The Ellen Page prototype
After E3's coming and going this week, many industry journalists characterized this year's show as a "mature" display. Mature, as in the result of coming as a late (perhaps last) E3 for this console generation's life cycle, rather than particularly addressing complex themes or displaying extreme violence (though there was plenty of that too).
As a casual observer of the show this year, largely through the lens of Polygon, there was something of a mini-trend that I (and I know many others) picked up on right away with the chance to see these games side by side. I refer to how Ellen Page (whois below) seemed to magically appear in not just one, but two E3 trailers on display. An interesting enough topic for discussion in itself, but in light of this year's presentation of a reportedly "matured" selection of games, it seems like a good opportunity to analyze and reflect on the depiction of women in gaming today - subjects games have frequently treated downright childishly - framed by this coincidental convergence of character design.
Female characters have a sordid and too-often unfortunate history in the world of video games. Flat personalities, over-enlarged breasts + years of R&D in "bounce physics," shallow personal development, and generally being caricatured to the point of making Barbie look tame, have become the norm. We've all seen it; it's not to say games are devoid of compelling or memorable women, but that many have had their shortcomings.
Now we have several very striking female characters taking on similar roles, with congruent names, in a raft of recently announced game experiences, who share qualities with a young, talented actress by the name of Ellen Page...
Ellen (Juno, Inception, Beyond: Two Souls)
Hollywood actress turned video game motion capture star? Here as reference shot - tried to find her looking a little serious.
Ellie (The Last of Us)
Forgive her look of bewilderment and fear: Joel has probably just recommend this 14 year old girl "keep it together" after watching him burn a man alive with a DIY molotov cocktail. Ellie's facial features have actually been altered from her original presentation; she now appears to possess a less direct semblance to Ms. Page (see: #3).
Elizabeth (BioShock Infinite)
This one is a little more questionable, in part given the difficultly of finding a picture (or minute of gameplay) that doesn't feature her noticeably exposed breasts. The team at Irrational Games say they're adhering to dress code of the age they're re-imagining, but that's another thread. She also wasn't an E3 presence this year (Ken Levine wanted to stay in the cave working as penance for pushing back release until 2013), but similarly came to mind.
Jodie (Beyond: Two Souls)
Will the real Ellen Page please stand up? She's doing motion capture for this one so let's assume she looks, sounds, feels like the real thing. Standing apart from our other two aspiring heroines, Jodie takes the lead in Beyond. Yay!
Closer cut dark hair, short stature, freckles, individualistic , thin but fit, determined and strong - all seem to describe these characters, and Page herself. Though I'm sure there are other examples, and counter-examples to go with them, even the genres/themes covered by the games they feature in have some overlap.
Is this a step in the right direction for women in games? I think there were certainly some interesting titles discussed at E3 - even a Lara Croft reboot that claims to do more than sexually objectify her!
Elizabeth and Ellie both run the risk of portraying the damsel in distress in need of an escort, with tag-a-long support roles. Yet Ellie did some saving of her own in The Last of Us trailer with some impressive AI handiwork (and BioShock is promising much the same). Still, Elizabeth's boobs remain intentionally distracting (here I am going on about them again!); you can bet it won't be a topic safe for image searching at the library.
Is this just happinstance/convergence - perhaps the result of Page becoming something of a common source of inspiration for a strong female character among developers? Merely a continuation of female conventions in the genre? Or gamers deciding that Ellen Page is the new model for a "hot female" character?
However each of these games turn out, I'll be excited to see where they take these characters on their respective journeys. As ultimately it is the experience: how we connect, learn from them, and relate - not their gender or real-life constituent - that will truly define these women, should the developers succeed.