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December 26, 2007

Filed under: gaming»roundtable

Woman's Touch

I generally like the Round Table, if for no other reason than that it gives me a topic to write about, as opposed to my increasingly common writer's block. But this month's topic, gender, is a tough one to discuss fruitfully. What are we to do? Talk about how bad depictions of women in gaming continue to be? Lament the fact that this hasn't changed? Make fun of Barbie Adventures? Dissect Tomb Raider? Mock Chris Crawford again?

As fun as those might be, they make me tired. I'm not saying that someone else shouldn't do them. They are important roles to fill, all of them. But I'm not going to fill them. I've got nothing new to add there.

So let's talk instead about a gender-related success story that few people have played/will play, the Touch Detective games. I mentioned a while back that the first game has a lot of issues, but some genuinely funny moments, and I finished the second one about a week later. They are not good games, in the way that classic adventures like Monkey Island are good games, because the designers were more interested in setting up the story scenes than making it easy to figure out how to trigger them. So I don't necessarily recommend them to people, unless you're able to suppress your guilt reflex from using GameFAQs, at which point the two titles become a lot more enjoyable--particularly the second, which has much sharper writing than the original.

In an earlier link post, I referenced The Rule, originally from the comic Dykes To Watch Out For. The Rule is a standard for movies: does a movie contain two or more women who have a conversation together about a topic other than men? I don't recommend actually following The Rule (your entertainment options will be pretty barren), but it's sometimes helpful to think about it, and realize how few movies actually qualify.

Or how few video games. I think Half-Life 2 is a pretty great piece of work, and the character of Alyx Vance is certainly a step up from Elexis Sinclaire. But the designers of HL2 have also been remarkably transparent about the guts of these games, so we can't avoid knowing that Alyx is not just a character: she's a whole set of game design mechanisms, tweaked to provide feedback to the player according to a set of psychological principles. In other words, Alyx intrinsically breaks The Rule. Much of her primary purpose is to talk to, and talk about, the player (who, even if female, is virtually embodied in the male Gordon Freeman).

Although HL2 should make a fascinating post at a future point in time, today I wanted to talk about Touch Detective instead. And the reason is that while these games were not marketed as "for girls," almost all the characters are female. And perhaps more importantly, they're female without making their gender the defining characteristic of their personality.

So when Mackenzie, the "Touch Detective" of the title, wanders around her Tim Burton-esque town to solve cases (most of which involve her flighty friend Penelope), those interactions don't usually revolve around the fact that she's a girl. It's not that Mack is genderless: touch one of the dresses in the town boutique, and she'll note that she thinks it's cute (but wouldn't suit her). But when she's forced to find a way around a barrier, her age or size (she's still in middle-school, I think) is much more likely to be the sticking point.

It's astonishing how much this changes the dynamic of the game. I know we're all tired of talking about Tomb Raider, but contrast it with Lara Croft, who even in the Legend reboot and Anniversary remake faces an almost entirely male cast. Granted, not the best example, and I'll admit that. Still: when Lara trades lines and gunfire in cutscenes with male opponents, at best there's almost always a reference to her sexuality or appearance. At worst, there's sometimes a weird, quasi-rapist vibe to those scenes that makes them painfully uncomfortable to watch. Even if these were meant to show Lara triumphing in the face of chauvinism, they can't help but grate given the heroine's presentation and the cultural context surrounding the franchise.

In other words, what Touch Detective accomplishes that Tomb Raider does not is create a safe space for its female characters--this is the essence behind The Rule. Of course, in order to do so, it only had to remove almost all the male characters, put its protagonists in middle school, and embed the story in game mechanics that actively frustrate the player. If this is a success, it's a pyrrhic one.

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