Nearly two months ago, Dying Light writer Dan Jolley wrote a blog post on his website The Jolleyverse detailing what he thought was a favorable outcome to something that bothered him about the industry: the poor and shallow portrayal of female characters in game stories. As Dan puts it,
The problem didn’t involve any issues with creating fun, immersive, successful games; their Call of Juarez series was a long-standing fan favorite, and they scored massive hits with Dead Island and Dead Island: Riptide. They knew how to tell a solid story, too, with talented writing teams led by novelist Rafał W. Orkan.
No, the problem they faced involved something that has received more attention this year than ever before: the treatment and perception of female characters in games.
Dan details the time and effort that went into making their characters — particularly lead female, Jade Aldemir — tough, realistic and complex. Of the transformation Jade went through in her creation, he says,
Jade’s backstory went through a number of iterations – including a brief stint as a beauty pageant queen – but ended with her being a renowned kickboxing champion nicknamed “The Scorpion.” Even prior to this, though, her character design was already a thing to behold; nowhere to be seen was any heavy makeup, or pink frills or bows, or ludicrously exposed skin.
Fast-forward to today, a week after Dying Light’s release. I was fortunate enough to review it for APGNation, and I can confidently say that Dan and the team succeeded brilliantly in their endeavor. Jade is a strong character that I enjoyed interacting with, and when spoilers are no longer an issue for you, I encourage you to look up some of her fight scenes on YouTube — or better yet, play the game! She was every bit the equal — and more often than not, the superior to her male counterparts. Unfortunately, that didn’t stop some people from viewing any female in danger as a “damsel in distress”. YouTube personality Anita Sarkeesian posted the following tweet regarding Dying Light:
When that was originally published, I was incredulous — surely this was a joke, right? A clever Photoshop? But, navigating to her feed, she did indeed post that. Throughout Dying Light, every single person in the game — including you — is imperiled and in distress, whether or not they’re female. In fact, Jade’s peril isn’t until the final act of the game, and once you see the scene through, it can hardly be called such. I’m going to discuss some crucial plot points and outcomes of the game’s story, so if you haven’t played, or if you plan to, proceed at your own risk.
STORY SPOILER WARNING
One of your main contacts in Dying Light is Rahim Aldemir, Jade’s younger brother, who’s a resourceful and headstrong lieutenant in the main group. Late in the game, he’s killed during a particularly risky mission, and Jade finds out about it by overhearing your report to the leader of your faction. Before you can console her, she takes off from the safe house. Throughout the next few missions, you learn that after she found out about her brother’s death, she became increasingly reckless, and was eventually caught by Rais, the main villain of Dying Light. Rais is particularly interested in getting revenge on the player, because during their last encounter, you sliced his hand off with a machete. He’s well aware of how protective you’ve been towards your faction in the tower, so he goads you into coming after Jade by threatening her execution. When you finally reach Jade, Rais continues to taunt you, and says something that Sarkeesian took particularly poorly.
Now, was that a classy line? No. Was Rais concerned with being politically correct? No. It reads and sounds like something that came out of an 80’s action flick, which is what a lot of the action in Dying Light feels like. The thing is, villains aren’t known for being paragons of equality and justice. I have a feeling that if the villain was indeed a feminist and made a comment about being such, people would take issue that a feminist is portrayed as the villain. Rais is a horrible, awful man, often executing his own minions on a whim, and overall treating everyone like dirt. For him to say this is not that surprising, as he is a bad, bad guy. Jade in no way belongs to you, your character does not feel like she does, and the only way that this can be taken in that context is if you didn’t play the game.
Following this exchange, Rais reveals he’s let Jade be bitten by a zombie. He throws you a single vial of the vaccine, and tells you to make a choice: give it to Jade, or take it yourself and let her turn (you were bitten in the first seconds of the game). Kyle Crane rails at Rais, but Jade calmly tells him he needs to take it, he’s more important to the survivors, and he can help find the cure. She, extremely nobly, extremely bravely, sacrifices herself for the sake of every other person in that quarantine zone. That is the mark of a truly great character for me – someone that can willingly make huge sacrifices for the greater good.
After you accept her decision and she injects you, Rais renegs on his deal and sends his henchman to kill you. Being weak from your condition, you look in no shape to fight them. Fortunately, Jade has more than enough fight left in her for both of you, as the following video shows.
(WARNING: Graphic violence and Spoiler warnings!)
That, to me, is a strong character making a huge sacrifice, and doing it in a truly awesome way. However, Sarkeesian went on to post,
I’d say quite the opposite! Jade was not only empowered, but she overpowered and killed a group of enemies who threatened her and her friend. It was truly awesome to watch, and it made me sit back and say, “Wow.” Not often do you see characters go out like that, especially when it’s on top of a selfless sacrifice. That moment cemented her in my mind as a great character. Not once did any of this make me perceive her as weak or as the objective, but as a person and as a friend.. There’s several more Tweets from Sarkeesian but suffice it to say, she doesn’t find any of this as reason to see Jade as a great, empowered character.
As time moves on, and more and more writers like Dan Jolley will come in and write fully fleshed-out characters for both genders, the community will be fortunate enough to see more examples like Jade in their games. However, I believe each time a character as strong and important as Jade is criticized for something like being in danger — in a zombie apocalypse — it’s hindering those writers instead of providing constructive criticism. I rescued countless male companions in Dying Light before I had to find and rescue Jade, and she was no different than any of them. I for one thought it was a great step in the direction of true equality.
What did you think? Was Jade a strong female, or do we still have work to do? Let me know in the comments! Make sure to follow @APGNation on Twitter for more on Dying Light and gaming.