A couple of weeks ago saw the release of Anita Sarkeesian's latest Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, which tackled the complicated issue of women serving the role as "background decoration" in modern AAA games. I haven't played the majority of the titles Anita covered in the episode, but I have played a few: Bioshock and Red Dead Redemption.
I happen to like both of these games quite a bit, but seeing the depraved acts male NPCs delivered to nondescript women hit me really, really hard. Having played through all of Bioshock and most of Red Dead Redemption, I can now see a major issue that somehow blurred by me before. And that bothers me a great deal. I'm going to focus on the latter for this piece, and may return to Bioshock later on.
In many ways, Red Dead Redemption fixed the issues I preciously held with Grand Theft Auto. The controls were better, the open world was more believable, and the protagonist was likeable. As I wandered through New Austin, I encountered situations like Anita describes in her video below:
Returning to Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption, in most settlement areas players are treated to randomly triggered events in which female prostitutes are assaulted and murdered by johns amid a torrent of misogynistic slurs. Players are presented with the choice to either intervene and save the woman for a small cash reward or simply watch the attack play out in front of them as part of the entertainment.
CLIP: Red Dead Redemption “Help! Someone.”
“Stickin’ whore! I’m gonna cut you a new hole! You think I’m a joke? Go on then, laugh, bitch, LAUGH!”
At the time, I didn't think about the ramifications of this heinous crime; I merely acted. I saved the woman, feeling that the character John Marston would do that given how I was playing him. I tend to role play as the character when I play, trying to make decisions that fit both my ideals and the parts of the character I bond to in unison. I knew that this was a scripted event that would repeat itself, but I performed the good deed and moved on, thinking little of the overall effect this random event conveyed. But, as Anita notes:
The audience is meant to briefly gasp at these acts of brutality before their attention is directed elsewhere, towards the next event or set of enemies to be dispatched. Regardless of the player’s actions in these types of situations, the result always paints women in a regressive light, as they will end up as either “helpless damsels” or “dead victims.”
This is the kicker right here. These moments of violence against women are distractions from the main game — a minor roadblock meant to add a sense of "realism" to the world. However, women are never truly empowered in Red Dead Redemption. My experience with the game was positive when I first went through most of it (although I will admit that I didn't critically analyze these topics when I was playing it back in 2011), but I lost my save file due to an accidental save-over. I had accomplished 98% of the game by that point (including the side missions), so I just haven't had the gumption to commit to redoing all of that all over again. I put it on my Favorite list regardless, and figured I'd be game for another run sometime in the future.
Recently, before Anita's latest video, I was wondering if there was perhaps another reason I didn't feel like replaying the game. I then remembered that the women who were major players in the plot suffered terrible brutalities as well.
Bonnie MacFarlane, a quite capable woman from first impressions, is reduced to a victimized damsel to move the game's plot forward towards the end of the first third of the game. She is beaten, likely raped, and in the process of being hanged as the player works their way through the map to rescue her. Lucia Fortuna, a rebel fighting the Mexican government, is a strong-willed and significant factor in the rebellion, but is quickly tossed into the endgame of the Mexico segment of the game as a mere pawn. Wielding a knife to a gunfight, she is quickly shot down as she tries to free Abraham Reyes, leader of the uprising, leading the player towards a redemptive strike against the perpetrators for her martyrdom.
And John's wife, Abigail, is literally a damsel in distress for most of the game, serving as John's central motivation for doing all of this to the very end, where a stable life with his family is promised and then yanked away by the vindictive Edgar Ross (and the game's writers). John is gunned down by Ross' men, and Abigail is forced to watch. When Jack Marston, John's son, takes over the post-game narrative, Abigail has died from a long illness, making every single prominent woman in the game the equivalent of damaged goods...which is fitting, given how all of the women are essentially objects in the overall scheme of the game... one way or another.
So, Anita's video reminded me of all this misogyny lurking within RDR, and now makes me wonder if I really should replay it. Thus the difficulty of criticism. I liked the game, but I am repulsed by its use of women as narrative objects instead of being, you know, human beings. As Anita states in her video:
These women and their bodies are sacrificed in the name of infusing “mature themes” into gaming stories. But there is nothing mature about flippantly evoking shades of female trauma. It ends up sensationalizing an issue which is painfully familiar to a large percentage of women on this planet while also normalizing and trivializing their experiences.
It's not edgy just to throw women under the proverbial bus. It would truly be mature to not swipe from Hollywood's "adult-oriented" bag of tricks, and instead question or critique our society's standards of gender in less "shocking" ways.
I'm still trying to untangle the implications of Anita's video towards my enjoyment of video games, but I am feeling fairly confident that Red Dead Redemption, for everything it does right, made some very poor narrative decisions that will haunt my desire to ever replay it to completion again. I will still likely enjoy its excellent gameplay and exploring its open-world spin on the American West, but I will definitely not relish its disappointing, cliched portrayal of women that plagues our industry.