Anita Sarkeesian’s Idea of a Positive Female Video Game Character Is . . .

It’s an 8-bit character. I was going to add a drum roll, but no. It’s an 8-bit character.

Here’s the handy summary in the video description of Sarkeesian’s latest Feminist Frequency video “The Scythian – Positive Female Characters in Video Games.”

In the debut episode of our series on Positive Female Characters, we celebrate the Scythian, the protagonist of Capybara Games’ 2011 release Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP. This episode examines how Sword & Sworcery employs widely recognizable action adventure game tropes to make the Scythian’s quest feel like the stuff of video game legend, and how in doing so, it asserts that women can fill the role of the mythic hero as effectively as men can.

Let’s see about that by actually watching the video, shall we?

In the beginning of the video, Anita mentions that this is the debut of her series on Positive Female Characters, which is amazing. Totally ignoring the fact that she has the budget larger than that of most start-up projects (was egregiously over-funded by Kickstarter, actually) and yet hasn’t done even half of the promised videos after three years, the fact that she’s bypassing all those fun videos planned out talking about how “games suck because sexism” in order to talk about something *gasp* positive is a shock to me. And then I saw that this video was less than ten minutes why and I understood the motivation better.

So what makes the nameless protagonist of Sword & Sworcery so great? The character is only called “the Scythian,” which is fine by me, but I recall Anita, in her “Women as Background” video, talking about how females characters often aren’t even given names, and that’s dehumanizing and sexist. I’ll ignore that, though. I’m just going to appreciate that Anita is finally doing something besides complaining.

By drawing on familiar gaming icons and conventions that many of us already associate with legendary quests and timeless adventures, Sword & Sworcery quietly asserts that women can fill the role of the mythic hero as effectively as men can.

What about Laura Croft? Her games are nothing but one huge homage to Indiana Jones-style adventure quests that date back far past that series even though it was the one that popularized those tropes. So that game series using “icons and conventions that many of us already associate with legendary quests” and also has a universally-acknowledged-to-be-a-badass and icon action hero female protagonist whose status as a woman is rarely commented on, let alone important in any way. And yet Anita Sarkeesian has made it very clear that she doesn’t like Laura Croft and would most likely refer to her as one of those “Fucktoy Warriors”, because Croft has an attractive character model, which invalidates all the other elements of her character in one fell swoop, I guess.

And the game tells a traditional yet emotionally resonant story, proving that you don’t need technically impressive graphics to create a world worth exploring and a tale worth telling.

This is a small point, but is it “emotionally resonant” because no female characters die and have a male character be sad about it afterwards. Something that made me legitimately mad about one of her previous videos was Anita saying that a male character grieving over and being affected by a female character’s death is only there “to provide something that is supposed to resemble character development.” Because when character development/story progression is prompted by a female character’s death, that doesn’t count. So, yeah. Do you remember the God of War: Ascension trailer where the main character’s family members literally turn to ashes in front of him and he collapses, weeping on the ground? Or how about the Dead Island trailer where a little girl dies despite her father trying to protect her? That was just a whole bunch of fake emotion that the game makers put in there to trick you into feeling sad by killing off some worthless women. This game, though–this game is emotionally resonant.

In fact, the level of detail is so low on our pixelated protagonist, and our tendency to assume that heroes are male by default is so widely reinforced, that some players have made the mistake of assuming the Scythian is male, at least initially.

What? Just . . . what. The female protagonist is great because she’s a female protagonist. That’s it. You can’t even really tell she’s a girl, but it’s still great. Also, I don’t know why assuming a character is a certain gender before figuring out otherwise is a bad thing. Everyone assumed the main character of Slender was a woman even though there wasn’t much to go on there, for example. I’m sure for the podcast Nightvale, people assumed that Cecil was straight before evidence was given otherwise. Is that bad because you should just not assume anything ever, even about a fictional character? I assumed that the main character had brown hair–what blonde hair not good enough for you?! There is a “normal” in the sense that there is a bell-curve and the majority of people are going to be in the middle of it. It’s safe to assume that someone falls within the middle of the bell-curve if you have nothing else to work with. It should not surprise you or make you angry if they turn out to be on the ends, but it’s not any kind of ____-ist to assume that someone is what most other people are. Most people are straight. Most soldiers/fighters are men. Using human short-cuts in rationality to assume that most people you meet are going to fall within the norm is not bad by default.

