Musings on Female Characters, Or Why Is The Western Game Character Menagerie Such A Sausage Party?

It wouldn’t be unfair to say that Metroid: Other M got a mixed reception, tilted heavy in favor of it being a good game. Which is to say, that people can agree that the game is solidly built, a great throwback to the 2D games, and stylistically presented. In fact the only real “weakness” noted by reviewers and angry internet users alike is the story, and more particularly, its depiction of Samus as “sexist.”

The reason I put “sexist” in quotes is not because I deny sexism exists, but because I heavily question the source of the accusations’ sincerity.  Most of the comments center on the developing studio, Team Ninja, the director from Nintendo, Yoshio Sakamoto, and their country of origin, Japan for being “misogynist” when it came to designing Samus and the storyline of the game. Whether it’s sexist or not is up for debate, but why the inclusion of Japan as a factor?

These accusations got me thinking. Do Japanese or Eastern developers really give women a raw deal when it comes to female character designs? And considering we’re not exactly egalitarian rockstars when it comes to female depiction, do Western developers and their boosters really have any footing to stand on?

I figured that I might attempt to grasp these questions first by doing a little thought experiment comparing the depictions of Eastern vs. Western female characters in my head and then a troubling thing occurred. I kept having to compare Eastern female characters to the same Western characters over and over again, like Lara Croft or Chell from Portal. So I wondered, just on a frequency basis, how often are Western female characters even in games?  After all, one of the biggest problems of inequality is the erasure of an entire group.  In this case, women.

So I decided to make a list of as many female characters I can think of from Eastern and Western games, and do a comparison.  But first, I needed to create some ground rules, and they were as follows:

  • They must be playable characters – Saucy sidekicks and communications dispatchers do not count. They must be characters with their own agency and not mobile decorations that occasionally shoot or talk.
  • If not the sole main character, they must potentially play a sizeable portion (at least 1/3) of the game they are in – Getting to putter around as Ashley in Resident Evil 4 just isn’t going to cut it. They have to be full characters in these games.
  • Create-a-character does not count – The games must have stories or scenarios that assume a main character is a girl/woman, not a generic story or scenario about a generic player character. Also, any game that allows you to choose the sex of your player character is allowed, provided that the change is reflected in the gameplay (for example, Megaman ZX changes the story a bit to reflect the choice of the girl character, whereas Pokemon games do not.)

So here goes. This is a list of as many games I could think of with playable female characters, along with the names of those characters afterward.

>FEMALE CHARACTER LIST

As you can see, the Eastern developers totally stomp the guts out of the Western developers in regard to mere frequency of female characters. You might have noticed an inclination towards RPGs and Fighting games, which is true because those genres allow for a wide cast, which might give the Eastern developers an edge in the comparison because they like making those types of games.  But Western developers aren’t prevented from those games either, as is the case of strong showings from Mortal Kombat and RPGs from BioWare.

Even if you try to make the point that a lot of Eastern games’ female characters are stereotypically presented, if doesn’t hide the real fact that at least in Eastern games, female characters are present and accounted for. Even if occasionally in skintight spacesuits, or saucy bunny waitress costumes, they are still characters in their stories and act in furtherance of their goals more frequently in Eastern games than Western games, and in a wider variety of ages and character types.

Feel free to add any characters I missed from either side. I value the truth above all, but I remain confident that I am correct in saying that female characters are depicted more frequently… and better (but that’s another article) in Eastern games than Western games, and the next time somebody trots out the tired chestnut of “Japanese sexism” you might want to ask if that particular gamer protests too much.

9 thoughts on “Musings on Female Characters, Or Why Is The Western Game Character Menagerie Such A Sausage Party?”

  1. I can think of one more mainstream game of each:
    * Project Eden (by Core Design) has Minoko and Amber
    * Baten Kaitos: Eternal Wings and the Lost Ocean (published by Namco) has Xelha, Savyna and Mizuti

    If you’re including indie games as well, then a couple of western ones I can think of are:
    * Iji (by Remar Games) has, well, Iji
    * the white chamber (by Studio Trophis) has Sarah

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    1. If you’re gonna include indie games, then you may as well mention Touhou Project. In which case, Japan just completely curbstomps the western indie scene.

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  2. I think the criteria you used for this list (must be playable, significant character) raise a good point. It’s been my theory for a while that the audience Western game makers focus on (Dudebro, Brocore, Hardcore, whatever you want to call them) is simply not interested in playing games where you play as a female character UNLESS she has been overtly sexualized. Lara Croft is well known in the mainstream, while nobody outside of an internet message board knows who Jade is from Beyond Good & Evil.

    I’m not sure I’d agree Japanese games do a BETTER job of portraying female characters, but they certainly are more frequent, and the audience seems far more receptive to female characters than the West does.

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  3. Western gamers want the overly sexualized female characters or they ain’t interested. The Eastern gamers are more open to having female leads, even though they do tend to recycle the same archetypes. As far a sexism goes,these are 2 very different cultures with 2 very different views on sex and sexuality.

    What might be taboo to a Western audience may be commonplace to the Eastern one. I look at it like, when you import or localize something from Japan, more often that not it’s very Japanese-centric. It was made to cater to them, so you just got to brace yourselves for some things you may have never seen before. Look at it as broadening your horizons.

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  4. A timely piece considering the current furore over misogyny in gaming. I hope you don’t mind me editing in a few to your list.

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  5. I’ve said this once to other people concerning Samus’ portrayal in Other M, and I will say it again: at the end of the day, Yoshio Sakamoto can’t write a story worth shit. Its bad enough when Nintendo, a company known for against making heavy story games, let Sakamoto and to an extent Team Ninja/D-Rockets go nuts and make an MGS4… starring Samus, who like Snake can’t shut up.

    I’ve heard the mangas created around 2002 did a slightly better job giving Samus a voice though… but I haven’t read them yet.

    Also, pretty much everything Bayonetta did in her game was probably intentional since Kamiya is like that.

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    1. It wasn’t my intention, just stating a fact.

      The female cast of Final Fantasy VI and Faris from Final Fantasy V are the best female protagonists in the Final Fantasy mainline series. Give or take. :/

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