How to do a female protagonist RIGHT.

Those of you who’ve read my various posts and comments around the issues of the lack of female protagonists in games and even sexism in games in general, you’ll remember that something I always gripe about is how the people complaining about these things always go through various games that they think didn’t do it well and gripe about what they did wrong, and rarely take a game that they think did it well and show, in detail, how they did it well. In short, they don’t really get into telling gaming companies how, in detail, to do it right. You’ll also have heard me gripe about them never mentioning the “Fatal Frame” series of games when talking about female characters. Well, here I’m going to fill the void and talk about how the original “Fatal Frame” game does a female protagonist game right.

Spoilers will abound.

Fatal Frame is a game about Miku Hinasaki and her horror-filled adventures in Himuro Mansion. Her older brother Mafuyu went there carrying the Camera Obscura — a strange, mystical camera that can capture ghosts — in order to find out what happened to his mentor and his mentor’s research team that were looking into stories of ghostly happenings in the mansion. Suffice it to say, the reason is because there really are ghosts there, and they’ve killed the research team. As you start playing as Mafuyu — in a kind of black and white flashback-type of thing — you get as far as him being confronted by … something, and then you start over as Miku. Soon after Miku enters, she ends up becoming a victim of the same rope curse that afflicted the research team, and once rope burns appear on all four of her limbs she’ll die just like they did. So she has to save her own life and possibly the life of her brother from the curse of the rope maiden, a young woman killed by having ropes attached to her limbs on a rack and having her be torn apart in order to stop some evil from getting loose on the world.

The game does a female protagonist right in a number of ways:

Miku is a very strong and likable heroine: She’s sympathetic because she’s essentially an orphan, raised by Mafuyu. When he disappears, she doesn’t just sit at home and cry about it, but instead goes out to find the last member of her immediate family. She’s afraid and disturbed at times, but still finds the courage to go on. And she’s also caring, and is affected and even sympathetic to the horrors inflicted on the various ghosts and their stories. She’s my favourite female character ever. Having a protagonist like this is a great way to start a game, female or male.

Miku is not sexualized: She’s given an attractive character model, but she isn’t sexualized; what she wears is what a normal person would wear (although maybe not to a haunted mansion).

They don’t try to turn her into Rambo: One of the issues with a lot of survival horror games is the massive amount of weapons that they give their protagonists. This can be even more so when you have a female protagonist and they end up using a lot of weapons that are strength-based, like tire irons, pipes, swords, etc. The weapon in Fatal Frame … is a camera. A weapon that can be pretty much used by anyone. So you don’t end up with a petite teenage girl swinging weapons like she’s some kinda marine; the weapon is believable and in fact even increases the creep factor.

They do “dude in distress” right: In general, men are expected to be more active and aggressive and women more passive. Yes, this would reflect “patriarchal” thinking, but the tropes and the mindsets of most people do tend towards those roles. While this is indeed what tends to contribute to female characters being “damsels in distress”, it also makes “dudes in distress” really hard to do while ensuring that the male character in that situation is still one that the players — male and female — still like. There’s always the risk that the audience will think that the guy should be doing more, or escaping on his own, and end up thinking of him as a wimp. So to do it, you usually try one of three tacks: a) make the female character and villain uber-powerful to compensate (see Buffy the Vampire Slayer), b) contrive a reason why the male character happens to be vulnerable and the female character not (again, see Buffy) or c) accept the male character being seen as a wimp and desperately hope that the audience doesn’t hate him (again, see Buffy). While you can argue that this reflects or even gives in to sexist attitudes, the problem is that this is also what the audience for a game are thinking, and if you make the players hate your male lead and you want to make the player feel happy at the end of the sequence when they are reunited, you don’t want to try to do that with at character that none of them find appealing. There’s no point in ruining your story because the audience is less enlightened than you are.