Thankfully, the game doesn’t resort to clear gendered signifiers like a pink outfit or a pretty bow in her hair, nor does it present her gender as some kind of surprise twist like we see in the original Metroid. In both visual design and writing, Sword & Sworcery is subtle about asserting the Scythian’s gender, though once you acquire the Megatome at the end of the game’s first episode, you’re presented with the thoughts of other characters, who refer to the Scythian using female pronouns.

No, but it does seem to have the gender-signifier of long hair. Once again, that might just be me misinterpreting the simple design, but that line at the head looks like a ponytail, at least to me. So if something can be seen as a gender signifier sometimes to some people, does that still make it a gender signifier? Or is it all up to what the creator’s intended for it to be? If I’ve learned anything from going to lib arts college and watching Feminist Frequency, it’s that the intention of the creator means nothing if someone else thinks something about it. So I think that that is a ponytail. Gender signifier. Also, that character could be a fucking genderless alien and it wouldn’t make any difference. It the character is consistently mistaken as male, how is this not just another example of it being the dreaded “Man with Boobs” that Anita accuses other action/adventure female characters of being? Because they refer to her as a “she?” If a “Man with Boobs” is a female character whose status as a woman is irrelevant to the point where she might as well just be a guy and it wouldn’t matter, I don’t see how this is any different. It’s already been shown that it takes a lot for people to identify with the player character of a game because they just see the character as them and not an independent entity anyway, no matter what the character looks like.

We know very little about her history, and nothing about why she has undertaken the quest to defeat an ancient evil. While games often give us images of heroes who are fated to defeat evil forces, it’s rare for these heroes of myth to be women. Like many video game heroes, the Scythian is essentially a silent protagonist, a figure defined primarily by her actions, which makes her a blank slate for all players to project themselves onto.

So the Scythian is a good character, wait no, a good female character because she’s a total non-character. But she’s a non-character who people refer to as a girl, so it’s GREAT. What? Just, what?

Anita spent the entire “Women as Background” video complaining about how female NPCs aren’t given characters and backgrounds because they’re just props, but when the fucking main character might as well be a black hole devoid of any defining traits that’s a good female character? So we don’t know anything about her, even her name, we don’t know her history, and we don’t even know her basic motivation for starting the entire game. Well, I guess having no basic motivation at all is better than having the clear motivation of saving someone with tits and a vagina. Using that trope to provide a relate able, easy-to-establish-quickly motivation for your platformer game is bad, lazy story telling that disrespects the characters and the audience. But not giving them anything even resembling a reason to be doing what they’re doing is perfectly fine. That is a-okay. Brilliant, emotionally resonant story telling that’s not lazy in the slightest.

The Scythian is essentially a silent protagonist, a figure defined primarily by her actions, which makes her a blank slate for all players to project themselves onto.

This character being a silent protagonist is brilliant. It’s so great that it’s Feminist Frequency approved. Once again, Anita has stated in another video that having a female Silent Protagonist doesn’t count as a strong female character because she might as well just be a “Man with Boobs.” Great consistency there, Anita. She’s a good character because she’s a bland, blank slate that we know nothing about and can project our own motivations and personality onto as she does awesome things that we wish we could do? That’s a Mary Sue! Your Strong Female Character is the bane of every writer’s existence. One of the main criticisms of Silent Protagonists is that they’re too bland and their contribution to the story, especially if it involves associating with other characters, makes no sense because they’re not a person. They’re just a silent meat suit that the player controls who you have no idea how any of the other characters can even begin to talk to. Sometimes they make the SP a funny trope by calling attention to the blandness and actively wondering about it like in the Portal games, but having a blank-slate character is generally not considered a good thing. It seems especially egregious here seeing as how we don’t even have a basic motivation to latch onto to ascribe the character something resembling a set of character traits. Mario doesn’t talk, but people know he cares deeply for the Mushroom Kingdom and is loyal to Princess Peach because his motivation is protecting those things against all reason, repeatedly. We know silent Alpha from Bioshock 2 loves his “daughter” because his motivation is finding a way to get her back. What can you say about the Scythian besides . . . she’s brave, I guess?

