The Truth About E3 2015 and Female Protagonists

Apparently, at E3 2015 the industry listened and we finally had more female protagonists in video games.

But did we really?

Before I go any further, two things.

First, even though I always play as a male whenever a game offers a character creation option, I like or even love female protagonists in good story-driven games. What’s not to love about the juggernauts like Tomb Raider or Bayonetta or smaller games like Parasite Eve or Blackwell? So if you’re looking for an article explaining that somehow female protagonists ruin video games, a) you’re in the wrong place, b) what?

Second, I did put a couple of hours of research into this, but I’m not exactly a walking encyclopedia. So it’s very likely that someone reads this and goes berserk because I forgot about This Very Important Game™. Even if so — and do let me know on Twitter, and I’ll update the article — I think the findings are sound and show a clear trend. One or two games in this or that direction won’t make any real difference.

And now back to the enthusiasm. Honestly, the last time I have seen such a unified narrative was when multiple gamers are over articles appeared on the same day.

Let’s see:

IGN:

E3 2015 was the best year for female characters yet.

Guardian:

After years of being told that female characters don’t sell games or are too time-consuming to draw, E3 2015 provided a heartening influx of women in leading roles.

Financial Post:

It seems the Electronic Entertainment Expo is no longer a man’s world. During this year’s video game extravaganza, a variety of women — virtual and otherwise — have been featured more prominently than in past years of the annual trade show where game makers highlight their forthcoming creations.

The Verge:

For the first time, women appeared on stage in the majority of major press events, and as playable characters in many games. […] There’s plenty of room for improvement in inclusivity, from the scope to the breadth of representation — minorities still get little to no public recognition at the conference — but we witnessed progress in an industry that more often than not behaves like a petulant child, kicking and screaming and refusing to grow-up. […] After much encouragement, publishers are coming together to take ginger steps into adulthood.

Polygon:

But this year we counted a far healthier number of women onstage presenting games and tech, as well as a stronger number of women featured as playable or central characters in the games themselves.

Destructoid:

What is encouraging, however, is that this isn’t just a few scattered games, but a noticeable shift within the industry.

Develop:

EA and Ubisoft are also championing a new push for diversity. The trailer for Rainbow Six: Siege starred actress Angela Bassett, while Mirror’s Edge returned with Catalyst, again led by protagonist Faith.

And so on, and so forth, you get the point. And yes, you read that right, Develop is so dedicated to the story that they made a big deal out of a woman appearing in a cut-scene.

We can sum it all up as E3 2015: The Year of the Female Protagonist.

Meanwhile, E3 2014 was a disaster.

Boing Boing:

At E3 2014, a call for more diverse video game characters. […] NPR’s Laura Sydell has a report today on the dismal state of character diversity in video games: not enough non-sex-object women, not enough non-white-guys as protagonists.

HNGN:

Video Games Lack Female Characters; Interactive Entertainment Officials Discuss Gender at E3 2014.

Daily Dot:

At E3, we saw the same male protagonists — but women’s representation is still lacking.

BBC:

Why does sexism persist in the video games industry? Is creating female video game characters too much work?

Kotaku:

The Games At E3 2014 Sure Had A Lot Of Dudes (Like Always). […] There were, of course, some games with women protagonists in them this year, too! The new Tomb Raider, Splatoon, Bayonetta — just to name a few. But they’re outliers.

Play.tm:

E3 2014 and the Playable Female Character Conundrum. Why the games industry still has a lot of growing up to do. […] Not all of E3 this year was positive and exciting. The uglier side of the games industry reappeared to show that it still cannot comfortably deal with women.

Polygon:

There were more severed heads than women presenters at E3 2014. […] It’s time to stop pandering to our own stereotypes, and stop placing more importance on severed heads than women and people of color in the industry.

Et caetera. As previously, I am sure you get the idea.

I am human therefore I am biased. But I try my best to be data driven, and since something felt off to me, I decided to compare the abysmal E3 2014 to the wonderful E3 2015.

I have divided the games with female protagonists into four categories:

  1. Big productions with a female lead only.
  2. Smaller productions with a female lead only.
  3. Games with segments featuring a female protagonist.
  4. Games in which you can choose the gender of a character.

