So, remember when I said that Anita Sarkeesian’s standards for video games are so impossible that not even she can attain them? Because if I didn’t say that before, that’s what I think. That’s what I think about her first video on positive female video game characters, that’s what I think about her proposed video game idea (aka Prince of Persia–but with a chick this time because we’re progressive), and that’s what I think now with her second example of positive female game characters. And while I would love to ignore Anita Sarkeesian as just another hack commentator who isn’t all that important, and can’t, because Anita Sarkeesian is someone who the public actually thinks is important and intelligent. And that just drives me in-fucking-sane. This woman has influence now. What she says affects how people regard things. And she’s a total goddam hack with standards so inconsistent and impossible to meet that not even she can meet them. Here’s a hint, Anita: When your commentary is so unforgiving that your own works wouldn’t hold up under the scrutiny, perhaps you should rethink what you’re saying.
So, who is the next Positive Female Video Game Character? It’s Jade from Beyond Good and Evil, a third-person adventure console adventure game from 2003. Getting this out of the way right now: I actually really like BGE. I have no idea why it’s called that–there’s really no moral ambiguity motif to be had. But you’re a kickass character who does kickass things, and I have a particular fondness for games that make heavy usage of taking pictures (I will defend Poke Snap to the death). Since Jade is a photojournalist, you take pictures a lot as a game mechanic, and I think it’s really fun. Not to mention that the soundtrack is pretty awesome.
I do like this game, and I do like this character. If you can recall, I even mentioned her in previous posts about Anita Sarkeesian as a counter example to her “video games are sexist” narrative. So it’s not like I’m not happy that Anita actually acknowledged a good female character. I’m still rolling my eyes, however, because Anita’s reasoning doesn’t hold up. She’s backed herself into a corner where nothing is good enough, and her reasons for why Jade is a good character don’t hold up if looked at using the same standards she’s previously created, just going to show that what Anita has been saying is totally arbitrary and can be disregarded whenever she wants it to be.
We start getting a sense of who Jade is from the moment we see her, and refreshingly she actually looks the part of the active, practical young woman of color who has a job to do.
What does “looks the part” even mean? Isn’t saying that someone doesn’t “look” enough like [insert race here] to count racist? Also, most game characters have a job to do. She’s not special in that regard. She helps run a failing orphanage for crying out loud. I like this game, but “save the orphanage from shutting down” is the most cliched plot point ever. Do they have to do a talent show to raise money for the community center too? But, hey, it’s a kids’ game.
We learn about who characters are not just from the things they say and do, but also from how they look: visual design is an important way for game designers to communicate information at a glance about a character’s experience and personality traits. Sadly, women in games are often depicted in wildly impractical, sexualized clothing designed to make them appealing to straight male players. But Jade isn’t designed to fulfill someone else’s fantasy. The midriff top is a little silly, but for the most part, she looks like someone who is dressed to accommodate her own needs. I mean, you don’t get much more practical than cargo pants.
You literally just described Lara Croft. Midriff exposing shirt, cargo pants. Lara Croft. Also, how does the sexy green lipstick (which also serves as a sexist gender-marker according to you) provide a function for someone doing down and dirty reporting, by the way? No talking about the unrealistic beauty standard of her atomically incorrect hour glass figure and huge eyes (which are green, an uncommon color for Asian women that further enforces unrealistic beauty standards for them), her big breasts, her tight fitting shirt, her practical cargo pants that ride just low enough for us to see her pink panties? But, yeah, all of that is fine. Her midriff exposing shirt is “a little silly.” Doesn’t that make it worse? It’s not necessary or practical, which, according to Anita, has to mean that she’s only wearing it because it’s sexy to male players. And being attractive to male players is sexist. But, for some reason, even though Jade’s character design is a parade of things that Anita has criticized as being sexist in other female characters before, for some reason it’s okay with Jade and not worth harping on.
Also, how is being suitable for the character’s need excuse anything for her? Bayonetta’s clothing suits her needs because she’s based off of witch folklore where the witch is seductive and wraps her magic hair around her as clothing. But that’s not a good enough excuse for why Bayonetta looks the way she does, as far as Anita is concerned.
