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The protagonist problem…

An opinion piece...

It’s 2020. A hundred years ago the US went through prohibition. It changed the world for good because of booze going underground, the fairer gender was allowed not only to drink but also interact with the opposite gender in the same establishment. This changed everything for the future. Gender was made equal so the speakeasy could double their profit to chase the loss due to the law. So why am I bringing this up? Well a hundred years on there is pressure from the media being put on game studios to have a female only protagonist for Ubisoft’s latest edition of Assassin’s Creed series: Assassin’s Creed Ragnarok.

Throughout the 21st century there have been many female game main protagonists; Samus, Lara Croft, Joanna Dark, Aloy, Nariko, Bayonetta, Sarah Kerrigan, Senua, Ellie, Ciri, 2B, Jesse Faden… the list goes on and on just to name a few. However in the bigger western studios in the last ten years, have been breaching the gap to female gamers with a larger number of female playable characters, unlike the eastern studios that has had many to choose from for years.

Celebrated female video game protagonists

Coming from Forbes magazine, an opinion piece[1] demands a solely female protagonist to use after years of male leads or in the latter few instalments a cross play or other option to choose from. The only problem with this piece is that there has been other lead female protagonists in the Assassin’s Creed series starting with Assassin’s Creed 3: Liberation in the form of Aveline de Grandpré and again as Shao Jun in Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China. You can say that these are support characters for DLC but they should be a part of this article. Assassin’s Creed Syndicate switched out the male and female protagonist to progress through the game. However in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey you could choose either male or female protagonist.

Thanks to the History Channel’s Vikings and the Marvel Cinematic Universe Thor Ragnarok, the interest in the Norse culture especially the shield maiden has piqued the interest of the masses. Queen Lagertha especially brings forward the strong independent woman as do the other warrior women and Valkyrie.

Concept art of Assassin's Creed Ragnarok

Forcing a studio to have only a female playable character is not the way to approach the gender equality issue in videogames. It is well known that there is a very large number of female gamers with more and more joining each year. Female characters have been in videogames nearly from the start, usually as NPCs or the objective, following the norm of the previous generations hero for the damsel in distress trope. You can argue the first memorable female playable characters were from fighting games like Chun-Li and Sonya Blade of Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat.

From the fifth generation console days, PlayStation had Tomb Raider being the first female character crush of many males and the baddest babe on the block for many females to look up to. Nintendo 64 followed suit with Perfect Dark five years later and competing with a sixth Tomb Raider that was now no longer an exclusive title. These games are loved by both female and male players and are celebrated, but it all came down to one thing: no one forced the player in buying the game to play as a female lead character.

Lara Croft and Joanna Dark

How to fix this issue is to have the choice, wether purchasing the game let alone playing it. Many roleplaying games give the option of being male or female, changing age and appearance, each with benefits and disadvantages like in the real world. As an example, the Fallout series has the lady killer/black widow perk that if selected adds extra dialogue options that circumvent standard speech checks to move forward in quest plot lines. A whole slew of battle royale games offer the selection of female characters that can be customised. Rainbow 6 Siege has operatives that have unique skills that can cancel out those of male operatives and vice versa. The reimagined world of World War 2, Battlefield 5 has introduced female characters after the backlash faced during the World War One Battlefield 1 conundrum. Call of Duty too has introduced female characters to use and play as in campaign and multiplayer.

Ubisoft is know for not following the rules as they have “thrown away the book” with the best example being Far Cry 5 and New Dawn. No studio in their right mind would throw a sherif into the middle of America’s heartland of Montana to take on a Christian based cult. However you could choose your character gender and race. Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Wildlands and Breakpoint also let you choose gender and race to some extent. Then there is South Park: Fractured but Whole, where your character race and gender selection rapidly increased your difficulty.

South Park: Fractured but Whole character difficulty selection screen

Unless there is only one protagonist in the game that is crucial to the story, the forced character approach is steadily declining in the latest generation of games being released. Gamers just want to be entertained by having fun and escape reality for a short time so they can be the hero or the villain, a man or a woman. You can’t please everyone, but you can be entertained. Just let us play.


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