Over the years it has been clear how video games have evolved, both within a specific console generation and when a new one eventually arrives. Changes in how we play games with specific control or motion methods, advancements in technology, and now even the way that games are delivered to us via digital distribution are some of the key things that have evolved the games industry for the better. Yet for the last twenty or so years one element has somehow stayed at the same place it’s been with either no major improvements or ones which are merely incremental; the depiction of female characters within fighting games.
In some ways it may be odd for me, a twenty-something year-old male, to be writing about the depiction of female characters in fighting games since I may not immediately have what one may call an “accurate” feeling as to the matter since I’m not a woman. But gender aside, at this point I think it’s somewhat obvious that for the greater good of the video game industry, and to actually appeal to the thoroughly diverse audience that plays games these days, some changes need to be made when it comes to how female characters are portrayed within the confines of a fighting game.
For what may have been a discussion topic for the better part of a decade at this point, the depiction of female characters in the video game industry as a whole is something that people are often talking about. What got my mind churning about this particular topic, that pertaining to fighting games, was the recent Tekken reveal made last week at the San Diego Comic Con.
For those unaware, Namco Bandai held a panel at SDCC in which they revealed the Facebook poll results to determine the top three characters to be included in Tekken Revolution. To be honest, I was totally unaware of this initial poll since my interest has slightly waned in Tekken over the years so as a whole I was somewhat shocked to see who the top two characters were.
Unveiled during the panel were the arrivals of characters currently titled Female Vampire and Sexy Female Tekken Force. Obviously those are just placeholder titles for names that I assume will have that ever catchy Tekken vibe to it, but what bothered me was the general premise and design of these two characters. As you can see below, the Female Vampire character has a somewhat traditional gothic lolli look to her that seems like it would be better suited in an anime or a shmup like Deathsmiles with her thigh high stockings, barely there skirt, and revealing blouse.
The Female Tekken Force character on the other hand takes things a step further as the Tekken team must’ve been inspired by the team at Project Soul (SOUL CALIBUR) as there’s a distinct similarity to Ivy’s barely contained bosom. Almost wearing something that’s akin to an armored bikini, the Female Tekken Force character looks a bit outlandish, even by Tekken standards, yet it was created by the development team and subsequently won over the fans.
Additionally, character art was unveiled for a fourth character that was included in the poll – the Sexy Zombie Bride. A bit more constrained in its artistic execution, the inclusion of the Sexy Zombie Bride basically confirms one thing: the Tekken team is willing to pander to the mainstream audience with things they find appealing (sex, zombies).
What bothered me about these Tekken character reveals was that it’s simply further creating a stereotype within the fighting game genre that all female characters need to have colossal busts, barely have any clothing, and subsequently can’t be taken as serious as their male counterparts. Now I won’t act entirely mighty in my opinion on the matter since I know that there are certain types of character designs that are “traditional” in a sense. Hell, we’ve basically been getting the same type of character depiction of females in fighting games for around twenty-five years so there’s certainly an established trend here.
My issue is that at some point things need to change simply because the audience playing games today isn’t the same one that was popping quarters into Street Fighter or Tekken arcade cabinets back in 1994 or 1998; things have changed tremendously over the years and the gaming audience deserves to play games that reflect that instead of ones who come across as archaic and overly sexist at times.
Most people may not play a game like Tekken just to see all the jiggly parts of Christie, but why can’t things evolve over time in a way that’s actually more mature? While the development team behind Tekken have always been a bit outlandish in various ways, it’s somewhat surprising that they would create characters with the “SEXY” moniker attached to them since it’s limiting to the rather diverse audience that plays Tekken to begin with.
I of course get the simple fact that in some cases sex sells stuff. Now that’s not to say that such a thing is as pertinent in games or is a key deciding factor in whether or not someone will purchase something in the same way as someone may be more inclined to watch a movie/TV show, but it’s just a general thing that exists within our society.
