When I attended the Last Guardian demo at the Tokyo Game Show last year, the trailer shown was both beautiful and touching. As Director Fumito Ueda spoke, I listened closely to every word, filtered through a translator.And was a reasonable response proffered: ‘Why not?’..?
But during the Q&A segment of Ueda's presentation, a reasonable question was asked: Why do all of Ueda's games feature a male protagonist as opposed to a female?
Ueda noted a few reasons, but seemed to settle on the idea that "girls wear skirts," and giving players camera control in this type of game could lead to inappropriate moments as the girl scampers around the environment.I’m not sure why he felt the need to explain himself. Surely as the games designer, with a proven track record of innovative games under his belt, he can put whatever he wants into his game?
But I was confused. "Girls don't have to wear skirts," I thought to myself. "Why is this an issue?"Because you’re making it one.
I play a lot of games. It’s never occurred to me that I ‘deserve’ to have a female character avatar. Some games allow that, some don’t. The ones that don’t aren’t any less enjoyable for it...
Ueda's other reasons were just as unsettling. He notes that girls of that age wouldn't be strong enough to traverse the environment properly, or at least in the same way a boy could.Which instantly sets the ‘men and women are interchangeable’-indoctrinated male journalist off:
As Ueda's answers were translated, it was difficult to tell what was a serious answer and what was a jest, as soft laughter followed some of his responses.So, thwarted, he left. But as the game’s release date approaches, he gets another bite at this cherry:
Months later, I was given the opportunity to travel back to Japan and see the first gameplay demonstration of Last Guardian, as well as sit down with Ueda for a private interview. It was a perfect opportunity to clarify Ueda's comments and put the issue to rest.What issue? Why, the one that’s been bugging him since that last encounter, of course. No, not ‘is the game any good’, which is all you’d think might be of concern to a games journalist…
I explained to Ueda that I attended his demonstration at TGS the previous year and was confused over the "joke" he told regarding the team's choice to use a male character instead of a female character, all because of a skirt. I asked if there was a real reason that the characters in his games are male.Why is this such a big deal to this journalist?
My question was translated, answered, and returned to me. Ueda explained: "That's one of the reasons, of course. But another reason is that -- if you particularly focus on this title -- there is a scene where the boy is on the back of the Trico, for example, or climbing the wall. If we replaced the boy with a girl of the same age, she probably wouldn't be physically strong enough to do such movements."
Ueda continued to explain that another reason was more technical in nature. This is where the translator had some difficulty conveying Ueda's answer to me, but essentially he explained that with the character so small on the screen, a "girly look" would be difficult to convey, i.e. long hair and a skirt.Back to that again.
I'm sure my troubled expression was noticeable, and Ueda asked me a question: "Would you have preferred a girl?"Because there has to be one, you see. This journalist has to uncover the secret misogyny he is certain lurks at the heart of this decision.
I said that I didn't, but that I was struggling to uncover a deeper reason for Ueda's choice, outside of these "technical" limitations.
I responded by noting that a girl of that age could have just as much strength as a boy, especially if she was trained or grew up in a harsh environment that required strength to survive. And a simple costume design choice would avoid the skirt issue.An undoubted reality, though I suspect this game will garner more female players than the others, in spite of the lack of a female avatar. There’s something very appealing about the creature in the game - the way you need to gain its co-operation, rather than directly control it - that, I suspect, will appeal to more females than to males.
After more translating, Ueda concluded, "Yes, one is a more technical reason, because it's not easy for girls to make acrobatic movements -- I think it's unrealistic. Maybe that's just my personal [opinion]. But also, many of the players are male, and it's easy for them to use the boy character."
But does that put to rest all Ryan’s unanswered questions?
I left the interview feeling even more uncomfortable than before. I assume most westerners can agree that the challenges Ueda raised with introducing a female character into Last Guardian are non-issues and, more importantly, border on sexism.They aren’t ‘non-issues’ at all. They are his issues, and he’s the games designer! If he’s wrong, the market will punish him.
There's a tremendous cultural gap between me and Ueda, who is communicating to me from within the context of his culture. In my limited experience, I've found that Japan has a much different perception of gender and gender roles than the United States. To Ueda, claiming that a girl is too weak to traverse a game world isn't an insult -- it's a natural assumption.*sigh*
It seems to me that those who claim to value diversity really only value diversity that is skin-deep. The cherry blossom, the tea ceremony, the kimonos, the language, yes, but the culture? The real differences?
Oooh, no, not if it conflicts with our own cultural viewpoint! We don't want any of that...
Even still, I'm disappointed in Ueda's reasoning. I don't consider his words to be malicious, nor have I lost any faith in his ability to develop phenomenal games. Had he just answered with a simple "I prefer using a male character -- it's a creative choice," I would've been content. But he didn't. His answers reflect an unfortunate stagnation in Japanese game development.But I suspect you wouldn’t have been content at all, would you?
He expected that a girl couldn't climb a wall. He expected that a girl would wear a skirt. Do I still respect the man and appreciate his good works? Absolutely. But even brilliant minds like Ueda's need to differentiate between legitimate creative decisions and ones that are informed by archaic expectations.And I repeat – let the market decide.
If the game sinks, and the company find out (after evaluation) it’s because of the lack of a female avatar, that will resolve future issues. If not, and it’s a huge success, your assumptions have been proved groundless.
What have you got to lose, Ryan? Only your belief that you - and your culture - are right and everyone else is wrong…