Every other week for the past nine months, Bonnie Ruberg has contributed Playing Dirty, a column on sex and gender in video games. Since Bonnie is taking a hiatus to work for The Village Voice, this will be her last Playing Dirty piece--at least for a little while:
Female gamers have long rolled their eyes at the role of women in video games. Rightfully so. An overwhelming majority of female characters in mainstream games are either super helpless (think classic Princess Peach) or super sexualized (think Lara Croft). Even nowadays, it's darn hard to come across a decent role model for girl gamers in the games they love. Just finding a reasonably strong female character -- a diplomat into the mostly male world of gaming who can convince men and women alike that beautiful, buxomly women won't always need saving, or even behind-the-scenes manipulation from men -- is itself a serious challenge.
But, come on, we know all that already, right?. The question is, what are we doing about it? Which mainstream games are taking up the challenge and defying video game gender roles? Until recently, I would have said almost none -- at least, none in any significant way (a paired-down bosom here, a spin-off game there). Then came Odin Sphere.
Odin Sphere is a side-scrolling RPG with a lot of twists, and one of them is its sheer number of strong, female characters. Players start out as Gwendolyn, a valkyrie princess and a proud warrior. Along the way, we encounter whole female armies, nasty female enemies, and powerful female bosses–all of whom, though beautiful and sometimes sexy, fight to the tooth without beating an eyelash. Not to mention the fact that the entire game takes place inside a book being read by a little girl.
Of course, there are powerful male characters in Odin Sphere, too. First and foremost, there's Gwendolyn's father, King Odin (though we should keep in mind that it's normally his daughter we see out on the battlefield, not her implicitly impotent father). However, some of these men -- for example, the ridiculously busty Lord Brigan -- almost seem like caricatures of masculinity. They mock the blown-out-of-proportion way female bodies are normally portrayed in games.
Still, in a lot of senses, we can call Odin Sphere a feminine game. I'm not just talking about characters. For starters, there's the emotional depth of the storyline. Most RPG's don't include cut scenes in which the brave main character contemplates her death as a means to make sure that her stoic father will finally love her. Then there's the aesthetic. Odin Sphere is gorgeous, but not in the way we normally mean when we talk about big-name video games. Instead of beefed-up graphics, we get highly stylized character design and flowing, colorful backdrops.
To be fair, there are a few "feminine" elements that undercut the whole female power thing. Like a number of female heroines before her (Alexandra from Eternal Darkness, Mayu from Fatal Frame II ) Gwendolyn gets tired; on the battlefield, players often have to wait for her to regain strength to continue wailing on whatever opponent.
In the overall though, it seems like the makers of Odin Sphere were definitely conscious of gender roles in their game. Why else would we hear about those poor valkyries who, unable to fight, are "stripped of their honor" and wed to male warriors, only to produce children and live "under a man's thumb"? If anything, it is exactly the femininity of the women characters that makes them so proud, such dedicated fighters. These heroines, like the game itself, have uncovered the strength in just being a woman.
Bonnie Ruberg is a writer, researcher, and all around fangirl with a big crush on games. Her new column on cybersex in virtual worlds, "Click Me," can be found here. Also, check out her Village Voice games blog Heroine Sheik. Bonnie has really enjoyed writing Playing Dirty! She can be reached at .