Following the release of Wolfenstein: The New Order last week, an image began circulating throughout the net that compared the primitive, pixelated face of protagonist B.J. Blazkowicz with his new visage, which has been rendered in the best next generation graphics has to offer. While some saw this as proof of how far video games have come since the release of Wolfenstein 3D in 1992, others saw it as evidence to the contrary, that despite all of the advancements in technology, games are still preoccupied with straight, white, gun-toting musclemen.
It’s unfortunately true that the majority of mainstream game protagonists and scenarios cater to a straight, Caucasian male audience, even though a 2012 poll conducted by the Entertainment Software Association estimated that women made up 47% of the gamer population—to say nothing of ethnic and sexual minorities. Some critics, like Anita Sarkeesian with her series Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, have attempted to analyse and confront the issue in order to determine how it can be improved for the future. For now, let’s commemorate several moments in gaming history that have broken down gender, racial and sexual barriers (in chronological order).
8. Tomb Raider, 1996-Present
The first entry on this list is probably the most well-known, with Angelina Jolie having portrayed Tomb Raider’s iconic protagonist Lara Croft in two movies. But while Lara Croft Tomb Raider and Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life were poorly received, the video game series on which they are based is one of the industry’s tent pole franchises. Adventurous, pistol-wielding Englishwoman Lara Croft was one of the first major female protagonists in the video game medium (Samus Aran of Nintendo’s Metroid preceded her, but some readers might not even know Samus is female because of her armour). While Lara’s physique has certainly been, ahem, embellished even from the start, she is still seen as an empowering figure, with games journalist Cara Ellison admiring the character for “[taking] a risk for the sake of thrills,” and for being a “doer” rather than a passive or supportive figure. A somewhat more realistic reboot of the series was released last year to critical acclaim, and a new entry in that mould is in development.
7. Mass Effect Trilogy, 2007-2012
The first Mass Effect game provoked outrage from some socially conservative commentators when developer BioWare announced the game would allow players to carry out a same-sex relationship—with an alien, no less. Since then, the Mass Effect has become known for its high quality narrative storytelling, its emphasis on player choice, and its permission to fool around with characters of all shapes, sizes, sexes and species. The final act of the trilogy also included the first male-male love scene in the series, pictured above. While BioWare still has a ways to go when it comes to not shoving female characters’ butts in the camera, they’ve nonetheless made strides for positively portraying sexuality in the video game medium.
6. Saints Row: The Third, 2011
Volition’s third entry in the open world Saints Row series was a stark departure from SR1 and 2 in both tone and content. Now the equivalent of Grand Theft Auto on PCP, Saints Row: The Third allowed players to jump through car windows from 20 feet away, prance about in leather BDSM gear, or get a running start and pummel an enemy with a floppy penis sword. Interestingly, SR3 also revamped its character creator to allow player to choose any gender, race, body type and even voice which, when combined in certain ways, allowed for the creation of transgendered characters… who could still run around with a floppy penis sword.
5. The Walking Dead, 2012-Present
Apart from being a critical smash hit, Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead, based on Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard and Tony Moore’s popular comic book series, features one of the most diverse casts in video gaming history. Apart from centering on black protagonists Lee and Clementine (the playable characters in the first and second “seasons,” respectively), The Walking Dead includes survivors of Persian, Indian, Asian and even Belgian heritage, and one of the most recent episodes in Season Two introduced not just one but two gay cast members. So while publishers like Nintendo have stumbled trying to rationalize not including gay relationships, in Tomodachi Life, Telltale has been breaking ground quietly and effortlessly in The Walking Dead.
4. Spelunky, 2012
Derek Yu’s Spelunky is part platformer, part endurance test, a quirky little title that rewards critical thinking and learning from one’s mistakes and punishes blindly rushing into situations. It also features a fairly diverse cast of selectable characters that includes various genders, races and body types. Each level also features a “damsel” that can be rescued for extra health, but in a neat little twist on the trope players are able to select a scantily clad male damsel, as seen above.
3. Depression Quest, 2013
A browser-based choose-your-own adventure designed by independent game developer Zoe Quinn, Depression Quest allows those who do not suffer from depression or anxiety to empathize with the effects of the disorders using a combination of skewed, limited life choices and glitch, minor key music. The game reflects Quinn’s own experience with depression and aims to dispel myths and stigma surrounding the condition.
The game met with controversy when Quinn attempted to get an official version of the game “greenlit” on Valve’s digital distribution service, Steam, with the creator receiving harassment and threats from misogynist users, some of whom felt that women cannot truly experience depression like men. Thankfully, a movement of players and game industry figures banded together to Greenlight the game, which should be arriving later this year.
2. Gone Home, 2013
The debut title from The Fullbright Company—members of which having previously worked on the “Minerva’s Den” DLC for BioShock 2—Gone Home was one of last year’s sleeper hits. A first-person game without all of the shooting, Gone Home puts players in the shoes of Kaitlin Greenbriar, a college student returning from a trip across Europe to her family’s new Oregon home in the summer of 1995. Finding the house empty, Kaitlin travels from room to room as a thunderstorm rages outside, looking through notes and diaries so to find out where her family has gone. While Kaitlin is the playable character, the “story,” is it were, is conveyed through the spoken diary entries of her teenage sister, Sam, relaying her difficulty adjusting to a new school, her gradual realization that she’s gay, and her parents’ reaction to her orientation.
1. Infamous: Second Son, 2014
While the first two entries in Sucker Punch’s Infamous series focused on electro-powered Cole McGrath, the recently released PlayStation 4 exclusive Infamous: Second Son centred on an entirely new cast of characters, led by player protagonist Delsin Rowe. Voiced by Troy Baker of BioShock Infinite and The Last of Us fame, Delsin is a delinquent twentysomething of Aboriginal heritage (specifically, the fictional Akomish tribe) who discovers his latent ability to adopt the powers of other “Conduits” (superhumans). Although the plot of the game is primarily concerned with uprooting the fascistic Department of Unified Protection from near-future Seattle, much of Second Son is fleshed out by Delsin’s relationship with his sheriff older brother and his dedication to helping the Akomish.