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Soldiers In Love and a Bunch of Heroines: How Games Are Changing in 2012


2012 is a huge year for games. I can’t even wrap my head around all the amazing stuff that’s coming out. In fact, in the extremely unlikely event that the world is actually coming to an end this December, I’m fine with that, because most of the fourth quarter releases will be out well before then. I’ll have time for at least one playthrough before perishing in cleansing flame.

Today, I’m going to look at a few upcoming games that are making some progress beyond the status quo. When critiquing games in terms of gender portrayal or player inclusion, most folks (myself included) take the stance of “this could be better” or “wouldn’t it be nice if…” Well, some things are getting better, and they deserve a preemptive hat tip. I’ve handpicked a few titles from multiple genres that represent some promising changes in game development, both in character and gameplay.

Diablo III and Torchlight 2

Diablo and Torchlight are like a pair of siblings, each a precious little snowflake in their own right, but doomed to have their achievements compared forever. Diablo is the elder sibling with a flourishing corporate career and a love of the stock market. Torchlight is the scrappy small business owner who enjoys weekends spent at steampunk conventions.

Diablo III is going to be one of the most successful releases of 2012, no question. It’s been twelve years since Diablo II hit the scene, and fans have been frantic for the next installment ever since. But Torchlight 2 is eagerly anticipated as well, which is interesting considering how similar the gameplay is to Diablo (indeed, Torchlight was made in part by veteran Diablo II designers; it’s got the same UI and even some of the same sound effects). Torchlight was charismatic and clever enough to establish itself as a loving follow-up to Diablo II, rather than a knock-off. It’ll never be as big as Diablo, but it doesn’t need to be. Diablo’s got big-studio polish. Torchlight has indie charm.

I loved both Diablo II and Torchlight for a plethora of different reasons, but there was one thing that bugged me about both of them: I couldn’t pick the gender of my character. This is a problem for yours truly, who prefers playing female characters, but also leans heavily towards melee classes. Video games have a long history of relegating women into ranged and healing classes, and Diablo II and Torchlight were no exception. I vividly remember being fifteen years old, staring at the character selection screen for Diablo II, despondent that I couldn’t just once play a sword-carrying hero that looked like me.

But at last, we’ll all be able to dungeon crawl as axe-wielding women or fire-throwing men, if we so choose. Both Diablo III and Torchlight 2 will allow gender customization for every class. And to that, I say: huzzah.

Mass Effect 3

Mass Effect 3 is coming out on March 6, a date that has been fixed solidly in my mind for about, oh, eight months. I don’t think I have been this excited about the conclusion of a trilogy since The Return of the King. No, scratch that, I am more excited about ME3. Frodo and Sam are fantastic, but Commander Shepard is my character. I have guided her every step, her every action. She and I have been through a lot together, and in March, that time is coming to an end. I’ve fully prepared myself for the eventuality that I’m going to find myself crying over a video game.

The change in ME3 that I’m super stoked about is one that will have no bearing on my game whatsoever. No, I’m not talking about the Collector’s Edition tin, which will finally picture both male and female versions of Shepard. I’m talking about the fact that, at long last, BroShep and Garrus will be able to declare their unrequited love for one another.

Yep, that’s right, shippers. Same-sex romances are go for ME3.

“Hold up,” you say, “don’t they already exist?” Ish. In ME1, romances were strictly hetero, except for Liara, who can be courted by either gender. But wait! A caveat! Liara is an Asari, and despite her species’ curves and breasts and lady voices, we’re told again and again that Asari aren’t women at all — they’re monogendered. Doesn’t count if it’s with an alien, right?

My Shepard begs to differ.

The franchise timidly dips its toe into the gay romance pool in ME2, but only just. Two more potential Asari companions are thrown into the mix, as is human crew member Kelly Chambers (who, given her untimely demise, I sincerely hope is not a descendant of mine). The plucky Yeoman goes both ways, but she’s not a squadmate or a long-term romance option — she’s just a hook-up.

As for male characters, in both games, the message has been the same: don’t ask, don’t tell.

For a series that lets you customize everything about your character from psychological profile to nostril width, the absence of same-sex relationships for the gents has always been rather glaring. So while my Shepard will be flying off into the sunset with Liara, as originally planned, I’m glad that some players will finally get to give their Shepards the love story they’ve been waiting for.

Oh, and rumor has it that we’ll get to see a Krogan princess, too. At long last, a galaxy with some non-Asari female aliens. Well, one, anyway.

Final Fantasy XIII-2

When you think of Final Fantasy, the first thing that comes to mind is probably spiky-haired dudes with giant swords. So when 2010’s Final Fantasy XIII cover art displayed a spiky-haired woman with a giant sword, that was kind of a big deal. Lightning, the protagonist in question, was specifically created to break the mold of prior Final Fantasy ladies by bringing in a “powerful and outspoken” heroine. They wanted a woman who could kick ass, a concept that everybody here is wildly in favor of. There was just one problem: the game itself. FFXIII was widely criticized for its overly linear gameplay and its rinse-and-repeat style of combat. The game split the Western fanbase, causing even some die-hard fans to set off for greener pastures, and leaving many to wonder if FFXIII was the death knell for the franchise.

Kick-ass heroines are great, but they don’t matter much if people don’t enjoy playing them.

Square Enix isn’t about to throw in the towel on the Western market. In just over a week, American and European audiences will get their hands on Final Fantasy XIII-2, a sequel designed to bring estranged fans back home. The combat’s been cleaned up. The story progression has been taken off the rails and put back in the hands of the player. And they’re bringing their “powerful and outspoken” heroines back. Yes, plural. FFXIII-2 focuses on Serah, Lightning’s sister, who travels through time and space to search for Lightning, who has gone missing. Pairs of heroic siblings are a common fantasy trope, but typically, we have a brother off looking for an errant sister. Two heroic sisters…now, that’s more interesting. If FFXIII-2 delivers as promised, JRPG fans will be getting not just the immersive gameplay they’ve been yearning for, but a story not often told. For a franchise on the ropes, that’s a really exciting possibility.

Next Page >>> “I hemmed and hawed over including WildStar in this list. There’s no guarantee that this game will be out this year, though the devs are reportedly shooting for a late 2012 release.”

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