The Unfairly Treated Sex: Four Reasons Girlfriend Characters In Video Games Go Wrong

Senior Contributor
01.16.13 25 Comments

Pictured: How way too many games view women.

Girlfriends, it must be said, do not have a great history in gaming. Princesses Peach and Daisy were silent abduction victims for years, but at least they had an excuse in that voice acting didn’t exist in video games. Now it does, yet still, if your character has a girlfriend, she’s unlikely to be that engaging a character.

Here are four reasons girlfriends in video games go wrong.

They’re Forced Into The Plot

In real life, no video game protagonist would have a significant other, because they’re insane. They’re never home, they’re too wrapped up in their own lives, they show up at the house packing heat and injured all the time and they spend their money on armor and ammo, not dinner and a movie. In addition, they’re often grim, self-serious people with no obvious hobbies and a tendency to solve their problems with violence. This is before any revelation that they’re tormented by superpowers, or a secret conspiracy, or an alien living inside them.

In a way, a game like Sleeping Dogs is more realistic about relationships than most video games, because Wei Shen has a bunch of hook-ups that he never calls, and ultimately one of the women he treats like this calls him out for his douchebag behavior and is played sympathetically.

It’s a bit sad that this passes for decent writing about relationships in video games in the twenty-first century.

It’s Difficult To Write A Realistic Relationship In A Game In The First Place

Girlfriends in video games start out at an inherent disadvantage beyond a douchebag boyfriend, which is that they’re an NPC. NPCs are essentially vending machines: Gimme items, gimme a quest, gimme a cutscene to move the plot. There’s no character development, because it’s not needed.

It’s difficult to write a relationship that’s remotely realistic in that context, so most games don’t even try. Even Mass Effect, where you can build a relationship, or at least score, female playable characters have to deal with this:

Way Too Often She Exists To Be A Quest Object

Granted video games are far from the only medium that abuse this trope, but it’s particularly gratuitous in gaming. There are a lot of games where rescuing your girlfriend frankly isn’t interesting because you don’t know anything about her. Apparently “pretty” and “willing to have sex with you” is the extent of character traits needed, in some games.

Braid, despite being incredibly pretentious, does deserve credit for pointing out just how creepy this actually is. The punchline of the game’s final level is obvious if you’re paying attention, but it does at least make sense.

Writers Fall Into Making Her The Character Who Tells You Not To Play The Game

It’s a common trope in all modern fiction that women are “the voice of reason”. This is problematic for many reasons in its own right, but in video games, it often turns your character’s girlfriend into somebody telling you to not play the game, because in the real world, not doing what the game wants you to do is, well, actually smart.

There is no better example of the concept than Liza in Far Cry 3. Ironically part of this is the fact that the game’s writing staff did their job. Liza is a Hollywood actress completely out of her depth, so a lot of what she’s spouting to her boyfriend is psychobabble she herself doesn’t completely understand. She is at least trying to help, and does notice Jason’s increasingly unhinged emotional state, unlike the rest of his friends.

On the other hand, her whining about how Jason is becoming distant and doesn’t want to talk about his feelings but instead go off and, uh, save everybody does seem incredibly crappy and self-centered, in the context of the game.

Granted, in reality, going out and killing pirates, finding relics, and stabbing animals should really take a back seat to, uh, finding some boat parts. But we’re not in reality, thankfully. We don’t need to worry about reality. That’s the entire point. In fact, staying in the cave and chatting with your girlfriend isn’t a meaningful gameplay option, anyway, so what are you supposed to do? Just stand there for a while, then go on a mission?

The net result is a character you don’t like.

These problems can be fixed simply: By making her playable. Resident Evil 4‘s Ashley, for example, is really only annoying until you take control of her for a mission, and realize that she has no training in firearms, no idea what’s going on, and very little way to defend herself. Granted that this is not exactly a sterling display of feminism, nor is she Leon’s girlfriend, but at the very least it helps you understand where she’s coming from in the story.

Or, you know, you could acknowledge that a guy whose only modes of emotional communication are screaming and small arms fire probably would not be in a relationship. But that doesn’t seem likely to happen any time soon.

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