The future is now
There has been considerable debate about the role and portrayal of women in video games. Women are rarely the player controlled protagonist and often fill roles designed to spur on the (usually) male lead rather than represent characters of their own with their own story arcs. Recently, the highlighting of the problem has encouraged developers to provide meatier roles for women with mixed results. What hasn’t been discussed is what these new female characters will look like in the future. To that end, I introduce you to what I think is an example of what will be the most common female archetype: Aveline de Grandpre.
Protagonist of Assassin’s Creed Liberation, Aveline dons the cowl of an assassin to kill slavers and fight Templars in 18th century Louisiana. Using her training, costumes, and slave heritage, Aveline opposes injustice with all the nobility that we have come to expect from the traditional male leads in video games. She’s clever, passionate, and strong. She also possess the rather boring traits of those heroes in that she never faces moral conflict and her development can be characterized as young heroine to slightly older heroine. This is what makes her the female lead of the future. Aveline is a gender-swapped example of the flat male lead that dominates the current landscape. The future of women in games is not a bold exploration of the unique roles and situations that women face, but the application of existing archetypes to women.
The reason for this is simple: archetypes are easy. The average game works hard to avoid offensive leads, but often does very little to make them compelling. Pick an Assassin’s Creed, Call of Duty, or Final Fantasy and you’ll find them chock full of good-hearted souls whose greatest character flaws are easily overshadowed by their pursuit of justice. While some of these characters have additional depth, most are designed to just be “good.” Not only are their personalities on the side of the angels, but the situations they’re placed in allow them to easily fulfill the role of heroes. This allows the player to engage in a power fantasy without getting into the messy bits of human frailty. Aveline, and many of her successors, will likely fill this role. Changing a character from male to female does not make adding depth any easier. In short, the future of women in video games is pretty much the future of men in video games.
That’s not to say there won’t be some variations. The Assassin’s Creed series is a work of historical fiction and so must at least attempt to adhere to some historical conventions. Women were treated differently in the past and so will lend themselves to different roles and gameplay. The same can be said of existing cultures and imagined worlds. Assassin’s Creed Liberation’s costume/class swap is a perfect example of this. Aveline fills multiple social roles in the setting and these roles each offer unique styles of gameplay. Still, the exploration of different game mechanics does make complex characters any easier. We should expect that heroic characters with minor flaws will dominate video games and that this trend will not exclude women.