Games often give us heroes who are either fantastically wealthy, like the Bruce Waynes and Lara Crofts of the world, or who at least don’t have practical, everyday concerns about money. But money is not just an abstract concept for Jade. She’s a working class character with real financial struggles. This is established at the very beginning of the game, when we learn that the orphanage’s electricity has been shut off, and Uncle Pey’j’s hovercraft is in dire need of repair.
So is that why you don’t like Lara Croft? She has money? Also, once again, has this woman played video games? Ever? Bruce Wayne isn’t even originally a game character which just goes to show that she can’t even mention one other character who both has money and also started out as a video game character. There are plenty of characters in video games who are poor. There are also plenty of characters who are rich. And there are plenty of characters whose financial background is never mentioned. This is not a distinguishing factor here. And if she had “realistic” money concerns, she wouldn’t be fighting aliens with a staff and saving the world. She would be selling her second pair of boots for spare change. Also, how is Uncle Pey’j not also a cool character since the opening also establishes him as caring and hardworking, with realistic money concerns? He’s characterized the same way Jade is.How about Peter Parker? He’s a college student who lives in a broom closet and is constantly worried about money. But his girlfriend dies, so Peter Parker sucks as a character.
In order to pay the bills, we’re introduced to a mechanic that establishes one of Jade’s creative talents: photography. Throughout the game, she is paid to document and catalog the diverse animal life on the planet with her camera.
I like this part of the game. No negative comment here.
Instead of just showing or offhandedly telling us about her skills in cutscenes, the designers have built character development right into the gameplay, giving players a pleasant, nonviolent way of interacting with and appreciating the beauty of the game’s world while simultaneously reinforcing that Jade is a woman of many talents. Edge Magazine insightfully observed that part of what makes Jade so memorable is “the fact that she views this strange world and all of its careworn inhabitants through the lens of a camera, rather than the scope of an assault rifle.”
*Stifled angry screaming noise*
“Instead of just showing or offhandedly telling us about her skills in cutscenes.” Just . . . GAHl;kajdf;afha;fjka;fjalkfajfolajl.
Okay. That’s what cutscenes are for, Anita. Cutscenes are for providing character development. That’s what they do. If something happens in a cutscene, that’s not just offhandedly mentioning something, the cutscenes are where the fucking story happens. They’re not just saying, “Hey, Jade, you’re an awesome photographer.” They’re showing it happening. Anita is the only fucking person who has a bone to pick with the “show, don’t tell” rule because showing something isn’t good enough. Don’t get me wrong, I like when they incorporate stuff your character can do in cutscenes into what the character can do in gameplay, but cutscenes are an integral part of character development in video games. To act like what happens in them is just totally irrelevant and unimportant is dumb. It’s just dumb. You’re dumb.
This not only gives Jade more depth, but also encourages the player to view the lifeforms of Hillys with some measure of respect, rather than seeing them solely as enemies to be destroyed.
How does this give Jade more depth again? She takes pictures. Elizabeth from Bioshock Infinite will curiously mess around with stuff in the background if you don’t talk to her and there’s no fighting going on. That builds character depth. Owning a camera and using it in gameplay does not establish character depth. It establishes the game’s personality as one of it’s important functions, distinguishing it from other games, but it doesn’t really give Jade a more complex personality the same way the difficult puzzles in Portal don’t give Chell a personality. It’s a gameplay mechanic. Also, you can kill the fuck out of the lifeforms of Hillys even after taking pictures of them. Hell, there are multiple enemies throughout the game that you have to take pictures of in order to get a perfect score, and yet you still beat them up with a staff just like everything else. Violence is still the main gameplay mechanic, you can just also take pictures of stuff. And while I appreciate that you can take pictures because it calls attention to some cool designs that you might otherwise overlook, I still don’t see how Jade is any less of a slash-slash-kill-kill third-person protagonist than any other adventure game character. The main characters in both Fatal Frame and Outlast use the camera as the MAIN gameplay mechanic, not just a secondary feature, and they physically cannot engage in much violence at all, unlike Jade, but something tells me that Anita would still think those games were “gross” because there’s too much violence.
While many games center on so-called “heroes” who are out for personal glory or revenge, Beyond Good & Evil’s narrative establishes Jade’s altruistic desire to achieve social justice. It’s worth noting that Jade avoids falling into the tired cliché of the tough as nails, solve-all-problems-with-violence “strong female character” archetype. Her quest is not about her pain, nor is it about taking satisfaction in exacting violent retribution.
