Last time, we tried adapting the Bechdel Test to gaming. Now, let’s try applying it to games we love (and some that we don’t). Do you have any passing games to recommend?
Transcript below the cut.
In our last episode, we took a page from the Bechdel Test and proposed a method for judging gender representation in games. If the Bechdel Test challenged films to have two named women who spoke to one another about something other than a man, we challenged games to also omit a man from the interaction between two women–this time between the playable woman on screen and the woman playing the game. In this episode, we’re going to look at how this test might be applied to games. How might these games enable the women who star in and play their game without filtering the action through male desires?
Previously, we called out Lollipop Chainsaw as a game that didn’t pass our test because of the way it uses achievements to encourage player action at the expense of its hero. In that particular example, the “I swear, I did it by mistake!” achievement implicitly suggests a male player by explicitly encouraging players to peak up Juliet’s skirt. Dialogue and cutscenes that joke about Juliet’s appearance and sexuality at her expense (most of which she is oblivious to) also inserts a presumed straight male buffer between player and protagonist, causing this game to fail our test.
As an example of a game that passes, let’s start with Child of Light. Child of Light is one of the few games that would pass the traditional Bechdel Test with a largely female cast that occasionally speaks about something besides a man–in this case, Aurora and her journey home. The game combines whimsical dialogue with RPG-inspired progression to tell Princess Aurora’s coming-of-age story. As Aurora ages, we are informed in dialogue and narration of her increasing responsibilities, while we simultaneously unlock new, more powerful abilities in battle. With all characters answering to Aurora and no trivializing visual cues or achievements, Child of Light earns a pass for our test as well.
That said, Lollipop Chainsaw and Child of Light also illustrate how these tests evaluate representation, not quality or enjoyment of a game. While Child of Light passes the test of representation, we found its combat and crafting dull and its writing excruciating. Lollipop Chainsaw, on the other hand, was a fun realization of Suda 51’s grindhouse sensibilities–even if we still pine for the Buffy the Vampire Slayer game it could have been. Like the original Bechdel Test, this test for games won’t tell you how much you’ll enjoy the game, but it might help us think about how women are usually given agency in games.
An example of a game being enjoyable and passing our proposed test might be the second season of TellTale Games’ The Walking Dead. In it, players take control of Clementine, a young girl surviving in the zombie apocalypse. The Walking Dead’s second season puts extra emphasis on identifying with Clementine, both in its #IAmClementine marketing campaign and in the game itself. By casting players as an eleven-year-old, The Walking Dead cannot afford players the same agency it might have in a game with an adult as its protagonist. Simply put, it wouldn’t make sense for adults to ask a child what to do. Where a lesser game might have invited a condescending viewpoint of its young protagonist in this case, asking players to “protect” her and assert an unspoken paternal authority, The Walking Dead instead focalizes the action exclusively from Clementine’s point of view, quickly establishing through choices, quick time events, and dialogue that Clementine is capable within her limits. The main pleasure of playing The Walking Dead, then, is not leading the group or protecting yet another helpless daughter, but defining who Clementine is and how she will react to circumstances spiraling further and further out of her reach. The Walking Dead asks us to identify with Clementine in her victories and her failures, making it both a thoroughly satisfying game, and a clear pass for our test.
Another, less conventional passing game might be Tale of Tales’ reimagining of Little Red Riding Hood. The Path is a great example of how a game can address women and their relationships with men without alienating the woman player. Over the course of the game, players take control of one of six sisters as she traverses mysterious woods on the way to grandmother’s house. Its one written rule, “stay on the path,” is meant to be broken, as the game’s mix of quiet exploration and written narration invites us to identify with each sister and interpret her coming-of-age story as it is triggered by an encounter with a wolf. Some of the wolves are explicitly coded male, like in the case of Carmen, whose wolf is an older man. While Carmen’s narration and encounter with the wolf are certainly linked to her sexuality, it is clearly her sexuality. She is not reduced to an object by the camera nor by any achievements like in Lollipop Chainsaw. Through our journey through the woods as Carmen, we are encouraged to identify with her before the man who desires her, creating instead a space for identification with and perhaps thoughtful meditation on the sexualization of girls and the pressures that come with it. Each of the sisters encounters a different wolf that initiates her journey to adulthood–some sinister, and some less so. It’s The Path’s encouragement to identify with the sisters’ and understand their respective journeys that makes The Path a passing game, despite its lack of dialogue between any two characters on screen.
All of the aforementioned games use traditional film techniques such as blocking, dialogue, and camera angles to convey meaning–including gender–to the player. Of course, not all games take so many cues from film. Games like Portal and Metroid Prime do away with the traditional set camera of many games in favor of a first person perspective; additionally, their protagonists don’t speak. Instead, we know of their gender mostly through reflections and the occasional grunt. For the most part, their gender is incidental to their heroic actions, allowing both Portal and Metroid Prime to pass our test.
On the other side of the spectrum are games like Monument Valley, whose female protagonist appears on screen, but her appearance is abstract. In the iOS puzzle game, the princess protagonist appears as little more than a triangle body with a circle for a head, but a combination of contemplative spatial puzzles and written narration communicates her gender and a quest for redemption. With neither the objectifying gaze, dialogue, nor achievements to position a male filter between the princess and a woman playing the game, Monument Valley would also pass, even with its woman protagonist essentially being three basic shapes.
In our last video, we used Remember Me as an example of a game that would fail due to its use of a male voice to walk the disoriented protagonist, Nilin, through an uncomfortable prologue sequence. This was a difficult one to discount because the protagonist both improved her lot later in the game, and she remains one of the few compelling women of color to front her own game. While it’s important to hold developer’s accountable for the prologue sequence that introduces the main character through both objectifying camera angles and a male voice, it’s also important to acknowledge just how rare the woman of color as female protagonist is. Are there any other ways you can think of to hold developers and publishers accountable?
These are just a few of games to which we can apply our test. Which are your favorite games that pass? Let us know in the comments below and make sure to subscribe to keep up to date on our latest critiques and discussions.