Physically strong female characters are somewhat common in video games. They’re featured in a vast array of fighting games, they’re prominent in games like World of Warcraft and the like. Being a male gamer, I’m perhaps not the best authority on gender equality, as there’s no real way to gauge what it’s like on the other side, and issues such as this are deeply personal as well. What is abundantly clear, however, is the style that is undertaken to portray empowered females, which begs the question: are they actually empowered?
The lack of variety in the characters we play as in general is what’s troubling.
Arkham City’s main example is Catwoman. Granted, this is possibly an unfair example: Catwoman’s history and character is defined in the original comics as being slinky and svelte, one who, at times, uses her sexual appeal to achieve her intended outcome. Arkham City exemplifies this not only on a dialogue level, but within her physical appearance and her animation. While Batman essentially wears full-body armour, Catwoman wears a skin-tight jump suit with a plunging v-neck opening that exposes a fair amount of cleavage. Practical? Not even remotely. Alluring? Undoubtedly. Slowing Catwoman’s run to a gentle walk produces a very suggestive swagger, adding to the air of sexual confidence and bravado.
Again, it is perhaps not best to lambast Arkham City for this, purely because Rocksteady adhered to an established history, but this characterisation is easily reflected in a multitude of other titles featuring women.
Intelligence is one thing, but to be book-smart and cheeky about it is another.
Is this a terrible thing? Perhaps not, but the danger is in it becoming a frequent occurrence. It suggests that in order to elicit power and maintain control over any given situation, a woman must rise above off-handed sexual allure and instead embrace and abuse it. Put short, if you can be sexy AND kick ass, then you’re doing it right. Intelligence is one thing, but to be book-smart and cheeky about it is another.
This isn’t even limited to women: male protagonists suffer through a cliché of their own, even if there’s less of a fuss kicked up about it. Male protagonists are frequently burly and headstrong, unbound by subtle emotional context. If there’s a 100% right way to do something, you can bet that a male character will charge in and do it (usually in the most violent way possible). Examples don’t really need to be forthcoming, but Marcus Fenix in the Gears of War series and the rather blank protagonists of the Crysis series are prime candidates.
There is, of course, a place within the gaming world for these kinds of characters. Arkham City would have to be the pinnacle of excellence in portraying these particular character types. Denying them and replacing them with their polar opposites would eventually lead to the exact same problem. The lack of variety in the characters we play as in general is what’s troubling, and it will not do much to improve the validity of video games in a wider entertainment universe. Films manage to represent a far wider range of characters, despite clinging to those existing archetypes, and they’re still as entertaining as ever. This industry has nothing to lose in embracing a wide variety of personalities and attributes, and nothing to lose. It just needs to keep it balanced.
When I play games, I play it for two main things: the gameplay, and the plot. These, in my opinion, are the two most important elements of any game. Other people play games for the graphics, or the multiplayer/social aspects, or something else entirely.
But there is a group of people who enjoy 100% completion more than anything else. These are the people who play games for the achievements, people who have spent hours upon hours collecting packages in Grand Theft Auto, flags in Assassin’s Creed, treasures in Uncharted, and Riddler trophies in Batman: Arkham City.
Most of the games that have collection quests do them in very similar ways: find all the most obscure places in the game world – all the places that the player is least likely to go – and put an item to collect there. Players who wish to get all the items (and get that final achievement) need to go to every corner of the game world to pick up the widgets that are scattered around. This is appealing to developers because they want as much of their game world to be seen by as many of the players as possible – hiding widgets in all corners of the map means that it’s more likely that players will see the whole game world.
And what do they get for their efforts? In the case of Xbox Live, they get an achievement, which in turn gives them some gamerscore points. People can then show their gamerscore to friends…and that’s about it. The collection quests in these games are all part of a larger collection quest for achievements, which are in turn part of an even larger collection quest for gamerscore points!
That’s a lot of collection quests, and what does the player get out of it? Not much. Not that I’m trying to say anything about the people who enjoy completing these quests – it’s great that some people enjoy them! But for me, I see somewhat lazy design when I see these quests.
Usually, they add artificial padding to the game: they require any skill to complete – just time. Playing hide and seek with collection items isn’t many people’s idea of fun – often people will resort to guides so they can find the last few widgets and reach their 100% completion. And where’s the fun and challenge in that? It’s just a grind when it reaches that point.
And here’s where Arkham City comes in to save the day. It fixes many of the issues I have with collection quests by putting the trophies in plain sight, and then showing you exactly where they all are in the world map. Instead of hiding the trophies visually, they are "hidden" behind environmental or gadget-based challenges. You no longer need to search every corner for trophies – but you do need some skill to get a lot of them.
And this makes Arkham City’s trophy quest fun. It has turned the collection quest from a boring search back into part of the game that you play along with the main story quests. They’re brought the element of challenge into the quests – something that was sorely needed in hindsight, but was never clearly obvious until it was actually done properly. And for that, I applaud Arkham City and it’s developers for a job well done.