For the last few years the Christmas break has become more than an escape from work in my household – it’s become a break from reality. We spend the month or two before exhaustively listing all the games we’ve missed over the year (or been specifically saving) and whittle them down to the ones we want to spend our holiday playing. And then that’s pretty much all we do for 10 days.
This year I realised that all the games we’d chosen were female-led, and given the story that’s doing the rounds at the mo about the top 3 grossing films of the year being female-led it seems like a good time to write about them. So in a medium that’s incorrectly seen as being predominantly consumed by men, yet has a history of marginalising women in the industry and the games themselves, is the tide turning? If these games are the result let’s hope so.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice
Hellblade looks like it’s going to be a third person actiony kind of game. The titular Senua is a Pictish woman crossing into the Norse hell to rescue her beloved who has been killed by ‘the north men’. She has a sword at her hip and a few combat moves in the repertoire. While there is a fair bit of combat involved, it’s actually a lot more than that. The game was developed with input from the Wellcome Trust and despite its fantastical setting (or perhaps thanks to it) deals fairly seriously with psychosis and trauma.
Best played with headphones, Senua is constantly beseiged by the voices of the furies, sometimes offering helpful hints but most often second guessing or belittling Senua’s progress an ability. As well as combat, there are a lot of visual puzzles. To unlock various doors Senua has to find the relevant rune in the surrounding environment, using perspective to line up geographic features. It’s one of the most intense games I can remember playing, and benefited from multiple short play sessions over long stints. I felt like I needed to come up for air, the psychosis suffered by Senua all too well realised and stifling. The animation is brilliant too, from Senua’s facial expressions to the way she drops into different movement styles. One of the best this year without a shadow of a doubt.
This was well received and looked like it would be right up my street – you play as a young woman on a train following her kid brother, but things start to get surreal as you try to keep up with him. I’m a big fan of ‘walking simulator’ style games (when they’re done well) and this looked a little Alice in Wonderland inspired to boot, with a white rabbit beckoning you on. This year also saw the release of What Remains of Edith Finch, another exploration based game that deals with the same themes as Blackwood Crossing and has been hailed as one of the top few games of the year. I played it in the Autumn, and it’s possible then that this suffers because of that comparison. Something in the pacing and mechanics just didn’t quite work for me in Blackwood Crossing. And while I’d probably say the same about Edith Finch, that was also punctuated by moments of surprise and ingenuity. I like that his kind of game exists, but I think the benchmark has shifted a lot higher over the last year or two. Still, it’s very short (maybe three hours?) so worth a go if you like this sort of thing.
Horizon Zero Dawn
This was the ‘big’ game of the Christmas break, the one that I knew I wouldn’t get to the end of before the dread return to work. It’s a big open world rpg where you play as Aloy, a member of the Nora tribe in a world a long time after some sort of near apocalypse. Humans are split into luddite tribes, and machines stalk the earth. But Aloy’s background is a mystery that seems to link into whatever technological tragedy befell the world.
Aloy’s tribe is matriarchal in overall leadership, but other than that the gender roles are fairly evenly split. There’s also a clear drive to ensure racially diverse characters and strong representation of same sex relationships which is great to see and a AAA game. Aloy herself is voiced by Ashley Burch, of Chloe Price fame (more on her later) and comes across as self confident and plucky. She has to take on giant robot dinosaurs single handed, so you’d hope so really. There’s a nice touch relatively early on in the plot when you leave the Nora lands and move into a different, patriarchal, tribe’s domain. While there does seem to be a balance of gender still across the NPCs, there’s more open sexism in conversation.
Sometimes in games the choice of gender can be rudimentary – you pick either male or female and, aside from potentially affecting romantic partners (hello Bioware! I was gutted when Dorian from Dragon Age Inquisition turned out to be gay. No romance for my lady elf) it doesn’t have any other impact. It’s nice to see a main character being specifically written as female and that having an impact on how characters talk to you.
That aside, it’s a fun (and big!) game. I can’t talk about how the plot comes together because I’m only part way through, but it’s certainly a treat to look at and enjoyable to play. The world is interesting enough and although it doesn’t set me on fire like Witcher 3, I find myself eager to get back to it. Also, it looks absolutely stunning. There’s a photo mode which I’ve been abusing Twitter with, and some genius put in the option for Aloy to strike different (and often silly) poses for the photos. Like I needed the extra distraction.
Walking Dead Season 3
Watch out for minor spoilers here – more about the tone than the specific content.
Okay, so this one isn’t as female led as I thought it was going to be. The first two games revolve around Clementine, a young girl caught up in yer standard zombie apocalypse. In the first game you play as Lee, the man who becomes a father figure for Clem, and the whole game revolves around the influence you are having on her. In the second game you play as Clem herself. It turns out that in this one Clem is a much more peripheral figure. There’s still the sense that your actions are having an impact on her, and at the end you’re given a rundown on how Clem has been shaped by your actions. It’s not quite what I was hoping for though. Part of that is because I remembered reading that this was going to be the conclusion of Clem’s arc – turns out that’s not the case and the game ends with ‘Clementine’s story will continue’. I felt a bit miffed about how sidelined Clem had been until I got to that text.
It’s hard to judge the game setting aside that disappointment, but I’d say it’s still pretty good. The weakest of the three seasons, but still well worthwhile if you’re already invested in the world. New main character Javier is a compelling presence, and has one of my favourite lines of the year. He and his latino family are besieged by some predominantly white bandits. When recounting the battle he says they were attacked by ‘some very bad dudes’. Fantastic.
Life Is Strange: Before the Storm
Longtime readers (both of you) will know about my love for the original game. This is a prequel focusing on Chloe Price and her friendship with Rachel Amber. After the original, Chloe was one of my favourite videogame characters of all time. After this she’s one of my favourite characters in any medium. There are only three episodes this time around (with a separate bonus episode coming this year some time). There are some huge emotional gut punches, particularly in the first episode. There’s also plenty of humour and lightness of touch, and some really surprising moments that I will not spoil by even hinting at. It’s a tighter, more focused game than the original, and looks great too. Some of my favourite moments were letting Chloe sit, slumped in depressed thought, with punk music turned up loud. It’s dripping with an atmosphere that hits all too close to home.
I’m not going to say anything else about it, apart from if you haven’t played the original please go and play it and then play this. There are some clunky moments, sure, but it’s all worth it. The voice actor has changed, due to a strike of some kind, but after about three minutes I’d adjusted. The only weird thing was Lyd playing Horizon Zero Dawn while I played this – so every now and then I’d hear Chloe’s original voice yelling about robots. It seemed oddly fitting.
So there we are. Five games, four and a half lead women (damn you Walking Dead!). Action, emotion, humour, violence and the rest of human experience. A Christmas well spent.