Girl in the Machine
Monday, July 30, 2007
Trembling in your schoolgirl uniform.

In the amazing and amazingly creepy Fatal Frame, protagonist Miku wanders the halls of the haunted Himuro mansion, searching for her brother. Armed with only a camera and a weak flashlight, she tiptoes down a hallway strung with dangling ropes. A flicker of light in the darkness ahead: the grainy visage of a ghost appears, and Miku raises her camera to her eyes, whimpering with fear.

God knows in that kind of situation, my knees would be knocking, too. But how about a little experiment? Close your eyes, kick back, and suspend your disbelief for a second.

Imagine the same scene, but replace petite little Miku with an image of beefy Torque from The Suffering.

. . . okay, so maybe that example is a little extreme. But it does make you think, doesn't it?

A Survival Horror game's protagonist is a crucial element to the gamer's experience. The protagonist acts as an extension of the player herself, submersed in a world of fantasy and fear. A wide variety of Survival Horror games offers many different and unique experiences, but there is a trend in the games' protagonists that I haven't helped noticing.

Sex. Specifically, the different "effects" that game producers attempt to achieve based on their protagonists' sex. With a few very wonderful exceptions, I've found that things typically go like this.

A Surivival Horror game that features a female protagonist tends to be slower-paced with more thriller-esque elements and environmental scares. The main character is typically young (teens to early twenties), poorly equipped for the task at hand, and very clearly exhibits her (rather realistic) fear in cutscenes and in her actions. All these factors intertwine to paint a portrait of helplessness and impart a sense of discomfort and vulnerability in the player.

Take Miku from our first example. Our intrepid hero must have rushed off to rescue her brother so quickly that she forgot to change out of her school uniform and didn't pack anything besides that dinky little flashlight. I can't fault her for excessively whimpering through every single cutscene because, frankly, who wouldn't? And while her main weapon, the Camera Obscura, proves formidable in context, it doesn't exactly ring the same bell as Leon's magnum Handcannon in Resident Evil 4.

In a similar vein, we have Jennifer from Rule of Rose. She faces down Horrible Imps and other nightmares while dressed perfectly for a tea party, is stuck with a perpetually terrified expression on her face, and combat proves . . . interesting. Armed with a dessert fork as her first weapon, she hides her face with one arm and blindly jabs random targets before her with all the accuracy of a kid with a clubfoot playing Pin the Tail on the Donkey.

The list goes on and on.

Male protagonists are a different story. You never see schoolboys or guys in short-shorts wandering timorously through haunted houses. Survival Horror games proffering male protagonists tend to feature more graphic violence, fast-paced gameplay, and incorporate elements of shooters. The character himself is probably older (late-twenties and up), buffer, and packing heat. He is usually a hardened stoic, utterly professional, and herein the vulnerability is absent, replaced with gun-blazing machismo.

Let's take another look at Torque. First of all, his name is Torque. Just roll that around on your tongue for a minute; I'll wait.

Torque is a brawny, stubbly prisoner on death row, armed to the teeth with firearms, an eternal scowl, and blood-stained white wifebeater. He doesn't even blink an eye at the hideous creatures that invade Abbott State Penitentiary, blowing them away with merciless shotgun blasts and a rock-hard demeanor. The player derives horror from the grotesque creature design, frenetic cutscenes, and shocking AI animation, but not once does Torque's cold personality allow for an element of vulnerability to creep in.

Alongside Torque are countless others. We have the rugged professionalism of Alone in the Dark's Edward Carnby and cool-and-collected Leon Scott Kennedy from the aforementioned Resident Evil 4. Even Silent Hill's male protags Harry, James, and Henry fall into step with their collective age and limited emotional display, among other factors.

Thankfully, as always, there are exceptions. Alex Roivas of the celebrated Eternal Darkness exudes far more woman than girl, battling ambulatory skeletons and other nasties with swords, shotguns, and a fresh, sharp wit. Silent Hill 3's Heather Mason does her father proud by avoiding excessive vulnerability and when she does take a moment to break down, it's heartbreaking without being exploitative or weak. The Resident Evil series's sorely-missed female lead Jill Valentine also kicks tons of zombie ass.

While I appreciate the variety that all of these factors offer, plus the opportunity to feel frightened because of a character's vulnerability or empowered by his badassery, the consistent disparity between sexes proves disturbing. The concept of vulnerability is not strictly limited to the female sex, and by doing so in these games again and again suggests an inherent weakness that afflicts only women. Miku's petrified whimpering is neither weak nor unrealistic, but I would love to see game producers put dudes in her position for once.

(Thanks to IGN.com for the piccies.)

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 Posted by BomberGirl
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