So I’m not totally naive in not understanding why these characters have suddenly surfaced in Tekken. That said, if you look through the ages in how female characters have been portrayed in fighting games, it’s rather crap to be honest. The same sentiment may be true of video games in general, but considering that fighting games are essentially the one outlet in which people can usually have a “diverse” range of female characters to play as, let alone any, given the cautionary attitudes developers have about creating triple-A action games with female leads, it is a big deal as to how things are portrayed. Yet for years we’ve been treated to the same stuff – characters with cute voices, barely any clothing, busts so big that it looks like they’re going to fall over, and two-dimensional character growth.
Of course there are a few exceptions to how we see female characters portrayed in fighting games since the Virtua Fighter series has always had an ounce of realism and respect to it. Featuring character models that are proportioned in a way that one can actually deem fathomable in reality, Virtua Fighter has had a sense of “class” to it amidst the somewhat paper thin characters that are present – which as a whole is true of the entire character roster. Sure, Vanessa Lewis may have been pushing things a bit with her seemingly sparse battle attire consisting of combat pants and a bikini, but it still was better compared to the blatant pandering done in titles such as Dead or Alive – a series that obviously relishes and is built upon its highly sexualized presentation of the female characters.
Back in the mid-1990s I don’t think anyone cared about the length of Chun-Li’s outfit since it wasn’t that big of a deal when one considered that the gaming audience back then was predominantly male. But today the climate of games is that the audience is diverse, wants to be respected (especially in regards to their intelligence & tastes) and it doesn’t solely consist of males in the twelve to twenty-four year-old age demographic. When, if ever, will we receive a female character in a fighting game that transcends the genre tropes that exist and perhaps is appealing to the LGBT community? I guess one could make the case that the character of Poison from Final Fight is such a thing given her origins and current status, but will we ever get something more modern than that? Now I’m not saying that developers should pander to an audience in the characters that are created, though I’m sure there are folks out there who would like to see themselves respected and perhaps represented more or less in a game rather than play as a character who looks as if it was designed by a horny eighteen year-old boy.
Tekken isn’t the only modern fighting game that isn’t helping the cause of female characters since Mortal Kombat is one that still seems as if it’s trapped in a time machine. While I love MK and the team at NetherRealm, the ninth iteration of the series (MK 2011), featured stuff that was the same old stuff. Mileena had an outfit that seemed like an elaborate form of pasties, Kitana was almost a damsel in distress, and Sonya Blade was a tough as nails character one second and then a damsel the next minute. In the realm of MK it may seem like certain things are to be expected or a lack of seriousness isn’t a biggie considering that the game features people being ripped apart in unrealistic ways along with cyborgs that can fire homing missiles out of their chest.
Even then, I think the best case of the depiction of female characters in the MK games is that such a thing can’t fly in another medium – especially that of film. If you were to translate the general designs of Mileena and Kitana into a movie it would look ridiculous, thus things were changed for how the characters looked both in season 1 and season 2 of Mortal Kombat: Legacy. Maybe some folks would want to see a female ninja prance around in a revealing outfit, but the simple fact of the matter is that it looks silly when executed in real life. If that isn’t justification for trying to alter things ever so slightly within the actual games themselves then I don’t know what is.
Ultimately the direction of female characters in fighting games is usually that of eye candy. Maybe a few years ago that would’ve been fine, but considering that we have a hearty amount of female gamers these days and people who have diverse backgrounds I don’t think it’s doing any good to have pandering crap like Female Vampire or Sexy Female Tekken Force pop up. Obviously it can be fun sometimes to see how outlandish a character design such as Ivy in Soul Calibur IV could be and I’m sure there are even some women out there who are perfectly fine with it for one reason or another. But should we as an audience just be content with how things are and basically allow them to go on unchanged to further perpetuate clichés and stereotypes in video games?
I’m not asking nor am I hoping for an overnight change in how developers such as those at Namco Bandai or the team at NetherRealm tackle female characters in games. But overall I do think the sex quotient should be dialed down a bit and we should actually be given female characters that are intriguing, appealing, and have a diverse nature to them all while not having a bust size that can’t be achieved in reality unless you visit an acclaimed Miami or L.A. based plastic surgeon. It’s hard to tell if such a thing will ever happen, but eventually fighting games will have to mature in some fashion if they want to keep up with the times and be considered anything more than a niche genre within the games industry.