I think these are the four most important possible categories. All cover the possibility to play as a woman, be it a whole game, a part of the story in a game, or a game’s component (e.g. the multiplayer).

The key to selection was to select only the games that were either revealed at E3, or, if a game was revealed — through a leak or a legit reveal — before that E3, it had a significant marketing presence at E3, and was not published yet.

Such key allows us to include games the info on which leaked way before E3 (e.g. Horizon), or which were revealed before E3 but had an important marketing presence at E3 and were not published before that E3 (e.g. Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate), or games that were revealed a year or two earlier and had a repeated presence at E3 (e.g. Rise of the Tomb Raider or Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst), and, as previously, were not published before that E3.

Big productions with a female lead only

We’re talking games that could be qualified as AAA, with significant production values.

At E3 2015 we have seen Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst, Rise of the Tomb Raider, and Horizon.

At E3 2014 we have seen Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst, Rise of the Tomb Raider, Alien: Isolation, and Bayonetta 2.

Smaller productions with a female lead only

We’re talking games that don’t really have the true AAA production values, some call them AA. We’re also talking better-known indie games.

At E3 2015 we got Michonne (we’ve seen nothing but I’ll count it), Recore, Nier, Beyond Eyes, Adr1ft, Tacoma, and possibly a few others.

At E3 2014 we got Infamous: First Light (it’s a short AAA standalone, that’s why I count it, I don’t count female-led non-standalones like Bioshock Infinite’s Burial at Sea), Life is Strange, Dreamfall Chapters, Murasaki Baby, Night in the Woods, Roundabout, Velocity 2X, A Hat in Time, and possibly a few others.

Games with segments feat. a female protagonist

One of the coolest story-telling ideas in story-driven games, and one that helps achieve gameplay variety. It’s nothing new, of course. I remember enjoying it nearly twenty years ago in 1997’s Broken Sword 2: The Smoking Mirror, and we’ve also seen it in dozens of other games, e.g. Fahrenheit or Heavy Rain. Or Quantum Break, a game that was announced at E3 2013 but then skipped both E3 2014 and E3 2015.

Still, we sadly don’t see that idea implemented in games often enough in my opinion, which is why I did not separate this category into big and smaller sub-categories. There’s just not enough titles for that.

It’s also a difficult category because sometimes little is known about these games, e.g. whether we can switch to a female protagonist at any time, or what is the ratio of male/female protagonist time. E.g. Kotaku reported on Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate that “Jacob will still likely qualify as the game’s main character. The balance in story missions may favor the brother about 75% to 25%, according to a person familiar with Syndicate […].“

Still, if there is an important female character in the game, and we get to play as her, I have included such game in the list.

At E3 2015 we got Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate …and honestly that is all I could find — but let’s assume there were also one or two smaller games. (For the record, I put Dishonored 2 to the next category, as you can play as a man or a woman through basically the whole game).

E3 2014 had The Witcher 3, although worth noting that even though Ciri is obviously an extremely important character in the game — some even call it the true hero of The Witcher 3 — we don’t get to play her for too long, especially compared to the total length of the game.

At E3 2014 we also got Tales from the Borderlands, Valiant Hearts, and possibly one or two others.

Games with selectable gender of the protagonist

At E3 2015 we had Fable Legends, Battlecry, The Division, Mass Effect: Andromeda, Dishonored 2, FIFA 16, Fallout 4, Halo 5: Guardians, XCOM 2 and I’m sure many others as this is the most popular solution to include both genders.

At E3 2014 we had Fable Legends, Battlecry, The Division, Mass Effect: Andromeda, Dragon Age: Inquisition, Evolve, Bloodborne, Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, Dead Island 2, Destiny, Splatoon, Sunset Overdrive, Project Spark, Hyrule Warriors, Fantasy Life, Xenoblade Chronicles X, and so, so many others.

So what does it all tell us?

When I look at the data, I see that when it comes to female protagonists, E3 2015 was on the same level as E3 2014. And I am being quite generous here.

