05/26/2010 update: So a newer, better, EVEN LONGER, revised version of this hokum will allegedly be published in issue #1, the ‘No Fun Issue’, of Kill Screen Magazine. I’m very proud. Please avoid this version and read the longer, better one! Thanks!
I’m disappointed I haven’t been able to actively participate in any Bayonetta discussion—I kind of haven’t played the game, so I have no fully formed opinions, here.
But that won’t stop me from posting a long stream-of-consciousness with squirrelly punctuation in the middle of the night. No sirree!
The ongoing Bayonetta dialogue reminds me of a short conversation I had on a patio deck at a casual (birthday?) party maybe a year or two ago. I don’t remember which editor of what website I was talking to (and that’s just total laziness on my part, because I could just google around until I find his piece and byline), but he wanted to talk to me about his pick for Video Game Character of That Year.
And, for this editor, his choice had come down to two characters, each of whom he admired. There was Faith Connors (Mirror’s Edge) and—he excitedly told me this—“You!” (Fallout 3). And he could not wait to pen this article, because Fallout 3’s “You!” had thrilled him, you know, not only as a critic, but as a gamer.
I could totally get where he was coming from. In 2006, for instance, Time absolutely got it right when the magazine named “You!” the Person of the Year. I think the magazine did something really smugly stupid, too, like a shiny, mirrored cover that reflected your own face, which invited a lot of eye-rolling.
Anyway, I remember reading that 2006 Time cover story and nodding zealously along with it. Because, and this is going back even earlier, maybe by another couple years, I’d read this bizarre column about the iPod being a blank slate or mirror or lens. The article’s crux was, the iPod is so different from whatever gadgets preceded it, because the iPod (or any music player, I guess) is basically valueless to the individual or end-user until the individual crams the gadget with his own information—his mp3s, his playlists, his favorite videos, whatever. And once he’s done that, once he’s inscribed his own iPod with music and media that he personally values, the iPod is basically meaningless to anybody else. That is, at least until he’s mugged at gunpoint and it is scrubbed clean again for black market resale (which, it happens).
In that way, the iPod is one of the first technologies where the primary feature and function are “You!” and it can’t really exist without “You!” what with all your making, doing, syncing, and being. Ergo: the iPod is the first truly successful instance, maybe, of a “vanity gadget.”
So that’s a pretty good idea—again, not mine, I read it somewhere—and it’s a little archaic, because ‘vanity technology,’ from your old Livejournal to your shiny polyphonic cell phone, is basically de rigueur now. So when Time named “You!” as the 2006 Person of the Year, the proclamation wasn’t a cop-out at all; in fact, I think Time was really fingering the zeitgeist. Ehm, so to speak.
Returning my thoughts to the party patio: The editor favored “You!” as his Video Game Character of the Year, and he said so. And his pick wasn’t a cop-out, and it wasn’t just clever; it was also legitimate.
Still, I disagreed with his selection. I admitted I wasn’t very far into Fallout 3, so my impression was, and remains, cursory. But it would have been one thing, I reasoned aloud, if I genuinely felt bonded to my Fallout 3 character, or if I had felt like the Character’s story were my story, too. But I didn’t feel that way at all.
Like, in the story, when another little girl comforted me during my botched birthday party, I suspiciously felt as if she were coyly putting the moves on my (ten-year old?) “self.” And I think I was supposed to like her, at least in the context of the game, and instead I just felt sort of weird, a dissonance, an artificial and completely fabricated gender dysphoria. And it would have worked if she had talked to me, well, I guess maybe like a lesbian, but instead the dialogue was vaguely heteronormative, like when eight-year old girls play House together and one girl says, “Now you be Dad” (we did! We did do this!), and then she talks to you in this put-upon, artificial way like she thinks Mom talks to Dad, instead of using the vocabulary and lexicon eight-year old girls use to talk to one another, which on an especially well socialized child sounds like “Can you please braid my hair.”
And then, I complained on the patio about how, maybe twenty minutes further into Fallout 3, some teenaged bully is following me around, shouting, threatening—and trying, I think, to punch me in the teeth—and I just cannot shake the feeling that he thinks he is shouting at a guy. It’s as if his every pronoun has been shifted from “he” to “she,” carefully rerecorded for my personal edification, and yet it is glaringly obvious that the game’s “You!” was never intended for me.
With this said, maybe Fallout 3 is perfectly antisexist because the game is written so that it is absolutely the same for all gamers. You may choose the sex of your avatar, certainly, but you do not choose your gender, which itself is essentially written into the game dialogue and scenarios.
