A year ago, my coverage of E3 was, well, less than enthusiastic. It seemed as though the desire to design, develop, or generally direct attention at women and female characters was lacking. This, perhaps, was most clearly seen in Ubisoft’s excuse that it was “too hard” to animate female bodies, but exhibited also in the lack of women on stage to present the games they couldn’t see themselves in.
This E3 was different – so different that it was Bonnie Ross who came on stage to talk about Halo 5 and Sigurlina Ingvardottir who presented Star Wars: Battlefront, two of the biggest games of the expo. These aren’t just women from HR brought on to make Microsoft and EA look more diverse – they’re developers and producers, intimately involved in the game-making process and devoted to what they’re talking about.
It is the presence of women outside of the screens – Ross and Ingvardottir are only two examples of non-‘booth babe’ representation – that really makes this E3 stand out, that quite literally declares on-stage that women are a part of this industry and are a population that will only continue to grow, especially as younger women watch videos of E3 on Youtube and realize that it is possible to be the main presenter for a AAA title and also have two X chromosomes. Despite the sexism and the harassment that women in game development have faced (google the hashtag “1reasonwhy” and prepare to have your mind blown), they have clung to their passion, their creative drive, and their talent, and have forced the industry to see them.
But just as many women are in the games being shown. Women that aren’t scantily clad or stuck as damsels in distress. They’re hunters and scientists and assassins, able to tell their own narratives without being hampered by gender assumptions or biases. Aloy, from Horizon: Zero Dawn, a new IP being published by Sony, is an inhabitant of a tribal society based years in the future, who must hunt mechanized animals to survive on a harsher and changed Earth. According to Herman Hulst, the head of the Horizon‘s developer, Guerrilla Games, Aloy had been in the studio’s head all along:
“Aloy has been in the concept from the very first day, though. This is what we wanted to make. It was always her. We wanted a lead character who’s curious, who can take in the awe and magic of this world. We wanted someone agile and intelligent. We wanted her to be smart before, during, and after combat. She fit that bill perfectly.”
Hulst’s comment is, to me, the heart of this year’s E3. There were a lot of games that didn’t feature female protagonists, and a lot of games that would have been criticized had they been shown at last year’s E3 instead of this year’s. Doom, for example – one of the highlights of Bethesda’s conference – is the same Doom it has always been. It’s a disgustingly violent FPS that’s heavy on the ambience and the blood and light on the narrative. No one who plays Doom is really asking for anything more. But when a world is created that asks you to invest in its characters and in its narrative possibilities and then filled with four different versions of the same Parisian revolutionary, well, that’s when something might be a bit off. Female characters don’t need to be in every game; women only make up about 50% of the population, after all. Doom can be Doom. But they should be in a lot of games, and they should definitely be in stories that make sense for them to be in.
Guerilla Games created a world that is formulated for a female protagonist to inhabit. The Last of Us featured a world that was formulated for a father-daughter journey. Dishonored built a world designed to tell a story of revenge, redemption, and power, a story that can be told by either gender and now will be. The story a game tells should be able to be anyone’s. If Guerilla Games wants to tell Aloy’s story, if Aloy’s story accomplishes what the studio is trying to achieve, isn’t it just amazing that they went ahead and told it?
I find myself saying this more and more to people, after the chaos that was Gamergate (though, will it ever be really over?), but I’ll say it again: we don’t need to put more women in games. GTA is a story designed to be told from a male perspective, and just sticking in a female playable protagonist with the old masculine motivations, background, or goals, would be cheap. It wouldn’t feel true, it would feel forced. We just need to tell good stories, and be honest with ourselves about what those stories need. Horizon needs Aloy, just like The Last of Us needed Joel, just like Tomb Raider should be told from the perspective of Lara Croft. Assassin’s Creed: Unity didn’t need Arno Dorian. FIFA 16 didn’t need to just feature men’s teams.
There are so many stories waiting to be told, stories with strong voices that shouldn’t be manipulated by bias or prejudice or sales predictions. And I heard those voices at this year’s E3 – the voice of Aloy and of Emily Kaldwin and of Joule and of Evie Frye. I’m excited about these women, but most of all I’m excited that we’re telling stories in which they make sense, that we’re opening ourselves up to bigger, more diverse worlds. Having Aloy doesn’t mean we can’t have Joel or Doom or Master Chief. But we shouldn’t sacrifice an Aloy for the sake of an Arno. This year’s E3 did the best job yet of showcasing and celebrating that best kind of diversity, the kind that makes no sacrifices, that includes all. It was an E3 that didn’t look back at what we could have changed, but looked forward to what we will be doing better.
Here’s to 2016.
What was your favorite part of E3? Let us know in the comments!