Gaming’s Uncontrollable Women: Why It’s Significant When Characters Defy the Player

[Note: Spoiler Alert for Bioshock Infinite, Firewatch, Transistor, and République]

Lately, many games are giving players more opportunities to exert control over their narratives. Whether this is authentic choice or just the illusion of it, it can be satisfying to know that the story you experienced or the ending you witnessed was the direct result of choices you made during the journey. This is one of the ways players can be further drawn in, believing they’ve left their own personal stamps on the game, that their decisions and actions matter.

But returning to that idea of illusory choices, it’s not often that we play games that defy us. In fact, even when the end of a game is sad, such as when it results in the death of the player character, we often can still feel like we did everything we could or should. Yet I’ve noticed a few games that mess with choice or even mess with player control, sometimes resulting in shock and dismay. And in each of these instances, a female character was at the center of it, and it is her defiance of the player that earns these occasions a deeper exploration for meaning and understanding. It is also important to look into how this meaning mirrors reality.


Bioshock Infinite – Elizabeth

Although she is not a player character, Elizabeth from Bioshock Infinite falls curiously within this framework. Despite being an NPC, she is heavily tied into gameplay, always being nearby to provide Booker with necessary items or to open one of her portals for Booker’s battlefield advantage. That latter mechanic is one of direct control in that Elizabeth never personally objects to helping you during those situations. And conveniently finding power-ups for you to catch, to the point that she will appear nearby no matter where you saw her last, drives home the idea of her existing almost purely for Booker’s and your utility. Despite her importance in the story, her use could’ve been replaced with an ability or another delivery mechanism, but the developers put these functions in a human woman who is always at the ready.

It is easy to become complacent in this relationship you have with her. Regardless of how the plot drives your personal chemistry, Elizabeth exists as one of the many tools and weapons Bioshock Infinite lends you to survive until the end. However, it is at the end where Elizabeth, once handy, discovers her own agency and the scope of her own power. She realizes that she controls all universes to a great extent, and rather than "help" Booker, she begins leading him down his own mortal path.

Gameplay Element Elizabeth transforms into Trans-dimensional Master Elizabeth—she becomes more important than Booker, her own father, and she finishes the plot telling him his relation to the plot and what he must do. She, assisted by her sisters from other universes, drowns him, and prevents him from becoming the shining hero he hoped to be.

In contrast to The Last of Us, which was released a month afterwards, the player is fooled into believing this female character is the princess who needs to be saved and then a sidekick to aid them. In so many ways, The Last of Us tells a better story, and it places more agency in young Ellie. Though both Elizabeth and Ellie do not need to be babysat—that is, neither game is one giant escort mission—Ellie only occasionally serves as a function to Joel during gameplay, despite how she becomes a tool for him to play out his grieving dad shtick in the last chapter. These two are worth juxtaposing because Ellie’s agency is eventually robbed for the betterment of her male companion, but Elizabeth’s is granted to her in exchange for Booker’s and, in turn, the player’s.

Firewatch – Delilah

To continue the concept of believing the male character can exert control over a female character, the recent Firewatch manages to gloriously defy these ingrained expectations through what is actually a mundane narrative. Henry’s supervisor, Delilah, is another character who cannot be controlled outright but spends much of the game ostensibly in service of him and the player.

To elaborate, except for a key moment near the beginning of the story, Delilah is essentially “at the ready” when it comes to the radio. The player has the choice to ignore prompts to use Henry’s radio to call her, but without a firm understanding of the full breadth of a game, a gamer is more than likely to see a prompt and answer it. And by doing so, Firewatch rewards both Henry and the player with Delilah’s voice.

However, this is not the full extent to which Delilah rewards these symbiotic characters. Aside from the option to radio or not to radio, many of your interactions with her offer choices, ones which allow you to build a relationship. Again, this relationship doesn’t just exist between her and her subordinate. Because you embody him, you are developing her relation to you. The choices you’re given to do so allow you to be distant, but a number of them allow you to create not just a burgeoning friendship, but perhaps a romance. Even better, the romance is verboten, given your professional relationship and your absent and ailing wife back home. The mystery that plays out encourages you both to seek solace in each other, and in a number of instances, Delilah imparts this desire quite willingly.

But no matter how you nurture this romance or how many times you beckon her to speak to you at your behest, Delilah always abandons you. You can beg her to wait for you during the final evacuation, but she never will. She discovers, for a myriad of good reasons, that you’re not going to “save” her from whatever it is she’s suffering from.

