But as the industry matured, game makers started creating characters players cared about. Plots were contrived that could actually hold gamers’ attention. Players openly wept when Cloud’s beloved Aerith died in Final Fantasy VII. They gasped in disbelief during the finale of Star Wars: The Old Republic when it was revealed that the character they controlled was a villain the whole time.
Much of this was accomplished with rudimentary pixels and polygons, without anything approaching realistic graphics, the often purely text-based dialogue echoing the silent films of the ‘20s. Over the last decade, an explosion in gaming technology has allowed games to become almost photorealistic. Characters are sharply drawn, with professional voice actors inhabiting the speaking roles. Scripts take years to write, and stories can take a decade or more to be told over a series of games with three or more installments.
When the developers pull off these feats, games can become a transformative storytelling experience. Games actively put the player in the main character’s shoes, rather than forcing him or her to exist as a passive observer with no control over the protagonist’s actions.
E3 presented a stark difference between the photorealistic, mature titles presented by Microsoft and Sony contrasted against Nintendo’s doubling-down of a vibrant, cartoony atheistic. After listening to Jeff Cannata, Jeff Mattas and Matthew Burnside damn near wax-poetic about Splatoon on the latest episode of DLC (along with the success of Mario Kart 8), I am reminded that playful, non-narrative experiences are just as important as photorealistic, “transformative storytelling experiences.”
Splatoon as a playful territory shooter comes off as a hyper-realization of the Super Soaker wars I had growing up. Though the characters appear to be asexual, some inference can be made by stereotypically established gender attributes. This comes off as clever, well-thought art direction, allowing those who want to attribute gender to do so while others can be indifferent. Either way, the impact for children (likely the target audience) is immeasurable. The no-brainer act of allowing a child to conquer a map in the gender or appearance that best represents them is a simple way to reinforce a positive message about misguided gender dominance. Regardless of the chosen gender, everyone is on equal footing and contributing to a common goal. Only by allowing gender choice can that message be sent.
Online multiplayer carries a message that opposing virtual characters are exactly representative of the person on the other side. In reality, for all intents and purposes, gender is a near inescapable implication we carry with us, from simple Super Soaker wars to political war rooms. In virtual worlds (especially online), our gender is implied by the avatar we choose. Without choice, we all become the same (likely male) individual.