Great Women in Games: Part 3 of 5 - mnemosynekurai Blog - www.GameInformer.com
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Great Women in Games: Part 3 of 5

In the last two Great Women in Games pieces, we explored characters who did not fit typical problematic female character molds: They were feminine without being sexualized, and instead of essentially "becoming men" by relying on brute force and aggression to advance the plot, they relied on inherent skill, diplomacy, and caretaking behaviors.

Joanna Dark is nothing like our previously-highlighted ladies.

Joanna, Jo, or Agent "Perfect Dark" is the titular character of the 2000 N64 FPS, Perfect Dark. The game was originally helmed by the staff responsible for the hit shooter, GoldenEye, and is still widely considered to be one of the best FPS games of all time. It's often called a sort of "unofficial sequel" to GoldenEye, and the game received a visual makeover and re-release on XBLA in 2010.

The really interesting thing about this popular and prolific FPS, though, is that it follows many traditional conventions of FPS games and of the Bond series: It features a spy who is usually just badass but is also sometimes sexy, it's about saving the world from something evil and/or foreign (or is it that foreign = evil?), and it's unapologetically aggressive. And yet, Perfect Dark manages to do something even modern action-heavy game designers have trouble with: Featuring a female lead.

Perfect Dark Director Martin Hollis once said that he was frustrated with the lack of female characters in big-name games, and so set out to create an androgynous one who was controlled from a first-person perspective. This made it so, as Hollis put it, "you are" the woman – and yet you are not. Players control a woman, but the character's gender has little actual bearing on the plot of the story or how well people connect with the unseen avatar.



The reason Joanna Dark's role as a female character in a traditionally male game genre is important is similar to why Samus Aran's de-suiting at the end of Metroid is also important: it subtly, and yet not so subtly, challenges our assumption that action and shooter games have to star either men or balloon-boobed women. Perfect Dark takes the spotlight off Joanna's gender and focuses it instead on gameplay and story.

Now, this isn't to say that Joanna Dark is completely unproblematic. Using first-person perspective to combat androcentrism (remember that word from GWiG #1? If not, click here) is a double-edged sword. It could also be argued that the fact that Jo is controlled only from a first-person perspective strips away the power of her gender. That is, we don't get more used to seeing women in shooters because we don't really see Joanna, except in cutscenes. She is hidden and easily forgotten about. The lack of third-person perspective, then, is both a blessing and a curse. Joanna's lack of immediacy and physical presence helps ease people usually grumpy about female characters into accepting women in games. At the same time, however, Jo's lack of immediacy and physical presence means she is relatively harmless. Joanna may not challenge ignorant beliefs about female characters because her position, physically and figuratively speaking, isn't forced on the player.



Yet, I consider Joanna to be a great woman in games because she is (sadly) one of the only women to get the chance she had. Even today, action, FPS, and other traditionally male-dominated genre developers struggle with either justifying including female characters, or with representing them appropriately and fairly. Most of the successful shooters (whether first or third-person) from the last decade feature male protagonists, with female protagonists sometimes added on as an "alternate" choice (e.g. Mass Effect's FemShep). Perfect Dark, comparatively, featured only a woman. Not only that, but players who wanted to play co-op had to choose another woman – this time, a blonde – as their character. Can you imagine that happening with any of the most popular modern shooters?

Perfect Dark was ahead of its time in many ways – it had excellent visuals for the time, a tight campaign, and incredibly detailed multiplayer options. Modern shooters have easily outstripped Perfect Dark in all of those categories. Why can't they measure up to the standard it set for female protagonists?



Jo's place in Great Women in Games has as much to do with Perfect Dark as a game as it does with Joanna's character. Her importance, though, shouldn't be overlooked because of that. Perfect Dark was an immensely popular critical success that managed, way back in 2000, to get gamers (who were, at that point, still largely male), to play as a short-haired, usually modestly-dressed lady. Joanna herself certainly deserves some of the credit for that.

**Note: This analysis is based on the original Perfect Dark's portrayal of Joanna. Her design and use in marketing differed dramatically in Perfect Dark Zero, and even in the XBLA re-release.

Ali is a former Game Informer editorial intern and is currently a master's student at the University of Minnesota, where she studies games, virtual communities, manga, and other nerdy crap. Follow her on Twitter, Tumblr, Twitch TV, or her personal blog.

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