Looks Are Everything… When It Comes to Girls in Games

Aya Brea, heroine of the Parasite Eve series of games, and today's case study.

Aya Brea, heroine of the Parasite Eve series of games, and today’s case study.

Last week, I started anew my series on diversity in gaming, particularly when it comes to well fleshed out female characters who are ruined in later installments. Today’s prime example is Aya Brea, the protagonist of the Parasite Eve trilogy. She’s also a fine example of something that the industry does horribly, horribly wrong when it comes to female protagonists in gaming. So let’s overdive right into it, shall we?

As always, spoiler alert up front, as this time I will be going into WAY more in-depth issues of end-game aspects of each of the three games. Anyway, the basic premise of these games is that the mitochondria within our cells aren’t just a mutually symbiotic organism that gives us our cellular energy in return for food, but are in fact parasites that use humans to build a world better to their own setting. Something happens to cause the mitochondria of a specific individual to awaken and begin rebelling against humanity, trying to take over the world. In case you’re wondering, this is all BEFORE the games, which are themselves a series of sequels to a Japanese book/movie by the same name. In the story of the book/movie, the girl who possesses the awakened mitochondria is taken over by them and tries to give birth to an ultimate being to destroy all of humanity, but eventually fails because the mitochondria from the father of the ultimate being rebel and destroy it. Got all that? Good, because it’s back story that comes up about halfway through the first game, and I’m trying to make this a bit less convoluted.

Aya's little black dress for her date.

Aya’s little black dress for her date.

Fast forward to Christmas Eve, 1997. Police detective Aya Brea has the night off and has chosen to go on a date to the opera, but something happens when the lead of the show begins singing: everyone in the audience except Aya (and her date) begins to spontaneously combust. Aya, being a cop, has her firearm with her (it’s a legal requirement for cops in the US to have their weapons on hand at all times), and draws it on the suspect. When her date starts wetting himself in fear (ok, he’s not really peeing his pants that we know of, but he’s clearly terrified), she shoulder checks him and orders him to run. Seriously, go watch the full opera scene here and check it out. Aya proceeds to go chasing after the suspect, deeper into the theater and even into the sewers, all while still wearing her little black dress.

Remember how last week I mentioned that most female characters in games end up being either extremely stereotypical girly girls or go the opposite extreme and are basically Marcus Fenix with boobs? Aya is very clearly a character in between these extremes. Yes, she’s a brave badass, because that’s her job, but she’s still not afraid to dress up and be ladylike when the opportunity presents itself. This first night is the only time we see her in the dress, but it speaks volumes about her as a character that we get to see that at all. The rest of the game, she dresses in more sensible attire, her “plain clothes” detective outfit: jeans, t-shirt, and leather jacket. And while she is a tough as nails hardass when the time comes, she’s still got that sensitive inner side that makes a good character. She has emotional struggles, which we see over the course of the game.

Aya for the rest of the first game.

Aya for the rest of the first game.

See, remember how I mentioned that the mitochondria in a certain individual awoke and went on a rampage back in the original book/movie? Well, the same thing happened here. However, the kicker is that while the mitochondria within the opera singer are the ones that awakened, they weren’t mitochondria originally from her body, but from an implanted organ. When Aya was just a little girl, her mother and sister (it’s never implicitly stated that her sister is her identical twin, but it’s pretty clear they were twins) were killed in a car accident. Both were donors, and so one of her sister’s kidneys was implanted in another little girl (the future opera singer), and her cornea was implanted in Aya to correct a defect in her eye that she was born with. These awakened mitochondria, now in separate environments, evolved along different paths. With the opera singer, they followed the same original path of conquest and destruction, while the ones within Aya developed a beneficial symbiosis, protecting Aya from the other girl (now calling herself Eve), as well as giving her special powers.