How about every character you’ve ever derided as being a sexist ass whose entire motivation was saving someone they loved? But since that someone they loved was a woman, they were only out for “personal glory,” I guess. What’s wrong with a character being out for glory or revenge, by the way? Those are driving forces just like anything else, they just have to be written well. Also, fuck that. Jade’s main gameplay mechanic is to beat shit up. She’s saves the day by making an alien explode, and she’s not necessarily known for being the kind of character who talks things out. She’s the typical action game protagonist, but Anita is trying so goddamn hard to make it seem like Jade is somehow different from the characters she’s bad-mouthed in the past that it’s actually kind of hilarious.
It’s about protecting her world and the people she cares about, and unlike so many one-dimensional brooding heroes who are characterized by their own suffering, Jade does not wear the mantle of hero like a heavy burden; instead she retains her warmth and humanity over the course of her quest.
Okay, it kind of just seems like Anita doesn’t like the Byronic Hero archetype. Which is fine, but goddamn it woman, you not liking something doesn’t make it bad, and it doesn’t mean that something incorporating it makes it lesser by default. It all depends on how something is executed, and it can be executed well or badly. I’m sure plenty of people are tired of the (also one-dimensional and archetypal, by the way) plucky, determined “never gonna give up because I fight for justice” character that is also very typical of action games and stories. Jade is upbeat and determined, but she also doesn’t change that much through the game. That’s why her character archetype is so often used for kids’ games: A “brooding character characterized by their own suffering” has development to go through. Sometimes you get the plucky determinator who actually experiences change like Emmett from LEGO Movie, but oftentimes, they remain static characters because there’s nothing negative about them that needs changing or reflecting upon. Jade is a static character. She was already kind. She was already brave. She was already willing to put her happiness aside to help others. She didn’t have to learn anything or develop as a character. She didn’t have any personal struggles to deal with, only outside struggles she had no real control over. She’s a good person fighting a bad world and that’s it.
She’s a character in a kids’ game. That’s what this all comes back to. It’s an archetype from stories you tell children because complex emotions and motivations and characters who aren’t entirely good or entirely bad all the time are hard to get across to children. And I’m fine with static characters who don’t change and who are brave and self-sacrificing to the very end. I’m fine with that. But that’s Ash Ketchum. That’s Johnny Quest. That’s Sailor Moon. That is a character archetype that is not realistic in a world where things aren’t made up of straight black-and-white morals and emotions. And it’s dumb to act like Jade is someone so superior to characters who actually have real character development and real emotional depth just because she’s awesome all the time. Having a character who is awesome all the time is fine, but don’t act like they’re somehow a better, more complex character than ones who actually have inner demons to deal with.
Working with an organization called the IRIS network, Jade uncovers a vast conspiracy between the invading aliens and the government, with the corporate news media complicit in covering up the truth.
There’s a subtle but subversive political dimension to Beyond Good & Evil’s narrative which highlights the importance of questioning mass media messages and challenging institutions of power that perpetuate injustice.
Yeah, Anita is taking the game way too seriously. This isn’t The Last of Us, Anita. People learned the “don’t trust what the newspapers tell you” lesson by the time the third Harry Potter book came out. Lauding a story that teaches people not to blindly trust what someone in the media tells them is rather ironic seeing as how this is coming from Anita Sarkeesian, the queen of Blindly Trust What I Say Is The Objective Truth And Don’t Question Me Because I Have a Webshow.
As a member of a resistance group, Jade uses her talents as a photographer to collect evidence documenting the conspiracy,and her combat skills to help rescue kidnapped members of the IRIS Network. But she rarely goes it alone. Jade starts out the game with Uncle Pey’j by her side, and the way the characters interact makes Pey’j feel more like a partner than a mere sidekick.
Wow, a NPC that’s actually helpful? It’s almost like that’s one of the reasons people like the game or something.
It may seem like a minor detail, but the fact that Pey’j tells Jade to free herself, instead of doing it for her, is incredibly important. He assists her but doesn’t rescue her. He knows that even in this situation, she’s far from helpless, and the fact that Pey’j treats her as a capable partner encourages us to see her that way, too.