Compared to games, such as Mass Effect, Dragon Age, and The Witcher, where players just need to select the right combination of responses and actions to succeed at obtaining (and usually bedding) a romantic partner, Firewatch reveals to the player that sometimes it’s not up to them. You can play repeatedly all you want, but you’ll always fail to see her. Whether Delilah’s physical absence acts in service of the greater reality of the cost of game development or not, it serves as a poignant foil to gameplay we’ve all become accustomed to, the kind that tells us love is a matter of choosing the right answers from a limited set of choices. Instead, you can fill your Scantron form out correctly and still fail.

Transistor – Red

But what about when the player actually does control the woman? In the case of Transistor, it still remains a fruitless endeavor. Transistor’s story is about a woman, Red, who is betrayed by a friend and set up for assassination by the titular weapon. However, her presumed lover, absorbs the blow, dying and possessing the Transistor, becoming its voice. The player controls Red to the fullest extent of that idea, being able to physically move her and wield her "lover weapon" in battle straight through to the end of the game.

A unique fold to the gameplay and story is that Red has lost her voice, but her companion hasn’t despite losing his corporeal form. Also voiced by Logan Cunningham, he acts as a narrator in a similar manner to Bastion, Supergiant’s previous game. But whereas The Kid in Bastion is purely an avatar for the player, this narrator in Transistor doesn’t speak for Red, only about her situation.

Red’s voice is expressed through the various terminals found around Cloud City. She and the player are presented the opportunities to comment on whatever is displayed, be it a news item or a message from the antagonists, the Camerata. The comments are sometimes choices the player, through Red, can make but do not have any impact on the main plotline. Like Firewatch, these enhance the player’s understanding of and engagement with the story, not its direction.

After the final battle is won, and the Transistor is used to set things back to a kind of normal, Red does not return to her old life. Instead, she withdraws it, plunging the Transistor into her heart as it was intended before the game began. And she does so not just in defiance of the player, fooled into thinking they “won,” but against the wishes of her lover, who still remains trapped within the circuitry of the Transistor. This is not the first game where the protagonist commits suicide, of course. It’s happened without player input in God of War III and Final Fantasy X and with their input in Mass Effect, Fallout 3, and Dragon Age.

But in these examples and more, the suicide is a heroic sacrifice made in service of the greater good, perhaps to the betterment of nearby characters who watch in angst. Red’s sacrifice is, at that moment, completely mysterious, and subverts both her lover and all of the player’s efforts to keep her alive until that point. There are multiple reasons why she might’ve done it, and certainly, there are some interesting fan theories out there, but it remains that when the scene plays out, Red, who was controlled by the player, doesn’t thank them with the sole act of living.

République – Hope

The last game I’d like to bring up is the recently completed République, which acts as a combination of the previous scenarios I’ve described. Over five episodes, players guide Hope through Terminus and beyond, trying to keep her safe, unseen, and unharmed. Here, the player controls Hope insomuch as wherever the player tells her to go, she will. And it’s perilously simple to confuse this with control of her agency for the first four episodes. After all, if she always does what the player says, there is no clear reason that this control scheme should be considered different from any other game where a controller moves a player character.

However, Hope is not the player character. The player plays as himself or herself, a benevolent observer with an unexplained origin, using the vast access to Terminus’ security cameras, in reality, to find places for Hope to go and tell her to do so. In that, she is completely obedient, hiding behind whatever cover she is pointed to but also risking her life and autonomy to grab collectibles, such as books and video game disks. This plays into that Elizabeth dynamic where despite any of her own feelings about the situation at hand, she will drop her agency and safety in an instant to indulge the player’s sense of gaming-instilled curiosity and desire.

The fifth episode presents the logical next step where, for the first time in the game, Hope is given some important choices. Much like Firewatch, these drive the player’s time spent with the narrative but not the direction in which it is headed. Yet note how I said Hope is given these choices. The player is then asked to decide on them. One choice is to let Hope decide, but you are essentially allowing her to choose; she is not choosing of her own accord. It is through these choices that Hope essentially becomes the player avatar, where players are convinced that they are her and she acts on their will alone.