But while we don’t actually hear her speak to other characters, a bit of the Scythian’s personality does come through as her thoughts serve as a kind of narration for the story. Her quest is referred to as a “woeful errand” from very early on, an important bit of foreshadowing that communicates that her task is not a happy one, but the grim nature of her errand doesn’t overshadow the Scythian’s spirit or the tone of the game itself. The character’s quirky, often humorous thoughts, along with the sense of wonder in the world, make this journey magical, delightful and melancholy all at once.

Okay, there you go. She’s Bella Swan. She doesn’t talk and is a total blank slate of a character; but she’s sad all the time, vaguely important for no defined reason, and has quirky ideas about things that some people might find unorthodox. She is Bella Swan. I also recall that Anita hates Bella Swan for being too bland of a character.

Sword & Sworcery is broken up into a series of short sessions, most of which focus on the Scythian acquiring pieces of the Trigon. There are some simple timing-based combat encounters, but the majority of time is spent exploring the world and solving simple puzzles that require players to pay attention to environmental details like trees, birds, and reflections in the surface of a pond. The game is primarily concerned not with combat and killing but with the natural beauty of the world the Scythian is trying to protect. Using the mysterious power of the Song of Sworcery, players sometimes manipulate the environment in some really surprising ways, creating the feeling that this is a magical world where just about anything can happen.

Something tells me that Anita just doesn’t like games with action or violence. The majority of her few game recommendations have been oftentimes 8-bit, puzzle-centric, navigate-you-character-around-and-click-things-to-read-stuff games that focus more on the look of things and creating a mood than on creating dynamic actions on screen. And that’s fine. I like those kinds of games too. This is the woman who said, “I don’t play video games that much. I would love to play video games, but I don’t feel like shooting people because that’s gross” (this is also the person who presents herself as someone with in-depth knowledge of all the games she plays, by the way). Isn’t it funny that Anita likes the genre of games that’s marketed toward’s women and/or a gender neutral fanbase more than the games like Hitman that aren’t marketed to her demographic? You could even say they weren’t made for people with her taste, and that’s why she doesn’t like them. But no, there’s something objectively wrong with all those “gross” violent games. It’s not just that she personally doesn’t find them entertaining and has a border-line hipster love for indie games “with good stories.” Because whenever those violent, sexist games that guys play try to have stories, it’s really just a trick and it’s not a “real” story with emotion.

Most video game heroes become more powerful as their quest progresses. This is one way in which Sword & Sworcery subverts expected gaming tropes. There’s nothing in it for the Scythian. She doesn’t gain more health or better gear over the course of the game. In fact, the quest takes a toll on her; she starts the game with five units of health but loses one each time she wins a boss fight, decreasing her overall maximum health as her adventure progresses. This game is not about leveling up or becoming more powerful. And Sword & Sworcery ends with the Scythian doing something Link never has. To rid the world of an ancient evil, the brave hero sacrifices herself.

Three words. Male Captain Shepard. Four more words. Booker from Bioshock Infinite.

Dead Space. 9 Hours 9 Persons 9 Doors. Resident Evil. Final Fantasy (lots of them). Amnesia. Metroid Prime is one of the most famous examples. Hell, Mario does this is Super Mario Galaxy.

Also, Link didn’t sacrifice himself for the greater good, but guess who has? Midna, a female character from that series, as well as the King of Hyrule.

Characters do heroic sacrifices all the time. All of the time. Both male and female characters. This game is not special in that regard.

Unlike the deaths of so many female characters in games which serve the purpose of fueling the development of male characters, the Scythian’s death is tragic because her life had intrinsic value. We projected ourselves onto her and experienced the world through her. In the game’s final moments, we see the people of the region pay their respects to the Scythian, and we mourn her death along with them. She didn’t just exist in relation to another character—she wasn’t just somebody’s wife or sister or daughter–but rather, she existed as an individual, and as a hero. The game’s ending suggests that the Scythian will not be forgotten by the other characters, and the visuals and music work together to elicit a complex assortment of emotions, a sense of celebration of the Scythian’s courage, and a sense of grief at her death.