That little fact about Aya getting the transplant though doesn’t come up until the endgame. Throughout the course of the game, Aya is wondering why it is that only she is immune to Eve’s attacks, and why Eve keeps telling her that her mitochondria will soon awaken and join her in rebelling against the humans. We see Aya having a breakdown during the episode, wondering if and when she will become a monster like Eve, and even pushing away her friends to protect them. However, her friends see through this and won’t let themselves be pushed away, helping her cope enough that she can pick herself back up (without them being stereotypical and slapping her around or arguing with her) and keep going. It reaches the point that she finds the strength within herself to confront Eve directly, even when her friends try to stop her in order to protect her. In the secret ending only available in a second playthrough, it’s discovered that the scientist behind this newest version of Eve didn’t just stop at the implants and things he was uncovered with doing in the first playthrough, but that he actually cultivated liver cells from Aya’s sister and essentially cloned her body (5 years old and all), which has been completely taken over by the true Eve, rather than the inferior offshoot that has taken over the opera singer. Aya and Eve fight, and when it looks like this true Eve is about to take control of Aya’s mitochondria anyway, her sister steps in and stops her, also taking away Aya’s powers for a time.

Aya during the second game.

Aya during the second game.

Which leads us to the second game. This game takes place about three years later, when Aya is about to turn 28, has left the force, and has joined up with a special FBI task force dedicated to wiping out the mitochondrial mutated creatures (called NMCs for short) that came about during Eve’s rampage in New York. Aya is now in LA, and an incident at a local shopping mall/skyscraper/outdoor restaurant building called the Akropolis Tower leads her to investigate a new breed of NMCs that can morph between their mutated appearance and looking properly human. The investigation leads her to a small desert town in the Mojave which is under military quarantine, but because of her special mitochondria, she’s immune to what’s happening there. The game keeps a lot of what we love about the character, but begins making some of the downward changes. She still dresses practically, as can be seen with the image to the right (though shorts would be better than a skirt), but there’s little things, contradictions that come up, that begin to show the cracks in this case. All of these cracks point to one thing: Aya’s become a girly girl whose first concern is her appearance.

For one, during the opening cinematic/back story for the game, when Aya is telling us about the NMCs and how they’ve escaped to the west and spread, she mentions one little fact: they’re all carnivorous with massive appetites because of the sheer amount of energy their mutated mitochondria demand, giving them extreme metabolisms. Later on, when in the small desert town, if you take the time to check everything within the gas station/general store, you get some remarks about the junk food aisle. Specifically, Aya goes on about how “I would never eat any of this.” Yet her mitochondria are also awakened, and considering she has the ability to generate fire and electricity because of it, she’s got the same kind of increased metabolism as the NMCs, so she could literally eat all the junk food she wanted and never gain any weight. A second point that comes up, not by her choice but something she discusses, is that her mitochondria keep her looking like she’s in her early 20s, and even raises the question of if she’s effectively immortal in regards to remaining healthy and young always. Sure, she can die from external causes, like blunt force, weapons, etc. but theoretically she could live forever if she avoided danger. This plays into the societal demands that women always look young, and while it’s a pity that the developers went this route with her, at least Aya is still enough of herself that she’s able to say “I don’t want that. I only want one, normal lifetime.”

Other than these couple “oh, looks are everything” cues though, the game is still good, if not staying completely true to its roots. The first game played out like an RPG with some heavy survival horror themes behind it. The sequel plays out like a complete and utter Resident Evil clone, tank controls and all. Basically, it stops being survival horror and becomes action with monsters. But it does maintain one root though: cloning of awakened mitochondrial DNA. The investigation found a new breed of artificially created NMCs using Aya’s DNA, and these ANMCs are controlled by a clone of Aya (who appears to be about 10 years old, despite the fact that she can’t even be three years old fully, as Aya’s mitochondria awoke in December 1997, and this is September 2000). This clone is named Eve, and at the end of the game, Aya adopts Eve as a little sister, helping to raise her.

Aya's default outfit in The 3rd Birthday.

Aya’s default outfit in The 3rd Birthday.

I mention that last little bit because it becomes important for the third game. See, while we think we’re playing Aya throughout the course of the third game, it’s actually Eve in Aya’s body. On Christmas Eve, 2010, Aya was getting ready to marry Kyle (a guy who she worked with back in the second game), when a bunch of SWAT officers busted in and shot up everyone in the church. Eve, trying to reach out to Aya, ends up taking over Aya’s body, shattering her soul which creates a new form of monsters, and Eve without any memories. Keep in mind that this is 10 years after the end of the last game, yet neither character has aged a day, as can be seen here. At this point, Aya is 38 and Eve is about 10-12. However, most of the game takes place even further in the future, with Eve (in Aya’s body and thinking that she is Aya) using her powers to travel back in time from 2013 to try and change the past and put an end to these monster attacks. So at this point, Aya’s body is 41 years old, and as you can see from the pic to the left, still not aging. But as can be seen from the picture I just linked, even Eve’s body hasn’t aged, having been grown rapidly to the age of about 10-12 biologically, as seen here.

