); woman main character in Fallout 4 (Bethesda Game Studios, 2015); Bayonetta in Bayonetta (PlatinumGames, 2009), Edith Finch in What Remains of Edith Finch (Giant Sparrow, 2017). A middle aged mother who can kick ass in an action game is significant and opens the door to new possibilities in a genre and medium where mothers are not usually present or are relegated to supporting roles when they do appear. As mothers in games go, Selene is even more unique in the fact that she is not only a mother, but a bad one.

Selene can also be read as disabled within the narrative frame, despite not being so gameplay-wise. As the end of the game is reached, we learn that the action scenes are not happening in the real world, but in her mind. Even more, she was in a car accident which led to the death of her son, Helios. It is clear that that loss has left her severely depressed, and while the extent of the physical consequences are not clear, the wheelchair is a common motif in different scenes in the game. In the true ending of the game, Selene’s mother, Theia is shown in a wheelchair.

Picture 22. Theia’s wheelchair.

The game seems to be very interested in harming Selene. Not only will she die over and over, she will also experience many forms of physical and emotional pain throughout the game. Her moans of pain when grappled by tentacles are particularly gruesome. This pain caused upon Selene is expected when considering the death/rebirth tropes of the roguelike genre, and the overall themes and narrative of the game itself, which focuses on the repetitive nature of grief and guilt. As we learn that all of the action is taking place in Selene’s mind, in a way all the violence in the game could be interpreted as a metaphor for self-harm, something made clearer when we see Selene shooting down her own ship. Mental health and self-harm are sensitive topics rarely approached in mainstream gaming and the choice of a triple-A game to address them, even if not explicitly, is a courageous one. 

It could be argued that the choice of a woman protagonist makes it easier for the audience to digest such topics; Carol Clover’s theory of the Final Girl mentions how a woman protagonist in horror movies can make it easier for the audience to experience feelings of pain and fragility. A few other games which explore themes of mental health also choose for women protagonists, such as Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice (Ninja Theory 2017), Life is Strange (Dontnod Entertainment 2015) and Gris (Nomada Studio 2018). It is important to note that this is not a criticism of such characters or games, as the exploration of these topics and existence of these characters is a positive thing that expands preconceptions about games. On the contrary, this might indicate a limitation in the way men are portrayed, attached to the sexist idea that men do not cry or feel emotions as strongly. 

Taking all that into consideration, as well as the complexity of the narrative and the way it is explored, the extent to which Selene’s pain follows the trope of women having to suffer pain and punishment in order to be allowed as action heroes is not clear-cut but her representation is multilayered.

Games:

Bethesda Game Studios. (2015). Fallout 4. Published by Bethesda Softworks.

Compulsion Games. (2016). We Happy Few. Published by Gearbox Publishing.

Giant Sparrow. (2017). What Remains of Edith Finch. Published by Annapurna Interactive. 

Housemarque. (2021). Returnal. Published by Sony Interactive Entertainment.

Lizard Hazard Games. (2018). Your Royal Gayness. Published by Lizard Hazard Games.

Miksapix Interactive. (2019). Raanaa – The Shaman Girl. Published by Miksapix Interactive. (Version 1.2., latest update January 21, 2021).

PlatinumGames (2009). Bayonetta. Published by Sega.

Remedy Entertainment. (2019). Control. Published by 505 Games.

Quantic Dream. (2018). Detroit: Become Human. Published by Sony Interactive Entertainment.

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