Opinion: Important Female Characters Weren’t Marketed Well This Year

by Kimberley Wallace on Dec 23, 2013 at 08:00 AM

Originally, I intended to write a feature on the defining female characters of 2013. Unfortunately, when I started compiling my list, I realized this wasn’t a great year for female characters. I could barely come up with five that I felt confident about, but two stood out the most: BioShock Infinite’s Elizabeth and The Last of Us’ Ellie. They’re great examples of female characters done well, but both weren't marketed as well as their male counterparts.

The Last of Us' Ellie was a breath of fresh air for female characters. She was an ordinary girl with the world's fate on her shoulders in the zombie apocalypse, but she stood out most for how she reacted to that situation. Facing it maturely and with some serious badassery, she helped Joel out in his emotional and zombie struggles just as much as he helped her. And so the story hardly feels like it's just Joel's, but also hers. Because both of these characters are so integral to the story, it really bothers me that in trailers, the focus was constantly put on Joel (granted he is the player character), but he gets significantly more exposure for a tale focused on a growing relationship.

The first trailer shown at the 2011 VGAs was the best by far for placing equal emphasis on both, but Ellie moved to the background in other trailers.The story trailer is the biggest perpetrator, placing the largest emphasis on Joel, making it sound like it's just his story, hardly capitalizing on Ellie's importance. The launch trailer does a better job, but it still makes Joel the biggest attraction, not painting Ellie as prominently as she appears in the narrative.  

A similar scenario plagues BioShock Infinite’s Elizabeth. While she’s just as important to the story as Booker DeWitt, you would hardly gather that by looking at the game’s marketing. Elizabeth is a magnetic character; the way Irrational Games presents her instantly draws you to her - an unfortunate girl locked away in a tower, finally stepping into the real world. But Elizabeth didn’t even make it on the main box art, which says something whether Irrational Games intended it to or not. It diminishes Elizabeth’s role, hiding her away, when she deserved to be front and center. I find this even more frustrating since Elizabeth is a great character, who doesn’t feel like a burden or stands back as the action unfolds. Why not celebrate her?  What's most puzzling to me is that when Irrational Games first started showing the game, a lot of emphasis was put on Elizabeth, but then her prominence slowly faded away. It feels as if marketing was afraid to put such a big role on a female character; as if, the promotions needed to prove Infinite had a male lead and plenty of guns. 

Part of me wonders if Elizabeth or Ellie followed Tomb Raider’s footsteps with iconic heroine Lara Croft and received the same marketing focus, how different things would be. Lara may be the playable character, but you could also argue that Elizabeth and Ellie had just as big of a stake in the story as their male counterparts. So, why pull back the spotlight on these awesome ladies? I don’t know what marketing groups’ research suggests, but maybe more people would be drawn to these games if they saw a capable female at the helm.

That said, I do feel female characters have been portrayed better in recent years, but developers still have their work cut out for them. Not only that, marketing needs to put the emphasis on the right elements  Both The Last of Us and BioShock Infinite take storytelling in interesting new directions, but they fall back to overplayed power fantasies in marketing. The story these games tell aren't even hinted at in trailers, nor are the integral roles of the female characters. I’m hoping next year improves, because the potential is there for deeper storytelling with more diverse characters. The question is, will publishers take the plunge and not be afraid to put their stronger characters front and center, even if they go against the standard marketing plan?