But, and so, because my chosen sex did not align with my apparent in-game gender, I felt extremely uncomfortable. No, it’s worse than that: I felt alienated. And so my experience of being “You!” in Fallout 3, at least in its earliest chapter, was utterly antonymous to this editor’s experience of being “You!” My experience was paradoxically different from this guy’s experience, exactly because our experiences were crafted to be identical, except that I bring my own jumble of contexts and expectations as a kind of baggage into every situation, and into every game. So the editor was able to seamlessly fall into the game and accept its scenarios as his own as if they really were written for him; I, in the meantime, was much too hung up on artifice. I just could not shut that part of my brain off, and I kind of rejected “You!” as my own “You!” because the dialogue just seemed too inauthentic. My disbelief ran unchecked.
I thought the editor should have picked Faith Connors, and I told him so, saying, “Because, well, she isn’t anything at all. She’s just an avatar.”
“But that’s what I hate about her!” the editor replied.
Faith of Mirror’s Edge isn’t fully formed or realized—she is nothing at all like “You!” with all his or her experiences and backstory—and in fact, she’s a little bit cold and distant. And that’s a pretty good argument against her.
But I preferred playing as Faith because, almost inexplicably, I could somehow accept that I was a streetrunning, wall-jumping nymph. She has a story, I guess, something about a sister and an inside job or a set-up and being on the wrong side of the law, but it kind of doesn’t matter. Her sex doesn’t matter either. Maybe Faith is presented with her own jumble of experiences and narrative contexts, but they’re secondary. She is spry and nimble and, with a gun, a pretty terrible shot, and that’s all you really need to know about her if you want to pretend to be her.
I tried to explain this on the patio, but I don’t think I had the opportunity to say it out loud, so I’m doing that now: Faith is meaningful because she’s so totally meaningless.
Let me step back again and put it another way.
The greatest feminist gaming icon—am I conflating that with ‘antisexist’? Probably—is Chell.
Chell is “You!” in Portal, of course.
You don’t see “You!” for a long time in Portal. It’s a first-person game, and so you’re you, and no one insinuates or presumes anything about you, and no one gives you any information or real explication about you, because you’re just you, and you’re in a labyrinthine obstacle course, being pretty much you, yourself, you, and except for some disembodied voice in turns encouraging and taunting you, it’s just you.
And, very much in the same way Link never utters a word in a Zelda game, the magic is never broken by dialogue. You have total agency—you are taciturn, a person of action—and really, your success or failure is the main theme and action of the narrative. The disembodied voice goes to great lengths to tell you so, and she sounds pretty invested in your fate, which is creepy in its own way.
And what Portal does so, so well, and the game has won awards for doing it so well, is establish character and motivation, as any solidly written vignette in any medium ought. And you project yourself right in, you accept the game entirely on its own terms—because they’re your terms, too, aren’t they?—and that’s why this avatar, this “Chell” person, is such a shock.
Because a long, long time after Portal establishes you as you, you run past yourself. You see yourself in your own periphery, in an orange jumpsuit, darting past. It’s terrifying, real uncanny doppelgaenger stuff here.
And you’re so startled, and then you say, “Oh, my God! That was me!” And after a moment or two, you arrive at the very next moment, a tiny revelation where you become totally self-aware, like a baby in the sensorimotor stage, discovering its own hands. Until this moment, maybe you didn’t realize you looked like anything in particular.
And so now you say to yourself—maybe not aloud, maybe internally instead—“I wonder what I look like.” So you backtrack, trying to get a better look at yourself. And ever so carefully, you edge into your own line-of-sight.
Surprise! You are a chick.
THAT IS UNSETTLING.
It’s unsettling even if you really are a chick, but probably also if you are a dude. Because, when you spatially align yourself so that you can observe your own avatar, she is staring off to her right or left through a space/time vortex, ostensibly gazing right back at you. And (this is the horrific part), you and she are standing in exactly the same spot and moment in space and time, eyeing each other. I don’t think there’s a stranger existential moment in the history of gaming.
And yet! Portal is spectacularly matter-of-fact with its big reveal—kind of like the Metroid thing, where your avatar removes its helmet, and surprise! you are a chick. If you play your cards right, you might even be a chick in a bikini.
But here is the next surprise: your being a girl doesn’t mean anything. It means nothing. You play on, and nothing has changed, and the game is still the game, and you are still you. But something has substantially changed, and fundamentally changed, because now you know. You have seen yourself.
And anything you can do, Chell can do—Chell, standing where you are standing, looking right back at you, every bit as disbelieving as you are, maybe even equally surprised that you’re the asshole at the controls—and this conveys something really important about identity, about what is superficially constructed and what is essential.
But it also conveys nothing.
It’s unimportant, in Portal, that you’re Chell, and that Chell is a lady. She’s just an avatar, and that’s totally meaningless. She’s just the skin you are wearing at this particular moment in space and time.
Do you understand why this is important?
OH! Edit: ”[Scott] McCloud’s point is significant: a meaningful avatar is one that is instantly relatable, if only because its identity is willfully indistinct.”—me, a year ago
Brand new just-saw-this 01/18/10 edit: Talking Time – A question to women about women in games
07/15/11 edit: Oh my good lord. Someone made a lot of these exact points a year before I did, and I didn’t realize until now.