Dishonored 2 begins with the grand entrance of a mostly dull villain. She attacks the palace with magic and clockwork soldiers. Halfway through this coup you can choose the character you’ll play as for the entire rest of the game, and if you choose Corvo then you are very wrong.
I’m all for self-expression and choice in video games, and I understand that the Dishonored series is all about playing the game “your way”, but the inclusion of Corvo as an optional protagonist isn’t choice, it’s fear. Fear that a game with a female lead will fall victim to the eternal swirling pit of misogyny that is the games industry.
There can be no arguing that Dishonored 2 is anything but Emily’s story. The tutorial has Emily learning from her father, the story involves her losing her throne and being exiled, the main villain is her aunt. The game is very obviously a story about Emily coming into her own as both a person and a ruler, stepping out from under the protection of her father.
Emily has been forced to share the spotlight with Corvo, not for artistic or narrative reasons, but to mollify the kind of froth-mouthed wretch that can’t properly operate a controller unless the protagonist has the same genital configuration as him.
Let’s take things from the other direction: If you choose to play as Corvo then Emily is frozen in her throne room, becoming a non-entity for the rest of the game. If you choose Corvo, you reduce Emily to a plot-point, a driving force, and a fragile flower in need of saving. This is the same purpose she played in the first game, when she was a child. Corvo on the other hand becomes the daring saviour, essentially repeating his actions from the first game to protect a young girl that is, as always, in over her head.
It’s hard to believe that this game was ever actually intended to have Corvo as the protagonist again. Corvo’s had his time; he’s proven that he’s a magical, stealthy baddass in the first game. All things end, all parents have to step aside and let the next generation take over. What’s the progression here? Will a 65-yo Corvo be called back into action to save his granddaughter?
I feel that this is the same issue that relegated Elizabeth to Bioshock Infinite’s back cover, and tried to do the same with Ellie in The Last of Us. The same issue that made Dontnod have to fight to put a female protagonist in Remember Me. Female protagonists are seen as a risk. To spend millions on a game with a female protagonist is adding extra risk on those millions that many publishers don’t want to take.
The worst part is that this position is understandable, but it has to change.
There is this horrible, pervading, and very vocal subgroup of gamers that automatically see female protagonists as some kind of political statement, which is a troubling line of thought. Life is Strange and Virginia both received a horrifying amount of bile for their more diverse casts (though the amount that came due to race or sexuality is a completely different but equally saddening discussion.)
When your culture, and more importantly your consumer base, is dominated by that kind of person, it makes sense to make certain decisions that cater to them. When the people willing to give you their money have a fear of apples, it might be best not to set the game in an orchard.
But the data is wrong. The most vocal people are rarely the most numerous. In an industry of intense and constant focus-testing, the focus testing involves no women, because women don’t buy these games, so why put them in the focus groups? This cycle is complicit in allowing female gamers to remain as invisible as they’ve been trained to be.
Women are attacked in online games, ignored by developers, and basically made to feel completely unwanted in a culture that is comprised of 48% women. Most female gamers hide, either avoiding the community entirely or hiding behind agender pseudonyms to avoid the endless torrents of bile.
There is a huge and underserved market which wants more than the old-guard women like Lara Croft and Samus, and the hyper-sexualised newcomers like Bayonetta and 2B. So when a game like Dishonored 2 comes out, with the female main protagonist sitting as an option next to a completely superfluous male character put in just to make the gaming crybabies happy, it feels somehow worse than just putting another male character in the lead role. We shouldn’t be coddling the type of people that make half of our community feel unsafe and unwanted. We need to make the correct moral and financial decision to commit to good stories, told well, and lead by characters that we’re willing to stand by.