The industry made a tiny little half-step in the right direction where the representation of women was concerned in 2014.
There were a few great woman protagonists (like Amanda Ripley from Alien: Isolation) and solid side characters (like Amita from Far Cry 4, Ilona from Call of Duty). Dragon Age: Inquisition, Polygon's choice for Game of the Year 2014, had more memorable, strong women characters in one game than we sometimes see in an entire year of gaming. We covered this ground in our recent best women characters of the year piece.
But, that's a tiny half-step up from a status quo that's still pretty dire, where so many women characters are damseled, window dressing or playing to tired stereotypes. And there was plenty of that going on.
Big budgets, big problems
Let's start with Ioreth, the wife of protagonist Talion from Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor. First there was that stealth kiss tutorial, which was a little odd. In an opinion piece published on Polygon earlier this year, designer Zach Gage explained why this was a problem.
"Aside from the obvious 'women as learning objects that are later murdered' issue, there's another issue at play here, and it's one of craft. Designers shouldn't make kissing and murdering feel the same. At the very least they shouldn’t do so when you’re trying to make that kiss part of an emotionally connecting moment that binds you to an NPC."
The kiss sequence was pretty weird, but worse than that, Ioreth is "fridged" (killed in order to provide motivation for the male hero) not long after. Shadow of Mordor isn't a completely thoughtless game, but the treatment of that character plays into the easiest, laziest trope for violent fantasy out there.
And how about that first-person sex solicitation in Grand Theft Auto 5's current gen re-release? The sex part isn't the problem — I honestly wish more AAA games had depictions of consensual sex. What bothers me is the fact that you can beat up and run over a woman sex worker right after she gives your character a first-person blowjob.
Obviously, the GTA games have never had great portrayals of women. But the cartoonish wackiness of the series is lost when the graphics are as realistic as they are in the latest iteration. The addition of a first-person mode adds to the gross factor. The angry frat boy approach to humor was never cute, but it's frankly gotten uglier with every hardware generation.
But the ugliest of all offenders came from Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes. In the game, there is an optional pickup — tape number 4 — that contains a graphic torture and rape scene. Later in the game, the woman who was victimized in the rape, Paz, has a bomb implanted in her vagina, and another in her stomach that hero Solid Snake has to help perform impromptu surgery (without anesthetic) to get it out.
Depictions of sexual assault need to be handled with great care. But, with its weird, half-joking tone, this nasty scene is played instead for shock value. At The Guardian, Ria Jenkins broke down the scene and its massive problems.
"The thing that immediately jumps out and makes me extremely uncomfortable is the fact that I’m discussing a game which has a character called "Skullface". A character who looks like a zombie and seems to be evil for the sake of evil, from a series which is known for its ludicrous, over-the-top antagonists. This character forces two people to have sex with each other against their will, this caricature is used as a vehicle to incorporate difficult themes like rape and sexual assault into a series which is renowned for being playful and not taking itself seriously."
Jenkins goes on to describe Paz's "punishment" by Kojima and team, who put her through so much agony that it borders on the comical — if it weren't so horrible. This is easily the worst, most misogynistic thing we've seen in a game this year.
Elsewhere, women were just cut from the picture altogether. Ubisoft dropped the possibility of women assassins in Assassin's Creed Unity's co-op because of the "workload." The next day, Far Cry 4 lead Alex Hutchinson admitted that the developers were "inches away" from allowing players to select a woman character in co-op. He blamed it on the workload as well.
When I wrote about Bayonetta for the best women characters piece, I noted that she was probably going to end up on the worst list too. Here she is: Bayonetta, a strong, powerful woman character who is ridiculously sexualized by the camera in her own game.
There are good arguments for and against Bayonetta's negative representation. Some say her sexualization is gross and pandering. Others, like Paste's Maddy Myers, have argued that Bayonetta's representation of a femme dominatrix is the very embodiment of a powerful woman, that her sexuality is her own.
Both sides have a point. Bayonetta is a perfect example of the ambivalence and growing pains the game industry has with regards to strong women characters. Clearly, there's a desire to move past the rote "damsel in distress," but not without the character's buttcrack being the star of the show.
Another ultra-sexualized woman fared arguably worse: Miss Monday from Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z is a woman with a Ph.D. that runs around in a corset all day. There was also this trailer for the game, which was sexist and pandering in the worst way.
It's not just AAA games that had issues with women this year. It was actually an indie adventure game that had the straight-up grossest depiction of women in 2014, to the point where I almost couldn't believe it was written by a woman.
Pretty much every woman character in Moebius: Empire Rising is a man-hungry shrew or a vapid Desperate Housewives reject. As if that weren't enough, the game contained the two most heinous acts of misogyny I've had to commit while playing a game. The first was baiting a working-class teenager — yeah, the fact that she comes from a poor family is part of the scheme — into showing off her ass to a creepy businessman in order to solve a puzzle. In the other, I had to threaten to cut a woman's face so that "no man will look at her again."
Moebius positions these two horrible actions as solutions to puzzles. They are presented as justifiable things that the hero does. A means to an end that makes the poor treatment of women "okay." The framing makes it all the more unacceptable.
Daring to hope?
As I stated in the companion piece to this article, just about all of my favorite characters in games this year were women. I sincerely hope that developers and publishers take those examples to heart, and create more of them. I would rather they take cues from a cool-headed engineer who can survive a brutal alien infestation, or a tough woman warrior that led the Inquisition in 2014, and not the same old rote stereotypes that we saw in other places.
Correction: This article was amended to note that there were two bombs implanted in Paz in Metal Gear Solid 5: Ground Zeroes.
This piece is part of Polygon's 2014 in Review series. Throughout December we'll be exploring the games, people and events that shaped gaming in the past year. You can check out more 2014 in Review stories in our StoryStream.