Which, BTW, should reflect something about modern video games: women can easily be rescuer and rescuee without that in and of itself impacting how appealing the character is. That’s not true for men. Maybe that’s something we should look at if we want to make it so that the character in distress isn’t always a woman.

Fatal Frame does Mafuyu and his distress right, such that he’s still an interesting and appealing character despite spending the whole game needing to be rescued. They try the contrived approach — Mafuyu is, in fact, a look-alike for Kirie’s lost love — but that really only explains why he’s still alive and not dead. How does Miku stay alive? She uses her ability to see ghosts and uses the camera to fight and think her way past the traps and the ghosts and the mysteries. She’s not necessarily better than Mafuyu — they have similar abilities — but he’s facing an uber-villain that would kill anyone without those abilities and would definitely try — and one-shot kill — anyone with those abilities, who wants to keep him alive. Could Mafuyu have won through the mansion on his own? Maybe. And maybe the reason that Miku isn’t just insta-killed is because he influences Kirie enough to give Miku a chance. Who can say? But all we know is that Miku has to face a lot of trials to get through it all, and Mafuyu is out of play for reasons that don’t make him into a helpless wimp.

This is not a game where you just stick the female protagonist into the male role with the male attitude: The weapon is non-traditional. Miku shows some traditionally feminine traits and reactions. You really do feel like you’re playing the 17 year old girl and not just a traditional male character in a 17 year old girl skin.

It’s a good game: The story is well done, the atmosphere is well done, the mechanics work … overall, Fatal Frame isn’t a crap game that they stuck a female protagonist onto the top of, but is in and of itself a good game.

If game companies want to look at an example of a game that does female protagonists right, in my opinion you can’t go wrong by looking at Fatal Frame. Shame no one who wants more female protagonists in video games remembers it exists.

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10 Responses to “How to do a female protagonist RIGHT.”

  1. Crude Says:

    I think John C Wright talked about an anime movie that gave an ideal female protagonist as well, but I forget which offhand.

  2. Oh, the horror … | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] I thought that I should talk about something Halloween related. I’ve already talked about how Fatal Frame does a female protagonist well, so I thought this would be a good time to talk about how, in my opinion, it does the horror right, […]

  3. malcolmthecynic Says:

    GLaDOS, man. You can’t beat GLaDOS.

    I mean, Chell is a cipher, but GLaDOS is amazing.

    • malcolmthecynic Says:

      ..Although I suppose, yeah, she’s not the protagonist, though she does become sympathetic in the sequel.

    • verbosestoic Says:

      I never actually played that game. Maybe I should have, but it just didn’t strike me as my type of game.

      • malcolmthecynic Says:

        I can understand that. I absolutely adore the Portal games (Portal 2 co-op is to this day the best multiplayer experience I’ve ever had), but they are comedic puzzle games. If you’re not interested in comedy in your game or don’t like puzzles, Portal is not for you.

        BUT, that said – Portal seems to have the ability to transcend genres, and you can get it really cheap right now. I’d give it a shot if I were you.

      • verbosestoic Says:

        My relationship to puzzles has changed with the advent of FAQs that tell you how to solve them [grin]. But I have a LONG list of games that I should play …

  4. Feminist Moments in Video Games … | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] Fatal Frame series: A horror series that really promotes a competent, brave and yet still vulnerable female lead, which is a contrast to a game like Clocktower 3 which presented the female character as much more frightened and panicked. It also has more female protagonists than male by a large margin. I’ve gushed about the protagonist before. […]

  5. Sarkeesian on Positive Female Characters | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] to see in a game. And to see that, we can look at my choice for a positive female protagonist, Miku Hinasaki from Fatal Frame. I explicitly reject what I think is Sarkeesian’s main push there: what makes Miku such a […]

  6. Tropes vs Women: Damsel in Distress Part 3 | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] the Dude in Distress can be done well. I think Fatal Frame does it remarkably well, as it sidesteps all of the issues with the Dude in Dist…. But it is harder to do. For games that are relying on the trope as a lazy way to get player buy in […]

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