Recently, a writing colleague and dear friend of mine, Joanna, wrote a piece about the state of female protagonists in horror games. As a horror buff, Joanna looked forward to researching female protagonists in horror games, and anticipated coming back to write with the knowledge of several games with powerful, tenacious female heroes. What she learned, however, was disappointing. The characters she found were broken, traumatized, and institutionalized. I hypothesized that this was due to story development, not gender, and that if I were to look up popular horror games with male protagonists, that the male protagonists would come from backgrounds similar to the female protagonists Joanna researched.
Initially, I thought that the females she found weren’t necessarily broken, but were placed in circumstances that allowed them to rise to the level of a hero. Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey shows that every story (or every good, successful story), begins with a hero that is in a dire place. This place of discomfort can be anywhere from a mundane farm boy named Luke Skywalker living on boring Tatooine, to ordinary Harry Potter living under the stairs of his ruthless aunt and uncle’s house. In order for the hero of the story to progress, he or she has to rise from their oppression or environment.
Like Joanna, I set parameters for my research. Similar to the Bechdel test for film, Joanna made the following rules for her research: the game had to have a single female protagonist, not a female character that the player could opt not to play. Thus, the games I looked up had to be horror and had to be led by a singular playable male protagonist.
The first game I came across was Dead Space, a game I’m happy to say I knew about as a complete non-horror-player. Protagonist Issac Clarke, an engineer sent with a team for a maintenance mission, survived an alien attack that wiped out his crew. He then has to battle Necromorphs and reanimated corpses as he fights for his life aboard the USG Ishimura. In the game Half-Life, theoretical physicist Gordon Freeman, is also the sole survivor, this time, from an experiment at Black Mesa Research Lab, causing aliens to bombard the lab and kill everyone. This survivor theme continues in The Evil Within (detective Sebastian Castellanos wakes up from a brutal beating after witnessing the murder of his fellow officers) and BioShock (Jack winds up in a dystopian city after his plane goes down in the Atlantic).
There were other games, like Soma and Amnesia, in which the male protagonists weren’t sole survivors, but definitely didn’t begin the game unscathed. In Soma, Simon Jarrett survives a fatal car crash, but not without severe brain damage and cranial bleeding, and a dead friend. Amnesia’s protagonist is fairly self-explanatory. Protagonist Daniel wakes up in a castle with amnesia, but in an Eternal Sunshine like twist, learns he erased his own memory.
In other games, like Outlast, the male character is thrust into the story with little initial backstory, but is affronted with violence early on, and manages to escape or is then on a quest for survival. In Resident Evil 4, Leon S. Kennedy is on a mission to rescue the president’s daughter, and on his quest, is injected with a parasite. He isn’t as “macho” as Chris Redfield, another male in the Resident Evil franchise, but is tough. Kennedy has been the main or playable character in Resident Evil 2 and Resident Evil 6. Similar to Kennedy’s mission in Resident Evil 6, is protagonist Harry’s in Silent Hill. He crashes his car, loses consciousness, wakes up, and realizes his daughter is missing. He learns in the town of Silent Hill that a demon is manifesting symbols in the town, and he must stop the demon in order to save his daughter. Other games, like Until Dawn, play on the idea of party kids (male and female), who are terrorized in an isolated area.
Having not played these games, I can’t say that my findings are 100% accurate. I do feel, that from my and Joanna’s research into horror protagonists, that it stands true that any hero needs to begin in a mundane situation in order to be thrust into an adrenaline-fueled adventure and become someone we can root for.
After two hours of researching horror games (something completely out of my norm), I messaged Joanna.
Me: Doing preliminary research, and so far, I’m finding that the male protagonist is thrown into events, and then things begin to happen, or they are the sole survivor of a dire situation and must survive.
Joanna: Wow. So different.
Me: It’s interesting, because in both situations (male and female), it can be said objectively that the characters DO start in a dire situation in order to overcome it and become the hero, but do so through different means because of their circumstances. I also have been reading some threads dubbing horror games with female protagonists to be more terrifying to play. Some people are emboldened by playing a female, and others feel that because females are physically smaller in stature, that the horror element in a game is stronger.
Me: Like, I can see why in some games, like Alice, she is in an institution. It fits with the Wonderland theme. It’s crazed, ya know? It would be interesting to find a game like that with a male protagonist.
Joanna: I understand how it does fit, and it fits for the time period, but I much prefer the SyFy channels 2 part, 4 hour adaptation of Alice in Wonderland. Alice is a badass, martial arts chick on earth, whose father went missing when she was 10, presumably he left her and her mother. But she accidently finds herself in wonderland and discovers that her father is there. He was kidnapped.
Me: She sounds awesome, and in that case, she’s the one that gets to do the rescuing. The time period that the game takes place may have a huge effect on where the woman starts out.
I wasn’t satisfied yet. I wanted more information. I wanted to see if a helpless female protagonist made a better game than a macho male protagonist. (Both adjectives here were chosen strictly for the female and male stereotype.) I hopped onto IGN, and looked up each of the popular Resident Evil game reviews for Playstation, knowing that most often, there were playable male and female protagonist in each game. I wanted to know if their games with both genders available as playable characters had higher ratings than their games where players could only pick from a male or female protagonist. This is what I found.
Resident Evil – male and female protagonists 8.0/10
Resident Evil 2 – male and female protagonists 9.3/10
Resident Evil 3 – female protagonist 9.4/10
Resident Evil 4 – male protagonist 9.5/10
Resident Evil 5 – male and female protagonists 9.0/10
Resident Evil 6 – male and female protagonists 7.9
As you can tell, this probably wasn’t the best game for me to research. The success of the game likely didn’t have anything to do with the gender of the protagonist, but rather, whether or not the story was compelling.
I am sure not all horror game protagonists, male or female, have tragic backstories in order to follow the Hero’s Journey. Certainly, not all females in horror games are living tragedies. There are cases of strong and powerful female characters in horror games. IGN’s list of capable female protagonists in horror games feature shows Clementine from The Walking Dead, Zoey in Left 4 Dead, Heather Mason from Silent Hill, Claire Redfield from Resident Evil, Regina from Dino Crisis, Jill Valentine from Resident Evil, Ellie from The Last of Us, and Ada Wong from Resident Evil. These characters don’t abide exclusively by Joanna’s Bechdel test, but they do show that there are females we can love.
It seems that whether male or female, all horror-heroes begin in bad shape. The true success of a game ends up being marked by its story, as shown by Resident Evil, not it’s protagonist’s gender. Are there horror game protagonists you know of that break the Hero’s Journey mold? What marks the success of a good game to you?