In this long form piece, our writer Sarah Awad looks at the role of female characters in video games- the good, the bad and the ugly.
Our story begins…
Ten minutes to midnight, as a suburban town lies dormant in the dead of night, Sarah, the protagonist, enters her home with a soft shut of the door. A well-bodied thirty-something clad in jeans and a t-shirt, she schleps into the living room, exhausted and concerned as she debates with her business partner on the cell phone. “I can’t lose this job!” she warns, as if work has been slow, as if ends are barely meeting for her. She sighs as she speaks. As a single mother caring for a twelve-year-old, her distress over this job appears pressing. She concludes the call as she sees her son, Joel, perk up from his sleep on the living room couch, awaiting her return. He asks about her day. She tells him it is past his bedtime. Obviously forgetting her birthday, Joel reminds her with a gift, a new watch, since she kept complaining about her broken one. Although spent from a long days work, Sarah’s heart fills from this gift, and after a few laughs and some TV-time shared with Joel, she tucks him into bed. “Goodnight, baby boy,” she whispers.
This is how Naughty Dog’s zombie drama The Last of Us begins, except all is not what it seems; in the actual game, Joel is the parent, the playable character, and Sarah his child. And in the ten minutes that follow, Sarah is killed and Joel is thrown headlong into a tragic quest of heartache and survival in an infected world.
Although she never existed, who could our role-reversed-Last of Us-Sarah have been if she was the true lead of the game: a single mother, worried about money, trying to balance a busy life, grieving the loss of a child, trying to physically and mentally survive in the midst of tragedy. Both the mother and the breadwinner, she could have been a woman of depth, one who does not necessarily fall into an obvious role. A woman living her life, and doing her best- she could be a friend, someone in town; she could have been anyone.
If there can be narratives about such a man in the central role of a video game, could there ever be a game about such a woman?