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Analysis: Sexism In Female AI Partners
Analysis: Sexism In Female AI Partners Exclusive
March 11, 2011 | By Jeffrey Matulef




[Gamasutra contributor Jeffrey Matulef investigates the role of female AI partners, comparing the likes of Enslaved's Trip, Resident Evil 4's Ashley and Half-Life 2's Alyx.]

In new console title Knights Contract, players assume the role of Heinrich, an immortal executioner tasked with protecting a witch named Gretchen. Gretchen is a powerful sorceress adept at casting devastating attack spells, yet she regains health in the most implausible of ways; being held by Heinrich.

Regenerating health while resting makes sense, but there's no reason this should only occur when cradled in his arms. This is doubly ridiculous when in later levels player's control her and she's able to convert her "witch points" into health -- an option that wasn't available previously. Buddying up with an immortal soldier is a sensible move, but this implausible mechanic gives off uncomfortable, sexist vibes. 

Knights Contract is only but the most recent in a long line of games about males protecting females. When this is handled poorly, it can be annoying and offensive.

While at worst your charges are a misogynistic burden, at best they function as partners, who use their mechanics to enhance their character's relationships without being helpless.

Ninja Theory's recent Enslaved paired hunchbacked hunk, Monkey, with protecting Trip, who's grafted a slave crown on his head to ensure that he follows orders. If he doesn't, he gets shocked, and if she dies, he dies too.

This could have been a recipe for disaster leading to yet another story of a whimpering woman who can't take care of herself without a beefy protector. Rather than make her an empowered, badass warrior, Ninja Theory gives Trip other talents; notably brains.

Not only is she tech savvy and resourceful -- creating decoys and hacking doors -- she's aware of her shortcomings and does what any sensible person not trained in the art of combat would do when faced with killer robots; she hides. This way she seldom hinders the player from a gameplay perspective, nor is she a damsel in distress.

Resident Evil 4 took a similar approach in which the player character, Leon, spent much of the time escorting the President's kidnapped daughter, Ashley.

Ashley would also run and hide, but the player had to tell her when to stay still and when to follow. While this gave the player more agency, it wasn't a welcomed addition as it meant one had to frequently dictate her actions. It also implied that she couldn't think for herself, a feeling exacerbated by her frequent and shrill cries for help.    

While Enslaved and RE4's female companions choose flight, Gordon Freeman's spunky scientist pal, Alyx Vance, chooses to fight in Half-Life 2: Episode One.

Since she's handy with a gun and doesn't have a health meter, I experimented with running away to see if she could do all the fighting for me. It didn't work. She was killed, I got a game over. When I tried engaging in the fight, however, she seemed to have no problem taking care of herself. I wasn't babysitting her in the slightest and she never died, so long as I didn't go AWOL. 

She's every bit Gordon's equal, though it's hard to shake the feeling that she's a fetishized dream girl. Not only does she strike up a quasi-romantic relationship with a man who never speaks (and in my case has a penchant for jumping on people's heads), but she'll shoot enemies heading towards him.

By contrast, the player needn't reciprocate the favor since she's not likely to die. She's useful for distracting enemies, and I genuinely wanted to help her. By aiding the player and being a likable character, Alyx is a fantastic AI partner and her presence makes the shootouts more emotionally charged.

Opting for a more archetypal approach, Ico's fairy tale fantasy makes its female lead incredibly helpless. The player controls Ico, a small boy who partners up with an otherworldly teenage girl, Yorda, to escape a castle.

Yorda is incredibly defenseless and possibly blind. She can't make it very far without Ico and she certainly can't fend off the shadow spirits set on kidnapping her. She can open specific magically sealed doors though, so Ico needs her just as much as she needs him.

Much like Knight's Contract, the playable character is invincible (unless he falls from a ledge), but his companion is not. In some ways, she hampers the player. During battle, Ico must protect her by thwacking enemies with a stick -- something that goes on for too long and is arguably the game's low point. 

Her presence succeeds when it forces the characters to separate, lending a sense of dread to the proceedings. I hated leaving Yorda alone, and the knot in my stomach tightened with every step I took further away from her.

There's a fine line between feeling annoyed and uneasy, but Yorda's presence leaned towards the latter as I knew I couldn't be there for her all the time. It also helped that she had no health meter. As long as I could get to her before my foes dragged her through a portal in the ground she'd be safe with no damage dealt or lasting repercussions for my negligence.

This system worked especially well in the climax -- where Yorda's captured and Ico's swarmed by shadow spirits -- as there's no way to lose. Being invincible, empowered and angry is cathartic and feels unlike anything else in the game up to that point. Yorda may be weak, but her presence certainly isn't.

Most of these games aren't particularly sexist on their own, but when taken as a whole it's hard to overlook the trend that it's almost always a male escorting a female. Through smart design and competent writing, the better games downplay their stereotypes and turn what could be vulnerable sidekicks into capable partners.

I'd love to see more games starring women in playable roles, but until that day comes it's at least nice to see women represented as people with minds of their own who can bring more to the table than eye candy.

[Jeffrey Matulef is a freelance writer whose work can be found at G4TV.com, Eurogamer, Paste, and Joystiq among other places. He's also a regular on the Big Red Potion podcast. You can contact him at jmatulef at gmail dot com.]


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