Ok, so aside from the not aging thing, what else is done wrong here to ruin Aya? Well, a recurring issue that we see in a lot of female protagonist titles is playing dress up. Final Fantasy X-2 caught a lot of flack over the whole class system being a series of “dress-spheres” for the girls to use, and more recently with the Assassin’s Creed series, our one and only playable female assassin, Aveline, is distinguished from the others by the use of a “persona system,” namely that she dresses up or dresses down. I personally think the way it’s implemented is a cool system and makes sense for the series, but then go on ahead to the sequels, and you lose that. Sure, you get color customization and outfit customization as with all of the assassins, but none of the guys before or since had an entire mechanic built around dressing a certain way: those aspects are just there for appearance’s sake, personal preference. And 3rd Birthday gets in on the cheesecake dress up as a mechanic as well. See, in the previous titles, Aya could get different armor, but it never changed her overall appearance: it was body armor that could be worn under clothes. But in 3rd Birthday, her armors are themselves a series of outfits, most of which are pandering to the male gaze. Just look at her default outfit above for one example, but the unlockable ones take it extremes. You have the maid uniform, the swim suit, the bunny suit, and even the Santa suit, just to name a few.

To really hammer home that this is about male gaze, each outfit has differing layers of protection and speed modifiers, as well as durability. Yes, durability: not just how much it protects the character, but how much damage it can take before shredding and coming off. See, in this game, your outfit actually takes battle damage, which in many games can be done well, but here it isn’t. The Arkham series shows Batman’s armor taking more and more damage over the course of the night, with more scratches and dents appearing, while he builds up a five-o-clock shadow. The newest Tomb Raider sees Lara getting battered and bruised and having small tears appearing in her clothing as the game progresses. Here, that doesn’t happen. Instead, what we get is regenerating health, so you can go an entire level without dying, but the more you get hit, the more damage your outfit takes, and the less it covers. Take for example her default outfit shown above: after enough hits, it begins to look like this and this, and you have to spend bounty points (in-game currency) to repair it during checkpoints. Also, notice how in that second picture she’s standing in the locker room near the showers? That’s because this game added in cheesecake and completely unnecessary shower scenes. They could have had these scenes be points where Eve/Aya is talking to herself in the shower, trying to work out her memory issues, nightmares, etc. as a means of story and character development, but instead it’s just slow camera shots following every inch of her body, all for the male gaze. I won’t link one here, you can find it for yourself if you really want to, but you get the idea.

Promotional material for The 3rd Birthday.

Promotional material for The 3rd Birthday.

Finally, we’re brought back to the marketing aspect. See, the issue of marketing departments ruining games is going to come up time and again through this series, and I think Bryan Smith did a pretty good job discussing it to some extent last month in this article, but let’s cover a few specific points, some he raises and others he doesn’t. The picture you can see to the right is an example of the promotional material for 3rd Birthday, and it completely sexualizes a character who is effectively a child in a grown woman’s body. Sure, that’s a 38-41 year old body (that looks to be in the early 20s), but the mind within it is a 10-12 year old girl. Second, even if this were Aya rather than Eve in that body, this is not the Aya we’ve come to know and love. The Aya we knew and loved was sexy, yes, but not a sex object. More importantly, she was a kind, compassionate, but tough as nails cop who got thrown in way over her head into extreme circumstances. When she got attacked, she’d grunt in response to the pain, doing her best not to let it show as weakness, but still acknowledging it. What we get in 3rd Birthday is a whiny teenage girl who whimpers at any pain received.

