I spent this entire past weekend binge-playing Dishonored 2. I was blown away. The game feels fluid, combos are satisfying, and both lethal and non-lethal playstyles are totally viable and rewarding. But, more, I was most impressed by the excellent representation of women in a AAA video game.
This headline warrants a disclaimer that parental discretion is always 100% advised when it comes to children and any form of mature media – that said, I will be arguing that Dishonored 2 is an important step to making girls and women feel more accepted in gaming.
Actually, for as terrible as 2016 has been overall, this is a year in which gaming has made some serious strides towards gender inclusivity with major titles like Mirror's Edge: Catalyst, Overwatch, and Life is Strange. After some dark years, the future of representation in games looks brighter.
Before we dive in, let's also address the elephant in the room: I am a straight white guy. I am, bluntly, the last person you should ever listen to about the quality of diversity and representation in video games. If you haven't read anything that a woman has written about this game, please stop reading and go do that first!
When I Speak In-Game, I Hear Myself As a Woman
After sneaking into an elaborate estate, ghosting over rooftops and past guards, I track down the body double of a powerful Duke to convince him to take the real Duke's place. I dart from shadow to shadow, I steal keys and disarm traps, and I dispose unconscious bodies into unseen nooks as needed.
I do all of these things from a first-person perspective, and I'm hardly aware of my character's body until I pick a dialogue option and hear a woman's voice speaking for me.
It is not the first time this has ever happened, but I have a hard time ignoring how rare this is. Hearing myself with differently gendered voice is novel to me, but it's the norm for any girl growing up on video games.
In our media, it is incredibly important that people get the opportunity to play as and see and hear characters that represent them in some way. The more you feel represented in the media you consume, the more you feel accepted.
Gaming, unfortunately, has had a terrible track record when it comes to representing women and girls. Dishonored 2, instead, is a great game for girls to cut their teeth on gaming and feel welcome if they're new to the scene.
Outside of games with character creation, the number of AAA games with female protagonists is dismal. Dishonored 2 feels like a big win and the proportion of prominent women in the game is pretty great. We have:
- Emily Kaldwin: female protagonist
- Delilah Kaldwin: female antagonist
- Meagan Foster: prominent female side character who has tons of screen time
- A nearly equal number of male/female boss fights
- A nearly equal number of male/female guards and baddies
Bonus points: All of the women featured are fully clothed and three-dimensional. They all develop real depth over the course of play, including the central villain. No character is treated differently because of their gender and most, if not all, of the gender criticisms levied at the first Dishonored game have been remedied.
There is certainly room for other forms of diversity, and there are – if you pay close attention – a surprising number of LGBTQ characters, both prominent and background characters. Plus, while there is only one speaking black character, Maegan Foster has easily the best-developed storyline in the game and an awesome end-of-story reveal. It's a step in the right direction.
There Aren't Many Games Where The Protagonist Is A Badass Woman With Sensible Clothing
It's worth re-mentioning that the broad stroke I'm painting with leaves out games with character creation, like Skyrim or World of Warcraft. I can't stress enough that uptick in games with character creation has been huge for making games more accessible to everyone. Seriously, it rocks.
That said, the games without character creation often face the biggest gender divides and, while there are always exceptions, it is very rare that female protagonists just get to be AAA heroic figures without adhering to frustrating tropes. How many times does a teenage girl roll her eyes at weak character choices before she gives up on gaming entirely?
If a central female character is a strong fighter, she is often couched with leering camera angles or nonsensical clothing, which can upstage the power fantasy.
If a central female character is sensibly clothed, she rarely gets her hands dirty because her specific power fantasies often revolve around stereotypically feminine abilities, magic use, persuasion, or acrobatics.
Dishonored 2 is one of the rare exceptions, and this is why Emily Kaldwin is a character very little girl should get the chance to play. Emily is different. Emily has the chance to be brutal. If you want to play Emily as a sneaky magical girl, you can; if you want to play her as throat-cutting gadget girl, you can; if you want to kick in a door and take on all challengers with magic and grenades and zero stealth, feel fucking free.
If you go for lethal take-downs, Emily will be straight up stabbing people in the neck or flinging them into electric fences. If you go for non-lethal take-downs, Emily is strong-arm choking people unconscious or smashing their heads into the ground with a sickening *thwack*. This brand of unapologetic brutality is unsurprising for male characters in the entertainment industry, so Emily represents a rare touchstone character for women who want to indulge this power fantasy and feel represented while doing so.
Emily Grows, Has The Same Experience As Her Male Counterpart
Emily is far more than just a rare female representation in male-dominated power fantasy. Over the course of the game, Emily is granted opportunities to forgive or to condemn, to spare or to kill, and she grows because of those decisions. The Chaos system in Dishonored 2 keeps track of your behavior and playstyle in the game, meaning that a cruel Emily begins saying cruel things in passing and a kinder Emily begins to say things that demonstrate more empathy and compassion.
Further, Dishonored 2 allows you choose to play as Emily or her father, Corvo. With the exception of the powers they get to upgrade, both characters have the same experience throughout the game. They have nearly identical lines and nearly identical interactions. Both Corvo and Emily can sneak equally as well, can kill equally as well, and can grow equally as characters.
That is one of the most important accomplishments of Dishonored 2. As a player, you get a clear look at two characters capable of the same, typically masculine, things despite different ages and genders. That's the kind of game kids need to play. That's the kind of game that is important for fledgling gamer girls to play.
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