The Long(est) Journey for a Powerful Heroine
The gaming realm is rather daunting if you’re a female. You are assailed with sexist jokes if you dare to play online, you have to choose mostly between male characters or female characters made only to please the eye, and you have to listen to developers such as the now infamous Ubisoft statement that creating females takes too much effort. That’s disappointing as the gaming community has often been an outlet for misfits. Every now and then a game does surface that defies this regime of exclusion. One such game, outdated but still relevant, is The Longest Journey. It wasn’t the astounding graphics (for it’s time). It wasn’t the phenomenal and original storyline. It wasn’t the amazing characterization. No, these were certainly important to the game. For me, it was April Ryan. She made the game, she made history in gaming, but I doubt few have heard her name in lieu of such figures as Lara Croft.
When I first picked up The Longest Journey, way back in 2000, I was at my pinnacle of playing video games and constructing stories. I was excited to have both of my interests culminate into one. What a surprise for me when I got to play a game with a strong female protagonist and she had options in conversations! For instance, there is a part in the game when April is approached by Zack Lee, an obnoxious character who constantly pesters April for a date. Eventually, April must agree to go on a date in order to glean information from Zack. The player is given two choices: stand him up or go on the date. If you choose the latter, Zack attempts a feel up and promptly gets slapped or kicked in the groin by April (you can read more here). This is a rare instance when so many female characters are given only the role of flirtation, needing a man, or accepting their advances.
What’s more, April was not the typical depiction of beautiful. She was gangly and pale with short hair and little make-up. Nevertheless, she is the main character and given a strong personality, her own hopes and dreams unhindered by men, and the opportunity to make decisions for herself. She ran away from an abusive father very young and slowly made her own in the city living in a studio apartment, working as a waitress and pursuing a degree in art. Want more? She’s got a tude to go with it. Early in the game, the tutorial part, April must track down payment from her boss. And she won’t let it slide. She yells at him and tells him she will leave (when they are already understaffed) which promptly gets her paid. She is a woman with an agenda and she won’t let anyone stand in her way.
It is disappointing that fourteen years later, not much has changed for female heroines in games. There is some hope to be found in games like Bioshock Infinite with the determined and intellectual Elizabeth, Borderlands where you can choose to play at least one female character, Tomb Raider that has somewhat changed their tone with the depiction of Lara Croft, Mass Effect with Commander Shepard and a spotted host of other, less mainline games with featured female characters.
The truth of the matter is women have small voices in video games, particularly within the popular names of the industry. The few characters, like April Ryan, who are the main heroine and not outfitted to be physically alluring but rather mentally strong are few and far between. I think April is the heroine we’re searching for and we need her essence back. It’s important that women make their voices heard in the gaming industry, that less effort is given to the way a female character looks and more concerted effort to give female characters pivotal roles in the storyline. We’ve come a long way, but there’s still a longer journey ahead.