In fact, the sexualization and core personality changes of the character resulted in the game not being able to carry the Parasite Eve name. See, it’s not Square who owns the rights to the name, but the author of the original book, Hideaki Sena. Sena gave the green light for the first game as a sequel to the book because it kept with a lot of the same themes. He even went along with the second game because it kept the whole concept of evolving mitochondria going. The 3rd Birthday can’t even claim to have that. The new monsters are called Twisted, and they came about because of the whole Eve taking over Aya’s body and shattering Aya’s soul thing. So we’re left with characters who have the same names, same history, etc. as the cast of the Parasite Eve games, but these characters are so divorced from the actual characters they’re supposed to be that Sena refused to let them use the title. Hence we get the title 3rd Birthday, a reference to the fact that this is the game starting on Christmas Eve 2013 is a 3rd birthday for the new Eve/Aya hybrid.

So what are the main points for today? First, games need to quit pandering to the societal ideal that women always look like we’re young and in our early 20s. Second, games need to seriously ditch the whole dress up as a system mechanic for female characters (and only female characters). Let’s look at the two non-PE examples I gave above. Final Fantasy as a series has often had the whole class changing system as a mechanic within the games, in some games even allowing it during combat, so that isn’t a problem with FFX-2. The problem is the way they address it as dress-up, literally calling the classes (or rather the grids you use for changing classes on) “dress-spheres.” Likewise, the concept of having multiple aliases works wonders for an assassin, so why is Aveline the only one who has it as a mechanic? The other assassins just throw on a disguise as part of a mission when it comes up, whereas Aveline’s comes with a whole series of mechanics (how the various personae gain and lose notoriety, what weapons they can use, even movement restrictions). I would love to see a re-make of the Ezio saga where he has a mission where he needs to pretend to be a noble, and thus eschews his robes for more appropriate garb, and thus can only use a few restricted weapons, like his hidden blades and wrist pistol. These concepts of femininity and beauty need to stop being core mechanics and story points for female characters. Let our characters be sexy without drawing attention to it!

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7 responses to “Looks Are Everything… When It Comes to Girls in Games

    • Yes? Is that a remark about the issues I raise, or the manner in which I raise them? Or the fact that I raise them at all? That’s kind of left ambiguous when you just leave it off with a statement that is usually used as the beginning of some kind of criticism.

      • Yeah, well, it was that or something along the lines of “clothes make the woman,” because the whole argument I’m making here is the issue of how women are judged based on our appearance, and how this permeates female protagonists in gaming, all the way down to the mechanics.

  1. I always found Elena from the Uncharted series attractive, and not just for aesthetic merit. She was strong willed, competent in battle, intelligent, she could be vulnerable without it feeling like it was because she was an hysterical female and perfect foil to Drakes impetuous predilections. She didn’t simply scream and holler when in peril, but used her wits and bravery to overcome adversity, with only a mere suggestion of more conventional “sex appeal” that was far more subversive.

    • Exactly, as Lara Croft has been within her games. Her more overt sex appeal all comes from non-game sources, such as advertising and fan-works. Other great characters who do this are the aforementioned Aveline from AC: Liberation, Aya from the first two games (she flirts and jokes around with the guys around her when appropriate, but is still focused on the investigation/mission), Jade from Beyond Good & Evil, etc. The issue isn’t about a female character being sexy: sexy is a state of mind, and athletic women (which female protagonists will generally be) will usually be physically attractive as well.

      The issue I’m raising is the sexualization that comes from the developers and fans. In last week’s post, it was about Lara’s being turned into a sex symbol by the developers, and others making a big deal about her breasts, which honestly aren’t THAT big. Today’s is about the issue of making dressing up a core mechanic to games with female protagonists, and the social cues we constantly get that encourage things like eating disorders. A character with a hyper metabolism wouldn’t complain that junk food would make her fat, she’d eat it because she needs the carbs and calories, though maybe complaining about the taste or quality (e.g. “These chips all look stale, no way am I eating that,” as opposed to “look at all this junk food, which I never eat”) could be a way of describing their character.

      • Almost forgot about Beyond Good And Evil. I think there are Inherent problems in gaming; whether it’s the overt masculinity, the reduction of a females attire or the diminishment of morality. Things may not be perfect, and considering the sterility of other mediums I think games, and the portrayal of woman has improved. It’s still and industry I want to be involved with.

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