He also straight up saves her twice throughout the game. She also gets saved another time by *gasp* a man. If anything, this game tells players that it’s okay to be saved, that being in distress is not something that only happens to helpless people. In fact, it happens to those who take actions even more. Pey’j needs to be rescued too, you know?
This moment also evokes a sense of mutual respect and partnership between these two characters, in a way that is all too rare for female characters in gaming.
Bioshock 2, Bioshock Infinite, Legend of Zelda, Uncharted, Mass Effect 1 2 and 3, Half Life 2, Portal 2, The Last of Us . . . many other ones that I can’t think up off the top of my head. Yep, mutual respect in a platonic relationship is so rare.
As a quick side note, It’s important to point out that a kidnapped male character saved by a woman and a kidnapped female character saved by a man are not equivalent, because while a damsel in distress reinforces longstanding regressive myths about women as a group being weak or helpless specifically because of their gender, a dude in distress does not reinforce any such ideas about men. For more on the relatively rare dude in distress inversion, see part 3 of my videos on the damsel trope.
The “Dude in Distress” trope is not rare. It has its own Tvtropes page and it’s very extensive. It’s also good to know that something is sexist no matter what. Anita reasoning for why damsels in distress are always sexist wasn’t a historical one, she just kept repeating that it was disempowering to the character. So how is being in distress and needing rescuing any less disempowering when it happens to a male character? I already hate what Anita has to say about the damsel in distress thing because her reasoning seems to be that anything else about the female character is irrelevant, if she needs saving, it’s sexist. Which seems way more sexist to me than the trope itself seeing as how it says, “Any traits you have as an individual mean nothing, for I am reducing you to a victim and nothing more based solely upon your gender.” You can be the best, most complex character ever. But if a man needs to save you, you are nothing but a damsel. The respect for women as human beings here is phenomenal.
Many games present an image of bravery and courage that suggests heroes are fiercely independent, rugged individualists. In those games in which heroes do have sidekicks, those sidekicks often serve as cheerleaders and ego boosters for the player, complimenting them on their skill and accomplishments, or as impediments, preventing them from progressing to a new section until they’ve completed some task. In Beyond Good & Evil, Jade’s sidekicks, Pey’j and later Double H, feel not like cheerleaders or roadblocks but like active companions who want to use their unique skills to assist Jade when they accompany her on a mission.
Am I the only one noticing that Anita is talking more about the game itself and the side characters than Jade? Some awesome character you got there, Anita. You can’t even spend three minutes talking about her on her own merrits? If her coolness as a character is so dependent upon the gameplay features and the dialogue snippets her sidekicks say to her sometimes, and not just the character as a stand alone individual, maybe you could get a better character. Yeah, character interactions are important, and this game is known for its well-written dialogue between Jade and the others, but all she’s said about Jade so far is that “she’s cool because she uses a camera and because she wants to save the world.”
They become a vital and memorable part of the experience of playing Beyond Good & Evil, and work to emphasize the game’s themes of friendship and cooperation.
So your ideal female character is one whose worth and interest as a human being seems almost totally fixated on outside factors and her interactions with other (male, by the way, which is sexist) characters? Interactions are cool, but you’d think your awesome female character would be able to stand on her own two feet as a defined character with emotional depth in of herself and not a character defined by her sidekick’s dialogue to her.
For years there have been rumours and even a teaser trailer about a Beyond Good and Evil 2. I hope this actually happens but whether or not that sequel ever gets made, we definitely need more games with warm, compassionate, multitalented characters who have realistic and relatable concerns, and more narratives in which taking a stand against corrupt systems of power is more important than personal gain or revenge.
Yep, because saving the world from aliens is totally a realistic concern. Half the games on the market are about fighting some evil monarchy or dictatorship or what have you. Once again, has she played games before? That’s like saying we need more TV shows about a group of friends living in New York having quirky adventures. It’s so rare!
Also, by the way, you find out that Jade is important to the aliens because she’s connected to their queen and the main alien bad guy wants to take her as a wife. Anita has mentioned on multiple occasions that stuff like this is sexist because it’s relegating a woman to her relationship to a male and only seeing her as a baby-machine, connecting her to her ability to have children and nothing more. It’s the whole Black Widow thing: How dare you connect this female character to child birth in any way, what, women aren’t good for anything else?!
But yeah, it’s not sexist here. For some reason.