A Kotaku article recently provoked a firestorm of reactions, because it seems that the new rebooted Lara Croft is supposed to make us - the gamers - want to protect her.
As the above article reported that one of the things the gamer is going to be protecting her from is a rape attempt (a statement that Crystal Dynamics have firmly denied), many of the articles that have addressed the article have focused on that, with entirely appropriate outrage. Read Chiller, Chuck Wendig, my wife Lucy Bond and especially Dork Tower.
I'm not going to address those same issues, not because I don't agree with Chuck or Chiller or Lucy or John (I absolutely DO agree) but because I see another important issue here.
Pardon me while I talk about dialogue for a moment.
As games writers, we distinguish between dialogue which happens reactively, i.e. in response to the player's autonomous actions, dialogue which happens processively, i.e. in response to the story itself reaching a certain point, and dialogue which happens spontaneously, i.e. is appropriate to the narrative context but not guaranteed to happen.
The difference between conventional TV/radio/movie scripts and games is that dialogue in gameplay sequences is TRIGGERED, rather than occurring within a set timeframe. It can be triggered in response to player action, or in response to the player reaching a given area, or by some other mechanical cue.
The exception is conversation sequences between non-player characters, which begin when they are triggered but from that point, proceed independently of the player even if the player is addressed.
Reactive dialogue is immersive. It doesn't often carry plot, and its main purpose is to make the dude holding the controller FEEL like he is guiding the action. If you're playing Grand Theft Auto IV and you ding someone else's car while driving, he might yell 'Asshole' or 'Watch where the f--- you're going' or 'F--- youuuu' or something suitably colourful. Also, remember that sequence in Uncharted II where Drake is running around the Tibetan village and you get to interact with the villagers, or wave hello to a cow? That.
Progressive dialogue is almost always expository to some degree. In Half-Life II, for example, Gordon Freeman reaches the base and watches Alex and her dad have their happy reunion. This differs from a cutscene only inasmuch as the player is free to walk about and mess with things – and crucially, if the player doesn't have a clear task objective, he is liable to just knock things over, smash monitors with crowbars, try to shoot the cat and such.
And then there's spontaneous NPC dialogue. Sometimes, NPCs just say stuff – relevant stuff, but seemingly at random. This helps give the sense of an immersive world.
The player cannot usually make the player character say a line of dialogue. There's no button to press to deliver a witty retort or make an awed observation. Instead, the player character's dialogue happens automatically in response to actions the player takes or places the player reaches. The player character never just says something into a vacuum because the plot requires it, because that would create dissonance between what the player is doing with his controller and what is going on on the screen. Frequently, the player character's dialogue will take the form of 'asides' or seemingly internal dialogue.
To give you some idea of how different games handle this:
Some protagonists are totally silent. Gordon Freeman and Isaac from Dead Space, for example.
Some use gameplay-cued dialogue for flavour and wisecracks. Uncharted 2 is a brilliant example – if you make Drake jump into a rooftop swimming pool with his clothes on, he yells 'Marco!' to his companion.
Some use gameplay-cued dialogue to make you feel you ARE the character. Masterclass here is Batman: Arkham City. If you, the player, click on a fragile wall, Batman says to himself 'If I place explosive gel at that point, the whole wall will come down.' You are allowed to be Batman, because Batman is speaking AS you, not TO you.
Now, back to the point.
As a gamer, I do not play Batman: Arkham City to protect Batman. I don't play it to admire Batman, to lust over Batman, to root for Batman or to vindicate Batman. I do not, in short, play the game for any reason that depends upon the relationship between me the individual gamer and Batman the character on the screen.
I play Batman because, ludicrous though it may be, I GET TO BE THE GODDAMN BATMAN. And the game succeeds at that, because the game WANTS you to be the Goddamn Batman. The way the game feeds you information is specifically designed to minimize any intrusion upon that blessed illusion of identity.
Back to the Kotaku article, and the line I want to focus on:
"When people play Lara, they don't really project themselves into the character."
Now, for one thing, I'd love to know where the heck that supposed information comes from. I know plenty of female gamers who DO project themselves into the character. But for the sake of argument, let's suppose that 'when people play Lara', what's really meant is 'when male gamers play Lara'.
It seems to me - and I could be wrong - that the approach here has been to try to capitalize upon the supposed disassociation between male gamers and Lara Croft. Instead of helping the player immerse themselves in the character (as was done with Batman above), the male player is encouraged to see himself as a sort of benevolent deity separate and apart, a guardian spirit who not only guides Lara's actions for her benefit but protects her from bad guys.
If true, if if iffety-if IF, this is a frigging tragedy. And it's moving in the opposite direction from the one we should be moving in. The game should be doing its utmost, through all the subtle tricks of the games writer's art, to immerse us in Lara's character, because Lara Croft kicks arse. Being Lara Croft should feel as exhilarating as being Batman, or Nathan Drake, or any other character whose skin we really get inside. We shouldn't have our role as The Gamer defined for us as if we were a separate character.
Furthermore, forcing male gamers out of Lara Croft's shoes is encouraging them not to empathise and identify with a female character. That's a hell of a waste. There are so many stories that could be told from a woman's point of view, so many narrative doors that could be opened here, and yet we're told that we have to default to a presumed 'male protector' point of view even when the lead character is female?
I don't claim to speak for all male gamers, but I would like to propose a simple collective statement which any (cis) male gamer ought to be able to agree with. Feel free to do so if you are of like mind. Here we go:
I, the undersigned male gamer, being of sound mind and body, do not believe that my penis will fall off if a game encourages me to identify with a female character.
I'll start: Adrian Bott
Now it would be remiss of me not to acknowledge that not all male gamers feel this way. I know there must be some of you out there who do believe, with sincerity and fervour, that being encouraged to identify and empathise with a female character will make your penises fall off.
And I may not agree with you, but I have to respect your opinion. After all, it's a pretty scary prospect. One moment you're running around as FemShep or Lara or Catwoman, the next - bam, no penis. Hell of a thing.