Sea of Solitude Could Change How Women are Portrayed in Games
We all know that in video games, at least in the mainstream, triple A space, men are still the focus, both as consumers, and as protagonists. Male player-character options still dominate box art, and most games that are regarded highly across the industry have men at their center, both on-screen, and behind the scenes. When we do see women in these big-budget games, they are rarely depicted as fully-formed or emotionally complex people. They are the corpses, burnt on a pyre or stuffed in the refrigerator, spurring the men they once shared their lives with into action. They are the “boring” stable partners, seen as killjoys for not wanting their boyfriends/husbands to continue lives of danger and crime, who ultimately serve as the arbiters of emotional maturity. They are the prize at the finish line.
But German studio Jo-Mei Games’ re-announced, Sea of Solitude, looks like it has the potential to change these narratives. As Cornelia Geppert spoke about Kay, the game’s protagonist, she talked about how all the darkness, anger, hopelessness, and worthlessness she had been feeling turned outward, changing her into a monster. These are adjectives we don’t often see associated with women in games. Women are not allowed to be described with words like these, because women in games aren’t allowed to be messy. Geppart spoke of her own experience with loneliness and how it informed her writing of the game. She was able to use the creative process to face that loneliness and make something that will hopefully be impactful for others. But the women we see in games rarely, if ever, get the chance to do that same kind of introspective work. Female characters are placed in clean, easy boxes that help progress a man’s narrative. They are supportive, they are nurturing, they are badass, or they are crazy. To fall outside these roles would make these women complicated humans, which means they would have to be seen as having equal importance to their male counterparts, instead of as tools or plot devices. There is never any room for these characters to explore their pain, darkness, or even their good sides, because male protagonists have always taken up all of the character-development oxygen.
That’s why a character like Bioshock: Infinite’s Booker DeWitt can be messy, ugly, selfish, and yet somehow still redeemable, but Elizabeth is nothing more than a sweet, vacant smile that does your bidding at the push of a button. As Austin Walker said in his piece, “This is Not an Agent: Bioshock Infinite’s Elizabeth Problem”, “Elizabeth doesn’t take care of herself, she simply doesn’t exist. She doesn’t pick locks-she is a lockpick. She doesn’t summon in friendly turrets or crates of rocket launchers-you do.” Elizabeth has no agency, and no real existence. Everything she does is meant to serve Booker/you the player. She doesn’t get to choose what rifts in reality she opens, you make that choice based on what you need in a given combat situation. Any money or supplies she finds instantly go to you without hesitation. Even at the game’s close, after all the revelations and chances for development, Elizabeth is nothing more than a tool to help Booker find closure and redemption, while she finds neither. Ultimately, she is nothing more than an additional support mechanic, with a doting daughter skin.
To see the darker side of women depicted in games, you have to turn to the horror genre, which often seems to delight in rehashing Freudian stereotypes of what the dark side of femininity can produce. These games provide shocking depictions of corrupted motherhood, and obsessive love, but still fail to have their characters reckon with those traits. Eveline from Resident Evil 7, for example, wants a family and love, as any child does. That desire is twisted and warped by the way she was treated as a science experiment, but there’s no dealing with that or any catharsis. She and Mia don’t really get to talk about things before everything goes south, and even then, Eveline isn’t really Mia’s responsibility. Where are the scientists who made her what she is? Why don’t they have to answer for what they’ve done, when Mia, who is only a caretaker/observer, is taken to task for what’s become of the girl? None of this is dealt with in any meaningful way. Eveline is simply a monster who needs to be destroyed in the end. It’s all just trappings to make the player feel uncomfortable and to help rationalize pumping her full of bullets. You don’t have to feel bad for a character who’s basically a spooky shell with no actual substance, right?
Sea of Solitude, at least from the pitch we saw, seems to lean hard in the opposite direction. There is no man for Kay’s life to give meaning to. It’s just her, on a boat, confronting the nastier, darker parts of who she is and what that has made her. If it sticks the landing, we could see a narrative about a woman who is complicated and broken, and trying desperately to pick up the pieces in a way that is thoughtful, honest, and self-reflective..This is a story that’s desperately needed if the way women in games are written is ever going to move forward. It’s a story I want. We’ve gotten our tales of men who face the darker parts of who they are and have to make choices surrounding that, but we’ve never gotten to see the same for women to anywhere near the same degree. To have this be accomplished by an EA Original, especially one following the extremely male-centric A Way Out, would be a much needed step in the right direction for this industry.
Geppert said that “ultimately, the goal is to bring all those emotions into balance…to embrace even your destructive parts, or your self-doubt in the same way you embrace your joy or your hope, this is what being human is all about.” The fact that I’m genuinely excited to see a studio attempt to give a female character a nuanced emotional arc like this is honestly a sad reflection on the state of this industry. But Sea of Solitude is giving me a guarded hope that maybe women in games can finally be seen as human too.
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