I spent this weekend playing Super Metroid, start to finish. I thought the ending was a bit weak, but I loved the puzzles with foam and the grenades.
Psyche! Metroid doesn’t have foam and grenades. But you knew that. What does have foam and grenades is Shadow Complex, which is basically Metroid in 2.5D with some nice water effects, courtesy of the Unreal Engine. But you knew that too, probably cos you spent the past weekends playing it as well.
I should stress that I’m not saying Shadow Complex is just 2.5D Metroid to belittle it. Metroid is a member of that very small cadre of games which are damn near perfect, and finding a smart, innovative way to update it is a substantial game design accomplishment. I may not quite have bought into Shadow Complex‘s fiction, and I may have had issues with some of its platforming, but shooting people was bloody satisfying, the sense of exploration and mastery was well conveyed and the bosses were sensibly designed. First game this year I’ve dedicated a weekend to, start to finish.
Finishing it – or rather, ‘finishing’ it (I’m a long way off finding all the keycards, let alone tracking all the bullion and every upgrade) – made me want to go back to Metroid. To talk about how emotional just a corner of the map makes me. To rave about the brilliance of the sound design. To preach about the strength of games whose environments form one interlinked whole, rather than a random scattering of different zones. To my enormous surprise, however, I’m not going to talk about any of those things.
That’s because I’m writing this fresh from being a panelist at a Girl Geek dinner – the kind of thing I never usually go to, because I’m profoundly uncomfortable being a spokesperson for 51% of the world’s population. I feel like a know a fair bit about being a geek, but much less about being female. How can I be sure that my experiences are remotely reflective of the experiences of a gazillion other women with different lives and different priorities and different interests?
Tonight, though – having met a bunch of smart ladies whose work as database programmers or game designers or technology PRs was often inspired by an early love of games – I’m acutely conscious of the fact that a component of my love for Metroid is the fact that it stars a woman. Samus maybe suited and fetishised, divorced from any of the sociological or biological trappings of womanhood, but at least she’s actually a lady.
The more time I spend around gaming, the more appreciative I get of Samus. I think of her when I remember the time we got back from E3 and, after comparing notes, realised that between the three of us we’d seen a total of two games which starred women, one of which was Okami, whose star Amaterasu is technically a wolf, which kind of spoils the point.
I think of her when I notice that the story for one of my current projects has come back out of rewrites with every single female character inadvertently written out.
I think of her when I’m playing Shadow Complex, whose supposedly badass love interest does nothing more dynamic than get kidnapped over and over and then allude to sexual favours at the end.
I don’t need games to have more female characters because I need to see myself reflected in them to enjoy them. One of the reasons I love games is because I get to be someone else. I feel very strongly that the ten-foot cow-man I get to be in World of Warcraft is as accurate an extension of my inner personality as any realistic avatar I’ve ever fretted over. And I don’t need games to have more female characters because it’s unjust or unfair if they don’t. Games ought to be defining their own realities and making their own rules.
Ultimately, though, I need games to have a few more girls in them because it’s just downright *weird* that they don’t. Girls are pretty much an epidemic. We get everywhere. We do all kinds of stuff. There really are an awful lot of us around. That we still run out of entries for the Great Gaming Leading Lady Pantheon before we run out of fingers – Samus, Lara, Jade, Faith, Nariko, April, Yuna, the chick from Urban Chaos… – is just plain odd.
I don’t want positive discrimination in games. I don’t even really want the Deus Ex 2/Mass Effect/Fable 2 cop-out, where you can play in a boy-skin or a girl-skin without it really having any meaningful effect. I would like – along with more games with map-dependent, unified levels with awesome sound design – more games starring ladies just for the sheer thrill of variety.
A bit of a change from a stubbly, muscly, probably Nolan-Northily voiced every-hero who is currently everywhere I turn. It might attract more women into game dev. It might increase the sales of AAA titles and hardware. It even might help games get taken more seriously by mainstream media and cultural commentators. Much more importantly, though, it might help make sure I don’t get invited to anymore ‘Geek Girl’ dinners, a splendid evening though it was.
One of the great things about ‘geek’ is that it’s a gender neutral term. The price of entry is knowledge and enthusiasm, and anyone who can pay is welcome – regardless of sex, age, race, sexuality, religion, political affiliation or haircut. It’s one of the things I love most about this industry, and one of the things that frustrates me most about the products that represent it. We’re a diverse, welcoming and non-judgmental bunch, in my experience, but our games make us look like an outreach programme for the Ayran Nation.
Direct distribution and the wide variety of business models now open to us now makes developing commercial games for niche and minority audiences more viable than ever before. Are we really saying that we can’t find a viable way to make games that turn 51% of the world’s population into heroes a goer? Samus wouldn’t stand for that.
[Margaret Robertson is the former editor of Edge magazine and now videogame consultant. One More Go is her regular Offworld column in which she explores the attractions of the games she just can't stop going back to.]
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