Infamous First Light is hardly the first game to foreground a female superhero.
Think about Final Fantasy‘s Lightning, Metroid‘s Samus Aran, the Tomb Raider reboot’s rendition of Lara Croft, Beyond Good & Evil‘s Jade, Perfect Dark‘s Joanna Dark, The Longest Journey‘s April Ryan or Mirror’s Edge‘s Faith Connors. Strong female leads to a one, whatever you want to say about their quality or psychological depth contrasted with female characters in other longer-lived mediums like film or literature.
But those games are also outliers, a handful of titles in an ocean of shackling tropes and stereotypes, despite video gaming’s meteoric transition over the past several decades from niche past time to one of the highest grossing entertainment mediums in the world by revenue.
And so Sucker Punch’s standalone DLC prequel to its PlayStation 4 action-adventure Infamous: Second Son, debuting today amidst increased scrutiny of gender representation (sexualization, objectification, stereotyping) in video games, is noteworthy simply because it’s part of a still-all-too-small club: games with formidable female leads.
Even then, it looks a little like a compromise on paper: Delsin, the male protagonist of Second Son, got his own 15- to 20-hour-long game, whereas First Light‘s female protagonist, Abigail “Fetch” Walker, stars in a fractionally priced ($15 vs. the original’s $60) downloadable followup that lasts just four to five hours. That’s a crude, reductive way to think about anything, of course, but a way some will, nonetheless, given how gender-skewed gaming remains in 2014.
“In general, there are correlations between gender and genre–they’re not many letters off each other after all,” says Sucker Punch cofounder Chris Zimmerman during a phone interview on the eve of First Light‘s release. “Our games tend to skew a little bit more towards women than most games do, but we’re not wildly out of band with other third-person action titles.”
I ask Zimmerman whether he knew the demographic breakdown for Infamous: Second Son: how many women versus men played the original game. He doesn’t have specifics, but says “it kind of depends.”
“The fact that Sucker Punch, like all video game companies unfortunately, has a relatively male-skewed gender balance probably does influence our outlook on things, but we don’t make an explicit point of that,” he tells me. “When we started work on First Light, we didn’t think of it in terms of a male or female lead. When we were deciding whether the protagonist should be Fetch or not; gender didn’t even come into the conversation.”
Zimmerman says Fetch was just a character the company saw as appealing to people in general, regardless of gender. “It didn’t seem like an issue when we were talking to people, so we really didn’t consider it,” he says. “On the other hand, all of the characters in our games are very explicitly designed not to be objectified or gender-distorted.”
Zimmerman brings up Delsin, the male protagonist of Second Son and proverbial every-geek, a middle-of-the-road, rumpled-looking, quip-slinging dude. The stereotypical gamer, in other words.
“Delsin as a character is a regular-looking guy. He does not look like a superhero. He looks like a dude,” says Zimmerman. He then launches into an anecdote about randomly running into someone while walking in downtown London, however improbably dressed like Delsin, and how that drove home the utter ordinariness of the character the studio had designed.
“This is like the world’s easiest cosplay,” he says. “Just get a denim jacket, some buttons, do some painting on the back, you’re done. You don’t have to fabricate a giant sword, you just have to wrap a chain around your wrist. That’s all very intentional on our part. The Infamous games are about relatability. It’s about setting a world up where you can’t help but say ‘What would I do?'”
But Fetch is an altogether different persona in Sucker Punch’s X-Men-like world, a psychologically fractured, super-powered killer in the midst of a mental fugue. When we meet her in Second Son, she’s euphemistically described as a vigilante, when she’s in fact a homicidal maniac, assassinating drug dealers willy-nilly and leaving behind creepy neon tableaus. Where Delsin’s led an uneventful life up to the point he’s handed superpowers, Fetch is grappling with a borderline schizophrenic crackup: parental rejection, years of substance abuse and addiction and paranoia, long-term incarceration, a spree of violent murders, and topping it all, her unspeakable role in the death of her brother. Second Son was in part her redemption story, whereas First Light chronicles her descent into madness.
Still, says Zimmerman, the team’s goal with Fetch was to make her just as relatable as Delsin.
“It was important to us that Fetch looked like a normal person,” he says. “She’s like someone you’d see on the streets of Seattle. She’s not wearing bikini armor, she’s just wearing clothes. She has her own sense of style. They’re not clothes I would wear, but I’ve absolutely seen people wearing clothes like that. And it’s not just the female characters we’re thinking about like this, it’s the male characters, too. We want to make sure that our characters are real, that they look like real people.”
There’s a flip side to relentless political scrutiny, where quashing stereotypes can unintentionally become witch hunting, a game’s accomplishment reductively discarded along with its shortcomings. I put the question to Zimmerman: How do artists or creators go about creating games in a gender-skewed industry without it feeling like a quota-fulfillment exercise?
“It’s a super question, and as a content creator, I can say it’s a hard thing to do,” says Zimmerman. “I love my job. It’s a great job. I love being able to come to work everyday and be excited about what I’m doing. But it’s not easy.”
“There are lots of constraints on what we do,” he says. “I think at the end of the day, our primary role is to build entertainment that people want to consume. We want to create experiences that are meaningful to people, but at the same time, we want to tell our own stories. I think the best commercial art happens when those two elements come together. When we make a game with a strong female protagonist, it’s not because we’re trying to change the world, it’s because we’re trying to remain true to the character. And hopefully the story we’re trying to tell is a story people want to play.”