Apr 192012

I Am Alive is a post-apocalyptic platforming and combat game that does a few things right and many things very poorly. My upcoming second opinion on GameCritics will cover many of the mechanical and technical issues, but I didn’t have enough space to address an additional, more subtle point about the story. I Am Alive clearly wants to be a serious, adult take on post-apocalyptic survival, and in some respects it is. Unfortunately, the game’s treatment of women, among other things, seems to devolve back to the attitudes of a teenaged boy. In I Am Alive, women are helpless objects to be fought over and protected by men.

[Trigger warning]

Part of the problem lies in the traditional “damsel in distress” architecture of the game. The unnamed protagonist starts off searching for his wife and daughter, then finds another little girl whom he must treat for a fever and then deliver to safety, then must save the girl’s mother, then must save the girl again and get her and the mother to a safe haven. Almost all of the goals in the game are oriented directly or indirectly towards “saving” women. In isolation, this would be nothing remarkable, but it forms the nucleus of a more troubling pattern.

I Am Alive denies female characters agency throughout the game world. Within the main quest, a paraplegic man provides the protagonist weapons and frequent guidance, but the principal woman character  gives no material aid. Very few characters outside this quest show any ability to help themselves or others, but in these rare cases – a person offering supplies in a wrecked ship, the captain who ultimately saves the woman and child – the roles are held by men. Women have no capacity to help the protagonist or themselves.

Negative NPCs are even more slanted. Many characters will threaten the protagonist, but only attack him if he gets too close. Only few of these threatening figures are women, and all of the more aggressive thugs are men. It may seem strange to complain about that, but when the social contract breaks down, a person’s ability to use force becomes an essential part of life. In this context, excluding women from the enemy list effectively makes them lesser people. Women can’t take what they need, as men can.

I Am Alive goes even further than this in a segment where the protagonist rescues a woman from a hotel occupied by thugs. As it turns out, many women are kept in the hotel against their will, and the men running the place obviously intend to sexually assault their captives. None of the women seem able or willing to fight back, and once he rescues his target, she will not help him in combat, even though the men he’s already killed were armed with machetes that she could use. In this part of the game, women are exclusively helpless victims who rely on the male protagonist for rescue and protection from other men.

Throughout, I Am Alive demonstrates that the women of its post-apocalyptic world are dependent on men for protection and survival. Implicitly, this argues that the equality and self-determination of women is an artifact of modern society, a nicety that came crashing down along with all the buildings. In the state of nature, the game seems to be saying, women must live in fear and need of men.

Even the purest Hobbesian ought to have some trouble with this proposition, not only because it undermines a principle of equality, but also because it ignores the fact that oppression thrives on, and usually requires, institutions. The subordinate status of women for much of Western history was not some tenet carried forth in pure form from deepest antiquity, it was a consequence of social, religious, and economic institutions designed to deny women independence and self-determination. The proposition that women would end up in a state of dependence so shortly after disaster ignores this history entirely.

Here I’ve been rather critical of I Am Alive, but it’s just a particularly striking example of an endemic problem. As I mentioned, the “damsel in distress” structure afflicts many games, due to unsupportable expectations about the audience and the limited creativity of both developers and the executives who fund them. Many commentators rightly get up in arms about the over-sexualized portrayal of women in games. The structural choices that depict women as helpless and needy, however, are an equal and in some ways a more insidious danger, because they inform and develop misogynist attitudes while making the player feel entirely like a hero.

  7 Responses to “Fear and need”

  1. I had an argument about this point on the comments to Brad Gallaway’s review on GameCritics. First, I’d like to say that I agree with the gist of the article, especially concerning the major characters in the plot.
    What I was arguing about however was the proportion of women among the hostile (shame there were none in direct fights though). So I’d like to discuss a bit this.
    You say “Implicitly, this argues that equality and self-determination of women is an artifact of modern society, a nicety that came crashing down along with all the buildings” “The proposition that women would end up in a state of dependence so shortly after disaster ignores this history entirely.”. In my opinion, this logic works if this equality is widely accepted and abided with, which I’d argue isn’t by a significant fraction of men, even now. I think this history of male chauvinism would not go away with the disaster even if the institutions disappeared, but would kick in forcefully, and explain at least partly why there would be more males fighting (IMO).
    I don’t think the game should get away with what we end up with anyway, but I would have been surprised to see total parity.

  2. First, I don’t think there needed to be total parity or some kind of quota for women among the thugs. However, I thought there should have at least been some.

    Second, I’d like you to examine what you said a little more closely, because you appear to be arguing that male chauvinism would be the cause of having fewer women fighting. Isn’t it strange to say that men decide who women will be? After all, what difference should it make what men think? This, though, is exactly the world that the game posits: one in which men fight each other to determine who will tell the women what to be. This kind of buy-in is precisely why this kind of misogyny in media strikes me as so seductive and dangerous.

    • “there should have at least been SOME” – I absolutely agree. Diversity cleanses the stench of bias, if only a little. The fact that NO women will fight suggests an agenda – if that was changed even to “most”, it would be way more acceptable. When every woman in a game behaves the same way, you’re forced to confront the idea that the developer probably just thinks that’s a trait inherent to women. Having at least a few exceptions provides some evidence that the general correlation does not equal absolute causation.

      I wrote an article myself that covered similar themes: http://exploringbelievability.blogspot.com/2012/04/how-to-write-empowering-female.html

  3. Except that doesn’t actually happen. When disaster strikes in the real world, it’s not as if those of us with a XX chromosome suddenly receive telepathic messages to leave everything to the men folk (sorry for the hyperbole, but honestly I can’t see anything short of magic leading such a large number of ladies to behave as Clarkson described above). I can retrieve any number of examples for you of woman being proactive in disaster zones if you’d like, but I feel like I’d be forcing a straw-man argument on ya since chances are good there’s some miscommunication going on here.

  4. Err, that was in response to upselo. Sorry, should of refreshed before commenting

  5. I agree there should have been more parity, no question about that.
    About the other point, it’s not quite what I think. I think more men would be more inclined to fight because of the historic chauvinism, thus resulting in more men than women fighting. Not necessarily men discouraging women to fight, intimating them to stay in the kitchen or whatever.
    I also think a fraction of women would play to gender stereotypes, because of the pervading misoginy you point out.
    Gender stereotypes are stereotypes and should not be considered innate characteristics nor celebrated, but they exist and I still think they would have an influence, even in a post-apocalyptic world.

  6. @Rat : I agree with Sparky that overall the portrayal of women in the game is poor, and I think is totally right in calling it out.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.