Much to my surprise and likely that of players who have spent a long time waiting for this final act, this contract is rebelliously broken along with the illusion that came with it. During République’s final scene, the player is asked to choose with whom Hope allies—Zager, Treglazov, or the American general—but this choice is a joke. After three attempts to force Hope to go one way or another, each of which causes her to mumble and groan in uncertainty, she does indeed make her first choice for the entire game: to drown in the ocean. Much like Transistor, there’s this instant feeling of betrayal as the person you’ve spent your entire time protecting from harm chooses to end her life instead of ostensibly better choices.

But are they better choices?

In Bioshock Infinite, would it have been better for Elizabeth to remain saddled to Booker, to fulfill his heroic journey? Would Delilah have inarguably benefited from staying for Henry as the forest and her fortitude are burning away? Is the world Red is left with one worth living in, or is it just a set dressing for her unending nightmare? And does Hope have hope with any of the three men calling to her when her very existence is a political tool, perhaps a weapon, for any of them? And lastly, how does the player "win" by being satisfied if it results in the dissatisfaction or even despair of these characters?

Purposefully, I’ve neglected to make assumptions about the player themselves, or rather, I’ve avoided gender. Although each of these uncontrollable women exist in relation and in defiance of the men in their story arcs, it’s not fair to assume that the player is of the same gender. That is, I’m putting aside the “male gaze” argument intentionally. Instead, I find it curious that these kinds of narratives arose, whether intentionally or not, with the gender dynamic that they did with women doing the defying. [Even I can't really think of a counter-example off the top of my head, apart from some male side characters that betray you. ~Ed. Nick Tan] These developers have each coincidentally constructed narratives that portray only women breaking free, both of the player and everyone around them, and taking the reins of their own destinies.

Perhaps it is not much of a stretch to find parallels between these constructs and the ongoing narrative in the gaming industry of women taking control of their own stories. I am, of course, not referencing suicide, such as in Firewatch or République, but death can be a metaphor for various concepts. For example, while the initial fire of GamerGate was burning, both Jenn Frank and Mattie Brice quit games journalism and participation after seeing the shitstorm swirling about them. More specifically, they saw the full gamut of their work becoming buried under hit pieces on their harassment in Google search results and public discourse, and that’s all major gaming sites seemed to want to focus on. Even though Frank has returned to games writing, and Brice contributes via her own blog thanks to her patrons, their declarations of departure were their attempts at taking themselves out of an upsetting and ugly story, one that continues to plague them.

In Brice’s essay, More Than My Pain, she says, “In our actions however, there is an encouragement for victims to become martyrs incarnate for public catharsis by constantly engaging with the antagonists of the show…” And that idea touches upon the heartbreak we as players are expected to feel in these narratives. We want these women to keep fighting, keep trucking on, and keep surviving without any real evaluation of the cost to them. In turn, we get indignant because they didn’t follow suit, didn’t adhere to our wills. I’m muddling the line between games and reality here because what Brice describes is a phenomenon whereby people treat marginalized people as playable characters in a game not of their own choosing.

Of course, this is quite a read, but when we engage with fictional media, we often try to wrap their basic concepts and morals around our own world. It is our natural attempt at resolving their events with our own morals. That two of the discussed games preceded Frank and Brice’s about-faces on the industry, to me, is not anachronistic but instead suggests the timelessness of their lessons. That is the key idea I hope to convey about these defiant female characters: despite the niche genre they populate, they could be reflections of stories taking place in our own societies or ones that have taken place many times before.

Building a new genre

And I wonder why it is that I cannot find more examples of them. It’s easy to find games where a major character dies or sacrifices themselves, even at the player’s protest, but the differences are myriad, and they often don’t involve wresting control from the player in order to make their points.

Actually, games like The Last of Us and Spec Ops: The Line deviate from this idea in that they make the player complicit in defying their own personal desires. By requiring your participation, you are supposed to make a stronger connection to these objectionable actions, and you are expected to feel some kind of way about them. There are other games that fall into this “Press X to do something bad” category, but I struggle to find any others that say, “We stopped caring about your input a while ago,” in the specific ways I’ve outlined.

Thus, these aberrations are worth exploring and, more importantly, replicating as uniquely as they were. Not only did I only find four games, but these games, with respect both to their narratives and their gameplay, couldn’t be more different from each other. I’d like to see this potential genre explored further and for it to be applied to other gaming structures. But moreover, I’d like this deep dive into their intricacies to act as a platform to investigate and interrogate our own assumptions about interactive media, where we can and cannot expect to enforce our wills on characters. Lastly, given already-existing real-world parallels, like any other game story, we should ponder further the ways games tell our own stories and those of others.