I wouldn’t mind if the E3 2015 increase were true. Why not? I have enough games that allow character creation, tons of games with male leads, and at the end of the day all I care about is a great experience and a great story. Having varied protagonists — including, of course, women — can help with that, even if by offering a unique perspective.

Also, somehow games with female protagonists usually go beyond the tired gameplay clichés of Battlefield Call of Assassins. A lot of them somehow turn out to be bad games, but some of them shine and move our art form forward. Variety? Yes, please!

But the increase just does not seem to be true.

It’s not that I think we’re in a bad place or anything, I very strongly disagree with the E3 2014 type of alarmism. (To be honest, I’m not even sure if there ever was a bad place lately. When I looked at E3 2013, I saw Tomb Raider, Beyond: Two Souls, The Walking Dead:400 Days, Elder Scrolls Online, Project Spark, Transistor, Until Dawn, Below, Contrast, and many others.)

But, even though there’s still some space here in 2015, I just don’t see the increase.

Actually, one could swap the narratives and it would totally work. We could praise 2014 for being the year (and indeed that happened in a few instances, like here, here, or here), and we could lament 2015 for its hegemonic toxic masculinity (Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, Just Cause 3, Call of Duty: Black Ops 3, Rainbow Six Siege, Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Wildlands, and many others), “more severed heads than female speakers” (For Honor alone could probably make it happen), and only three major AAA games with female protagonists (and people cried over “just four” in 2014)…

It would be way too easy to complain about 2015 as if it was 2014. Heck, even I was tired of the prevalent themes:

And this is coming from a guy who was the Creative Director on Painkiller and Bulletstorm, some of the most splatterfest shooters ever made!

How come 2015 is suddenly so infinitely better than 2014, then?

I think there are two reasons for that.

First, I think the bias comes from the fact that there were probably more women on stage than in any previous year. It seems like there were six the last year, and I think we have seen more this year (anyone wants to compare, go ahead, I refuse to watch all the conferences again). And we’re not talking any fake non-gamer/dev speakers here, we’re talking real flesh and blood female developers. Their presence was noticeable, and they were all great.

Additionally, the bias might be amplified by the fact that this year the publishers were smarter about their trailers and gameplay previews. In previous years, most of the time if, say, Ubisoft had a game they wanted to promote, they kept it for their own conference. This year, they did promote such a game at their conference, but prepared something unique and worthy for the platform holders as well. So Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate was present in multiple conferences at E3 2015, and one of these presentations showed a female protagonist we can sometimes play as.

So I think that while games themselves did not really change on the whole, the slight refocus in game marketing might have affected the journalists’ perception of games.

Second, last year, some of gaming press, especially those who love to call themselves progressive, pushed the narrative that games are awful (see the earlier E3 2014 quotes), and that all that gamers want — when they’re not busy being dead — is to push women out of gaming. That didn’t quite work as well as they expected: gamers refused to die and it turned out that no one ever wanted to push women out of gaming.

No one likes admitting they were wrong. The remainings of the narrative, then, had to be reskinned. And so now we have it that the industry “finally listened and grew up”. Even if the change never really comes just because cultural critics crack the whip.

But you know what…

I kind of like this change.

It’s a step, or even a jump in the right direction.

I think celebrating what you like — even if that celebration is inflated and biased — is infinitely better than shaming what you don’t like.

I was happy, then, that the ultra-violent Doom or For Honor were left alone by the press, and this year no one complained about the “severed heads” or the lack of female assassins in Rainbow Six. Instead, with only a few exceptions, the usual suspects simply focused on the positives. And this particular desync between what they say and, well, facts, is one I can live with.

And the “I don’t like it and it’s a problem” versus “here is what we loved” — echoing Feminist Frequency’s shift from “here’s why video games suck” to “I liked these video game characters” — is the most important E3 2014 to E3 2015 change I’ve noticed.

Hard not to like this trend.

If at E3 2016 we reach the point when we simply celebrate games, great story-telling and great characters without the faux outrage…

…we could finally party like it’s 1999:

(Collage above by Rhéa, in reaction to Huffington Post UK’s “Video Games Are Finally Growing Up” article and a few others)

Post Scriptum: Additional analyses confirming that E3 2015 was at best on par with E3 2014: one, two, three.