Here we go again–“People caring that you died, means that you’re not a person!” Never mind the fact that many a damsel in distress story has the player character saving a woman who he has no attachment to and is often explicitly doing it simply because “it’s the right thing to do,” which would indicate that the woman in question does have intrinsic value outside of a relationship, this is once again just totally spitting on stories that use this trope to good effect. Also never mind the fact that women, even in patriarchal societies, tend to be seen as the “inherently” valuable gender whose safety and health is worth ensuring at all times, above that of men’s, whereas a man’s value is tacked on to what he can do, making them more expendable both in video games and in reality.

Death for character development can be done badly, of course. But according to Anita every time a woman’s death contributes to a male character’s characterization and development, it’s bad. I find this interesting because Anita seems so ready to emphasize with this female character whose a border-line non-entity apparently, but she seems to have no empathy for the male characters who just lost a loved one. Instead of showing the same empathy toward their fictional experience as she does toward the Scythian’s fictional hardships, Anita prefers to talk about how their character development is shoddy and their grief is fueled by the patriarchy. Well, Anita, I think your sadness over the Scythian’s death is fueled by the patriarchal idea that a woman’s life is important. If the Scythian was a man, he’d just be another expendable guy trying to prove his manhood and masculinity by being the hero, but since it’s a woman, this death is a sacrifice.

But we do need more women-centric stories of all kinds. When archetypal fantasy heroes in games are overwhelmingly portrayed as men, it reinforces the idea that men’s experiences are universal and that women’s experiences are gendered, that women should be able to empathize with male characters but that men needn’t be able to identify with women’s stories. Sword & Sworcery gives us a female protagonist and encourages us to see her as a hero first and foremost, one who also just happens to be a woman.

We do not need women-centric stories. We need good ones. If they’re women-centric, so be it, but don’t trip over yourself every time the main character has a vaguely feminine character design. ZELDA is an archetypal fantasy hero. You know, one of the most popular and well-loved characters of all time? The stories are ultimately about her. They are about her character development and her trying to set things right. And her games seem to be one of the main influences for this one. But since she’s not the character swinging a sword around she doesn’t count?

Also, Anita contradicted herself in the same paragraph. “Men’s experiences are universal and women’s experiences are gendered” is a bad thing, and it’s an idea that shouldn’t be indulged in. Until, of course it comes to men needing to be invested more into “women’s stories,” because when a woman is the main character, this is talking about a woman’s experience. It’s not a universal story, it’s the story of a woman. This isn’t a person’s story, or a story for everyone that tells the human experience. It’s a woman’s story. Don’t needlessly gender things, though. That’s sexist.

Now, I’m actually going to provide a link to the game-makers’ website because Sword & Sworcery actually looks like a very beautiful, well-made game with nostalgic references to great adventure games of the past that I may consider playing. Here’s that link, click on it and give them web traffic because those game designers deserve it:

That’s the one good thing I can say about this particular Feminist Frequency video: It gave attention to someone else who actually deserved it. Anita Sarkeesian, though, does not deserve attention. And this video fucking proved it. Her idea of a good female character is one who totally clashes with almost everything she’s ever said before about what makes a female character good. She has no back story and no motivation, the only thing indicating that she’s a woman is people calling her “she” (“distancing a woman from her gender identity as a way of making her an acceptable character to male players,” as Anita would say) and only has vague smatterings of a personality that would indicate that she’s more than a bit depressing. And that’s it.

That just goes to show how ridiculous her standards are. They’re so high that not even she can meet them with her own personally chosen examples. Something tells me that if the Scythian wasn’t a featureless beige rectangle and was instead  *gasp* attractive, Anita would lambaste the character as being a Fucktoy for men, the same way she did it with actually strong female characters like Laura Croft and Bayonetta. Because being a strong, independent (both mentally and physically) woman with an actually discernible and likeable, intelligent personality is all canceled out if your clothes are too skimpy.

Don’t judge women for wearing skimpy clothes though, they can wear whatever they want. Exposed breasts and legs have nothing to do with sex. Unless they’re in a video game, in which case they’re always sexual and always objectifying. Yep.

Look at this, though. Look at how cool it is. Buy it NOW.


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